The Life of the Cyberflâneur

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Is the iconic 19th-century Parisian wanderer alive and well on the Internet? Look no further than the depths of Tumblr, YouTube, and Wikipedia for your answer. 
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A modern Parisian wanderer captured by Google Street View.

A cyberflâneur, by definition, strolls through the Internet. Little purpose guides his journey, and hours slip by as the individual explores the many different crevices of the ever-growing web, from Wikipedia to Tumblr, from popular news sites to Twitter, from obscure journals to social media. He crawls through them all and is all the stronger for it. How do you turn a corner into the unknown online? You click a link. You go places. Who cares where? The cyberflâneur strolls more for the journey, the experience, the flow of the digital landscape, all to seek without any one destination or goal. He pokes around in Pinterest and dives into Digg, cruises Archive.org and gazes deep into Google Books, ventures into Vimeo and calculates Kickstarter potential. There's never been a better, more suitable time to be a cyberflâneur, after all.

But don't tell that to Evgeny Morozov, Stanford visiting scholar, author of The Net Delusion, and the man responsible for the Feb. 4 New York Times op-ed "The Death of the Cyberflâneur."

Morozov is an educated man, and with nuance and skill, he resurrects the mid-19th-century archetype of the peripatetic Parisian flâneur, held up in order to beat down the homogenizing influences of Facebook and frictionless digital sharing. He makes valid points, especially regarding the monetization of social media, information, and taste itself, but I wouldn't for a second give credence to Morozov's idea that surfing the web in the style of the cyberflâneur, (a conceit tech folks havevbbb long toyed with) is dead or dying.

"Transcending its original playful identity, [the Internet]'s no longer a place for strolling -- it's a place for getting things done," Morozov writes. "Hardly anyone 'surfs' the Web anymore."

But can that be true? Initial critics have already pointed to December 2011 Pew research that shows three out of four adults report "go[ing] online for no particular reason other than to pass the time or have fun." The lead researcher notes that people increasingly find the Internet "a fun, diverting place to spend their leisure moments." And it really is, with plentiful curation and repositories of old knowledge and befuddling lists and data points that create a societal mirror similar to the stroll-worthy avenues of the shadowy old Paris envisioned by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin.

Morozov eulogizes cyberflânerie for these reasons: It's "at odds with the world of social media"; Such browsing is "less likely" when we access our Internet via smartphone and tablet applications; Today's Internet "revolves around shopping"; It lacks the "funky buzz of the modem"; It's Google-indexed and Facebook-shared in a way that, Morozov contends, ignores the individual in the favor of the collective. The qualities of flânerie are "solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking," and Facebook assaults these qualities, he declares.

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Flâneurs prize "solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking."

But are "the quirky ingredients that make flânerie possible" really and truly dead online thanks to Facebook? The social network may be a juggernaut of more than 800 million active users but it's only one fraction of a much richer online life. What confuses me is Morozov's insistence that by sharing our passions on Facebook, their solitary consumption disappears. He implies we'll curb our tastes out of the "tyranny of the social" and laments the qualitative difference in "consuming [great art] socially." But just because I say I love In Search of Lost Time on Facebook doesn't negate the hours I spent thinking over Proust's words away from the keyboard. And why exactly do social media spheres stand so at odds with the flâneur? The historical wanderer may have been a marginal figure but he was a marginal figure operating and exploring among crowds. Some of Morozov's distinctions are meaningless. Consider that he manages to praise the weirdness of early eBay within paragraphs of bashing today's Internet shopping. What makes perusing the oddities of eBay more flâneur-worthy than perusing the many dimensions of present-day YouTube, Flickr, and Etsy?  Choice rhetoric may paint a sad vista for the cyberflâneur to roam but the rabbit-hole mysteries through which the Internet user can tumble still exist -- and they've skyrocketed in the years since the late '90s, a time Morozov evokes as full of hope for cyberflânerie. The biggest credible threat Morozov cites is the soaring sale of tablets and use of applications. One in four Americans now owns a tablet after our recent holiday season, if you can believe it. Yet the Internet's breathtaking growth in size over the last decade belies the assumption that this tablet expansion will eclipse the very nature of browsing today. There's too much information for people to not find a way. Will the iPad also kill the hyperlink? No. Space, whether for the Parisian walker, Internet browser, or tablet user, always has its architects, and what we now have amounts to a virtual, wonderful labyrinth without end.

"I would posit that today's Flâneurs can be found in Web space," Steven Goldate wrote in 1998. "The Cyberflâneur 'strolls' through information space, taking in the virtual architecture and remaining anonymous."

What Goldate imagined then is no less true now ... and his vision has taken off. The cyberflâneur is triumphantly alive, a wry cackling presence that pops up wherever I look. Sure, Facebook catalogues personalities into predictable boxes and lets us share the news, but Facebook is not the mandated totality of our online existence.

Our eroding sense of privacy is genuine but hardly invalidates the mysterious, darkly curious, and so often nameless yet individual snark of the 21st-century Internet. We also contend with the hacktivist legion that comprises Anonymous. We have the pseudonymous trolls and idle commenters that pluck at online information. Lurkers quietly drift at all hours, intent and voyeuristically hungry for understanding. There's the sly playfulness and quirk that drives the networks of Reddit and StumbleUpon. Twitter is host to countless hordes of watchers who collect bits of news and trivia from the passing crowd, sometimes leaping in with a distinct remark, sometimes existing without any hint of a name, sometimes entirely quiet. Is the creation of an offbeat GIF really so different than way 19th-century flâneurs walked turtles down the street? Both acts heighten observation of individual moments.

These arch traits that Morozov points to are still very visible, unchanged by the evolving Internet architecture and actually enhanced by its powers. In 2011, researchers in Calgary imagined "the information flâneur" struggling for meaning through the spaces of the Internet and called the old urban archetype an "inspiring lens" to help make sense of how we navigate online. The Internet provides ample opportunity to, as the old wanderers did in Morozov's words, "observe, to bathe in the crowd, taking in its noises, its chaos, its heterogeneity, its cosmopolitanism." The cyberflâneur continues to probe our online paths today, and I suspect the same will be true tomorrow. 87

Morozov asks why "playfulness, intrigue, and serendipity" have vanished on our 2012 Internet. But where is he looking? Not the Internet I've come to know.

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What is the man seated on the right up to?

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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