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Books

Lurking

9780374716325 fc
Hardcover, MCD × FSG, 2020
Releases 02/25/20
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Mcneil  joanne by lizzy johnston

Joanne McNeil

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A concise but wide-ranging personal history of the internet from—for the first time—the point of view of the user

In a shockingly short amount of time, the internet has bound people around the world together and torn us apart and changed not just the way we communicate but who we are and who we can be. It has created a new, unprecedented cultural space that we are all a part of—even if we don’t participate, that is how we participate—but by which we’re continually surprised, betrayed, enriched, befuddled. We have churned through platforms and technologies and in turn been churned by them. And yet, the internet is us and always has been.

In Lurking, Joanne McNeil digs deep and identifies the primary (if sometimes contradictory) concerns of people online: searching, safety, privacy, identity, community, anonymity, and visibility. She charts what it is that brought people online and what keeps us here even as the social equations of digital life—what we’re made to trade, knowingly or otherwise, for the benefits of the internet—have shifted radically beneath us. She is not interested in the fortunes being made or the specific technologies developed, but in the space we have made and the culture we have created. It is a story we are accustomed to hearing as tales of entrepreneurs and visionaries and dynamic and powerful corporations, but there is a more profound, intimate story that hasn’t yet been told.

Long one of the most incisive, ferociously intelligent, and widely respected cultural critics online, McNeil here establishes a singular vision of who we are now, tells the stories of how we became us, and helps us start to figure out what we do now.

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An excerpt from Lurking

INTRO


Reading a book that I picked up secondhand, I discovered that it, like many other previously owned goods, contained a trace of the person who previously flipped through the pages. Sometimes that is marginalia, or little papers like receipts and “to do” lists scribbled on magazine postcards or napkins; that which might hold a page, or pages can hold on to, whatever the paper might be. Paper transit tickets are also common. In this case, with this book, a boarding pass fluttered out.

A boarding pass is a wide strip of paper that works as a bookmark in a pinch. It is on hand through an occasion that people often carry books and tend to read them. For a moment, the paper is among a person’s most essential belongings, until the passenger steps on a jetway, when its value plummets to nothing. Someone might feel obligated to hold on to it and stash it away for safekeeping. Perhaps they planned to discard of it, but in the flurry of travel — orders, queuing, moving around, keeping inventory — it was tucked somewhere, out of mind in an instance, to lose or trash later, forgotten then or eventually. 
I held on to the stranger’s boarding pass because I needed a bookmark in a pinch. And every time I picked up the book again, I would see this unfamiliar woman’s name and her boarding time, seat number, and destination. The boarding pass marked the event of an Alaska Airlines frequent flier traveling from Seattle Tacoma to Puerto Vallarta International at 6:10 am on a late summer Thursday. Puerto Vallarta— how nice, but seating at 5:30 am— yikes. She must have gotten a good deal on the ticket. I hope it was a lovely getaway. Her boarding pass bookmark, now my bookmark, is between the pages of a breezy, trendy novel praised by many breezy, trendy publications. I found myself imagining someone I might be friends with, someone like me. I wondered if she was on Twitter. I could look her up, I thought. So I did that. I found her profile. A woman in Seattle. I looked over her first dozen tweets. I didn’t say hi or scroll too deep. It would be weird to tweet at her, “Hey, I got that paperback you exchanged.” Someone might find such exchange amusing, but it strikes me as boundary-crossing. Even, that which I might see, outside her purview and knowing, felt out of bounds. I couldn’t bring myself to click through her archive to see how her vacation went. It seems like basic respect from an internet stranger to an internet stranger. But I was pleased to make this odd one-sided connection. I tossed the boarding pass away when I finished the book. Now I know the origin of this paperback. That’s lurking. 
I don’t mean lurking as an act of reconnaissance, eavesdropping, or something sneaky. It is simply that by nature of having this internet, people are so immediate and present, even absolute strangers. For better or for worse, connecting people is one of things the internet can do. We connect to people we like, we do not like, people we know, people we do not know, friends, family, workmates, any kind of a acquaintance, really. We are even connected to nonperson human-mimicking human conglomerates, like bots posting in Markov Text, mishmashing a corpus of the words of hundreds, even thousands of actual humans. We can engage with people outside the rule-bound linear progression of offline relationships, and discover information about another person, miles and years from the person they were when they posted it. Try responding to a post on a message board dated far back, ten years or more. That person might have lived in five cities meanwhile, and fallen in and out of love three times, but you can talk to the person they were, years ago, offering their thoughts on gardens, personal heath, movies, or recipe ingredients.  
Lurking can be a waiting room before communication, like the clanging of an old dial-up modem sound, a moment to pause and prepare one’s self for an exchange with others, to get your feet wet before plunging into the network and its encasement of your identity. Or it could be an act like reading, for work or research or general curiosity. Christopher Priest thanked alt.magic in the acknowledgements of The Prestige, his novel about a pair of dueling magicians. Their camaraderie, swapping tricks and strategies, paired with their particular forms of jealousy and secrecy, was an inside look, which he didn’t need to disturb to get a handle over. In the springtime Usenet years — a guileless, but no less thorny internet — lurking was understood as a custom, and as something warm, while also indirect. Even if no one ever signed your Geocities page guestbook, you could never be totally sure that all that work was for nothing. There could be others among you. There always could be lurkers. Perhaps someone was watching. Good people, potential friends, even, not creeps, but maybe a little bit weird.  
Metaphors get clunky when we talk about this internet because there is much stuff — (forms): images, text, videos, audios, maps, advertising and (content): objects, rumors, job listings, opinions, ideas, facts, faces, people, jealousy, followers, pictures of dogs, pictures of babies, anything — and it feels like every user inherits a job, an unpaid library science gig, just for having to think about classifications and representation, the epistemic meaning of data and the written word and images. Identity becomes scraps of enterprise, content and dis-content, a whirl of desiderata and refuse. Some data is “shared,” some is taken, all of it is shaken together in a sillage of algorithmic rendering, floating around but never quite defining the user in the middle of it all.