Walk a lonely superhighway

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  • Archibald Ballantine
A suite of essays on Facebook in the New York Times Sunday Review this week includes a contribution by local legal scholar Lori Andrews, who was featured in December in the Reader's People Issue. (My boss, Mara Shalhoup, is treating Andrews’s piece elsewhere.) I was particularly befuddled by Evgeny Morozov’s “The Death of the Cyberflaneur,” which takes the discussion in a direction . . . you wouldn’t expect. Morozov laments the passing of what he calls the “cyberflaneur” (actually the term was coined on a website called, for some reason, Ceramics Today), based on the original, more corporeal flaneur—the boots-on-the-ground flaneur. A 19th-century French ideal whom Baudelaire and Benjamin (stay with me here) viewed as “an emblem of modernity,” the flaneur in Paris “would leisurely stroll through its streets and especially its arcades . . . to cultivate what Honore de Balzac called ‘the gastronomy of the eye.’ . . . His goal was to observe, to bathe in the crowd, taking in its noises, its chaos, its heterogeneity, its cosmopolitanism.”

OK, now think about GeoCities circa 1995.

At least that’s what Morozov’s thinking about. The early Intertube, he says, was “virgin territory, not yet colonized by governments and corporations”—it was even “romantic.” This has been lost in the microtargeted Facebook era, where there’s less room for wandering. Leaving aside the fact that this not-yet-colonized thing was invented by the Defense Department, this is a provocative and—who knows?—maybe even a lovely, sad point. When my parents installed our first modem, sometime in the 90s, I was in my teens. Nothing then seemed immediately romantic about the World Wide Web—it seemed, rather, pretty DIY (maybe charmingly so, in retrospect). Of course people wandered around—nobody knew the point of it.

It is still hard to identify what is the point of a thing like Facebook.

What killed the original flaneur? Street traffic and better lighting. So it goes with the cyberflaneur. In this analogy, Facebook is both the lighting and the roadways. There are no dark alleys to accommodate the Internet wanderer anymore. Also, I just went to GeoCities.com, to see what would happen. I was automatically redirected to a Yahoo!-owned site. It said, “Sorry, GeoCities has closed.”

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