Joanne McNeil: “The web still offers a lot of potential, besides what corporations have made of it.”

In her recent book, Lurking: How a Person Became a User, American writer Joanne McNeil traces the history of the internet – for the first time from the perspective of the user. Pushing back against glorified narratives of the early days of the World Wide Web, she argues for a more inclusive, community-based internet that is not only shaped by corporations.
Boris Séméniako for The UNESCO Courier

Interview by Linda Klaassen

Your book on the history of the internet is written from the perspective of the user. Why did you choose this perspective?

The user is often talked about as the ‘non-expert’. If one is not inside the big tech companies, one allegedly does not know the inner workings of them. However, in the process of experiencing online products, we, the users, have unique life experience about them. This perspective is rarely talked about in technology reporting. In a world where it is not realistic anymore to say that we can just opt out of digital life, what does it mean that we are structuring our lives around these platforms without necessarily having a say in their development?

How has the internet changed since the early ages? Is the idea of the internet as a utopia providing universal access to knowledge definitely dead? 

In my book, I wanted to push back in terms of the nostalgia that comes up in conversations about the early days of the internet. The potential for people to meet across distances without corporate ownership was there, but there were still unknown problems. If we go back to any early online forum, we will see harassment; we will see bigotry; we will see discrimination. In the 1980s, if one wanted to get online, one had to purchase a very expensive computer. By the 1990s, when the World Wide Web launched, the digital divide and the cost of access was a problem.

At the same time, as we see through the decades, the entrepreneurs were the ones getting investments to create social media platforms. A lot of the companies, which were once very small, like Twitter and Facebook, grew enormous and became next to impossible to scale back. This was happening incredibly rapidly at a time without much regulation.

As easy as it is to be frustrated with what the internet has become now, some of the initial promise is still available to the everyday user. These platforms remain a way for people to and communities to gather and organize. For example, Amazon workers organizing to defend their rights, or people with the same illness meeting on Facebook.

Some of the internet’s initial promise is still available to the everyday user

Do you see key moments in the history of the web? When did persons start to become users?  

What we now refer to as ‘social networks’ accelerated the change between person and user. The period of the 2000s, referred to broadly as ‘Web 2.0’, is the moment of enormous adoption of the internet by not just individuals, but schools and workplaces. This was when we started developing the habits of following people and having friends and followers online. 

This is very different to the 1990s, when much of the online community was based on a sense of cloaking one’s identity and finding groups on one’s own. The interaction was based on getting to know people as part of a community, as people and not just as users in a very abstract way. The platforms were shaped by certain rules of participation, unique to a community, or values that everybody in that community would share. 

Then came new platforms based on what would encompass all one’s acquaintances online. There was a blend of meeting strangers, but also having a better idea of who they are because one has their photos, their location, their interests and one’s connections to them made visible.

You make a distinction between two different classes of people, users and developers. What is the difference between the two? 

In the earlier times of internet, online communities were founded by people who were members of that community. For example, even Facebook began as something for students but then started to include more people. There was a type of accountability because they were all part of the same social groups. Nowadays, on the general interest platforms, the founders, executives, and developers might not be users themselves. If they are, they are using these platforms in a very alienated way and there is an alienated sense of who is actually going to be using these different tools. There is also very little opportunity for the user to be heard if the tools turn out to be harmful. This shift is emblematic of the 2000s – moving away from having a real community, where the founders and developers are all part of it, part of maintaining it and have something personally invested in maintaining it.

An ideal use of the internet would be seeing more groups that are organized on a small-scale level

This is why I think that an ideal use of internet would be seeing more groups that are organized on a small-scale level, as a community. Then, at least, one would be able to create moderation policy that everybody is aware of, even if they do not necessarily agree with it. 

In a small community, one can urge members to moderate their behaviour. Maybe the user takes it the wrong way and they do not want to be part of the community anymore. Or maybe they take it to heart and reflect on their behaviour. These are behaviours and experiences that we can deal with on a small scale – in a classroom; in a workplace; at a party – but cannot deal with as a whole world.

You are critical of big tech. What are your main concerns? 

My main concerns are the exploitation of data, the lack of privacy and the role that big tech companies have taken in society because of the wealth that they have acquired. One of the worst consequences is that a lot of people think that is the internet and that there are no alternatives. In which case, I would recommend that they do read about the history of the web and the creation of services that are everyday internet experiences which were not made for money, such as email. They can serve as examples of what the internet still can be.

You say that there needs to be rituals in place online to treat people – users – with dignity, both the living and the dead. What do you mean? 

The question of what will be done of traces of ourselves on the internet is still a complicated topic and it is an issue that needs to be treated. Some argue that such traces make up important archives that are important to preserve. I am concerned about whether a lot of experiences online really are necessary for us to understand the twenty-first century – what information really is the most crucial to archive? We do not have every casual conversation saved from the nineteenth century, is this a problem? 

An important ritual would be asking for consent from the users and coming to agreement about how to put data and information to rest in a way that feels authentic to their community. One platform that is doing a really great job is MetaFilter. It is one of the oldest online communities, organized by people who participate in it. There are a lot of users, personally invested in this community, thinking through what it means to have an archive of users’ material and information over time on the internet.  

How could we develop greater privacy protection and user consent?

It would have to be in terms of regulation. Platforms would like us to believe that they can regulate themselves, but over the past twenty years, we have seen that this is not going to happen. I do feel optimistic that there is a large interest from the users, from so many of us who are online everyday, that our privacy is still important. Generations born with the internet know what they are giving the internet and what the internet is taking from them. That these exchanges are unfair. This is what makes me feel optimistic – most individuals want to see something happen and that should give us some hope. Just a little bit of an alternative to the general platforms is in my mind progress. It shows us what the internet can still do. The internet is not Facebook. The internet is not the web. The internet still offers a lot of potential, besides what corporations have made of it.

Joanne McNeil
The author of Lurking: How a Person Became a User, Joanne McNeil is a writer, editor, and art critic interested in the ways that technology shapes culture and society.

Translation: from one world to another
April-June 2022
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