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The User Always Loses

How did the Internet get so bad?

By Lisa Borst

August 11, 2020

In the mid-1990s, as part of a carpet-bombing campaign to market the still nascent World Wide Web to potential consumers, America Online offered free dial-up Internet trials and mailed CDs containing software to several million Americans. Reportedly, half the CDs in the world at one point were branded with the AOL logo. For several weeks in 1998, the company apparently used the entirety of the earth’s CD manufacturing power.

The ad blitz was an astonishing, almost unbelievable feat of logistics, and it set the stage for the Internet as we know it today—that is, as one of history’s most expensive, extractive, and manipulative advertising apparatuses, dominated by a shrinking handful of giant platforms. The story is one of the countless pieces of Internet history breezily covered in Joanne McNeil’s new book, Lurking: How a Person Became a User, a conversational and idiosyncratic account of the past 30 years of online life that reminds us that the Internet didn’t have to become what it is today.

Lurking is written from a layperson’s perspective—that of the everyday surfers, posters, and especially the eponymous lurkers who have been witness to the Internet’s development over time, even if they haven’t participated in guiding it. What interests McNeil is the shifting experiences of daily online life for these users, not the developers, engineers, and CEOs whose hagiographies have until recently dominated the landscape of trade tech writing. In this way, her book is structured as a kind of people’s history of the Internet, a bottom-up chronicle of online expression and digital environments that prioritizes the textures and cultures of the Internet’s demos. It’s a project rooted in a sense of optimism about the power of the user against the sort of massive corporate might on display in AOL’s campaign. “Infrastructure is power, but it is not the law,” McNeil writes, “which means there is still an opportunity for users—as individuals and collectives, and working with government bodies—to hold platforms accountable.”

Alongside this history, Lurking provides richly descriptive narratives of the more familiar and quotidian dramas that generate these platforms’ content: the emergence of trolling and harassment in digital communities built with utopian aims, the rise and fall of Internet microcelebrities, and the homogenization of user experience on a World Wide Web that has swelled ever vaster (from one website for roughly every 9,000 users in the mid-’90s to about one for every three today, according to McNeil).

The result is a fast-paced and sometimes excursive chronicle of online communities and identities that is less interested, for example, in detailing the enormous infrastructure required to take over global CD production than in examining how it felt to come of age on AOL. It’s a story that will be broadly recognizable to many but that, by prioritizing the means by which users have shaped and manipulated their platforms, occasionally passes over the grimmer and more opaque policy decisions and business strategies that allow platforms to shape and manipulate their users.

McNeil has had a hand in much of the better critical Internet writing of the past decade. Her career has seen her involved with many prominent Internet-focused publications and research groups, from the New Museum’s Rhizome, where she was an editor in the early 2010s, to New York’s Eyebeam Art + Technology Center and the School for Poetic Computation, an artist-run coding and design institute. The computer, she writes, is “where I grew up.”

The chronology sketched in Lurking—beginning in the mid-’90s, when the Internet became accessible to a critical mass of Americans—is more or less coterminous with McNeil’s biography, and some of the strongest parts of the book are written as memoir. She writes movingly and stylishly of the friendships she forged online as a teenager in chat rooms devoted to riot grrrl zines (always under a screen name: “Why on earth would I be myself online—a person I hated?”) and with lucid humor, then genuine anger, about her experiences with online harassment. But occasionally her intimacy with the material leads Lurking to read less like a diverse and polyphonous people’s history and more like a single person’s history, extrapolated—a warm and often firsthand account of three decades of life online that, viewed from a distance, might nevertheless be considered enormously depressing. The story of the Internet since the mid-’90s is, of course, also one of hyperconsolidation, increasingly nightmarish privacy violations, and a brutal competition for clicks. Between its personal moments, McNeil’s book focuses on the centralization and market dominance of a diminishingly few social media platforms, over a period when “the dream of cyberspace—strangers, strangeness, anonymity, and spontaneity—lost out to order, advertising, surveillance, and cutthroat corporatism.”

