“The story of the internet is not a tale of sanctuary taken for granted and trod on,” Joanne McNeil writes in her amazing debut “Lurking: How a Person Became a User.” Instead, she adds, the internet “was never peaceful, never fair, never good, but early on it was benign, and use of it was more imaginative, less common, and less obligatory.”
In fewer than 300 pages, “Lurking” offers readers not only some highly relatable snapshots of McNeil’s personal engagement with online life since the early 1990s but also presents a history of what that engagement has been like for all of us. And it’s all written without a trace of the Good-Old-Days nostalgia so often found in histories of this kind. Her book is that trickiest of things: a cautionary tale without a Golden Age.
In online parlance, “lurking” is what you’re doing if you access a participatory website but don’t participate. If you watch YouTube videos but never leave comments, you’re a lurker. If you scroll through Instagram or Twitter without ever even thumbing the ‘like’ button, you’re a lurker. If you have a Facebook account but only check in once in a while and never sound off, you’re a lurker. As the world’s billions of online users have been increasingly crowded into fewer and more powerful social media sites, it’s become more and more mathematically certain that we are all lurkers.
According to McNeil, that crowding has been a key component in how the online experience has shaped an entire generation of users. So many people now have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and YouTube on their phones (McNeil claims that Facebook and Google combined account for 70 percent of all Internet use) that it has led to a good deal of misdirected frustration. “What happened is what would happen if you stuffed all the people in the world in an elevator: people blamed one another for their discomfort, instead of the elevator itself or proprietors who insisted it was safe,” McNeil writes. “According to the broader media narratives, it was up to us, the users, to shape our own experiences online, even when the choice to opt out became itself a fantasy.”
The author observes that life online consists of traits in carefully balanced opposition: anonymity and visibility, privacy and transparency, autonomy and constraint. And as Jessa Lingel does in “An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of Craigslist,” her remarkable recent hymn of praise to the classified advertisements site, McNeil also cites some blessed exceptions, such as Wikipedia, where there are clearly posted rules. “Some users might adhere to the rules more strictly than others,” she allows, “but these rules are transparent and worked out by the site’s own community of users.”
In the course of the book, this kind of open accountability increasingly looks like the best of a bunch of bad “solutions” to the problem of online life, and although the severity of the problem has worsened as user count and ad revenue have soared, McNeil is forthright in admitting that she doesn’t see the blame as evenly shared. She has a particular bête noir in the course of these pages, a site she claims is “intent on cannibalizing and repurposing your life.” No surprise here: It’s Facebook. “I hate it,” she writes. “The company is one of the biggest mistakes in modern history, a digital cesspool that, while calamitous when it fails, is at its most dangerous when it works as intended.” Many would agree that her dislike seems warranted. Facebook has a poor track record with moderating false information. The company has bowed to Internet censorship laws in countries where free expression is restricted. And its overly broad terms and agreements, poor data safeguards, and inability to curb developer abuse have allowed personal data to be harvested on an unprecedented scale.
Even so, her book does offer some stubborn hope for reclaiming a measure of, for instance, privacy and control of our own data. It’s possible that some combination of increased user restraint and awareness (probably a generational process) and government regulation might work, although McNeil is quick to point out that the latter would be a clumsy and incomplete solution.
No matter what the solution ends up being, McNeil’s debut is a classic piece of writing about the perils and promise of online life. “Lurking” belongs in the company of other classics such as James Gleick’s wise “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” from 2011, 2018’s “Twitterbots: Making Machines that Make Meaning” by Mike Cook and Tony Veale, and Shoshana Zuboff’s magnificent 2019 book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.” “Lurking” will feel more personal to readers than any of those earlier books – and more powerful for that reason.