The Internet is “Never Peaceful, Never Fair, Never Good”: An Interview with Joanne McNeil

Vuk Ćosić, "Deep ASCII," 1998. Courtesy Artspace.

One likely constant amid the uncertain reality of lockdown is that your screen time has probably gone up. While we are unable to access cultural and social experiences – restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums, galleries – in what 1990s internet parlance dubbed “meatspace,” we are more reliant than ever on our internet connections. But the experience of being online has changed dramatically since the humble days of dial-up. As the division between life online and off has grown blurrier, we no longer “surf” the uncharted pages and portals of cyberspace, we shuffle around the walled gardens of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, siloed into a handful of corporate networks and apps presided over by Silicon Valley monopolies.

In her new book, Lurking: How a Person Became a User (MCD Books, February 2020), critic, writer, and sometimes curator Joanne McNeil offers an essayistic history of the social internet – not told as a tale of renegade programmers or entrepreneurial sharks, as it so often has been, but from the more intimate, personal perspective of the user. Lurking, for her, is the practice of simply spending time online: to connect with people, to learn, or just to see something interesting, without necessarily seeking (or attempting to monetize) attention. Through her profiles of various types of users, such as forum moderators, Wikipedia editors, bloggers, and net artists, McNeil traces the disappearing potential for an alternative internet that could be less commercial and less corporate, more local and perhaps more lurker-friendly.

Are we stuck in the wrong timeline? What better moment than now – especially as we watch art institutions struggle to accommodate themselves to an online-only audience – to consider what the internet is for, and how we use it.

To discuss these questions and others, I spoke with Joanne McNeil in mid-April. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

– Saelan Twerdy

I wanted to start by asking where you’re at in your headspace and your career as a writer. The “intersection of art and technology” is such an overused phrase but I wonder where you’re standing relative to that intersection. I ask because, to me, you seem like a somewhat unusual case of a writer who has written extensively about art but without doing so exclusively.

I also fell into art through technology. I’ve had a very windy career. My experience at Rhizome was my first experience in the artworld, and at about that time I was looking more for things that would have been technology, but culturally-oriented. If you look back at 2010-12, this would have been just after the Great Recession and this would have been a period of time in which there was a lot of movement toward Silicon Valley. I was always pretty cynical towards the big companies like Google and Facebook, but because they were focused in business sections in the media, instead of art and culture, you had discussion of these companies as leadership, as acquisitions. [There was less focus on] the cultural and social implications of the technology, and it was very difficult for me to place stories that would have dealt with these factors. Basically, tech criticism was very, very hard to place in those years. And what we see is that, as a consequence, those companies that were much more fragile back in 2010 feel just inevitable, like they’re always going to be with us. In 2010, you never would have talked about Silicon Valley like it was Wall Street, it was just something that was emerging, that was growing, and that meant it was something that you could have affected with strong regulation. But that regulation didn’t happen. There are a number of factors why the criticism didn’t really manifest in the media and I have a little bit of it in my book. But in the artworld I could do a lot more tech criticism than I could in, say, a traditional tech magazine.

It’s funny that you say that because, for me, I think I came to reading tech criticism through reading art criticism that was interested in tech, around that time, maybe ten years ago. And I feel like, circa 2010-12, at the outset of the smartphone era and the ubiquity of social networks, there were a lot of artists that had utopian attitudes towards the potential of Silicon Valley and tech culture that have really not been borne out over the last decade.

Yeah, there’s always been another element of generations of internet users, where, if you look at the artists who dealt with the internet or technology in their work in the ‘90s, there was very much a critical aspect, and it would be about surveillance, it would be about tracking. But about the time I went to Rhizome, I think the conversation was focused on how being a “digital native” affects a person’s identity as an artist. It was, “Oh, I’m an emerging artist, I use tools that you don’t understand,” and that means that cynicism about the platforms didn’t come through as strongly as it might have. And also, you have to imagine that a lot of these artists – tech artists around the time I was at Rhizome – they depended on Facebook to network with each other, to network with curators and gallerists. I remember constantly looking for artists that would circumvent—that would be critical of Facebook on Facebook. I was always looking for that and I really didn’t find it. It wasn’t that everybody loved Facebook, it was just that they were on it because they had to be on it.

Lurking cover art: Joanne McNeil, “Lurking: How a Person Became a User” (MCD Books, 2020).

There’s a lot of interesting material in your book about the complicity of users with the platforms that they use. If we’re all forced to rely on the internet more during a pandemic like this, is it ironic that we’re all stuck on the internet at a time when it seems more dystopian than ever?

