A New Book Makes the Case for a Better Internet

Book review: Joanne McNeil’s debut book delivers a valuable history of the internet while advocating for a fresh future.

Lurking: How a Person Became a User by art critic and digital culturist Joanne McNeil is full of fresh insights into how the internet has brought us together and torn us apart. Throughout the book McNeil’s humanity is palpable—she’s rooting for the user—but never gets in the way of incisive commentary that explains how the whole thing started and gives clues to where it’s going. For those of us who have been tracking the tech world for some time now, we have tumbled along with its ungainly growth without a shared sense of history. In this immensely readable book, McNeil delivers the goods in a smoothly intelligent voice that instructs, but never overburdens us with too much theory or tech jargon.

As someone who’s been researching the effects of digital culture on identity for nearly a decade now, I found her commonsense approach to reclaiming her own identity refreshing. She writes, “[I] had control over my identity and I could choose what aspects of it I revealed to others.” Yes! Never mind the seduction of the internet that draws us to share, confess, reveal and betray ourselves; McNeil encourages the idea of disciplined self-command.

Crucially, Lurking helps us understand the internet’s place in our culture and society. It does so in a way that offers a solid perspective on how to navigate its darker undercurrents, including advocating for internet regulation. Fans of thinkers like Angela NagleAnil Dash and danah Boyd will appreciate McNeil’s ambition for an internet that is more than a hot mess. The author argues for a global medium that serves, “people—users—with dignity.”

Internet norms need to change. We can all play a part in that change. Lurking points the way.