Writing a Lurkers’ History of the Internet

Joanne McNeil. Photo: Lift Conference Photos

You don’t usually hear much about lurkers. Usually, the story of the contemporary internet is told from the point of view of its architects, in airport-bookstore best sellers about the developers and entrepreneurs who built powerful, wealthy megaplatforms. Sometimes, you’ll get sensational articles about the posters, creators, and influencers who’ve rocketed to fame on those architects’ creations. But rarely do you read about everyone else: the vast majority of people, who quietly consume content online without creating much of it. A well-worn principle of internet communities called the one percent rule holds that only one percent of users in a given community create new content. The other 99 percent lurk, clicking links, reading posts, and unassumingly powering the multitrillion-dollar digital economy. Who’s telling their story?

Over the last year or so, a parallel history of the internet — told from the point of view of the average person, the lurker, the subscriber, the entry-level tech worker, the Monthly Active User — has begun to emerge, across a number of excellent new books. In Joanne McNeil’s new book Lurking: How a Person Became a User, the latest addition to this library of counter-histories and revived accounts, the internet’s 99 percent is the focus. For McNeil, “lurking” isn’t simply the passive activity of silently browsing the web, but an act of “bearing witness,” in this case to the shifts that took us from the small, rickety clubhouse internet of the 1990s to the bustling, terrifying casino internet of the 2010s and beyond. She’s interested in tracing this history not through dramatic stories of dorm-room creation and boardroom betrayal, but through the familiar, everyday experience of the lurker. How did communication habits change? How did culture shift?

That’s not to say it’s an anthropological text, either. Lurking is an impressionistic chronicle of the last 25 years online, divided into chapters based on themes and concepts like “sharing” and “anonymity.” The result is a history that illuminates ongoing debates and opens up interesting new questions about how we understand the industry and the technologies that have taken over the world. In a chapter called “Visibility,” she writes about the culture of “fakesters” — people with fake accounts — on the early social network Friendster, explaining the still-muddled distinction between “credibility” and “visibility” online. In the chapter on “search,” McNeil explores how the rise of search engines, and specifically Google, changed the not just the structure of the internet — from a warren of hyperlinks to a database to be cross-referenced — but the terms we use to discuss it. “People used to talk about the internet as a place,” she writes. “Now people talk about the internet as something to talk to; it is a someone … the Voltron of all the family photos, diary entries, jokes, hotel reviews, support-group message boards, and VHS-ripped detritus of everyone who ever lived a digital life.”

In its exploration of the history and experience of the internet from a less well-attended vantage point, McNeil’s book made me think of a handful of other recent books about the internet, in particular Claire Evans’s Broad Band, Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. All of these books are formally and substantively very different from Lurking, but I think they all are participating in a version of McNeil’s project — a kind of Lurkers’ History of the Internet.

Broad Band, which came out in 2018, is straightforwardly a history: a collection of biographical sketches and historical accounts of the women mathematicians, computer scientists, developers, and administrators who (in the words of its subtitle) “made the internet.” Many of Evans’s subjects are geniuses and pioneers, it’s true, but many of them are more or less normal people — not quite lurkers, but something close — who happen to have lived through a particularly interesting moment in the history of computing or the internet. (A handful of characters, like Stacy Horn, the founder of influential early message board ECHO, are featured in both Broad Band and Lurkers.) By illuminating their lives, Evans is able to flesh out the history of the internet beyond the myths and stereotypes we already know — and rescue old and forgotten visions of how the internet might be.

Odell’s How to Do Nothing, by contrast, is less a history or a narrative at all than a strange and compelling amalgamation of polemic and self-help. Odell is able to articulate the affective experience of being online (and of logging off) particularly well, and her exploration of how the internet makes us feel is fascinating. But How to Do Nothing is also not a slick tome about digital detoxification. Where it shines in particular is when Odell excavates overlooked and forgotten previous versions of the internet (like the “Community Memory” kiosk, a physical box housing an electronic bulletin board, built in a Berkeley record store in 1972), contrasting them with their crassly monetized descendents (like the local social network Nextdoor, which Odell’s boyfriend pegs as “for uppity property owners”) and exploring the ways in which we could recover some of the more utopian visions of the internet.

Finally, Wiener’s memoir, published earlier this year, explores the recent internet from within the tech industry. Silicon Valley documents the author’s life working for various tech businesses in New York City and the Bay Area, and as such, is less concerned with specific experiences of the changing internet than with chronicling the cultural milieu from which the tech industry operates. Importantly, though, it’s not a story of well-remunerated boy kings or swashbuckling venture capitalists, but of the low- and mid-level employees who cycle in and out of various tech start-ups implementing, with varying levels of awareness, the changes that McNeil’s book is concerned with. Wiener’s co-workers at an unnamed analytics start-up are neither daring geniuses nor grand villains: “We didn’t think of ourselves as participating in the surveillance economy,” she writes in a section set after the Edward Snowden revelations. “We were just allowing product managers to run better A/B tests.”

I thought of Wiener’s account often while reading Lurking. If there’s a through line in McNeil’s book, it’s ironically that “lurking” — that fundamental online activity — is no longer really possible. Where once you might have been able to browse online privately and unobtrusively, now you leave traces everywhere you go. McNeil documents the way Google’s autocomplete function collects and suggests the theoretically private searches of billions of lurkers, and describes efforts by MySpace and Facebook users to jury-rig or reverse engineer tracking systems to tell who was looking at each profile. Anonymity is fraught and harder to come by; everyone is now obligated, by social custom or through the inveiglement of advertising profiles, to have an online “presence,” and that presence is increasingly connected to your life and identity off-line. “Lurkers” have become identifiable, trackable users to be exploited, as McNeil writes, “as scrap metal, as data in a data set, as something less than human.”

I don’t put a lot of stock in the idea that reading a particular book or taking a particular humanities class could help transform Silicon Valley. But I thought many of Wiener’s bosses could have benefited from an understanding of their industry that went beyond fables of disruption and growth — from hearing about how the internet is experienced by the people who use it and the developers who maintain it, rather than the tin-pot emperors hustling for tribute on whatever corner of it they can annex. The spate of new books that flesh out our understanding is welcome. If we’re going to recover the fully human lurker from the prepackaged and surveilled “user,” histories like these will be essential.

A Lurkers’ History of the Internet