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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Flow

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Nothing prepares you for your first time. You’re out with someone, maybe a date, maybe just friends, everything’s fine, and then he whips it out, right in front of you — at a restaurant, on the street, anywhere. You try not to look at it, you try to look absolutely anywhere else — finally he finishes and puts it away and continues on with the conversation, just like nothing happened. Or maybe he airs it out for awhile, or even — casually — holds onto it, in case it vibrates.

You know, the phone.

It fits in your pocket, why shouldn’t you carry it? It’s always on, why shouldn’t you answer it? Why shouldn’t you text someone the minute you think of something, or check to see what they’re doing? Why shouldn’t you be available, to everyone, all the time?

Availability at a distance often means rudeness in person. Showing up means you’re already over. Presence pales before possibility. It isn’t good enough to be with who you are with, you should be on your way to the next fabulous party, like Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol. Exactly like them, in fact; it’s the Cult of the New writ small, personalized. Anything is meaningful if it’s New. Anything is better if it’s New. Anything is worth having if it’s New.

Except that it isn’t. I don’t mean it isn’t new. I mean it isn’t just consumption. It is a new etiquette. And it is changing not only the stories we tell, but the environment in which they are told — and who feels authorized to tell them.

At its most general, etiquette helps us not kill each other. A negotiation between the self and others, it smoothes rough edges, defuses conflict, and enables a common standard of exchange conducted more in words than steel. Our proximate legacy is the etiquette of the Enlightenment, in which the individual is the ultimate, indivisible unit of civilization, and is treated as such. For example, being with somebody means focusing attention on that person. You respect the discrete nature of the individual by being discreet about the rest. Do you need to make a call or check a message right that minute? No, actually, you don’t; you wait until you have retired, to your office, to your private space, and conduct the rest of your affairs from there.

Etiquette is not just about which fork to use. Or rather, it is — but now it’s fork, fork, cellphone; the vibration of which signals the end of the Enlightenment. Because it signals the end of the individual as we know it.

Too dire? Let’s examine the point. A point is a discrete unit in geometry, intact, inert, perhaps even a little heroic, massing with others of its kind to form lines and planes. A discrete unit, that is; except when it isn’t. Except when it’s the intersection of two lines, or a line and a plane, or a plane and a sphere. And so on. From those perspectives, a point hardly exists at all, it’s just shorthand for the connection between one surface or vector and another. The individual is another such discrete unit. Except when we aren’t. Except when we’re a connection between one space or journey and another. Which is always.

We’ve moved from the etiquette of the individual to the etiquette of the flow.

This is not mob rule, nor is it the fearsome hive mind, the sound of six billion vuvuzelas buzzing. This is not individuals giving up their autonomy or their rational agency. This is individuals choosing to be in touch with each other constantly, exchanging stories and striving for greater connection. The network does not replace the individual, but augments it. We have become individuals-plus-networks, and our ideas immediately have somewhere to go. As a result we’re always having all of our conversations now, flexible geometries of nodes and strands, with links and laughing and gossip and facts flying back and forth. But the real message is movement.

Certain times and locations have been crucibles for the rapid development and proliferation of ideas; for example, 18th century coffeehouses, or the 19th century’s café society. But now we assemble virtually, via the mobile technologies of the conversations themselves. The new coffeehouse is not a place per se, it’s a feature.

Eventually I learned to stop worrying and love the flow. The pervasiveness of the new multiplicity, and my participation in it, altered my perspective. Altered my Self. The transition was gradual, but eventually I realized I was on the other side. I was traveling with friends, and one of them took a call. Suddenly, instead of feeling less connected to the people I was with, I felt more connected, both to them and to their friends on the other end of the line (whom I did not know). My perspective had shifted from seeing the call as an interruption to seeing it as an expansion. And I realized that the story I had been telling myself about who I was had widened to include additional narratives, some not “mine,” but which could be felt, at least potentially and in part, personally. A small piece of the global had become, for the moment, local. And once that has happened, it can happen again. The end of the world as we know it? No — it’s the end of the world as I know it, the end of the world as YOU know it — but the beginning of the world as WE know it. The networked self is a verb.

