March 2020


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The dial tone. The faxlike robot sounds. The promise of instant connection with someone across the country (or with your crush from math class). This is the way the internet began for most of us. 

For O.G. internet users, the potential for human connection, personal learning and technological growth once stretched beyond the horizon. Enter: trolls, the corporate sale of private information, a false sense of connection and myriad other challenges. Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How a Person Became a User is a thoughtful exploration of the development of technology, online identity and the essential elements of humanness that make it all possible.

True to McNeil’s style, Lurking poses more questions than answers, giving readers a wide berth to wrestle with their own opinions. The book offers seven different lenses through which readers can examine online identity, and it’s structured around seven corresponding chapters, each with a one-word title as the starting point for discussion. 

For example, the first chapter, “Search,” is a meditation on both internet search engines and human longing. It equates search engine history with pennies in a fountain, the result of “wishes people tossed in the well.” This grouping allows McNeil to transcend literal application and makes space for lines such as, “Real people search, but real desire cannot be identified.” Lurking strikes an impressive balance of insider tech-talk and universal human connection, though true techies will have an obvious leg up with the nuances of internet-specific examples. 

The author proposes concrete safeguards for building a better internet, such as online community members acting as “librarians” to protect and archive their content, along with other practical suggestions. Without these practices, McNeil maintains, “the internet remains imperfect, a hell that is fun, ruled by idiots and thieves, providing users with slingshots for self-expression but no shield from the bile that rebounds.”

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