User Illusion

Lurking: How a Person Became a User BY Joanne McNeil. New York: FSG/MCD. 304 pages. $28.

The cover of Lurking: How a Person Became a User

For a long time, the internet seemed to resist description. Like the unconscious, the early Web was baffling, unsettling, even a little embarrassing. New users, unaccustomed to virtual terrain, compared it to a dream. Its inventors favored unhelpful hyperbole: Theirs, they claimed, was the greatest invention since penicillin or the printing press. Novelists steered clear of online life altogether, brandishing their abstinence as a sign of literary integrity.

Meanwhile, many journalists, the demographic perhaps best suited to cover the internet revolution, were boosterish and complacent. Even by the late 2000s, when it had become clear that software was, in Marc Andreessen’s infelicitous phrase, “eating the world,” media outlets persisted in treating digital life as a world apart. Rather than analyze the rapacious data-mining operation destroying their profession’s revenue model, reporters discussed the Web the same way they might discuss the latest dietary fad. Was the internet—whatever that catchall meant—more or less unhealthy than a midnight snack?

Today, all this has changed. Every contemporary news story—from the rise of Trump to the collapse of traditional jobs—is understood, at some level, to be a story about the internet. As local newsrooms shrink and shutter, national outlets continue to find ever more room in their budgets to hire tech reporters. (The glut of digital content about our digital lives is itself the result of the tech industry’s disruption of legacy media.)

Recent books about the industry include The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Walter Isaacson, 2014), Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom) (Adam Fisher, 2018), and The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America (Margaret O’Mara, 2019). As their titles suggest, these books are top-down histories, grand narratives centered on a few great (and geeky!) men.

With their focus on the “innovators” behind the Web, such accounts tend to neglect what was actually taking place onscreen, among users, during the internet’s heady and bewildering beginnings. In Lurking: How a Person Became a User, the writer and artist Joanne McNeil attempts to redress this imbalance by exploring the experience of the anonymous masses who spent their time online before the Web became synonymous with the elimination of privacy and the exploitation of personal life. “The internet was never peaceful, never fair, never good,” she notes, “but early on it was benign, and use of it was more imaginative, less common, and less obligatory.”

Part memoir, part cultural history, McNeil’s book traces how the suburban enclave of AOL gave way to the funhouse of Myspace and the affective marketplace of Friendster. Its casual and quiet tone is reminiscent of the intimacy that characterized these early online chat rooms. The result feels like a small exhibition, full of pleasing digressions and well-curated associations. Some of the stories here will feel familiar to anyone who has read (or read reviews of) prior accounts of once-vibrant internet communities. But Lurking is more than a ghost tour. By attending to the Web’s neglected history, McNeil wants us to imagine how things might have been—and might still be—otherwise.

Apple Power Macintosh advertisement, 1994.
Apple Power Macintosh advertisement, 1994.

In 1995, when she was in high school, McNeil began posting on AOL’s message boards for teen girls. “The cacophony of a 2400-baud modem announced my passage to a secret world,” she writes. Even then, she was not naive enough to believe that cyberspace was the transcendent frontier techno-utopians took it to be. The process of dialing up—less like teleporting than like taking a train—served as a reminder of the Web’s firm roots in this world. Shy and awkward, McNeil enjoyed the asynchronous rhythms of online conversation. It was easy to be witty when you had hours to formulate your reply. These chat rooms—an “amorphous collective, echoing and validating in the dark”—confirmed to her that there were “others out in the world as wounded and alienated as me.” Anonymity seemed to promote new and unusual forms of expression.

Echo, short for “east coast hang out,” was one such refuge, a forum where sharing felt deliberative, meaningful, and safe. If AOL was a “walled garden,” favored by suburban teenagers, Echo was a reflection of the bustling metropolis from which it emerged. When the chat room debuted in 1990, McNeil explains, the idea was that users, most of whom lived in the New York City area, would want to meet up in real life. And so they did, at open-mic nights, softball games, and film screenings. Even the young John F. Kennedy Jr. joined, posting under the username “flash.” In her memoir Cyberville, Echo founder Stacy Horn describes the platform’s raison d’être: “Everybody has a trace of an ache—some eternal disappointment, or longing, that is satisfied, at least for a minute each day, by a familiar group and by a place that will always be there.” It’s striking how much this formulation, quoted in Lurking, recalls all the platitudes about connectivity and desire issued by latter-day social media founders. Yet Horn’s goal was far more earnest and radical than simply monetizing this ache: She hoped to heal it.