In her studies of AOL, Friendster, Tumblr, Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as the less explicitly social (though still theoretically user-oriented) Google and Wikipedia, McNeil takes a diachronic approach, surveying changes in user behavior over time. Often she seems to be after a sort of gestalt principle of platforms: What historical conditions did the collective voice of Myspace articulate? Why did blogging take off as a shared response to the US invasion of Iraq? (When “the Internet became an ideal valve to release opinions,” she writes, “who didn’t have an opinion on the Iraq war?”) What weirder and more regional Internet communities and communication habits were lost in the shift to broadband service?

McNeil is a sharp reader and critic, and many of her observations assume the form of a rhetorical analysis or notes on trends in user experience. She’s great with epithets, and her descriptions of the voices and affects that have emerged from platform to platform are by turns damning and sympathetic. Twitter, with its “distributed punditry,” is “jangly and feral”; AOL was “pedestrian, hypercapitalist, and a failure”; 4chan is “resilient in its regressiveness.” Of Friendster, she writes, “Those of us who were once xSonicYouthx and Marathon83 were recast as John S and Katie L (but not yet John Smith and Katie Lee)”—a startlingly concise one-sentence history of compulsory nonanonymity told via usernames, even if it’s hardly news to anyone who’s been online longer than a few years.

A chapter on search engines similarly notes a phenomenon that seemed intuitively familiar, though I’d never seen it named before. “Search strings used to be phrased like ingredients: ‘revolution AND french OR russian NOT american,’” McNeil writes. But in the past two decades, the language and tone of our search queries have become more baroque and confessional. “When I search for information now, I feel like I should add ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to every request. There is no way around it, talking to the Google search bar like a human generates more relevant results.” This feels anecdotally true; I’ve certainly gotten into the habit of phrasing my searches, as McNeil notes, along the lines of “‘how do i download a printer driver for mac’ rather than ‘download printer driver mac.’” Although Lurking is studded with perceptive observations about our shifting behavioral and emotional relationships with platforms, it’s less interested in addressing the policy decisions and funding streams that quietly guide these changes. Google is, as McNeil writes, “the intermediary between my ideas and action forward, the glue between my questions and answers, a placeholder for thoughts and a way to sort my desires.” But it’s also an advertising, machine-learning, and data-collection regime, with material incentives for addressing it as an advice column rather than an algorithm.

“When users are scapegoated, Silicon Valley is left off the hook,” McNeil writes in a passage on disinformation campaigns on Twitter. We might read this conclusion as the driving premise of her book. By analyzing user behavior as the labor—the “content and dis-content”—of real people, Lurking aims, fundamentally, to make a case against tech companies’ consistent “contempt for outsiders—and users.” But a reader may be left wondering whether a primarily descriptive and personal, bottom-up account can put Silicon Valley on the hook, either. A chapter on AOL and anonymity online, for instance, focuses chiefly on the kinds of communities the platform enabled; it’s clouded with nostalgic recollections of message boards and dead channels, fond roasts of AOL users as the “fanny-pack masses, an invasion of the squares.” This is a company that, in 2006, intentionally leaked the partly anonymized search terms of 650,000 Americans in a privacy breach that swiftly led to the public exposure of a number of users based on their identifying (and often deeply strange) search histories.

Although that’s exactly the kind of dehumanizing corporate history behind the story of how a person became a user, we don’t hear about it in Lurking. Instead we get studies of users’ changing search habits, analyses that occasionally exaggerate the role of users in creating those habits.

By the end of Lurking, we’re in the present, and McNeil has hit an angry, polemical stride. “In this book I have tried to maintain a consistent tone of criticism that is not openly combative,” she writes, “less ‘this is wrong’ than ‘isn’t it interesting how wrong this is,’ but I have found it next to impossible to maintain this distance when it comes to the topic of Facebook. I hate it…. 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.”

An ant farm of humanity! This is McNeil in her best and most persuasive mode—as colloquial and triumphantly invective as a blog post but with better research. Much of her writing, in fact, echoes the formal pleasures and occasional frustrations of prose styles native to the Internet. Recalling her earliest use of the Web amid the “provocative optimism” of mid-’90s techno-utopian rhetoric, she writes, “Information superhighway or cyberspace, I remember it like an intense dream; my feelings come before the details, tone and emotions before coherence.” It’s a potent, tweet-length account of the hours lost to scrolling—and a fitting description for a book in which tone can occasionally outpace coherence.

