I've given some thought to flânerie–the practice of explorative urban strolling–and I found Evgeny Morozov's technophobic Sunday Times essay, in which he laments "the death of the cyberflâneur," an off-base interpretation of both flânerie and the state of the social web. Morozov argues that the increased speed, commercialization, and publicness of the Internet prevents the languid exploration epitomized by flânerie. "If today’s Internet has a Baron Haussmann, it is Facebook," Morozov complains, comparing the social networking site to the urban planner considered the Robert Moses of Paris–the champion of order over chaos, wide streets over winding alleys, standardization over serendipity. "Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible — solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by that company."
Morozov correctly notes that in the transition from Geocities and AIM to Facebook and Gchat, the Internet giants asked us to trade anonymity for authenticity, most obviously by using our real names. This makes flânerie impossible, Morozov claims, quoting the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who wrote, "The art that the flâneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking."
Seeing without being caught looking. Is there any better description for so much of what we do online? Admit it: You're well acquainted with your significant other's ex's Facebook page. You've dived deep into the search results for the name of the person you're dating, the job applicant you're interviewing, the prospective tenant or roommate. On the dating site OkCupid, you can even pay for the privilege of "enhanced anonymous browsing," in which you can see who checks out your profile, but no one can see which profiles you've looked at yourself. On Facebook, one of the most common spam bots promises to reveal who's been looking at your profile. It's so tempting! People click and the spam spreads, but it's a trick: Facebook conceals users' browsing histories from one another.
Katha Pollitt described a somewhat earlier iteration of these practices in "Webstalker," her brilliant 2004 New Yorker essay:
After my lover left me, I went a little crazy for awhile. … at night, after my daughter was in bed, I would settle myself at the computer with a cup of coffee, and till one or two in the morning, I would browse the Internet, searching for information about him. Except "browse" is much too placid and leisured a word– a cow browses in a meadow, a reader browses in a library for a novel to take home for the weekend. What I did fell between zeal and monomania. I was like Javert, hunting him through the sewers of cyberspace, moving from link to link in the dark, like Spider-Man flinging himself over the shadowy chasm between one roof and another.
Webstalking and flânerie have so much in common: nighttimes and sex, insomnia and social anxiety. The flâneur roamed the city in search of artistic inspiration, yes, but in search of women, too–hence Baudelaire's haunted images of prostitutes and young lovers emerging from the shadows. But the most important thing to realize about the flâneur is that he was a character; not a real person, but a "type," a fantasy of male bohemianism created by Baudelaire, Balzac, and the journalist Jules Janin. Just as we carefully curate our online presences today–tagging only the most flattering photographs, listing the favorite books and bands that prove our coolness–these men created the flâneur as an idealized version of themselves: a seductive master of the modern city, chronicling its decadence and delight without succumbing to its crass commercialism.
depiction of the flâneur from the coffee-table book Les Français peints par eux-mêmes: Encyclopedie moral du dix-neuvième siècle. 1839-1842. Courtesy Brown University Library
In reality, these young writers, like the flâneur protagonists of the novels Sentimental Education (Flaubert) and Lost Illusions (Balzac), were filled with self-recriminations about selling out artistically, going into debt, and failing to get the girl. All too often, flâneurs were penitents, shifting their political allegiances for the latest freelance journalism assignment and buying luxury goods on credit in order to impress women. Their urban world–like our cyberworld–was defined by the tensions between commercial, sexual, aesthetic, and political interests.
drawing of flâneurs flirting with salesgirls at a luxury clothing shop, from Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. Courtesy Brown University Library
What's more, it isn't at all clear that flânerie was defined by anonymity or blending into the crowd. The literature of nineteenth century Paris is filled with examples of attention-whore flâneurs: young actors, aspiring writers, and political activists, all of whom–like so many Facebook users–outwardly signalled their bohemian credibility through fashion. The historian Della Pollock, contra Morozov and Bauman, describes flânerie as "observing well and…being well worth observing" in turn. Hence the flâneur's habit of going out to see and be seen at gathering places like the Tuileries gardens–a practice that, in contemporary life, might be best approximated by the interplay of our Twitter feeds and Tumblrs in the frantic, self-promotional world of the social web.
drawing of male urban types putting themselves on display for the crowds, from Paris and the Parisians in 1835, courtesy Brown University Library