In “Lurking,” Joanne McNeil offers a lyrical, polemic account of our collective transmogrification from personhood to userdom.
McNeil nails our shifting metaphorical understanding of the web. In the 1990s, the latency of whirring dial-up modems imparted a palpable sense of “going” online, she writes; meanwhile the internet itself was “a place” — a realm of “expanding interiority” that engendered fervid libertarian imagineering.
“We are creating a world where anyone … may express [their] beliefs … without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity,” gushed a seminal cyberpunk manifesto. Transposing the physical to the virtual with a chaser of delusional thinking — that the laws of social gravity somehow wouldn’t apply online — it conjured a pixelated anything-goes frontier to consummate the idealism of a vanguard of users.
McNeil got her start online as a disaffected ’90s teen gamboling among the “fanny-pack masses” inside AOL’s “walled garden,” which she credits with uncoupling “the identity of a general internet user from any kind of subculture or aesthetic.” Today, praxis has led us to a far bleaker, more venal view of the internet — humanity’s hive mind but also a pulsing organism feeding on itself (as an A.I.), and us.
“At its worst and at its best,” McNeil writes, “the internet extracts humanity from users and serves it back to other users.”
There are whimsical interludes. “Lurking” is alive to the bizarro aspect of internet phenomena — for instance, celebrity fauna inadvertently scooped up in Google’s Street View: the late Leonard Cohen lounging in his Los Angeles yard; or Jean-Luc Godard with Anne-Marie Mieville in the frame when the roving cameras panned Rolle, Switzerland.
But mostly it depicts a despoiled user-unfriendly environment — not merely an outlet for our drives but actively warping them.
The advent of platforms eliminated “contextual privacy” (crisply analogized by McNeil to conversing in a restaurant with the expectation “that the people at the table next to yours … aren’t hanging on your every word”). Other casualties included lovingly tended blogs, once recesses for weirdness and obscurity. Meanwhile, the reach of hate, once contained in chat rooms or other small forums, has been amplified.
Elsewhere, McNeil writes of the coarsening effect of “autocomplete:” “snitch[ing] on someone’s past” and waylaying Googlers down prurient wiki-holes of search subjects’ “spouses and ex-spouses and estranged children.”
Then there’s the perversity of “the clickbait economy,” peddling ads against “[a]buse, hate reads, coordinated harassment and … outrage.”
“If wide use is a company’s goal, harassment is not necessarily in opposition to that goal,” McNeil writes.
At its best, “Lurking” succeeds like the best apps: offering an experience you never suspected you needed but can’t imagine going without — a personal U.X. history of the internet articulating the sensations of being online that users everywhere will recognize.
I’m not sure I buy its prescription of discrete moderated communities, though. While screening out proximate abuse, I suspect it would only be a matter of time before “the narcissism of small differences” asserted itself, promoting further atomization. Perhaps being thrown together on mass platforms exercises a moderating influence.
Bad as things are, they could be worse.
“Lurking: How a Person Became a User”
By Joanne McNeil
(304 pages, $28)
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