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The Rise of the Lurker

We don’t quite leave social networks we don’t trust. We stay for the friends who still post. We lurk.

Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re over a certain age and you were ever on Facebook, you’re on your way off it. Every time Mark Zuckerberg does something creepy or bows to pressure from the Trump administration, one acquaintance or another announces that they’re quitting, and every time you think: Yeah, maybe this is the moment for me to get out. After all, what used to seem to you a vibrant, garrulous hangout space, or at least a reasonable simulation of one, has become a ghost town. But it seems those who leave are only the tip of an even larger iceberg, one consisting of people who never deactivated their account but log on largely to message others, to like the occasional birth announcement, to respond when tagged. I am one of them. We are the lurkers. And now there’s a book about us. 

MCD, 304 pp., $28.00

I’m sure the experience of Facebook as one of lurking is not universally true (after all, the number of people signing up for Facebook accounts still seems to be growing and stood at 2.5 billion in late 2019), but when it happens among your network, the implosion is fairly swift. It’s a form of ecosystem collapse. If the people you enjoyed on Facebook are no longer on Facebook, why would you hang around? It’s an interesting moment, as an active community doesn’t so much quit as it simply ceases to post, becoming instead a community of observers with increasingly little to observe besides the pure gyration of an algorithm with less and less to hold onto. 

It’s a moment when you deprive the network of the one thing it thrives on—your data. As Joanne McNeil points out in her new book, Lurking, young people with an interest in how Facebook algorithms work have used this technique since the beginning: They deprived their Facebook profiles of data and watched which friends it recommended, which posts the algorithm pushed on them. Perhaps, they hoped, starving the mill of its grist would reveal how the gears turned at 1 Hacker Way, how Facebook’s faceless engineers thought about categories like friendship, network, etc. When we abandon a playground like Facebook without truly leaving it, we all get to see what the machinery looks like without the shiny, reflective cladding of the content we create. We get to witness ourselves, transformed and repackaged as something else.

McNeil defines lurking as “listening and witnessing on the internet, rather than opining and capturing the attention of others.” Her book represents a record of a sustained act of lurking. Just as the nineteenth-century flaneur gets intoxicated on a strange mix of empathy and detachment, the lurker sees their historic moment by being above it and very much ensconced in it. And, as McNeil points out, it can be thrilling. She likens learning from a Twitter hashtag to “passing a kaleidoscope around a campfire,” describes how early blogs provided “a departure from the sanctitude and solitude of writing,” and points to the gorgeous artifacts of early Google Street View, such as Leonard Cohen on a lawn chair in L.A. Fellow travelers of hers from back in the day will remember the thrills only too well. 

Just like the flaneur, the lurker, of course, depends on others who are very much not lurking. The flaneur thrives on getting lost in the crowd, and the lurker can lurk only in a herd of users, the people who are actively engaged on the platform. McNeil bears witness to the process by which, as she puts it in the subtitle of the book, “a person became a user,” a process that she seems to regard as both a historic inevitability and one that we can profoundly shape.

And that makes Lurking the perfect book for our historic moment. Because the last few weeks have turned us all into lurkers: Those of us who don’t go out and fight the virus, those of us who can afford to let a computer interface between us and a dangerous outdoors, have become silent, frequently muted heads in Zoom galleries and anxious presences on social media, fearful of whatever the timeline washes into our purview. At certain points and in certain situations, being a lurker is a sane, ethical, thoughtful response to a moment of crisis. 

There used to be a time when you could be a person on the internet without being an internet user. Back then the caricature of an internet user was a pimply white guy who hung out in chat rooms or kept a blog. Users weren’t people who went online; their being online made them the kind of people they were. McNeil points out that this picture always distorted the truth of who used the internet and how. But it came apart on its own terms, because in the meantime—and certainly with the advent of the iPhone—being a user became a universal condition. 

