Toward disengagement.

From person to user and back again.

by Bix Frankonis

Early in 2020, I’d found it interesting that I’d had to pause my reading of Richard Sennett’s Building and Dwelling: Ethics in the City in order to read Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How a Person Became a User when it became available, in that a significant part of why I’d wanted to read the former was my casual interest in ways to apply urban planning lessons, or at least language, to online communications and communities.

McNeil’s book was a useful history reminder-lesson for me. I don’t know how old she is in offline years but in internet-self time she’s been online since right around the same time as me (I logged in for the first time in the fall of 1993). Lurking, then, in many ways told the story of the very internet that developed while my own online self did.

(In general arc if not always specific sites and services, Lurking is the story of my internet, too. For her, it was AOL and Geocities; for me: gopherspace, MindVox, IRC, and Usenet.)

Mostly I was struck by McNeil’s recounting of what for lack of a better phrase I’ll call the social networking era, as opposed to the social media one which grew out of it. Once upon a time, we had user profiles with all manners of information about us, as provided by us (or as permitted by us, in the case of things such as testimonials from others or posts to our “wall”). To actually find each other, and connect with each others, we had to instant message, group chat, or visit a forum.

Messages sent user to user and public testimonials were how people communicated, but the promise of the social network was realized in the observable and intuited. There were no alerts when changes were made; a person had to look over the same profiles again and again to see their latest updates.

(Emphasis mine.)

It was an internet of place. Once services like Friendster or MySpace gave way to services like Twitter and Instagram which rely predominantly upon the notion of the Feed, place went away in favor of a more amorphous and identity-flattening space. Profiles as they once existed truly defined and denoted our personhood, or at least our personahood, and chat rooms and bulletin boards felt like places to visit. The Feed, though, did away with all (or at least most) of that.

Add in the rise of the smartphone which was far better suited to quick-hit, bite-sized, on-the-go consumption, and out go the blogs and discussion forums and real-time chats which were so intimately tied to larger, more fixed-in-place devices.

The internet had a station before, like a shoebox full of recipes on a countertop, like the kitchen itself. As smartphones blurred organizational boundaries of online and offline worlds, spatial metaphors lost favor. How could we talk about the internet as a place when we’re checking it on the go, with mobile hardware offering turn-by-turn directions from a car cupholder or stuffed in a jacket pocket?

This transition from place to space also fundamentally transformed the nature of the activity for which McNeil titled her book.

Once upon a time, lurking frequently was how you learned the shape of an online place, how you learned its rules and came to understand the dynamic of its residents. There might have been common points of (n)etiquette but each place also had its own flavors and its own boundaries. In the borderless expanses of “platforms” such as Twitter, there’s no there there, and so no real opportunity to lurk around its edges to observe and learn its ways.

A testimonial was always a one-off, and there was no space for someone to respond to another person’s testimonial. And if it was no good, the recipient would delete it (mortifying). Unlike email (private) or forums (within a community), the testimonial widened online communication within set parameters: user to user in public, or user to an audience (friends and onlookers). A testimonial was written with the expectation that lurkers would see it.

I’ve sometimes expressed the changes in our internet experience as a move from interaction to indication, from expression to excitation. “Social media on mobile,” writes McNeil, “had a different tempo and friction as users documented in the moment, rather than retrospectively.” Mostly, how we began to behave on mobile became how we behaved on other devices, as well, because it’s how the new crop of sites to which we all gravitated were designed to be used.

McNeil herself thinks that lurking remains, just in a somewhat redefined and restrictive sense.

Friendster users found themselves liberally adopting the word “friend” to describe various relationships. Instagram and Twitter used language that accounted for the potential of a mass of strangers watching another user’s activity. Instead of friends, users “followed” users and were “followers.” Lurkers weren’t just a possibility now, but an expectation.

As suggested above, I’m not sure I agree with this. What’s been forced upon us, I think, is the inaction of consumption as opposed to the participation (passive though it might have been) that was lurking.

“Earlier social networks and social digital environments,” writes McNeil, “benefited from smaller, segmented communities: no obligation to participate, IRL intervals between logged-in sessions, and more flexible online identities.” It was those smaller, segmented communities that drove both the sense of place and the action of lurking. What we have now is a cognitive state more akin to a coiled spring, where we consume “content” with the expectation of engagement rather than of participation.

McNeil properly defends her use of “lurking” only as a positive thing: “Lurking is listening and witnessing on the internet, rather than opining and capturing the attention of others.” More than anything else, that does capture what we’ve lost as the frictionless, placeless spaces of social media have taken over.

Richard Sennett, in Building and Dwelling, connects the question of place versus space to the matter of speed.

At a walking pace, the spotlit objects are ‘round’, in the sense that we can dwell on them, studying their contours and context, whereas at a speeding pace the single spotlit object appears neurologically as ‘flat’ — a fleeting image with no depth or context. In this sense, walking slowly produces a deeper lateral consciousness than moving fast. Lateral accounting is one of the criteria for distinguishing place — a site in which you dwell — from space — a site you move through. It establishes the basic cognitive claim for privileging cyclists over motorists — the cyclist knows more, neurologically, about the city than the motorist.

