In 2012, Evgeny Morozov wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The Death of the Cyberflâneur”, of which I no longer remember if I encountered it back then. Recently, however, I learned the concept of flânerie in online interaction with self-proclaimed flâneuse Patricia Hurducas. She pointed me to this article. (By the way, I also covered another article by Morozov on this blog last year.)
If you’re not familiar with the concept: in a nutshell, a flâneur goes for strolls in urban places, which he experiences as a mindful outside observer. He doesn’t blend in and doesn’t follow a specific goal or purpose. His limited interactions are the result of serendipity and not a plan. The concept often appears in literature and is associated with an early metropolis like 19th century Paris.
The Internet (or, more specifically, the world wide web), with its millions of individual websites, would be a paradise for people to “surf” through, as we used to call it back in the day. Today, however, most online interactions are commercial and either optimized to get things done as quickly as possible or let ourselves distract as smoothly as possible. Unlike the flâneur, who performs his pursuit in solitude, many online activities are social. (That is, if I may add, also in stark contrast to how we pictured the first explorers of the online world as nerds without a social life, not realizing that even early BBS, the Usenet, IRC, etc. were social. We didn’t have the bandwidth and computation power for audio and video streams, but text interactions between people happened.)
In some ways, Morozov’s eight-year-old article is outdated. For example, he talks about Facebook’s vision of frictionless sharing. They had this idea that you’d log in with your Facebook account to apps and websites that would send everything you do back to the mothership. Facebook would aggregate and package that information and show you what your friends are reading, listening to, cooking, or whatever. Today we know that this idea didn’t take off, and Facebook did a 180° turn and locked their posting API completely. Nobody can automatically feed information to personal Facebook profiles anymore. Even Zuckerberg had to realize people want some privacy and do things without being continuously connected to their friends. Of course, talking about privacy, we hardly encounter websites without tracking codes (even I added one lately) anymore. Still, these generate anonymous profiles that rarely surface directly in our social sphere. And I feel we have a renaissance of smaller communities and dedicated places for social exchange disconnected from the rest of our (professional) online lives.
In other ways, however, Morozov is still right. We don’t “surf” the web anymore but mostly read chronological or algorithmic news feeds. It’s effortless and triggers the release of dopamine through its constant novelty. There is, however, still a web outside social media and large commercial estates. Some people write blogs (like me) that are still chronological but less noisy than social media updates. Other people create personal websites in the form of digital gardens to share their knowledge. The IndieWeb community is a place for creators of a diverse web. I wrote about the subject two months ago when I argued why I like blogging but not publishing a digital garden.
However, very often, the discussion centers around creation and not consumption. Even then, IndieWeb readers and RSS clients often mimic feeds and emphasize the efficient access to sources we already follow. Let’s look at our patterns of content consumption and bake some time for serendipitous discoveries into it. When was the last time you “surfed” the web, starting with some personal website, following links, almost getting lost, but finding something interesting in the process? I think it has been a while.
We should sometimes turn off social media and go outside in the physical world. But we should also sometimes turn off social media but stay online and become cyberflâneurs again!