It’s cliché at this point to note that the internet wasn’t always like the nonsensical flashing word jungle it is now. In the ’90s, the internet was smaller and weirder, less corporatized and more cobbled together, like a record store before iTunes. In the 2000s, as millions of Americans moved from AOL dial-up to broadband connections, the internet exploded. Smaller spaces and forums, along with other non-prurient intimate settings, gave way to the borgs of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and so on. Quiet typing became LOUD TYPING.
The critic Joanne McNeil, in her new book Lurking: How a Person Became a User, a non-fiction social history, has added significant depth to what might otherwise be an empty observation, that “everything happens so much.” By profiling specific types of internet users, such as Wikipedia editors or decade-long forum moderators, she assembles a story about how the internet changed over the last two decades in ways that more conventional histories of the era tend to ignore. What emerges in Lurking is a vision of how people are able to eke out something positive in a putatively free and creative space that’s come firmly under the thumb of corporate control.
I chatted with McNeil over coffee this week about Lurking, which was published on Feb. 27. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
I read your book as a counter-history of the last 25 years of the internet. It felt like a different outline of how people used the internet and how it was corporatized and how it has spit us out at the present moment. What motivated you to create this alternative reading of this past?
The scope of the project was originally shaped as a memoir, and you’ll see the nature of the chapters, it’s structurally organized or begins with me and then I just pass the mic …[I] include as many voices, especially voices unlike my own. Obviously, I can only say so much about my own experience. I felt like there were so many stories that just have been lost or decentered, and as many as I can include while also being a readable and swift recollection of the past 30 years.
The protagonist of the book, if I can identify one, is the “user.” And a user is a hated figure in Silicon Valley — a user is a problem that has to be resolved or worked around and smoothed over. What initially attracted you to the idea of the “user,” such that it became the subhed of your book?
That Olia Lialina quote that I have in the introduction [“Addressing people and not users hides the existence of two classes of people — developers and users”], for me it was really eye-opening. Because I had already been shaping this book around stories of users, but the way she expressed it, and the importance of that term — the idea that when we say people on the internet, we’re disguising their function in these social networks and how they are viewed by others.
And there’s a quote I have in there by [early Facebook staffer] Kate Losse, about how Mark Zuckerberg loves the word “community,” because community levels everyone.
**One of the points you raise in the book, and that I have encountered a lot in my own reporting, is that the obligations we associate with the word community — what you call in your last chapter, “accountability” — all of that baggage gets checked at the door when it comes to these social networks and platforms. **
The people who run these platforms are very much different people from the users. They are not working within the communities as they might have been 20 to 23 years ago. That’s why I really wanted to begin with those stories of, say, Stacy Horn [creator of a ’90s social network called Echo] — early founders of small decentralized internet communities in the 1990s that they built because they actually wanted to participate in it.
I heard about Echo a lot 10 years ago, from people maybe a generation older than me, who recorded that “Silicon Alley” moment. And when I had a chance to read Stacy Horn’s memoir and interview, I had a great sense of missing out on the internet as its best.
Like her story about setting up an Echo profile for John F. Kennedy Jr. hunched over the screen, and he calls himself “Flash.” You also talk in the book at length about the labor that goes into growing and maintaining digital communities like MetaFilter or Reddit. Of course, almost all that labor is uncompensated. How did this enthusiastic volunteerism of spaces like Echo in the ’90s become this economic engine of the internet years later?
I have really complicated feelings I tried to work out through that book, in the sense of volunteering as quite beneficial if it is for your own space. If you’re having a gathering or a party, you clean up afterward, as it’s your apartment. But that’s the nature of scale… when you get to that level that there are too many, say, beheading videos that we can’t make sure a platform is cleared of all of them, to me that’s evidence this is out of control and should be shut down. This is not a real community, it’s not organized by people who have their sense of values or through shared space. But on the other hand there are so many people who find imperfect tactics for maintaining spaces similar to Echo or those smaller ‘90s platforms.
And sometimes it does mean using commercial spaces. Kat Lo [moderator of the GirlGamers subreddit] organizes a girls’ gamers community, they begin with regular posts on their subreddit, and then you can get an invite to their private Discord [Slack but for gaming] server. The ideal is to keep a community porous enough that people can enter it, but also segmented enough that creepers and trolls are not finding their way to it.
One thing you identify in your book that I’ve felt for years, and found gratifying to see expressed in a book like this, was the impact of broadband internet and the infrastructural change of the internet in the 2000s. I’m betraying my age a bit here, but I was too young to really experience a before-and-after broadband internet. How would you describe that specific shift?
The aughts fascinate me a lot particularly because there was not a lot written about it. There were not a lot of resources devoted to reporting on technology. There was this transition where you had more people joining the internet, and much more diverse than the internet before. In most aspects this was for the better, and the adoption of the internet has been better to these marginalized communities, but… the problem was that was also about the time that the funding was coming in.
Someone who was creating, say, a small decentralized community for a specific group of people would not have luck finding investors, as opposed to Facebook, which sought to build a platform for all. The tensions of having all kinds of people in one shared platform has exhibited itself in harassment that while certainly present in early years of the internet, feels more intense and unavoidable.
Things that were not considered harassment on an individual level, like me replying to someone with a spoonerism of their name on Twitter, when replicated at the scale of millions of people can credibly be described as harassment. Does that harassment warrant a front page New York Times story? I doubt it, but this period of time is when scale was elided from any understanding of how these things might continue to develop.
A line in the book of yours that I liked a lot, and that stuck with me, was that “influencers frighten me.” It’s an observation I never would have expressed that way but when I read it I immediately identified with it, and I wanted to ask if you could unspool that a little for me.
I wouldn’t want to point to someone in particular, and I think I said “They frighten me and I worry about them,” in the sense that I wouldn’t want to have to see someone perform their life. I remember really early on with Instagram and Pinterest, I met someone who was a “Power Pinner” and she was telling me that people in the Power Pinner community, Urban Outfitters might give them $25,000 if they wear a certain dress or post an item on their boards. And it was wild to me, this was probably eight years ago, that MLM [multi-level marketing] quality to it. We see the successful influencers on Instagram because of engagement, but there are also many more people who are constantly hustling and don’t realize that this basically is an unwinnable race.
In a certain sense, that’s only a problem because you and I implicitly believe that they are doing this to make a lot of money, and being an influencer is nothing without having people to influence. Whereas being a writer, for example, does not necessarily require an audience to commit to the page. So when you say “this frightens me,” what I read in that line was this sense that what’s frightening is how transparent influencers make the stakes.
Yes, that’s exactly it, it’s transparent.
At the end of your book you come to a vision of what the internet can look like, as a public space, and you settle on the language of a library, and you say the “internet needs its librarians.” I wanted to ask about what or who those “librarians” could specifically be.
I hoped that a lot of the people I spotlighted in that book would be in that realm. There’s Jessamyn West, a literal librarian and a longtime moderator on MetaFilter. I think of someone like Kyra Gaunt in the section where I talk about Wikipedia. She’s an enthusiastic Wikipedia editor and her understanding is that even though it is hard work to put this effort into Wikipedia, and it’s thankless effort, ahe can know at the end of the day she’s made a difference. Her work will go into the soup that is the shared Wikipedia institutional voice. And going back to Stacy Horn and Kat Low, they’re all doing what they can with limited resources to make the internet better. To make it as positive as it can be.