Is it worse than ever? In the course of reading your book, I find that you’re very averse to that kind of Manichaean is-the-internet-good-or-bad argument, which I appreciate. I remember, in your chapter on “Sharing,” you complain about the kind of tech criticism that sees the only possible solution as “maybe we should have less internet,” use the internet less, digital detox. The question doesn’t come up so much about how we can make a better internet.

Yeah, and with the criticism that came up, around that time, there was a reluctance to see any work that came from the internet as having merit and quality. And I experienced this as a blogger. Like, I thought of myself as a young writer who was emerging, doing what I could using technology and, in retrospect, I can see that there was some kind of stigma, at least in legacy media publications, of, “Oh, she didn’t go to elite schools, she doesn’t have the pedigree of what we consider a writer.” So that element of classism that comes through, that’s another element of the tension that was present at that time.

Your book is called Lurking: How a Person Became a User and, reading it, one of the things that struck me is that it seems to be about how lurking, as an online activity, isn’t really possible anymore in the way it was twenty or even ten years ago. Can you explain why you wanted to write a book like this?

It had to exist for me to explain what it was. I mean, it was really difficult for me to write a proposal. Even now, after I’ve had years of talking about this book … it was just very important for me to have some kind of document to describe the internet as it is, as we experience it. And I knew that my own experience as a user was not enough of a memoir to give readers the scope of the experience.

It’s creatively chronologically told: I break it down into three eras, which would be, starting out, the ‘90s cyberspace/AOL/BBS kind of beginning of the web; then going into early social networks like Friendster, MySpace; and then blogging culture and the 2000s; and then finally a decade that is shaped around the iPhone, smartphones, and the Great Recession and Silicon Valley companies becoming what they are today. And I wanted it to be written in a very clear and accessible way. I wanted to preserve my “writing on the internet” voice and have it be very approachable and present. I’ve noticed that a lot of books about the internet tend to be academic and there isn’t that essayist style, there isn’t as much criticism. I was always comparing it to nature writing.

Joanne McNeil portrait. Photo: Lizzy Johnston.

I like that idea of nature writing. In a few reviews, your book has been compared to Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, which is also a hybrid book about people’s personal relationship to technology – it has an aspect of nature writing, too: she’s a birder. And your book really does have an impressionistic, essayistic voice.

Another thing I appreciate about the book is that you’re constantly dropping in references to artists and artworks without it ever being the focus. It’s something that you happen to know about, that’s relevant to what you’re talking about. And as somebody who is primarily an art writer and who reads a lot of art writing, I like the idea that those things are relevant and interesting, potentially, to a general audience who just wants to read about the internet.

That’s really great to hear because that’s what I hoped when I did that. The reason I mention these artists is because there wasn’t necessarily so much writing about the subjects I wanted to talk about. I, at least, was more familiar with artworks that did a criticism that maybe texts did not. Or, at least, a lot of the texts are just so familiar that I didn’t want to go to the same names. So I was pretty careful about trying to integrate the artwork without it being art criticism itself.

I think that the book does resist nostalgia a bit, but there’s still a general sense that this history of the internet is the story of a kind of loss of something. In the second chapter you describe how “strangers, strangeness, anonymity, and spontaneity lost out to order, advertising, surveillance, and cutthroat corporatism,” but at the same time you say in your introduction that the internet was “never peaceful, never fair, never good.” Basically, I just want you to go on record with an answer to the question: has the internet gotten worse, or not?

I do think it’s gotten worse because of the consolidation, because of the power. I think that what was lost were the opportunities we had, and I think there have been many moments that things could have gone differently. I talk about a lot of early social networks – maybe that’s not the right term – online communities that were for people of color. The story that I would hear again and again was that they could just not find investors. And that was almost certainly because of the racism in the Silicon Alley/’90s Bay Area/’90s New York tech community. I think we would have been better off if we had seen those communities thrive. It might not have led to something like Friendster, which, while interesting, I don’t necessarily think put us on a great path.

I have to say that I really love your description of Friendster in the book. You write that Friendster wasn’t the vanguard of anything, that everyone on Friendster was kind of embarrassed by it and couldn’t really say what it was for. That it was hard to say what you would want to be on there for, but everyone kind of got on anyway.

This was another reason that I knew I had to write this book, because I felt that a lot of the attitudes about these companies … I was already seeing the founders rewrite their own histories just ten years later because there was so little media attention about these companies at the time. And I wanted everyone to know that Friendster was not taken seriously, neither was Facebook for that matter! It’s always been a very silly and casual thing to do, and being that relaxed about signing up for a service is risky, because if you’re there to hang out, if you’re there to make friends, and if this is twenty years ago when the conversation about what people could do with your data wasn’t as immediateI wanted to help people understand why social networks came into being in the first place, which was not because people thought they were getting anything important.