We’re beginning to inhabit ad hoc, overlapping, always-on virtual salons — you’re talking to someone, and then you both get pulled off into different directions, to form different shapes and vectors within the conversations, and then come together again, having never really been apart. You can even have multiple conversations via multiple media with the same person in the same span of time. Single conversations are one-dimensional chess; our language games have increased in complexity. And, potentially, in reward. Because with its ability to feel distant stories in a more personal manner, the expanded self points a way towards those stories becoming more relevant, and perhaps more actionable.

How might this apply to storytelling? It does not necessarily mean that every story must be, or will become, hopelessly fragmented, or that a game mentality can or should replace analysis. It does mean that everyone is potentially a participant in the conversation, instead of just an audience member or consumer at the receiving end. I think the shift in perspective from point to connection enables a wider and more participatory storytelling environment, rather than dictating the shape of stories that flow in the spaces.

Some of those stories include the Enough Fear campaign, which exploited the phone’s potential to collapse global distance by setting up phones near the Boston Common, connected to phones in Iran. Passers-by could chat for a few minutes about politics or whatever they wished.

Then there is the “backchannel,” or what Jay Rosen calls by the somewhat unwieldy name of “audience atomization overcome.” Common at conferences but not limited to those venues, backchannels are text-based chat streams used to discuss, argue with, or otherwise engage the current talk or event as it occurs. It is a way for members of the audience to host a rapid-fire prototyping of the ideas presented. Twitter is the backchannel medium of the moment, although different technologies have served that purpose in the past. Thanks to Twitter backchannels identified by hashtags, I was able to participate with friends and audience members at some talks at SXSW this past year, despite being unable to attend in person.

Mobile Twitter streams have provided first-person broadcasts from many trouble spots, as well as real-time reactions from emergency situations, as happened on the wing of the U.S. Airways plane that crash-landed in the Hudson River last year. But any mobile communication technology can serve this purpose: in 1996, during the ill-fated Everest expedition where 8 people died in one day, radio and satellite phone enabled guide Rob Hall to place a final call to his wife from where he was stranded just below the summit.

One way to integrate a quantity of first-person reports with a longer and more comprehensive overview is to present them on the same page or site. An article may be accompanied by a scrolling or tiled Twitter stream; for example, the NFL’s Super Bowl XLIV site features input from fans, while ESPN’s Tour de France homepage scrolls comments from participants.

And participation need not be text-based; it might come in the form of different media, such as YouTube videos. Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald’s “Life In A Day” asks viewers to help document a single day, July 24, 2010, in the life of the planet and its inhabitants, as does the One Day on Earth project, which is targeting October 10, 2010. Not every submission will make it into the final films, of course; crowdsourcing requires an editorial voice to shape the material. Aggregation is not enough.

What’s more, the shape of the story might literally be a shape. Masses of data can be mapped in different ways to reveal underlying themes and unexpected connections. The following two maps use Twitter data to represent which current events are most popular and how happiness levels vary by hour and by state.

Once you master multiplicity, who’s to say how far you will go? Correction: how far we will go. For we will all go together, wherever it is that we are going. Call once you get there!

[This post is an expanded version of a piece Nelson originally wrote for HiLobrow.com. For related thinking, read her earlier posts in this series on Nieman Storyboard.]


  1. posted July 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm | permalink

    I totally disagree. If I’m eating with a girl and she pulls out her phone, she get’s a warning. After that I’m out. You can’t enjoy your food when you’re writing about enjoying your food.

  2. posted July 27, 2010 at 4:21 pm | permalink

    Then, while you’re giving warnings to girls, the rest of us will happily outbreed you. :)

  3. posted July 27, 2010 at 5:49 pm | permalink

    I think I generally disagree, as well. While it may be that the network augments the self by connecting us to people and places we might otherwise not know, it does so at the cost of our time and attention IN THE PRESENT.

