Think about your early memories of life online. Remember AOL chat rooms, those freewheeling realms of lawlessness and anonymity? Remember snapping an overexposed bathroom mirror selfie for your MySpace profile—with an actual camera? Remember when life online and life offline were compartmentalized experiences—when going online meant carving out hours in front of a hulking computer, not reaching into your pocket while waiting for the cashier?
In Lurking: How a Person Became a User, technology critic Joanne McNeil charts these roving personal histories of the internet, tracing the path from forums and Friendster to today’s caustic cesspool. Lurking is far-reaching and ferociously smart, told from the hearts and minds of users rather than the profit and loss statements of tech conglomerates. In centering her research on the user experience of an ever-changing internet rather than the theatrics and myth-making of Big Tech, McNeil weaves a people’s history of the internet, making for a humane, big-hearted narrative of how the internet has changed—and how it changed us.
Chief among McNeil’s interests is the subject of identity—how life online formulates, manipulates, and commodifies it. Through personal narratives of early social networks, like Friendster, MySpace, and local BBSes (bulletin board systems), McNeil explores how users of the nascent social internet shaped their identities online, for better and for worse. While these early platforms allowed users to inhabit a truer identity than public life permitted, they also stoked impulses toward hyper-controlled image management and inauthenticity that have snowballed in the Instagram age. As McNeil describes it, online visibility can be “another tool of privacy—a way of controlling one’s image as others regarded it.”
Back in its infancy, McNeil observes, the internet was perceived as a place—cyberspace, the information superhighway, a destination to be “gotten on.” Now, the internet has transmogrified into a person—an omniscient concierge of sorts to whom we can call out and expect a response. In a stunning chapter about search engines, McNeil explores the forces that send us to the search bar, like curiosity, loneliness, insecurity—and the frightening degree to which Google’s innumerable answers are so much and yet not enough. She charts the demise of the would-be utopian internet as a place, writing, “The dream of cyberspace—strangers, strangeness, anonymity, and spontaneity—lost out to order, advertising, surveillance, and cutthroat corporatism as the internet grew more commonplace.”
As the internet evolved, so too did the ways in which it organizes our lives, our time, and our senses of self. McNeil excels at drawing these nebulous concepts into sharp relief, as when she highlights how the internet has abstracted our idea of what it means to be alone. In seeking to define the post-internet meaning of solitude, she writes, “Was it the empty room you sit inside, or the absence of human connection, whether virtual or in person?” Meanwhile, the advent of the smartphone “shredded the boundary between online and offline experience,” transforming the concept of going online from an appointment with your desktop computer to a ubiquitous, seamless part of daily life. So too has the internet effectively banished the notion of anonymity—where once we could retire our identities in favor of existing under a screenname, now all roads online lead back to our true selves, with each keystroke not just identifiable, but commodifiable.
The success of Lurking isn’t just in its sharp insight into how the internet has changed us—it’s in McNeil’s evocative prose. Take, for example, a sentence in which she likens the ghost towns of once-popular social networks like Friendster and MySpace to “a stranger’s yearbook left in the rain.” In discussing the drive of tech conglomerates to wring a profit from online experience, she writes, “Priceless experience, lived online, can be boiled down to a price, which tends to be fractions of pennies.” McNeil’s sentences are lyrical, personal, poetic—at once a surprising wrapper for a subject so sterile as technology, yet a poignant fit for its deeply human contours.
Though Lurking is not a book about Big Tech, the expected platforms come under McNeil’s penetrating scrutiny. There is no love lost between McNeil and Facebook, which she criticizes as an organization of “data gluttony and shamelessness,” as well as “endless ethical quagmires.” She goes on to describe Facebook’s moral bankruptcy, writing, “Facebook shoehorns values into patterns, removes nuance, and presents it as ruled by a ‘fundamental mathematical law.’” McNeil also criticizes tech criticism itself, debunking reductive media binaries about the moral value of the internet in her insistence that the internet is neither good nor bad, that it makes users neither stupid nor smart. Lurking is what tech criticism should aspire to—it resists easy binaries, investigates systems and structures, refuses to scapegoat users for problems stoked by Silicon Valley.
Lest tech critics and users blame Facebook and Twitter too squarely for the political polarization of the internet, McNeil points out how racists, misogynists, and bigots of all stripes have congregated online since the early days of the Internet. She recalls how AOL once hosted a page for the Texas Ku Klux Klan in the 1990s, citing AOL’s flimsy argument that the KKK had a right to assemble online under the first amendment. Today’s online racists are not reacting to new standards of wokeness, McNeil argues–those standards are “irritants, rather than causes.” In the golden age of the online grift, racists can enrich themselves by sowing discord on platforms that incentivize and monetize viral conflict.
Yet despite her incisive criticisms, McNeil’s book is a hopeful one. To seek community, communication, and belonging is human–the internet, she argues, has always been an extraordinary venue for such virtues. She proposes a path forward that combines antitrust regulation with the gritty, labor-intensive work of online moderation, wherein professional moderators hold users accountable to community standards and to one another. We can have a better internet, McNeil argues–it just means hard work, accountability, and maintenance. What we’ve traded over the decades in exchange for the solace the internet can provide—privacy, anonymity, mental peace—is boundless, yet the internet remains a human miracle. McNeil’s vision inspires hope that it can become a place where the term “user-friendly” isn’t just a platitude—it’s a reality.