When you talk about this sense of a missed opportunity or that there was a sense of possibility, I definitely feel like that doesn’t exist anymore – that the general assumption is that social media is bad and that all online discourse is toxic and that it’s full of disinformation and manipulation and so on. I think a phrase that you use in the conclusion of the book is that the internet is “a hell that is fun, ruled by idiots and thieves.” I think that everyone tends to have a very cynical attitude towards the internet now and there’s not a lot of feeling that it can be effectively reformed. What sort of potential do you think remains for the kind of utopian idea of the internet that you describe in the book: a more local, non-commercial internet of mutual aid and accountability?

This, of course, is me talking about ideals, and ideals aren’t always the easiest things to implement. But I do notice that, when people have a good experience through the internet, they’re not necessarily talking about it as the internet. With group chats and all that, this moment that we’re in right now, with quarantine, a lot of people are just peace-ing out of Twitter, peace-ing out of Facebook, getting into group chats and having private – semi-private, still on public platforms if it’s something like Slack – but I mean, even something like Animal Crossing, how that’s shown up…the desire to network and the desire to keep in touch is still always going to be there and these are tools that we use to keep in touch. The problem is, we still have less than ideal companies that are responsible for these platforms.

It’s always kind of dangerous to speculate, but I’m curious about how you think this pandemic might permanently affect our relationship to the internet. Obviously, it’s tremendously empowered companies like Amazon. Jeff Bezos is wealthier by 24 billion dollars this year, while at the same time Amazon workers are being very vocal about health and safety complaints in warehouses. Streaming services are cashing in, but it’s also a really interesting moment for the mobilization of gig workers. So, I’m curious about how you think we might come out of this. Will our relationship to the internet be different after Covid-19?

This is something that I’m still going back and forth on. One thing I have been thinking about is, one of the possible explanations for why the internet was developed, back in ARPANET times, was for communication that would survive nuclear war. So, when people are talking about the internet being this sanctuary during quarantine, it was possibly designed for quarantine life. It was designed for apocalypse, disasters. What it wasn’t designed for, at least as far as I know, it wasn’t designed as a cultural space, it was designed for communication. So what I’m thinking of is that, right now, we can’t consume culture as we normally would, we can’t go to the theaters, we can’t browse for books in a bookstore –

We can’t go to art galleries.

Yeah! So the internet is taking on all of these functions as a substitute, which it’s never really been imagined as. When you see something like a gallery doing a Zoom call, you’re putting looking at art in the realm of communicating, and that’s where you get this weird sense of being entertained or having something to pay attention to, but also feeling slightly alienated by it. And my hope is that this feeling of alienation is going to motivate people to think about those experiences, because it has been so overwhelming. The labor aspect, I can’t speak as clearly about in these terms, but I’m energized to see things like the organizing at the Amazon warehouses. It’s extremely interesting and promising even as Amazon is retaliating. I mean, it can only retaliate so much. And it’s interesting to have this conversation now, a little over a month into the quarantine, because I did a few interviews about my book – which came out a couple weeks before this crisis happened – and I would talk about how Twitter is not necessarily representative of real life because you see people complain about Lyft drivers, but you don’t see Lyft drivers complain about their passengers. The workers are not visible on platforms the way that clients are. There’s a real upper-middle-class representation and over-representation because of its media focus. To see Instacart workers striking and doing interviews excites me a lot. It’s something that worried me about online conversation, and it’s beginning to change just in a couple weeks.

Yeah, I think one of the most obvious outcomes of the whole pandemic crisis is the way a lot of neglected, low-wage workers have been revealed as completely essential to the functioning of life, it’s really interesting and valuable. But it’s also kind of scary to see, if we go back to talking about cultural organizations, lots of small places that can’t really afford to shut down for however long are just going to disappear. Places that have public funding might be able to stick it out longer, but there was also an existing move towards labor organization in a lot of institutions that has been kind of smashed by this. I know that the New Museum laid off basically all their workers that had just agitated for a union. It’s a real double-edged sword in terms of making the labor visible but also making it more vulnerable. In a way, workers have more leverage and more visibility in this crisis, but if workers get laid off, are they ever getting hired back?

