The best way to use social media is to act like a 19th-century Parisian

The flaneur is a dedicated observer.
The flaneur is a dedicated observer.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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Are you the kind of person who jumps into a fight at a bar even when it doesn’t involve you at all? Do you throw punches out on the street whenever you disagree with something you see, whether or not you know the context?

My guess is no, you don’t. In the physical world, we tend to be pretty careful about our interactions. Certainly, most people aren’t eager to engage in conflicts with random strangers. It’s tiresome and dangerous, subjects you to liability and injury, and may well be a sign you’re unhinged. Yet in the virtual world, it seems people are always itching for a fight, exchanging barbs and insults on Twitter and Facebook and making much ado about topics they often know very little about.

A recent example of this was the Jan. 19 Twitter brouhaha based on a video clip showing a Covington Catholic School student, Nick Sandmann, wearing a MAGA hat and smirking in the face of Nathan Phillips, a Native American Vietnam war veteran, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Twitter went nuts, and as usual people were divided along ideological lines, with the left incensed on behalf of the veteran, the right defending the teen, and reporters writing outraged takes before much was understood about the situation. Later, a longer version of the video revealed that the scene was more complex than it first seemed—although perhaps not so complex that it excused the youth’s smirk and subsequent appearance on the Today show, as Elie Mystal points out in The Nation.

Writers at The Atlantic, the New York Times, and CNN have since offered mea culpas for jumping to conclusions. They’ve been musing all week about whether reporters, and everyone else, need to slow down their response times on social media. Instead of jumping into the fray, they suggest, people need to stop and think before posting, and maybe even not post at all. In an unrelated (but nonetheless relevant) move, Insider is initiating a one-week experiment which will bar most of its newsroom from using Twitter during work hours.

Resisting the pull of social media, and its constant pressure to take sides, is a good idea. But abstaining from it altogether is a difficult proposal for many. After all, per the US Supreme Court, it’s the new public square. If you’re not quite ready to quit Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, a more measured approach is to treat virtual spaces more like a bustling street—a place where, like a flâneur,  you can pick up a lot of information by observing the action, while being more reticent to offer opinions and circumspect about posting.

Becoming a boulevardier

The boulevardier, or flâneur, was a French 19th-century literary type who wandered Paris with no particular purpose other than to be on the scene. Although flâneurs didn’t necessarily do anything visible to the naked eye, besides hanging around in parks and cafes, they watched what was happening, taking in the bustle of others and so developing a deeper understanding of city life and their changing times. The writer Charles Baudelaire illuminated the flâneur and the art of flânerie in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life“:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.

The 19th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin likened the flâneur to an urban investigator, within the city but detached from events, the quintessential modern artist citizen. A 2004 article in the American Historical Review explains that Benjamin saw the flâneur as a “sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism.”

In other words, flânerie is a charmingly subversive act, a refusal to be swayed by the vagaries of the moment while committing to investigating the trends and events rather than ignoring them. 

The idea of doing nothing is not in vogue at the moment—we’re forever optimizing our time and trying to seem extremely active. Still, this is a great time to take up flânerie. In a 2013 article in The Paris Review, Bijan Stephen suggested as much when he wrote of the flâneurs in 19th century Paris, observing that our virtual streets resemble the physical boulevards of days gone by. “Real life hasn’t changed…Now that we’re comfortably into the era of the postmodern, perhaps it’s time to take a brief stroll into the past, to sample its sights and its sounds,” he proposed. We can use Instagram and the like for input and limit our output, thus becoming keen cultural observers, refining our understanding of the online environment.

Silent, solitary revolution

Since 2013, we’ve only become more invested in internet culture, more outraged and engaged and hungry for the affirmations that social media provides. We want to be liked, or at least acknowledged, online, and everyone else does, too. We think tweeting is doing something, an expression of activism, and we’re encouraged to believe engagement is evidence of success. So family, friends, corporations, and strangers seek our hearts and our likes, our retweets, insults, and quips. The signs of virtual approval that can be quantified into metrics that prove we exist, even if sometimes they are negative and even make us sick.

The dangers of total immersion and lack of circumspection about this fast-paced culture can’t be overstated. In 1963, the writer Hannah Arendt published a report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer instrumental in orchestrating the Holocaust. She imagined he would be exceptionally wicked only to discover that he was terribly conventional, “quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous,” Arendt wrote in “The Banality of Evil.”  She believed his evil stemmed not from ideological conviction but profound thoughtlessness. Jennifer Stitt explains Arendt’s counterintuitive conclusion in Aeon, ”It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder.”

Arendt argued that a moral society depends on thinking individuals. In order to think we need solitude and mental freedom. “Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in,’” Stitt writes. She warns that in our hyper-connected world, the risk of losing a connection to ourselves and the ability to think independently is greater than ever.

That’s not to say that tweeting all day will turn you into a perpetrator of genocide, of course. But operating under the influence of the masses clearly has deleterious effects on our thinking and behavior. By simply refusing to provide the desired engagement, or at least slowing down the pace of our interactions and taking time to think, we can collectively, and very politely, undermine the expectations for empty affirmations and recognize the effects of groupthink. This could change the tenor of the cultural conversation and make actual engagement meaningful again.

It’s possible that in stepping back and vowing to think before we tweet, we may discover that, upon reflection, we don’t really have any value to add. Theoretically, if enough people do this, there might come a day when the public square falls silent. While that’s unlikely, if it were to happen, nothing will be lost. If we’re all quiet and there’s nothing left to observe online, that either means we didn’t need social media after all, or that we’ve all taken to speaking only about what matters, and only when we know enough about it to opine. This category probably doesn’t encompass much, in which case we’ll be the wiser for realizing it, and in very esteemed company indeed.

At this point, we’d be in the territory of ancient sages and great philosophers like Socrates, the wisest guy in ancient Greece who admitted his limitations. and was thus wiser than people who considered themselves very knowledgeable, and the Chinese sage Lao-Tzu who spoke only when pressed to opine, noting that “great eloquence is tongue-tied.”