Art and technology critic Joanne McNeil’s debut work “Lurking” is a trenchant, topical and thoughtful verdict on the incredibly complex but almost symbiotic relationship between digital platforms and users. The adjective lurking, usually employed in a pejorative sense, is however used in an ingenious and original fashion by Ms. McNeil to conflate innocuous prying with insidious stalking or even usurpation. Such a usurpation is more likely than not, of intangible attributes such as dignity, privacy and opinion.
While paeans extolling the achievements of tech entrepreneurs compete with excoriating indictment of cut-throat Information Technology mercenaries for shelf space and eyeballs, there has been a surprisingly, and unfortunately negligible coverage dealing with that one important element in the entire digital/online transactional or consumption value chain – the passive user. Before Ms. McNeil’s book, that is. She hold forth on the now well recognized and accepted principle prevalent in internet communities, going by the moniker of the one percent rule. An alpha numeric euphemism for lurking, this rule expounds that only one percent of users in any given digital community create new content. The remaining 99 percent hover about apparition like (my analogy), clicking links, absorbing posts, and unwittingly volunteering to be the fodder driving the digital economy. It is this 99% that is the focus of Ms. McNeil’s engaging book.
But who is a ‘lurker’ in the esoteric and ephemeral online universe? A lurker is one whose involvement is not tantamount to participation. For example, I personally neither leave frequent comments on Facebook, not “like” posts. But I keep browsing through the variegated feeds appearing on my timeline. This makes me a ‘lurker.’ However, an inveterate gravitation towards Twitter to express my angst, anxiety and anger in 280 furious characters makes me an active participant. Blending together a tapestry of personal experience with interesting interviews, Ms. McNeil takes her readers through the early social networks, like Friendster, MySpace, and local BBSes (bulletin board systems), explaining how users of devolved their online identities. An identity brought about via a technological visibility that serves as “another tool of privacy—a way of controlling one’s image as others regarded it.” Ms. McNeil also highlights the unquenchable thirst for profits that has made the Big Tech commodify the user. The experience of a user is a contrived, artificial one dictated by the unseen workings of complex algorithms and powered by the insatiable greed of advertisers. Stoking fuel to an already brightly burning fire is the invidious impact of cyber ostracism and bullying that leads to undesirable consequences such as segregation and totalitarian outlook. “Google and Facebook… have taken over functions of a state without administering the benefits or protections of a state.” But this is not a recent phenomenon. As Ms. McNeil informs her readers, the once ubiquitous AOL, during their pioneering days, once ended up hosting a page for the Texas Ku Klux Klan. The ridiculous and febrile argument for such an act being the right to assemble as accorded by the first amendment.
Ms. McNeil reserves her choicest polemic for Facebook though. “Facebook shoehorns values into patterns, removes nuance, and presents it as ruled by a ‘fundamental mathematical law.’” As Ms. McNeil illustrates once a raw and not so suave Mark Zuckerberg famously termed people voluntarily handing over data to him as “dumb fucks.” Even though this irreverent remark was made when the concept of a social network was just a seed germinating in the founder’s mind, this did not prevent the global populace from willingly handing over both themselves and their data to this glorified Ivy league drop out. According to Ms. McNeil Facebook is a corporation of “data gluttony and shamelessness,” as well as “endless ethical quagmires.” The monolithic and leviathan status of Facebook was given a slight tickle when Ello an online social networking service created by Paul Budnitz and Todd Berger in March 2014 made a hopeful appearance. Created as an ad-free alternative to existing social networks, it was noble in its intent, but miserably and woefully short in its execution. As Ms. McNeil informs the reader about her personal experience with Ello, an attitude of misogynistic pugilism and patriarchy put paid to the hopes of this upstart, to dismantle the behemoth. At the time of this review, Ello has morphed into a poor man’s Pinterest exhibiting art, photography, fashion and web culture.
We have traversed a long, exciting and conflicting journey in so far as the internet is concerned. Our experience has ranged from the vaudevillian to the vapid. However, as Ms. McNeil illustrates in a poignant manner, it was always not like this. “The internet was never peaceful, never fair, never good,” says Ms. McNeil, “but early on it was benign, and use of it was more imaginative, less common, and less obligatory.” ECHO, an acronym for “East Coast Hang Out” was one classic example of a benevolent version of the internet. The quintessential idea underlying the creation of echo was for users, most of whom lived in the New York City area, to meet one another. The group organised open-mic nights, softball games, and film screenings. An unseen celebrity was the young John F. Kennedy Jr. posting under an imaginatively titled username, “flash.” Echo founder Stacy Horn describes the platform’s essence in her invigorating and compelling memoir: “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.”
But as Ms. McNeil brilliantly demonstrates, internet in the current age only goes to exacerbate the ache that Ms. Horn refers to instead of acting as an ameliorating balm.