Thinking of these layoffs, that’s something that worries me a lot. None of these institutions have ever been super great at hiring people of color, working-class people, marginalized groups. They’ve always had difficulty becoming accessible to people outside … well, the ruling classes! These are elite institutions. For me, I optimistically hope that this will mean that existing cultural institutions will build some solidarity around their least-protected workers. What about a security guard or a receptionist? Why don’t we consider them part of the institution? That’s something that I’ve always been bewildered by. Even in the publishing conversations that I’ve seen about the likely calamitous outcome of the Coronavirus crisis, they’re not really talking about warehouse workers or delivery drivers or other parts of the supply chain. And I think that to eliminate the essential workers of our institutions also neglects that there are a lot of people who could be artists that work in warehouses, and they could be very good. And something that I’ve mentioned in conversations with people in the artworld is that we have to stop talking about essential workers versus artists.

Most artists have a second job, for sure! I also wanted to ask you – a lot of art institutions that can’t have people physically come to them are putting content online in various ways. They’re setting up virtual viewing rooms or they’re just putting video works and films and images online, and my response to this – and it’s hard to articulate exactly why – is that it feels so insufficient. What we really needed was not necessarily more content. And, at the same time, there’s not really any reason why these same institutions couldn’t have made all that content accessible before, if they really wanted to. It makes me think of what you talk about in the conclusion to your book, where you say that what the internet really needs is librarians, and I wonder if there’s a lesson there for arts professionals. That’s really the role of an art institution, in a way: to be a manager of cultural information, to make it not only available to people, but to make it comprehensible and meaningful somehow.

I hate to be so grim, but just look at the museum departments that are getting slashed. Universally, it seems like the education departments are the ones that are the first to go. Why would they be the most vulnerable? And the cynical answer is, they’re not fundraising.

Meme posted to Instagram by @newmuseumunion on April 27, 2020. Source: @freeze_magazine.

You definitely don’t see museum directors taking big salary cuts. They’re laying off the low-wage workers instead.

It’s such a frustrating situation and that’s sort of why I’m happy to be independent in this moment as opposed to working in an institution, because I feel like this has got to be really intense right now. The qualities that you exist for, which are nurturing this work and bringing it to the world, when those qualities are diminished, you kind of cease to have a purpose anymore. The reason I’m speaking very gingerly is that I feel like I’m a little bit outside my expertise; these are my knee-jerk thoughts, and I don’t want to be too cynical. Just knowing that the past, say, five years, we’ve seen this movement towards being more inclusive – even though there are times that it’s been very superficial – I do worry that a lot of the younger staff, who were way more diverse than generations before, it’s the younger staff who are getting laid off. But I do think that moment of seeing – once you see how bigoted or exclusionary an institution has been, once that snaps into place – you don’t forget that. I would see a similar moment taking place in terms of the class conversation that’s coming through with the Coronavirus media. It’s undeniable that Covid-19 is affecting poorer communities, and Black communities, more than others. I am not so cynical as to think that people will just forget what’s happening.

Well, maybe more to your own experience, then, as an independent writer, how are you looking at moving forward in a period when we’re looking at advertising revenues collapse, publications closing down – it’s a scary time for everyone.

It is kind of scary. I have a draft of another book, but it’s so messy. When the quarantine first started, I was thinking, “Oh, I’ll just do revisions, it’ll be easy,” but getting into the headspace, that kind of deep concentration on my writing, has been very difficult. I’m someone who has to have a fun time when I’m writing or I can’t write, or if I do write, I’m just not writing very well., 1999.


As a last question, then, I wanted to ask you, as somebody who’s written about early internet culture, and observed internet art through a variety of phases, what do you think is one thing that the internet culture of an earlier era – or internet art of whatever era – can teach us about how to be online together?

If I can just pivot away from the direct question and just mention a work that your question reminds me of, Universal Sleep Station by Ana Voog. Voog was somebody who was very early on absorbed by the artworld but she was a cam girl in the ‘90s and her work has a very vivid, colorful, animated, very bric-a-brac kind of style, and it just feels like a good music video from the ‘90s aesthetic. One of the things that she did with her viewers was something called the Universal Sleep Station, where they would all go to sleep at the same time on camera. There’s something so lovely about it, sharing the space across these people who had possibly never met each other, this very intimate moment. I think something people are talking a lot about now with Zoom and TikTok is, all of a sudden, you have a view of someone’s home, and a view of someone’s life – maybe with Instagram and other things we’ve let people into our homes, but with Zoom and TikTok, it’s really a window into someone’s house. But with Universal Sleep Station, that felt like one of the first moments of welcoming someone virtually into your life. To me, that’s like the internet at its best, and I would like to see work that, without being too optimistic about what the internet could do, is more about the actual act of connection.

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