    You can’t “be” in two places at once, mentally. So while you’re at a conference or at dinner, every time you whip out your device, you’re separating your mind from your body and “leaving the room.” You miss lots of things in the present space because you’re only peripherally aware of them. And that’s the feeling that makes it so one-sidedly annoying. You still feel whole when YOU pull out the phone, because you know exactly where your body and your mind are. But to the people you’re with, your mental half just disappeared.

    I’m not convinced the added benefit of engaging in the side activity equals the loss of compromising the current activity.

  4. loving wife
    posted July 28, 2010 at 12:34 am | permalink

    I respectfully disagree. So many of my interactions with my husband are gone, now- our good mornings(I just gotta check this, hang on) or passing by in the hallway kiss( Oh, lemme get this call) our kitchen laughing (Wow! look who’s calling me! I haven’t talked to them in forever!) that I feel absolutely replaced as a person, as a confidant. There’s always a crowd in the room- every room- and they’re all competing with me with video, chat, text, calls. As I lose the competition more and more often, I start just walking away. And more and more often, he doesn’t even notice. Ten years together- but the Crackberry might end it. I adore him, but he’s not even here anymore.

  5. posted July 28, 2010 at 2:33 am | permalink

    It’s not the sound of six billion vuvuzelas buzzing – it’s the sound of one person laughing privately at their phone while their dinner partner sits silently waiting for them to rejoin the present or check out for good. Etiquette creates a collective “we” in the here and now by softening the edges of hard individual personality. The phone shatters the collective, and reasserts the individual – *I’m* talking to someone, you can’t see them, we’re sharing a joke, sorry, I’ll be done just as soon as we make plans for after.

    This article is such breathless Nokia futurism warmed-over from ETech past.

  6. hnice
    posted July 28, 2010 at 8:42 am | permalink

    i don’t know — if it takes 2,000 words to justify when there’s a 15 word explanation of why it’s *not* ok, it smells like a reach, doesn’t it?

    like, if the competing etiquette hypotheses are,

    “Be where you are,”


    “The self has been obliterated, so you owe nothing to your physical surroundings,”

    i just find it hard to justify the second given that the first fits the existing evidence and is far, far simpler.

  7. Trent Hamm
    posted July 28, 2010 at 9:20 am | permalink

    When someone whips out their cell phone, I walk away. If they’re not going to bother to be mentally present, why should I?

  8. Peggy Nelson
    posted July 28, 2010 at 9:44 am | permalink

    Thank you for your comments! Some excellent illustrations here of the Enlightenment-era view of the individual, where a diversion of attention away from the primary object is seen as an interruption, and felt as an insult. However, if the shift is made to seeing and feeling the individual as an individual-plus-connections rather than as a single point, as a part of the flow rather than as a discrete object, then what was previously an interruption can be experienced as an enhancement.

    Yes, it does make a difference who is doing the connecting, and how they’re doing it. Certainly there are many technologies that can be used, even brandished, as distancing mechanisms. That the phone renders larger networks so accessible certainly makes it easy to use in this way. But I would argue that the technology is not the primary motivator for those seeking distraction. Choosing to use networks for distance versus inclusion is a choice that resides with us, and always has. Our technologies enable (latent) tendencies in ourselves. Negotiating any relationship amongst networks, even “offline” ones, requires a complex series of balancing acts; I think we’re still experimenting with finding the best ways to do that. And I see great and as yet largely unexplored potential in the notion of embracing the flow—a notion counter-intuitive enough to warrant an essay, rather than a slogan of, say, 140 characters.

  9. Tim K
    posted July 28, 2010 at 6:56 pm | permalink

    My network does not become your network simply because we are interacting. You say that we have to broaden our view of the individual to include the person plus his or her “network”. But to do that requires us to accept all that the other has to offer. I’m not willing to take on all that that entails. I want to remain in control of my interactions. And that means making connections with one individual at a time.

    If the person I’m talking to interrupts our current interaction to accommodate another at a distance, it still means that I have become just a node. That is a downgrade. Enlightenment era viewpoint or not, I find that insulting.

