Keyword Post #6

“Go With the Flow,” Indeed

With media being more tangled than ever, it has become hard to clearly demarcate the endings and beginnings of the flow of information as it moves from one medium to another. If Buzzfeed shares an article comprising memes from Instagram and Facebook, is this an instance of journalism or social media? Which platform is considered to be primary, especially when such an article is circulated through both the original and further social media platforms? When Raymond Williams considered “flow” in 1974, he could apply it as “channel-specific”; since this is hardly possible today, what, then, does flow mean?

Sandra Braman offers a few starting points for how to conceptualize flow, as well as a few ideas regarding what’s at stake in this digital keyword. For her, flow should be understood as…

…concerned with the commercial. “Implicit versions of systems-based approaches can be found in research on the flow of content through each stage of the entire production and consumption chain” (120); an example of this type of system might be found in the way coupons and sales impact buyers. Marketing strategies must understand flow as the passing of promotions, vouchers, and flyers through forms and platforms both digital and analog.

…important to user experience. “Vendors and website designers would, and do, seek to maximize user experience of flow to ensure that their goods and services are included in the personal ecologies of as many consumers as they can reach” (125); going back to my previous post, Tom Bihn provides an example of how this “user experience of flow” can be exploited to inject the company’s bags (and lifestyle) into every aspect of a buyer’s sphere of life. This might take the form of posting pictures taken during real-world experiences with the bag to social media that are then shared and talked about on various forums, ultimately being featured on the company’s website, which legitimizes the activity.

…impeded by gatekeeping. “Other concepts long in use are being revisited. . . .[researchers] expand on our understanding of how gatekeeping affects content and information flows when the Internet is involved” (123); the issue of gatekeeping has become both so common and so interesting as to have a fairly active subreddit devoted to it (r/gatekeeping), where it can be seen that nearly any type of information is subject to gatekeeping by someone, somewhere:

…subject to differences whether it’s observed or perceived. “That is, evidence of flow must be both conceptually and operationally distinguished from evidence of perceptions of flow” (122); consider how it is to observe someone else use social media as opposed to how it is to use social media. In the former, you’re not subject to the full force of the flow of information, while in the latter, you’re an active participant.

Of course, flow, as a large concept, has many more facets, but these few suffice to make the point that flow unendingly impacts our entire mediated world, whether we exist as fans, researchers, bored audience members, or any other observer or participant. Although it’s hard to say for certain, Williams would most likely agree with this assessment of how crucial (and complex) flow remains.

Works Cited:

Braman, Sandra. “Flow.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 118-131.

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