On the subject of the cyberflâneur

I was tickled, earlier this week, to read an interesting article on the New York Times website about the supposed death of the “cyberflâneur”. Actually, I was mostly thrilled to be reading an article about the subject of the cyberflâneur in general.

It concerns the idea – in parallel with the flâneur of old – of the web surfer jumping from site to site, checking out this and that, just for the sake of curiosity. It’s not a concept alien to most web users, even if the term itself is used less frequently.

Many’s the time I’ve found myself wasting hours, having had my interest piqued by something as innocent as a photograph or a paragraph of text. I’ll end up reading all about the subject on Wikipedia (almost always my starting point), before looking for related images, maps or related media.

Often, I’ll even find myself consulting primary resources such as newspaper archives or ebooks as a result of a particularly interest concept.

Very occasionally, such an information expedition can lead to a life-long obsession.

So, as much as I enjoyed the well-written NY Times article mentioned above, I was somewhat baffled at the assertion that the cyberflâneur, that curiosity-fuelled web-surfer I declare myself to be, are “few and far between.”

Really? Are we really a dying breed?

Anyway, the article, and the concept of flânerie in general, has occupied my mind for the past few days, and I’d been meaning to write this blog post to highlight an article I found interesting, but one which I felt was deeply flawed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that it’s not just me that’s had this notion.

Over at The Atlantic, a hastily-written but useful piece has been posted, expressing feelings similar to my own. The author argues, quite rightly, that the cyberflâneur lurks – and, indeed, thrives – on Tumblr, Flickr or Pinterest. He (or she) jumps from obscure maps to interesting images, constantly in search of some new thing to be fascinated by.

Sure, as the NY Times piece affirms, we use the web in a different way these days; jumping to particular destinations to perform particular tasks. And, as it says, the use of apps has leapfrogged browsing to websites, allowing us to do very specific things without getting caught up on the way.

But these specific and particular tasks, I’d argue, are the equivalent of the original flâneur’s banks, post offices, or similar.

Much as we may find ourselves connecting directly to the likes of Gmail or Facebook for certain needs, the flâneur would make a beeline to the bank if he deemed it necessary. And just as the flâneur would then take an idle stroll through arcades of shops selling things he could never dream of owning, so too does the cyberflâneur spend a ‘wasted’ half an hour drooling over things they wish they could afford, or places they would much rather be.

The concept of flânerie is one I find very interesting, and I would consider myself to be something of that kind. I’d say I’m probably more just a daydreamer, and a curious, nerdy one at that, but flânerie – cyber or not – is as romantic title to give it as any other.

Although Evgeny Morozov’s New York Times piece may be flawed in its eulogising of the cyberflâneur, it’s still a cracking read, and will hopefully set off a train of thought in your mind too. He’s clearly a learned man who has a way with words, and he paints a nice picture of the original flâneur.

John Hendel’s Atlantic piece is rather more slapdash – with less panache, and some rather oddball comparisons – but it’s still worth a read as a rebuttal to Morozov’s argument.

Oh, and I couldn’t resist it: reports of the death of the cyberflâneur are, indeed, greatly exaggerated…