  10. posted July 28, 2010 at 9:04 pm | permalink

    I think the subtext here is that Peggy Nelson knows enough people who can’t be bothered to focus on her that she can either get used to it or lose too many friends. So she’s chosen getting used to it and hung an “I’ve grown and I’m so over the Enlightenment” frame around the place where there used to be real people.

    I wonder if she’s heard the Midwestern expression, “Don’t pay it any mind”? It means forget about it. It doesn’t mean make friends with phantoms.

  11. posted July 28, 2010 at 10:36 pm | permalink

    I instinctively cringe at most of what you’re saying (does this prove your point – I FEEL like an enlightenment relic), while enjoying the brilliance of the shift in perspective. Certainly this spreading our and flattening of our attentions makes for a massively surface conversation – depth traded for breadth – but I think, at the very least, that it’s monstrously optimistic to see this as a good thing. Isn’t intense one-on-one conversation just a complicated form of narcissism?

    Let’s spread it out and skitter our ideas like water bugs far and wide! Vive le network!

  12. posted July 28, 2010 at 11:49 pm | permalink

    This comment thread is fascinating! A huge amount of anxiety (and indignity!) seems to come from a sense of loss of control over ones conversational partner. A feeling that you are no longer the center of attention, but.. urm… sorry to break it to you: you never were that important, it’s just that now you can see it.

    I think what Peggy points out is that you (and me, all of us) are living in our distributed headspace. If you want to lament that *in yourself* and practice presence of mind, then I applaud you for your personal commitment to Zen Buddhism, but if you insist on “warning” others for it, you will likely have a string of bad dates.

    If you recognize you are not central to anyone but yourself then you connect to a bigger universe. The cost? A little bit of ego dissolution.

    To be fair, embracing the flow completely means you stop apologizing for shifting focus and then *forgive others for their shifts*. This doesn’t mean you don’t care for intimacy, it actually means you value it more by ceasing to assume everyone is always there for you. They aren’t, so treasure it when they are. Perhaps request their focus, or take it as a cue that your dinner party is dull. Also, when you are conversing, be mindful of your own head – if you think the conversation deserves full attention, practice it and request your interlocutor to do the same.

    Times when focus is more than courtesy: lovers in bed, the conveying of condolences, driving a busload of school children. Such events call for great mindfulness. The rest is turtles. All the way down.

  13. Erik
    posted July 29, 2010 at 1:43 pm | permalink

    Thanks Peggy for thinking against the grain and stirring up these fascinating responses. Most of the time, when the phone comes out, we are not giving up on one-on-one intimacy but the *performance* of one-on-one intimacy. I admit that in my own personal sphere, I am still pretty old school, especially when you are sitting at dinner, which for me is a performance of a mode of togetherness that is hard to make room for in the best of circumstance.

    But what bothers me less is the sheer interruption and the sense of “not being paid attention to” (in itself just an opportunity to tune into the whiney child within) but the ugliness and tedium of the counter-performance: “Uh, I gotta take this.” “Um, you dont mind,” etc. The way this ridiculous and marvelous intrusion from the networks is normalized as a new given–one that requires no grace or humor or further extension. So just answering the phone to make further plans, or to hear funny story that doesnt get passed on, is lame and has nothing “enhanced” about it — in fact it reinscribes the performance of an atomized subjectivity unwilling to “commit” to the tacit game rules of face to face collective conviviality.

    However, a phone call that becomes part of the conversation, or the recording/sharing of the live event for some network (posting a snap of your meal on FC) or the smartphone turn to google or a distant friend as a collective affirmation of networks in the midst of a dinner party, or even the advanced performance of a multitasking attention that manages to take a call without entirely dropping out of “presence”–all these are spaces for new performances which would give substance to the enhancement that Peggy points to. I am old school enough that most of the time they would still sadden me frankly, and most people in my experience arent nearly this innovative with their use of the phone. Still its move towards substantial enhancement of the collective performance rather than the individual’s own impulse to shift frames.

