Feb 25, 2020
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It’s Time to Unfriend the Internet

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LURKING
How a Person Became a User
By Joanne McNeil

In her first book, “Lurking,” Joanne McNeil charts the history of the internet through the experiences of the users. These are not necessarily the same as people. Conflating the two, McNeil explains, “hides the ‘existence of two classes of people — developers and users,’” as the artist Olia Lialina has put it.

The difference: Developers build and shape the online experiences that users run around in like rats in a maze. Users make their way through the vast web trying to fulfill certain essential desires. McNeil separates these behaviors — searching, activism at the expense of safety, privacy, identity, community, anonymity and visibility — into chapters, each discussing the platforms and websites that serve them. McNeil maps out the history of the web, from the first bulletin boards, to the early days of blogging, to the emergence of social platforms like Friendster and eventually to the online world we live in today, dominated by tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Some users are deeply nostalgic for certain platforms of the past. “Most surprising is how fondness for Myspace has grown as time passes,” McNeil writes. “It has come to represent a particular moment of freedom and drama online, especially to those too young to remember it.” She quotes the musician Kyunchi, who compares Myspace to Woodstock. It was a special, unique place and if you weren’t there, you missed it.

McNeil uses language that is incisive yet poetic to capture thoughtful insights about the internet, like the insidiousness of these platforms’ monetization schemes: “The problem with Instagram lies in how user identity entwines with commerce.” Nor does she mince words when taking on one behemoth in particular. “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. Facebook is an ant farm of humanity.”

At many points, “Lurking” speaks to the powerlessness we users can sometimes feel on these platforms, how difficult it can be to stay in control. In 2011, having gotten her first iPhone, Winona Ryder told Jimmy Fallon she was now “afraid of the internet,” where she worried that one day, “I’m going to be trying to find out what movie is playing at what theater and then suddenly be a member of Al Qaeda.”

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Always the author returns to the titular behavior underlying them all, which she defines as an “internet superpower,” a “real-life invisible cloak.” Through lurking, McNeil finds she “had control over my identity and I could choose what aspects of it I revealed to others.”

And stealth is, of course, a natural reaction to much of the recent hate that has emerged online in our lifetime. “Cyberspace did not submerge our identities under a universal oneness of ‘user,’” McNeil writes. “Rather, the internet heightened our awareness of identity,” and, as she warns in the chapter entitled “Clash,” when individual identities are confronted with mass belief systems like Gamergate and right-wing extremism, distress, outrage and even trauma can ensue.

Tempting as it is to blame the internet’s rampant hostility on a few bad users, McNeil instead puts the onus on “systems, structures and abstract processes like ‘design.’” Otherwise, “when users are scapegoated, Silicon Valley is left off the hook.”

The media is no help, either, its “delayed — and often misplaced — concerns about technology” having precipitated “an endless ping-pong of surface changes and tactics,” rather than a much-needed “focus on structural changes like decommodification and decentralization to enact a better internet.”

“Lurking” doesn’t just highlight the internet’s problems, it also voices her hope for an alternative future. In her final chapter, titled “Accountability,” McNeil compares a healthy internet to a “public park: a space for all, a benefit to everyone; a space one can enter or leave, and leave without a trace.” Or maybe the internet should be more like a library, “a civic and independent body … guided by principles of justice, rights and human dignity,” where “everyone is welcome … just for being.”

Ultimately, severing our tethers to these platforms requires opting out, an increasingly difficult task as the world becomes ever more connected. Perhaps “Twitter’s bard” @Dril said it best, typo and all: “who the [expletive] is scraeming ‘LOG OFF’ at my house. show yourself, coward. i will never log off.”

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