Cyberflânerie Contd.

My post yesterday on cyberflanerie sparked a couple of thoughtful and interesting comments in response.

John says:

[T]he social web also permits us to make ‘friends’ on the basis of common interests. On blogs or on Twitter, we regularly see conversations between former strangers on subjects of common interest.

And David Barry said:

[T]o a small extent with Facebook, and to an enormous extent with Twitter, I get to see many, many more interesting things than if I were randomly following links….if I put even a small value on the interesting thing itself, then the total number of interesting things will overwhelm the pleasure at discovering a cool website on my own. To take your library metaphor, with social media I see many more bookshelves than I would have seen on my own. And even then, it is not as though I’m constrained by what my friends are reading

These are fair points, and they underlie:  a) the intuition that most people have that social networking provides real value; and b) the promotion of social networking by its creators and proponents. I don’t think these blessings are insignificant and I don’t mean to discount them. So, to take John’s comment, I concede that new ‘friends’ can be made this way, new contacts formed. And I will happily concede David’s point too, that I am often pointed to links of interest by my online contacts.

That said, in my post yesterday I was attempting to point out a consequence of a particular kind of social networking architecture, a consequence that appears likely given its actual implementation and patterns of usage (as opposed to just its promised form and application). The architecture of Facebook and Twitter–to stick to two prominent examples–is a ticker-tape of feeds from our ‘friends’ or our ‘leaders’ (the ones we follow). I could simply do the following: fire up Facebook and Twitter, open a tab for each, and watch the feed scroll, picking and choosing from the buffet offering. These then, are my windows to the web. I leave this window to go browse, and there is the chance that while I am so diverted, I will go off on journeys of exploration of my own, where I might find links that I post back on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Or perhaps I open the link in a new tab, and then return to Facebook and Twitter to do more browsing.

So in one way, serendipity lives on: someone is providing links for me to chase, but the possibility of my diversion has not been taken away. Of course, when I do go to a site link provided by my Facebook or Twitter feed, I am likely to see other signs telling me my friends have liked or shared or read an article and I might be tempted to go chase those down instead. The entire net is marked with like buttons, and signs telling me what has been read and shared and by whom. The informational content of the web now is not just content, but content tagged with readership information. We impose hierarchies in this tagging of course. For instance, I might treat certain friends’ shares as more valuable indicators of good content than others and so on.

But as the ticker-tape/smorgasbord model and as the the presence of all pages–all tagged–all the time indicates, I am threading my way through a heavily marked-up, recommended and annotated world. All by my ‘friends’. It is the possibility of this world–and the sense that something has been lost in it–that I was trying to get at in my post yesterday. (One might ask of course, who is doing the initial discovery and link-provision; the answer might be ‘the leaders’, which would be a depressing sort of thing to find out about a space that was to introduce a kind of democratization of knowledge but which seems to just have imposed its own hierarchies.)

The central question then remains: is the possible loss of the un-guided exploration a reasonable bargain? David’s comment seem to indicate the answer is ‘yes’; perhaps all I had done yesterday was indicate the possibility of this loss and make a prima facie claim that its loss would be an undesirable consequence. I think the answer to this question can be quite fascinating especially because it could expose the degree to which even flânerie is perhaps a fiction: that even the notion of an unguided self exploring in autonomous fashion is a fallacy, that we are always being guided and prodded in our discoveries.

I did not mean to ever indicate that valuable information sharing and access provision was not taking place on the current ‘Net. My intention was rather to point out that the information-sharing model which is fundamentally about annotation, guidance, tagging, link-provision, and ‘sharing’ is likely to displace a particular kind of inquiry. It might be as David points out, that flanerie-style inquiry and exploration just isn’t that valuable, and we should be happy to see it displaced by the sharing and recommendation model. The assessment of the relative value of those models of inquiry needs an additional argument. My initial statement was to point to its impending loss (or its survival in tiny, epistemically aristocratic enclaves).

Incidentally, I do think that the customized search that Google seems to want to provide us is a disaster; I most certainly don’t want my past search history to constrain–in the ways that Google wants–my present and future searches. I find myself signing out of my Google account when I search, largely because I’m finding the personalized pages that come up to be perniciously foreclosing possibilities for discovery.

Evgeny Morozov on the Death of the Cyberflâneur

Evgeny Morozov pens a thoughtful piece on the death of the cyberflâneur – a natural consequence of the customized, walled-off, app-and-Like-and-Tweet-button-infested ‘Net that is staring us in the face–no pun intended–as Mark Zuckerberg and his merry band of Facebook buccaneers ride through town, rolling blunts in thousand-dollar bills. (Morozov runs the inevitable risk of turning off those who don’t like invocations of French notions in contemporary commentary but it is one worth taking.)

The cyberflâneur is animated and sustained by serendipity as he travels through and around the ‘Net. He hopes he will stumble upon the new, the unexpected, the not-immediately-contingent-on-the-past through his travels. He puts his trust in the ‘Net’s ‘community’ to generate content that he might like (not Like); he might generate some of his own to throw into the bubbling mix. He is not guided at every single step by their preferences, their recommendations, their idiosyncrasies. Facebook’s most tone-deaf assumption–as revealed in Zuckerberg’s par-for-the-course infantile insistence that we want to go to the movies with our friends–is that what we consume, appreciate and possibly integrate into our preferences is wholly driven by what our contemporaries do. We are creatures of our time indeed, but we are also capable of, and responsible for, our own distinctive paths and patterns of interaction with the culture that surrounds us. The kind of lock-step marching that appears as a not-too-distant consequence of the kind of ‘sharing’ culture Facebook is preparing for us is truly depressing in its grey conformity and its frightening lack of solitude.

If the Zuckerberg-Facebook assumption–that we always want to be guided by our ‘friends’, that we always want to share, and have tastes shared with us–were true, then we would always visit the most crowded attractions in the world and go precisely where the herds go. But we don’t. Even in a museum packed to the rafters on a weekend, we sometimes take a turn into the obscure side-gallery because something has caught our eye, tickled an obscure part of our imagination, tapped into a part of us that we did not know existed till then. We do not know ourselves fully; to explore by ourselves, guided by our own mysterious inclinations can be an entrancing journey of self-discovery. To be constantly guided, prodded, pushed, recommended, into well-worn and commented on paths is dismissive of our potential for reconfiguration.

The ‘Net was supposed to be Borges’ library. It might be that; but it is a library with all its books marked with little stickers telling us who liked what, with its pathways marked with commentary, urging me to add my own so that I may ‘guide’ the others who follow me. This library’s custodians don’t want us browsing the shelves; they want to guide us into small reading rooms where we will meet those with whom we are already familiar.

In this ‘Net, our past determines our future; our essences become fixed quickly as we lock into trajectories determined by our ourselves and our Friends. Talk about existential crises.

I left Facebook more than a year ago, and have not returned. My decision, in many ways, was irrational: as a writer, I cut myself off from a form of advertising that is increasingly crucial in today’s social media world. I still owe myself a post here that explains my rationale for doing so. All in good time.