  14. Jeremy
    posted July 29, 2010 at 3:04 pm | permalink

    There are studies that say that families that eat together raise better kids. This strikes me as probably correct. Embracing the flow means abandoning the people closest to you. When my marriage dissolved, it wasn’t in a violent volcanic eruption, it was a series of brief interruptions that increased in frequency until we were sleeping in separate beds behind locked doors. You can’t rely on someone who is constantly interrupted, it’s like having a long distance relationship with someone in the same room.

  15. posted July 29, 2010 at 11:19 pm | permalink

    @quixote7: What an incredibly nasty thing to say. Ad hominem attack of the worst variety. Shouldn’t it be possible to engage with the ideas without creating a phantom Peggy Nelson that only thinks about the world because she has issues?

  16. Andrea Pitzer
    posted July 30, 2010 at 12:29 am | permalink

    Quixote 7: I edit this site, and I have to say that I agree with Alexis. It would be more useful for readers to hear commenters address the ways in which the networked world is changing storytelling and/or the transmission of stories (for good or ill), instead of speculating about the author’s motivation to write the post.

  17. Paul Fraser
    posted July 30, 2010 at 3:40 am | permalink

    Years ago, as a student I wangled a meeting with an advertising creative director. During the meeting his phone rang. He didn’t answer it. He kept talking to me. As it kept ringing I asked him if he wanted to answer the phone, and he said No, because I had taken the effort to come and see him in person and the person calling had not. To have someone’s undivided attention is the greatest compliment.

  18. alazz
    posted July 30, 2010 at 4:11 am | permalink

    But how is expecting dozens of other people to find your every word interesting and worth the time it took to read via text message, twitter, or facebook status any less narcissistic than expecting people to find a face-to-face conversations interesting and worthwhile? I would think that the former is more of an egotisticle idea than the latter.

    The instant-reaction nature of ‘complete/constant connectivity’ produces ill-thought out comments with little regard to anybody other than the commentator. If you’ve ever visited a big, internet forum then you’ve probably ran into these types of people. The end result is not unlike a conversation between a druken guy and a moody teenager. (Yes, I see the irony; I’m also posting this from my phone.) How would this affect future generations’ communicative skills?

    Many people also dislike the idea of being the subject of another party’s public thoughts and criticisms. If everything that I do and say are to be summarized and posted to the internet or sent to another party by someone other than me I would certainly feel uncomfortable, and not to mention ticked off.

  19. posted July 30, 2010 at 2:28 pm | permalink

    excellent into teased my attention (just like my phone does).

  20. Peggy Nelson
    posted July 30, 2010 at 2:50 pm | permalink

    One of the places the personal and the philosophical intersect is in the definition of self, and proposed alterations can be profoundly destabilizing. Similar concerns were prevalent during the turn of the last century, when “Modernism” as a cultural era was ramping up. The fragmentation of, not only the self, but the fabric of society into which that self was interwoven, led to conflicts that remain unresolved today. To me what is interesting about our post-modern era is less our continuing struggle with fragmentation and destabilization, and more what we are beginning to do with those fragments. Instead of trying to glue them back together, we are starting to experiment with activating them as — yes — nodes in a network. It’s a shift in metaphor from concrete things to energy flows, and has significant implications for narrative strategies, a few of which I’ve touched on above. But we’re at the very beginning of this process, and the question opens onto mostly unmapped territory: how might we use this new environment — one of flows rather than things — for interesting and engaging storytelling, even as it perhaps changes us as storytellers?

  21. catherine madden
    posted July 31, 2010 at 8:41 am | permalink

    I love the insights in this article. Very true. The problem is huge in secondary classrooms where teachers would love to have the network shut off for a few brief shining moments of full attention.

  22. Lynsee
    posted August 6, 2010 at 6:01 pm | permalink

    Love this perspective…thanks

  23. Bill in StL
    posted August 18, 2010 at 7:51 pm | permalink

    The weakness of the “person-plus-network equals enhancement” assertion is that the partner does not particpate in the other’s network interactions. When someone answers a cell phone, only one of the pair talks. The same is true for texting, and most other personal technology devices.

    Now, one could have a “person-plus-network” enhancement if both parties are involved in the network interaction. Perhaps a group picture of the scene, quickly uploaded?