Now that corporations have enormous leverage over our behavior, it may seem foolish that we were once willing to engage in collective group therapy, handing over our most vulnerable thoughts and feelings to a remote server. But at the time it was not obvious that we stood to lose far more from this exposure than we would gain. As McNeil shows in several other moving examples, many users and founders shared Horn’s uplifting vision of the internet as a vehicle of solidarity. LatinoLink, CyberPowWow, and Cafe los Negroes—forums run by and for Latinos, American Indians, and “the wired segment of diasporic peeps of color,” respectively—flourished in the mid-’90s. While they attracted many users, the sites were unable to raise enough money from investors and failed to outlast the first dot-com boom.

They were not the only casualties. By the early 2010s, many communities on LiveJournal, Indymedia, and MetaFilter, which had derived their energy from opposing the invasion of Iraq, had been absorbed by social media giants. On any platform that wasn’t Facebook or Twitter, “Sorry I haven’t posted” became a ubiquitous refrain. As McNeil tells it, “the dream of cyberspace—strangers, strangeness, anonymity, and spontaneity—lost out to order, advertising, surveillance, and cutthroat corporatism as the internet grew more commonplace—and faster.”

Social media platforms realized that their leverage depended on collecting ever more “relevant” information about the audiences to whom they were showing ads; real-name policies prevailed over pseudonyms or usernames like flash; fake accounts were purged, and content that was once considered ephemeral was archived. One might assume that this shift from chaotic anonymity to stable identities would make us into people rather than users, but McNeil persuasively argues that the opposite phenomenon occurred: Contemporary social networks began to operate at a dehumanizing scale. Even as these platforms were doubling down on real names, they were amplifying our loose ties and turning our friends into followers, who could number in the millions. The Web came to be dominated by an extractive logic under which users were seen as raw material—or, in the lasting words of Mark Zuckerberg, “dumb fucks.” We became data, most valuable for our engagement no matter the toll it took on our personality or identity.

Throughout these processes, media gave tech corporations a pass. Many pundits laid the blame for the internet’s burgeoning problems not at the desks of its corporate executives but at the feet of its disempowered users. Revisiting the early discourse about the internet, McNeil notices that much of it scans as neoliberal lifestyle advice: It was somehow up to us to shape our own experience online, even as that experience was increasingly shaped by powerful corporate forces outside our control. All this hand-wringing about the individual agency and personal responsibility of users, she argues, “ran out the clock through vital hours, at a time when the media—including culture critics—should have focused on issues of user consent, monopoly power, harassment, and all of the internet’s actual problems.”

By the time many writers were ready to seriously engage with surveillance capitalism, it had already redescribed their profession, along with the world. Journalists, editors, and publishers have been proclaimed obsolete by the men wearing hoodies who made them so. What a user says on a platform matters less than how other users engage with it; platforms can sell ads next to conspiracy theories just as well as, or even better than, they can sell them next to book reviews.

It’s no wonder, then, that in the long shadow of Facebook, Myspace has come to seem to many longtime users like a quaint relic. McNeil speculates that this may be because “early social networks never quite made the leap from defining identity to commodifying it.” No engineer at Facebook has been able to write a program to recapture the organic sense of solidarity and empathy once abundant on these smaller networks. Care work that exists “in intimate community settings,” she writes, “is a form of labor that does not scale.”

Yet though McNeil’s account is largely elegiac in tone, she guards against the lure of nostalgia. “When I think I feel nostalgic for the internet before social media consolidation,” she writes, “what I am actually experiencing is a longing for an internet that is better, for internet communities that haven’t come into being yet—certainly not on a mass scale, and even then, nothing lasting.”

Ava Kofman is a reporter at ProPublica.