Art critic McNeil charts internet history in her thoughtful debut, critically examining how online platforms affect their users. Her account is impressively and even dizzyingly far-reaching, to the point that its many tidbits of information sometimes blur together. Those facts are, nevertheless, eye-catching (such as that in 1998, AOL, determined to “onboard the country with ubiquitous setup disks and CDs,” monopolized the world’s entire CD production for several weeks). McNeil explores how an internet driven by profits and the commodification of sharing transformed a potentially beneficial, community-building activity into a potentially demoralizing, community-breaking habit. She writes dismissively—though also probingly—about the far-right in her section on online outrage. Dissecting a neo-Nazi tweet disavowing any connection between online hate speech and real-life hate crimes, she observes that fascism is, “among its dangers and evils, also profoundly corny.” Later, discussing the tyranny of big platforms, she notes, “Google and Facebook... have taken over functions of a state without administering the benefits or protections of a state.” However, she promises her audience, there’s still a chance to “hold platforms accountable,” through antitrust action and well-aimed regulation. That hope, and the hope for a truly user-friendly internet, is what will make McNeil’s history resonate with her audience. Agent: Lydia Wills, Lydia Wills LLC. (Feb.)
[A] very excellent new book.”
“[McNeil] manages a sensitive sharpness to which more tech critics should aspire.”
JASON KEHE, Wired
“An original take on a fascinating and important subject.”
COLLEEN MODOR, Booklist
“Refreshingly humane and threaded with poetic insight.”
"[A] thoughtful debut, critically examining how online platforms affect their users . . . McNeil explores how an internet driven by profits and the commodification of sharing transformed a potentially beneficial, community-building activity into a potentially demoralizing, community-breaking habit."
"Sharp, broad-ranging techno-criticism that merits attention."
“At a time when there are just as many people wanting to ‘burn it all down’ as there are techno-evangelists, Lurking offers a history of online culture that could not be of more import for the present. Joanne McNeil patiently disentangles this story from the nostalgia and uncritical negativity that so often distort it, recovering nuance while pulling no punches in her defense of privacy and dignity. Lurking gave me words for lost or ineffable feelings, brought up forgotten moments of possibility, and reminded me of everything about the internet that’s worth saving. I was very often surprised by the details of a story I thought I knew. Above all, McNeil's account of the past and her vision of a different future are incalculably humane, providing a fresh opportunity to ask who and what we want the internet to be for.”
JENNY ODELL, author of How to Do Nothing
“A long-overdue people’s history of the internet. Joanne McNeil retells our last three decades online from the perspective of those who actually made it worthwhileus.”
CLAIRE L. EVANS, author of Broad Band
“The internet isn’t ‘out there’ somewhere; it’s coextensive with the brain of any writer who’d be worth reading on the subject. In Lurking, Joanne McNeil writes as an internet ‘supertaster,’ a veteran of more platforms and forums and flame wars and start-ups than most of us could ever imagine. She employs a trees-not-forest style, immersing herself in the paradoxes, and reinscribing her body at the scene. By risking a freely figurative language, she hacks the mystery at its source.”
“Without a doubt, Joanne McNeil is the most original writer on technology working today. This poetic, empathetic, and incisive history of the internet will resonate deeply with anyone who goes online to listen and learn, not shout and grandstand. Never cynical or reductive, McNeil traces the commercialization of the digital world in unexpected and insightful ways, revealing what has been lost, what stolen, and what utopian possibilities may still be recovered. Lurkers may not be inclined to rally around a manifesto, but this profound and refreshing meditation will certainly do the trick. Lurkers of the world unite, or at least read this book.”
ASTRA TAYLOR, author of The People’s Platform
“We all know what it’s like to spend time online, but nobody has written about it with more depth and beauty than Joanne McNeil. Lurking makes the connections between internet protocol and human dignity tangible, whether reflecting on her early days as an avid 90s web user or zooming out for critical insight into today’s tech giants and tomorrow’s possibilities. I learned something new on every page.”
JACE CLAYTON, author of Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture
When the product is free, you are the product.
Writer and art critic McNeil acknowledges that the term "users" is problematic, if only because consumers of social media are the ones being used, "as scrap metal, as data in a data set, as something less than human, as actual tools." Everything that is priceless, such as friendship and knowledge, carries a price tag; every boundary is transgressed. When we do a Google search, Google is searching us for preferences, interests, worries, and concerns. "It would like to predict what you want to know with the data is has collected from you and about you," she writes. In that milieu, there is a difference between anonymity and privacy—but is one ever truly anonymous given all the tracking and big data crunching and aggregation surrounding us? There may be ways, but to trust the system is to have one's privacy eroded at every step, as when McNeil writes of a friend who, on social media, found her father in the "People You May Know" box, a father whom she hadn't seen for three decades and didn't want to know about. Facebook's assumption, as that friend wrote, is that everybody wants to be connected to everyone else, when of course that's not true: One doesn't want to be confronted by angry exes, stalkers, rapists and other agents of past traumas. Artificial intelligence doesn't know about all that—yet. AI doesn't rule everything—yet. As the author writes, the editors of Wikipedia represent a very human phenomenon, interpolating technology with their own prejudices as (mostly) white males who are vocal about biases and tend to shout down "newbies" who may be of other ethnicities and genders: "There's a learning curve, after all," writes McNeil, "and it is accelerated by the vicious pedantry of the fervid." In our brave new world, everybody wants something, and ferreting out the identity of the former wallflowers who lurk quietly in the corners of discussion rooms is a particularly desired prize.
Sharp, broad-ranging techno-criticism that merits attention.