I enjoyed Evgeny Morozov’s article The Death of the Cyberflâneur though maybe I enjoyed it a little too much. It hits a lot of my buttons about the current direction of Internet culture and the Facebookification of everything. I’ve been getting resigned to the shifts in the dominant cultures on platforms like Twitter, accepting that the preferences of the early adopter don’t just not scale, they also don’t apply to the needs of the mainstream masses. I liked how Morozov drew an analogy between the Flaneur of 19th century Paris and the pioneering millennial web surfers and bloggers. If you’ll excuse the long excerpt:
In the second half of the 19th century, Paris was experiencing rapid and profound change. The architectural and city planning reforms advanced by Baron Haussmann during the rule of Napoleon III were particularly consequential: the demolition of small medieval streets, the numbering of buildings for administrative purposes, the establishment of wide, open, transparent boulevards (built partly to improve hygiene, partly to hamper revolutionary blockades), the proliferation of gas street lighting and the growing appeal of spending time outdoors radically transformed the city.
Technology and social change had an effect as well. The advent of street traffic made contemplative strolling dangerous. The arcades were soon replaced by larger, utilitarian department stores. Such rationalization of city life drove flâneurs underground, forcing some of them into a sort of “internal flânerie” that reached its apogee in Marcel Proust’s self-imposed exile in his cork-lined room (situated, ironically, on Boulevard Haussmann).
Something similar has happened to the Internet. Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely. That so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping — for virtual presents, for virtual pets, for virtual presents for virtual pets — hasn’t helped either. Strolling through Groupon isn’t as much fun as strolling through an arcade, online or off.
But something isn’t right here. Yes, the tempo and tenor of the net has changed but so has the scale of adoption. A decade ago most social activity (and by social I mean in the purest sense of the word, not diluted by the suffixation of “media”) took place offline, usually in cities with all the benefits and restrictions that offered. The net served as an alternative environment, a place where activities that were too niche for the city could thrive, freed from the limitations of time and space. eBay let you buy things it didn’t used to be economic to sell. Napster let you download music that record lables couldn’t keep in print. Blogger let the zine-kids talk to the world. It was impossible to be the only gay in the global networked village.
For the sort of mind which seeks out the curious and the odd this was nirvana. But it was also an incredibly efficient way of doing things and in time everyone got on board. The net became mainstream. Amazon, Google and Facebook became what normal people did normal things on. LOLcats stopped being a byproduct of messageboard shorthand and became indistinguishable from shitty Hallmark greetings cards. And Search Engine Optimisation became the ultimate goal, Google’s PageRank and the curse of advertising imposing artificial scarcity on what was supposed to be the ultimate level playing field.
So we’re now in the situation where that which the net was supposed to be an alternative to has colonised the net. The early adopters grump and moan. They bitch about people doing it wrong, about how good it was in the old days before Twitter and Facebook ruined everything and the marketing wankers co-opted the social media thing. Meanwhile the tech bloggers, who were supposed to be the scribes of this cultural revolution, are held rapt by the warring of their corporate gods, cheering like children as one multinational throws a patent lawsuit thunderbolt at another – like Homer, only without the poetry. And as the corporates sprawl takes over the tamed wildlands they bring in their laws, restricting freedoms so commerce can thrive.
Our Internet dreams, it seems, have turned to shit.
Except they haven’t. I don’t believe anything has fundamentally changed. The infrastructure is still there. We’re just overwhelmed by the sort of activity some of us were trying to escape. We thought there was something special about blogs and forums but we mistook the tool for how we were using the tool. The Internet is, in many ways, a neutral platform. You can use it for anything, and that means you can use it for mediocre sales nonsense as much as flaneurism.
When you think about it, relying on the likes of Google, YouTube, Facebook et al stand up for the niche and the curious is pretty naive. Where their interests coincide they will side with the mainstream, and those interests will coincide more and more. We can’t rely on large Internet companies to look after this stuff – Yahoo’s half-arsed custody of Flickr should have taught us that. If we’re going to have an infrastructure that enables the spirit of the cyberflaneur to thrive we’re going to have to build and maintain it ourselves, above and beyond the financial blinkers of the mainstream.
One of the most surprising things about the Internet is how people think there’s a single monolithic culture. There used to be, back when access was difficult and determined by circumstance. But it’s not like that now. The Internet is for everything and everyone, which means it’s like everything else, prone to mediocrity and abuses of power. But unlike the physical world there’s no scarcity of space or time. While we should be aware of the machinations of the evil machine we don’t have to be slaves to it. Let those who can’t be bothered have their Facebooks and the Google Plus. But for those for whom that isn’t enough, don’t complain or give up in the face of these mountains of shit. Turn away and keep searching, building, exploring and blogging. There’s plenty to do and plenty of room to do it in.