In her essay for the week, Tara McPherson examines the claims that the world wide web affords a greater sense of mobility and choice to its users. While the industry’s move towards the development of interactive platforms exaggerates the notion that the consumer is in control, she argues that the web does indeed offer a specific modality of experience distinct from that of televisual flows. For instance, while the sense of liveness is common to both television and the web, the latter engenders a sense of choice as the user is able to click and move through websites at their own leisure. She highlights the visceral aspects of moving through the web and contends that time and space are constructed online in distinctive ways owing not just to the interface but also to the nature of code and web-based data. However, she points out that while the user operates under the notion that they are being propelled through space driven by their own quest for knowledge, this movement is actually structured by technological and commercial constraints. Thus, even though the experience of web-based navigation seems distinct from the broadcast medium of television, it is in fact structured to heighten the sense of choice and volition while confining users within a similar commercial logic of consumption.
While I find McPherson’s analysis of the notion of volitional mobility provocative, I also wonder whether the sense of possibility engendered by the web can be entirely encompassed by the idea that it affords an unlimited array of choices. The corporate rhetoric, as McPherson points out, foregrounds the conception of user control as a liberatory force that allows the consumer to make rational choices based on what they want to see and read. The increasing trend towards personalization operates on the assumption that the consumer has a limited set of interests and knows what they want, waiting only for technology to meet their demands. However, the internet seems as much to be a site of guided navigation as one of random, accidental encounters. How would one begin to account for ‘chance’ alongside ‘choice’ in the experience of the web? While the notion of rational choice-making is at the core of more commercial web-based media, how would we account for encounters in the pirate and informal economies of the internet? While the possibilities for the meandering user are indeed limited in the face of increasing filtering and customization, how can we think through the possibilities of the web through its ability to take us on unexpected journeys?