In some sense, it’s interesting that I had to pause my reading of Building and Dwelling: Ethics in the City in order to read Lurking: How a Person Became a User (the latter suddenly came through for me on NetGalley), in that a significant part of why I’ve wanted to read the former is my casual interest in ways to apply urban planning lessons, or at least language, to online communications and communities.
(I’ve a casual interest generally in the interplay of how we talk about online and offline communities and whether there are ways to apply one to the other, in both directions.)
McNeil’s book was a useful history reminder-lesson for me. I don’t know how old she is in offline years but in internet-self time she’s been online since right around the same time as me (I logged in for the first time in the fall of 1993). Lurking, then, in many ways told the story of the very internet that developed while my online self did.
In general arc if not always specific sites and services, Lurking is the story of my internet, too. For her, it was AOL and Geocities; for me: gopherspace, MindVox, IRC, and Usenet.
Mostly I was struck by McNeil’s recounting of what for lack of a better phrase I’ll call the social networking era, as opposed to the social media one which grew out of it. Once upon a time, we had user profiles with all manners of information about us, as provided by us (or as permitted by us, in the case of things such as testimonials from others or posts to our “wall”). To actually find each other, and connect with each others, we had to instant message, group chat, or visit a forum.
Messages sent user to user and public testimonials were how people communicated, but the promise of the social network was realized in the observable and intuited. There were no alerts when changes were made; a person had to look over the same profiles again and again to see their latest updates.
It was an internet of place. Once services like Friendster or MySpace gave way to services like Twitter and Instagram which rely predominantly upon the notion of the feed, place went away in favor of a more amorphous and identity-flattening space. Profiles as they once existed truly defined and denoted our personhood, or at least our personahood, and chat rooms and bulletin boards felt like places to visit. The feed, though, did away with all (or at least most) of that.
Add in the rise of the smartphone which was far better suited to quick-hit, bite-sized, on-the-go consumption, and out goes the blogs and discussion forums and real-time chats which were so intimately tied to larger, more fixed-in-place devices.
The internet had a station before, like a shoebox full of recipes on a countertop, like the kitchen itself. As smartphones blurred organizational boundaries of online and offline worlds, spatial metaphors lost favor. How could we talk about the internet as a place when we’re checking it on the go, with mobile hardware offering turn-by-turn directions from a car cupholder or stuffed in a jacket pocket?
This transition from place to space also fundamentally transformed the nature of the activity for which McNeil titled her book.
Once upon a time, lurking frequently was how you learned the shape of an online place, how you learned its rules and came to understand the dynamic of its residents. There might have been common points of (n)etiquette but each place also had its own flavors and its own boundaries. In the borderless expanses of “platforms” such as Twitter, there’s no there there, and so no real opportunity to lurk around its edges to observe and learn its ways.
A testimonial was always a one-off, and there was no space for someone to respond to another person’s testimonial. And if it was no good, the recipient would delete it (mortifying). Unlike email (private) or forums (within a community), the testimonial widened online communication within set parameters: user to user in public, or user to an audience (friends and onlookers). A testimonial was written with the expectation that lurkers would see it.
I’ve expressed the changes in our internet experience as a move from interaction to indication, from expression to excitation. “Social media on mobile,” writes McNeil, “had a different tempo and friction as users documented in the moment, rather than retrospectively.” (Note: I’ve written often about friction here.) Mostly, how we began to behave on mobile became how we behaved on other devices, as well, because it’s how the new crop of sites to which we all gravitated were designed to be used.
McNeil herself thinks that lurking remains, just in a somewhat redefined and restrictive sense.
Friendster users found themselves liberally adopting the word “friend” to describe various relationships. Instagram and Twitter used language that accounted for the potential of a mass of strangers watching another user’s activity. Instead of friends, users “followed” users and were “followers.” Lurkers weren’t just a possibility now, but an expectation.
As suggested above, I’m not sure I agree with this. What’s been forced upon us, I think, is the inaction of consumption as opposed to the active engagement that was lurking.
“Earlier social networks and social digital environments,” writes McNeil, “benefited from smaller, segmented communities: no obligation to participate, IRL intervals between logged-in sessions, and more flexible online identities.” It was those smaller, segmented communities that drove both the sense of place and the action of lurking. What we have now is a cognitive state more akin to a coiled spring, where we consume “content” with the expectation of engagement rather than of participation.
McNeil properly defends her use of “lurking” only as a positive thing: “Lurking is listening and witnessing on the internet, rather than opining and capturing the attention of others.” More than anything else, that does capture what we’ve lost as the frictionless, placeless spaces of social media have taken over.
Richard Sennett, in Building and Dwelling, connects the question of place versus space to the matter of speed.
At a walking pace, the spotlit objects are ‘round’, in the sense that we can dwell on them, studying their contours and context, whereas at a speeding pace the single spotlit object appears neurologically as ‘flat’ – a fleeting image with no depth or context. In this sense, walking slowly produces a deeper lateral consciousness than moving fast. Lateral accounting is one of the criteria for distinguishing place – a site in which you dwell – from space – a site you move through. It establishes the basic cognitive claim for privileging cyclists over motorists – the cyclist knows more, neurologically, about the city than the motorist.
This, too, describes what happened to the internet in its “progression” from boards and rooms and walls, to social networking, to social media. We no longer dwell online; rather, we move through it.
McNeil and I both started off in the internet of places, and witnessed a sort of gamification of what it meant to be online. There are plenty of remaining spaces but few to consider “ours”, or, really, anyone’s. Most of these internet spaces are like McNeil specifically describes Facebook: “an infinite ant farm”.
It’s not that place no longer is possible on the internet, but that as commerce took over, everything else online became just as transactional. Which is not to say that commerce never should have come to the internet; it just should not have imposed its ethic and its view of human behavior upon everything else that was here.
It’s not that boards and forums and chats no longer exist, and there’s nothing stopping us from maintaining profile websites of our own, divorced from any particular platform’s designs upon us.
It’s just that the dominant ethos of the internet right now is one that maneuvers us into being users rather than people. One of the ways we get back to being people is to learn (or perhaps relearn) how it used to be—by reading accounts such as Joanne McNeil’s of our one-time lurking life.
They weren’t cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see sky, and they remember what they are.