A great deal of the time, journalists appear to be asking: What is this thing that everybody’s doing? It appears to be completely normal, so why can’t I write about it correctly?
In the past, writers have failed to capture the essence of trends in popular music, television shows, clothing, but most of all: the internet. Since the early nineties, when the internet was complete garbage, journalists have been failing to write about it usefully at all. In a way, because journalists are older than the internet, it’s a lot like Paul McCartney talking about hip hop. In other words, even more horrible than you can possibly imagine. Ever.
The best part is at the end, when guigui5090 gives himself a credit. Explain that, journalists! They can’t. Someday I’ll explain what journalism is about, I promise. But right now, I’m going to make fun of journalism about the internet.
Is the internet making journalism better or worse? Yes
Christ, who wrote that headline? You guessed it: a journalist. Yes, the very same profession who demands that teaching the humanities make no sense at all also believes “Yes” about the internet. Have you ever taken a humanities class where people went on and on about how some theorist talked too much in jargon and they couldn’t figure out the point? Yeah, I remember those idiots too. Odds are, they read a book on a topic that befuddled them and, dissatisfied with their lack of understanding, they looked for a simpler, immediately satisfying book, and that book was written by a journalist, and it contained absolutely no answers to any of the questions they had. But it made them feel satisfied. Basically: that’s what we need to know about journalism right now.
At any rate, we’ve had the internet for some time now, and generally know where we stand in relation to it. Or do we? This is the Coneheads-trying-to-pass-themselves-off-as-humans journalism of hot leads. Everybody wears jeans, right? You go to a store, and, wait a second, fella! Here comes a journalist to complicate the living shit out of that 100% dull thing you wouldn’t be at all wrong to take for granted.
Has shopping for jeans become a nightmare? Will you survive? Will your family survive? These non-questions have employed a journalist, an editor, a graphic designer, possibly a photographer, a layout department and now a web designer. The internet seems to be making everything better or worse all at once, and in this economic climate SEE? JESUS CHRIST! I AM STARTING TO TALK LIKE A JOURNALIST.
Finally, we arrive at this week’s least useful article, published by The New York Times. You know, all the news that’s fit to print? The New York Times saw fit to print an article called- are you ready for this? The Death of the Cyberflâneur.
Before we get all worried about wondering what this could possibly mean, let’s agree on one thing: a cyberflaneur has never existed. Not once in the history of the internet, and even if it did, it’s the kind of thing a guy who you meet in your undergrad claims to be after he tells you he lives poverty because writing gets in the way. This is a fact. I mean, on paper, I’m not opposed to creativity at all. But why does so much of it have to be so poorly considered? Why did I run into that didgeridoo-carrying guy who wanted to blow my mind with his zine of almost-collages so many times in the summer of 1998? What’s up with guys who are really, really into Tool? We’ll never know.
And we would never know that people are constantly trying to understand the internet by thinking of it as a 19th century Parisian Arcade (look, pal, if you want to wear a tailcoat, go for it) if it weren’t for journalism about the internet. Look:
Online communities like GeoCities and Tripod were the true digital arcades of that period, trading in the most obscure and the most peculiar, without any sort of hierarchy ranking them by popularity or commercial value. Back then eBay was weirder than most flea markets; strolling through its virtual stands was far more pleasurable than buying any of the items. For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, it did seem that the Internet might trigger an unexpected renaissance of flânerie.
Did it? Was there a lot of strolling from salon to salon in a top hat, almost blending in but never falling in step with the crowd, choosing to “get it” rather than do whatever it is everybody else is doing? You know: this flaneur business reminds me of high school, when my friend and I would drive to any mall within an hour of where we lived, and just walk around the mall talking about what the mall was about. Sounds like flânerie is the same as not being old enough to buy alcohol.
But if today’s Internet has a Baron Haussmann, it is Facebook. Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible — solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by that company. And it’s not just any company: with 845 million active users worldwide, where Facebook goes, arguably, so goes the Internet.
Don’t worry; Baron Haussmann might as well be Baron Munchausen, as you’d have to suffer Munchausen’s Syndrome to go along with this metaphor. A lot of journalism-as-theory seems to think it just has to build an analogy, but that’s not even the worst part of it: a lot of theory-ish journalists seem to think that they can generate reality simply by playing the ______ of the _______ game. For instance:
Facebook will create powerful (but latent) incentives that would make users eagerly embrace the tyranny of the “social,” to the point where pursuing any of those activities on their own would become impossible.
“Tyranny of the social”? Can you explain what you mean by that, Evgeny Morozov? Possibly give us a useful example or maybe another analogy, I mean, you seem to like those.
Now, if Mr. Zuckerberg really believes what he said about cinema, there is a long list of films I’d like to run by his friends. Why not take them to see “Satantango,” a seven-hour, black-and-white art-house flick by the Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr? Well, because if you took an open poll of his friends, or any large enough group of people, “Satantango” would almost always lose out to something more mainstream, like “War Horse.” It might not be everyone’s top choice, but it won’t offend, either — that’s the tyranny of the social for you.
Man, I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to go see a seven-hour colourless art-house flick but got stopped by having friends and democracy. Morozov then laments the end result of frictionless sharing:
It’s one thing to find an interesting article and choose to share it with friends. It’s quite another to inundate your friends with everything that passes through your browser or your app, hoping that they will pick something interesting along the way.
Isn’t that what being a flannel (no, I know, I’m just being juvenile) was all about? Just sort of picking it up? What are we losing here? Can you reiterate your point?
This is the very stance that is killing cyberflânerie: the whole point of the flâneur’s wanderings is that he does not know what he cares about. As the German writer Franz Hessel, an occasional collaborator with Walter Benjamin, put it, “in order to engage in flânerie, one must not have anything too definite in mind.” Compared with Facebook’s highly deterministic universe, even Microsoft’s unimaginative slogan from the 1990s — “Where do you want to go today?” — sounds excitingly subversive. Who asks that silly question in the age of Facebook?
Right. So, what was the point of this article then? That people’s disinterest continues unabated, even when there’s the internet? Perhaps to get Walter Benjamin mentioned in the New York Times, because, God knows, New York Times readers need to think about Walter Benjamin more often. But what do I know? I’m just a internet journalist writing about internet journalism.