Despite Lurking’s attentiveness to affect and user experiences, the book is oddly organized. Associative and loping, it almost mirrors the way one experiences the Internet. Each of its seven chapter titles addresses a specific concern (like “Search,” “Anonymity,” and “Sharing”), but each chapter departs quickly from its nominal mission, sometimes getting bogged down in unwieldy case studies that range from original reporting and testimonials (an interview with a Google Street View driver, a profile of a Wikipedia editor) to summaries of canonical media studies like Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace.” Rapidly expanding and contracting in scope and linked by meandering transitions, the book has a flavor of disorganization that will feel familiar to those of us who have spent many hours browsing aimlessly: digressive, curious, sometimes a little haphazard.

McNeil ends Lurking with 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.” Life online, her book reminds us, used to be a little more capacious and strange. The smaller and more user-driven Internet communities of the past—the websites and services that “could not compete with the speed and price points of corporate broadband” after the dot-com collapse—might offer a model for a more democratic and less revenue-driven Internet in the future. She sees an imperfect example of one such community in Wikipedia, a platform that remains “global and open, transactional and pluralistic, chaotic and rule-based, anonymous apart from usernames and IP addresses,” and anachronistically ungoverned by the market logic of other websites its size. The whole platform, McNeil writes, can seem like a “nineties cyberspace holdover,” and an Internet that scaled up some of Wikipedia’s ethos would share qualities with the pre-broadband, pre-duopoly Internet that existed when Lurking begins: more local, less obligatory, less competitive and commercial.

Is such a vision achievable anytime soon? Lurking was published in late February, a few weeks before the era of social distancing transformed the Internet from the tool and distraction that McNeil describes (“a hell that is fun”) into the very precondition for sociality and solidarity: In an era of quarantine, the Internet became a vital site for community. Reread Lurking while confined to one’s home, and McNeil’s vision for a different and better Internet takes on a new salience. In the first weeks of the pandemic, it sometimes seemed the Internet had gotten a little weirder—more frantic and more jittery, certainly, but with occasional glimpses of the possibility for something different and less consolidated. Neighborhood-based mutual aid efforts emerged or strengthened, gaining traction on surprising platforms like the workplace messaging app Slack. Blogging enjoyed a bit of a renaissance as well, perhaps because, like the Iraq War, the pandemic and its mismanagement invite opinions from everyone. Scrolling through Twitter this spring, I remembered McNeil’s invocation of tech journalism circa the platform’s launch. “Early criticism of Twitter could be distilled to a single (ironically tweetlike) sentence: ‘No one cares what you had for breakfast,’” she writes. (“It was always breakfast,” she adds. “Never dinner, never snacks.”) I’ve never seen more tweets about breakfast than I did in the first weeks of lockdown—until suddenly, instead of breakfast, there were photos from uprisings, videos of police brutality, chains of donation receipts to bail funds. Since the beginning of the protests in response to George Floyd’s murder, the user-driven parts of the Internet have looked and felt alive in a whole other way: a joyful, mournful, militant, redistributive mobilization of for-profit platforms to imagine something else. I can’t stop looking at it.

The pandemic, of course, illuminated the consequences of the digital divide. The Internet access needed to trawl Twitter all day—or to complete one’s newly remote work duties or school classes—is a resource that’s nowhere near evenly distributed, as long as broadband continues to be controlled by one or two conglomerates across most of the country.

At its most persuasive, McNeil’s book reminds us that life online, structured from the beginning by private interests, only heightens the inequalities of life off-line. A better and more equitable Internet would, like Lurking, begin with the premise that every user is a person, something our existing platforms have consistently failed to do. The past few months have only made it clearer that market-based solutions can’t build the better and fairer health care or justice systems we badly need. They won’t build the healthier and fairer Internet we deserve, either.

Lisa Borstlives in New York and works at n+1.


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