    But the stereotypical interruption, like someone answering a cell phone, is simply an interruption.

    As previous posters have noted, all the interruption really does is notify you of a condition that’s existed prior to cell phones – that you aren’t holding your partner’s interest. Traditional etiquette deals with this – pay attention to the people around you, and if they don’t interest you, don’t spend time with them subsequently.

    If we want to abandon the traditional politeness that dictates we respect those around us and do our best to make them comfortable, then let’s be honest about it, and not pretend we’ve found a new politeness.

  24. Henry
    posted August 19, 2010 at 3:51 pm | permalink

    I strongly disagree. Intimacy is totally lost when dinner, movie, even sex being interuppted today by the “obsession” that is overtaking so many people. Why do we feel we need to leave the moment to go elsewhere on the phone? Isn’t that why we have voicemail? Are we losing the beauty of a one-on-one or even small group gathering without distractions? People are walking in the streets totally unaware of the moment they are currently in walking in front of moving traffic. Accidents are increasing due to people not being able to stay in the moment of driving. Oh and how about the person on the phone while at a check out in a store? Like the salesperson doesnt exist and we are being held in line while the the talker out of the moment is multitasking. No Flow..it’s just rude and a sad new social problem.

  25. JoshH
    posted September 30, 2010 at 8:24 pm | permalink

    I find it funny that people are only thinking in terms of phone calls.
    I was at a family gathering the other day and we all had our phones which we were using to sms people, including those in the same room, which actually provided an interesting dual layer of conversation, nobody was interupted and everyone was present in the room whilst at the same time connected to other places.
    My sister is an excellent example, she can be talking to you and at the same time her thumb will be furiously texting on the phone she is holding casually at her side (admittedly her spelling can be atrocious even for text speak).
    This seems closer to what Peggy is talking about than some jerk answering his phone at the dinner table and yelling over everyones conversation.

9 trackbacks

  1. [...] Jacobs, responding to Peggy Nelson’s celebration of the flow, [...]

  2. by buzz on July 27, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Flow (Peggy Nelson)…

    “from the etiquette of the individual to the etiquette of the flow.”…

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  4. by Etiquette In An Always-On World on July 28, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    [...] Peggy Nelson‘s provocative piece on smartphone etiquette, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Flow,” is getting some minor buzz. It fits in your pocket, why shouldn’t you carry it? It’s always on, why shouldn’t you answer it? Why shouldn’t you text someone the minute you think of something, or check to see what they’re doing? Why shouldn’t you be available, to everyone, all the time? [...]

  5. [...] Undecided on how much I agree/disagree with the author, but the paradigm is clearly shifting. Shortish read. [...]

  6. by The Soul/Made Cyborg « Scrawled in Wax on September 21, 2010 at 5:22 am

    [...] But the notion of the online self as social cyborg – of a series of fractured images that signify and refract endlessly across the rhizomatic network – is only half of the equation. Like writing before it, the web is also the exteriorization of that which is radically interior: subjectivity. What you might, if you were picky, call the temporal simultaneity of the subjective and prosthetic selves – the here-and-there-ness of it in the same moment – means the web is also a prosthetic for subjectivity. An external extension of the interior self, a stitched-together composite of the avatar and the soul. A cyborg whose subjective pathways are composed of neural networks and masses of fiber optics, indistinguishably intertwined. [...]

  7. by Radio/Waves | HiLobrow on September 30, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    [...] put forth here on HiLobrow during my virtual artist residency last December, and later expanded for Harvard’s Nieman Storyboard in [...]

  8. by State of the Art | Sinting Link on April 7, 2011 at 11:50 am

    [...] psychogeography, and why conceptual art should be funny. Along the way we’ll weigh how to navigate models of the Self in post-Enlightenment spaces, and LARPing your way through life. Or at least through the [...]

  9. by State of the Art | HiLobrow | art on April 9, 2011 at 8:59 am

    [...] and because unpractical art should be funny. Along a approach we’ll import how to navigate models of a Self in post-Enlightenment spaces, and LARPing your approach by life. Or during slightest by a [...]

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