This, too, describes what happened to the internet in its “progression” from boards and rooms and walls, to social networking, to social media. We no longer dwell online; rather, we move through it.

McNeil and I both started off in the internet of places, and witnessed a sort of gamification of what it meant to be online. There are plenty of remaining spaces but few to consider “ours”, or, really, anyone’s. Most of these internet spaces are like McNeil specifically describes Facebook: “an infinite ant farm”.

It’s not that place no longer is possible on the internet, but that as commerce took over, everything else online became just as transactional. Which is not to say that commerce never should have come to the internet; it just should not have imposed its ethic and its view of human behavior upon everything else that was here.

It’s not that boards and forums and chats no longer exist, and there’s nothing stopping us from maintaining profile websites of our own, divorced from any particular platform’s designs upon us.

It’s just that the dominant ethos of the internet right now is one that maneuvers us into being users rather than people. One of the ways we get back to being people is to learn (or perhaps relearn) how it used to be — by reading accounts such as Joanne McNeil’s of our one-time lurking life.

Currently, then, can be thought of as the “where” upon which I’ve landed as these sorts of ideas have played around with each other in the back of my mind since well before I’d read Lurking; the book helped both catalyze and crystalize that thinking.

To be clear about something: I’m not, per se, “against Twitter”. My twelve years on the platform directly are responsible for whatever understanding I’ve gained about matters such as racial inequity, white privilege, and the trans experience (let alone, say, dog mushing). I’d be at a substantial loss and disadvantage in my perspectives on the world without my years on Twitter.

What I came, finally, to realize is that Twitter—and to a lesser but not insubstantial extent Instagram (I’d already quit Facebook itself years ago)—had doggedly committed to a principle for the organization of communication and connection that fundamentally is at odds with, at least, my own cognitive capacities: the Feed.

(As they say: if you’ve met an autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. In my case, it was evident that my own particular autistic feature set simply was mostly incompatible with the Feed as a day-in, day-out information structure and, in retrospect now, had been increasingly impeding my own ability to think straight and regulate my behavior, both online and off.)

Friendster and Myspace were simple, and use of either was straightforward: add people, message people, click around. There were no algorithmic filters ranking and prioritizing what content a user would most wish to see.

(Emphasis mine.)

There’s an adage that if you’re not paying for a product, you are the actual product. I see the Feed similarly in that you are the thing that’s being fed to something else. In the move from the passive participation of lurking (and all that went with it) to the comparative inaction of consumption (and all that goes with it), we become the thing that is being consumed.

In the earlier era of social networking, there was neither a way for you to “broadcast a message across contexts” (from McNeil’s discussion of hashtag activism on Twitter) nor for the site to give you what it wanted rather than what you wanted. In a sense, the social networking era as contrasted with the modern social media one was an era of greater agency on the part of the people doing the actual networking.

What I’m after, personally, is a way to keep up to date with people I care about, or am interested in, without having to subject myself to the cognitively-violent vagaries of the Feed. I want a way back to those profile pages that I feel, as I say above, “denoted our personhood, or at least our personahood”.

To have a sense of place online—and to dwell there—is not about being lured and captured into never logging off. It’s not about being always online. The subtly coercive ways in which social media (and its attendant devices) keeps us more or less constantly on the internet, by denying or at least making extraordinarily difficult our agency, bastardize the idea of place: as McNeil writes, “all worthwhile communities have this in common: participants are always free to leave”.

Gone for many of us have been McNeil’s “no obligation to participate” and “IRL intervals between logged-in sessions”. Captivity is not a state in which you dwell, but one in which you suffer. For many of us, even when we are offline, cognitively we aren’t, really. Not really.

The final sticking point for me in the decision to delete my Twitter account simply was the fact that it’s the only convenient way in which to keep up with people I know both from other times in my life (both online and off) and from Twitter itself. In the end, though, the stresses of having those connections buried in the torrent of the unending, infinite-scream-scroll of the Feed—I just couldn’t any longer justify the trade-off.

(I realized more recently, after leaving Twitter, that the reason I had never quite managed to find a Mastodon server that seemed to suit me was because Mastodon remained a Feed; in essence, with its streaming micro-posts, favorites, and boosts, it’s just a distributed Twitter with no algorithm. The point can’t possibly be just to make Better Twitter.)

Currently is not intended to replace or compete with Twitter or Instagram or Mastodon, although I sort of suspect that many people would be able to offload some of their Twitter connections to it, or at least something very like it. It’s meant as an alternative to being always part of the Feed.

Right now, Currently is vaporware (or maybe thinkware?); I am not a programmer.

What I hope for it, should Currently come to be as a kind of shared network for disengagement, is that it become a place where users can become people again; where people can feel a sense of ownership over themselves, through the generated personahood of the profile page.

What I want after more than a decade of social media spaces, and what I think other people might want, is a place to go where you can catch up, then log off.

Explore a clickable, simulated demo of Currently.

They weren’t cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see sky, and they remember what they are.

Firefly, “Safe”