The internet user of yore ambled to his parents’ basement and fired up the modem; the modern user can walk down the street with an infinitely more powerful tiny computer in their pocket. The user is always doing something more and something less than they think they’re doing. The user becomes one of millions of “unique impressions” by which websites measure their advertising rates; becomes their face, or simply eyeballs or clicks or whatever other metaphors or metonymies by which we dissolve as persons and get reconstituted as something else. They’re clicking through Captchas to “prove you’re not a robot,” and help Google develop driverless cars. They call the short-lived, long-forgotten 1-800-GOOG-411 service that was intended to collect voice samples for AI research. In the 2000s, a community of transgender individuals used a time-lapse technology and a platform (in this case YouTube) to document their transition; a computer science professor used their images as a data set for facial recognition. And just like that, McNeil writes, “a community of users expressing care for one another became useful bits to an outsider.” “Users,” as she puts it, “get used.”

The story of the user is the story of platforms “that trap us, platforms that cannot accommodate us, platforms that don’t deserve us.” Yet McNeil doesn’t focus on condemning the platforms or the people who stick with them. She is sensitive to the reasons we choose to turn ourselves into users—that for many it has represented the only way to find their own identity and to connect with a community. The transformation isn’t a fall from grace, is not about hubris or narcissism, is not a Faustian bargain; it is the way we survive. When office workers based at home during self-isolation join in a Zoom call, they don’t get to choose whether to let the service surveil them. Even a user’s participation in public health studies isn’t entirely voluntary: Even if they do nothing else with their phone, their location data may help public health agencies track the coronavirus. 

It’s easy to lament that the internet promised certain things and then failed to deliver them. It’s also easy to assume that the promise was always hollow and that we were dupes from the beginning for logging in, for making our first Google search, for creating that first profile page. But to put all blame on the platforms, McNeil suggests, is to go too easy on ourselves. We have all partly shaped the history of the internet with our own actions, so to reflect on it is to come to terms with our own arrangements, compromises, and conveniences.

We excoriate Uber for its labor practices, kibitz about our compromised privacy on Facebook. Then we shamefacedly pull up the app and call a car, mumbling something about how convenient it all is and how the competition is really no better. As persons we can declare how disappointed we are with the new means of communication, can ostentatiously withdraw from them, as though individual choice were the point. But as users, we have made the obvious, inevitable trade-offs. 

McNeil isn’t oblivious to the dark side of lurking, the way certain corners of the internet study discourses to mimic, troll, or pervert them. But she doesn’t see the trolls as true lurkers. Lurkers are people who witness and seek to learn. They learn to tolerate and to understand. We might think we recognize a troll studying people he considers “SJW” on Twitter in order to launch something like #EndFathersDay. But McNeil turns this around. 4chan trolls are not so much the avengers of the limitless possibilities of the internet as they are ultimately afraid of it. “They are sad that the internet is not their own private island.”

When we come to terms with our role as user, when we lurk attentively and with an open mind, McNeil suggests, then it turns out that we are far more securely at home in the digital world than we sometimes think ourselves. #EndFathersDay is a good example: In June 2014, 4chan trolls managed to offer a surprisingly close facsimile of a social justice fracas on Twitter. But people who regularly participated in, or lurked during, such conversations, saw through the mimicry very quickly. And that was—as McNeil rightly points out—precisely because they actually believed in the values they were debating. No matter what their critics might say about them, they were not posturing or signaling.

Being a user means being under no romantic illusions about why you show up where you show up. Part of us still clings to the idea of being a person who just happens to find themselves in some online space or the other and is shocked, shocked by what they find there. That’s the part that opened up Zoom meetings and was completely gobsmacked that someone might use the bathroom while on a Zoom meeting. Or that someone would obviously put video of said episode online. The user part of us understands functionality, exploitation, and trade-off. And that part hears about the Zoom meeting interrupted by a troll screen sharing “Two Girls One Cup” and appreciates the traditionalism. If you’re honest about that, McNeil suggests, then you actually attain a strange, refracted kind of authenticity, one not connected to identity but to purpose. To be a user is to ask yourself what your reasons and purposes are, to what ends you use what you use. 

Over the last week, I have returned to Facebook, almost glad I never fully severed the connection. Over the month of March the old networks, long dormant, came back to life as they relayed the approaching shock waves—first a friend of a friend, then one friend, then another. Updates, requests for support, memorials. New apps promise to make the coronavirus crisis manageable by tracing our movements and alerting us if close physical contacts get sick. When we as persons are totally lost, stuck at home, and glued helplessly to screens, it seems that we as users have to come to our own rescue.