In Pitchfork’s pop-culture slanted column Poptimist, writer Tom Ewing looked at the virtues and vices of the stream, the “ceaseless flow of information we access every time we use social media.” He ultimately compared its allure to that of playing videogames. According to Ewing, the common ground is that of “flow,” the hypothesized mental state of contentment that occurs when one is in the flow—when one has a high level of skill in an activity and is met with a high level of challenge at that skill.
Perhaps nanoculture is best understood as the finest version yet of the web as a game-like experience, in which flow can be achieved but so can boredom, relaxation, control, or any other of Csikszentmihalyi’s states of mind. In a way, it’s sad that the word “surfing” caught on so early as the description of what people do online. Using the web back then was more like diving— plunging into an endless otherworld looking for treasure. Social media is a truer match for the surfing metaphor— content comes at you and you ride it as best you can.
Funnily enough, Kill Screen’s own Lana Polansky recently critiqued the value of the flow state in her essay “Please Try Again.”
Flow can be valuable because it means that players can become involved or immersed in a game via its gameplay, and enjoy a level of challenge that is neither unreasonably easy nor hard. But the flow state runs the risk of precluding emotional engagement or attachment, turning the player into a cog in the machinery of the game.
While, in theory, flow sounds like a wonderful thing, both Ewing and Polansky express concern about the negatives of being swept away by a continuous flow of media. Maybe forgetting ourselves is not always for the best.