Wayne Mellinger: Life as Web Surfing
By Wayne Mellinger
Modern forms of media consumption have come to dominate the social character of contemporary life
If we still tell our lives as stories, we may nonetheless be coming today to experience them more as web surfing.
Within the last 20 years, electronic devices of all kinds and new media of all kinds have colonized our lives and our brains. I want to explore how the “orientation” that infused channel-surfing and web-surfing with its character now seems to pervade more types of activities. Both web-surfing and channel-surfing are practices that media consumers employ to cross genre boundaries, content themes and types of information.
Throughout our days, often with 24-hour connectivity, we are plugged in to our iPads, smartphones, laptops and tablets, and often dip into them multiple times to check messages, look up information, post something on Facebook, etc. Moreover, we often engage in prolonged activities in which we navigate through multiple pagescapes/screenscapes. Examples of these practices include web-surfing, channel-surfing and reading hypertext.
Through these practices, one jumps from one page/screen to another, often juxtaposing disparate elements in unfamiliar ways. A schizophrenic consciousness can emerge through the incessant juxtaposition of sequences of disconnected, unpredictable, idiosyncratic visual stimuli, textual strategies and audio clips. There is an aesthetic and design element that pervades these experiences. Like postmodern architecture, the aesthetic is a combination of elements from diverse sources in unfamiliar ways.
Importantly, those who engage in these discursive practices are actively creating their experience, and this “agency” must be emphasized. Moreover, while the meaning derived from such practices is different from that derived from the reading of traditional, standardized, genre-specific texts, meaning is to be found through these practices.
While it is beyond the reaches of this short paper to fully describe the phenomenology of these “traversals,” as Jay Lemke has dubbed them, let me hint at some of their features.
» They increasingly involve a multiplicity of media forms — video, music, photographs, texts.
» We have different levels of cognitive engagement from traditional reading, often shallowly skimming through lots of information searching for that “bit” that will entice us.
» We often take on an “exploratory orientation,” knowing that our search might lead us anywhere, ready to lurch from site to site, open to veering off any recognizable path. We become textual flaneurs, akin ofWalter Benjamin’s Arcade strollers.
» This orientation includes a detachment from any one text or screen.
» We are easily distracted in this mode and often get sidetracked.
» The notion of a linear narrative unfolding in logical sequences is disguarded for a nonlinear hodgepodge accumulation of often disjointed segments.
» We are emotionally less engaged.
» All this shallow engagement invites re-reading and review.
» These devices and media forms promote rapid, distracted “samplings” of small bits of information from many sources.
» Included in this sampling is peeks at our email inboxes, glances at our Facebook pages, Twitter, etc.
I invite the reader to see parallels between our engagement with traversals and how we live our lives in “late modernity.” I believe that the orientations that we use for these forms of media consumption have come to dominate the social character of contemporary life. The “social type” of the web surfer is one of the central personality styles of our era.
Here are some of the features of the web surfer as a social type:
» Searching for ever new sensations.
» Because of the overwhelmingness of the freedom of choice, we fixate on the choices of others in order to validate our decisions. This hyperaware and obsessive interest in the lives of others is almost voyeuristic.
» Strategic self-presentations in which one is always “on” and aware of how one is being “read” by others. While in actuality one is nearly paralyzed by anxiety about putting forward a wrong foot, one maintains a confident social front.
» Simultaneously close and far, hiding behind screens and pseudonymns while promiscuously self-disclosing intimate life details.
» Experimental attitude as a means of survival. One must be able to adapt to circumstances — change appearance, remain mobile, establish new, if shallow, emotional ties and be able to shift directions with the prevailing winds.
» Shallow, affective and cognitive engagement.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a sociologist teaching at Antioch University Santa Barbara. His blog, “Doing Modernity,” examines how domination and hierarchy are achieved in everyday life.