Toward disengagement.

From person to user and back again.

A cropped portion of the cover to Joanne McNeil’s book, Lurking showing its subtitle, ‘How a Person Became a User’.
Cover detail from Lurking: How a Person Became a User, published by MCD.

Earlier this year, I’d found it interesting that I’d had to pause my reading of Richard Sennett’s in order to read Joanne McNeil’s 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). , 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, is the story of 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 era, as opposed to the 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.

(Emphasis mine.)

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

This transition from to 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, and so no real opportunity to lurk around its edges to observe and learn its ways.

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.

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 rather than of .

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 , connects the question of to the matter of speed.

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 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 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.

A graphic of the asocial. logo, avatar, and tagline (‘Catch up, log off; for people, not users.’).
The asocial. logo, avatar, and tagline.

asocial., 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 ; 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

(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 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.)

(Emphasis mine.)

There’s an adage that if you’re not paying for a product, are the actual product. I see the similarly in that 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.

(The irony of publishing this on Medium, with its increasing focus on “frictionless” -like reading, is not lost on me. Alas, it’s the most suitable place for pitching asocial. and its origins.)

In the earlier era of social , 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 wanted rather than what wanted. In a sense, the social networking era as contrasted with the modern social media one was an era of greater 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 . 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 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 , 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 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 —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 ; 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.)

asocial. 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 .

Right now, asocial. is vaporware (or maybe ?); as the mockup says: I am not a programmer. That’s why this Medium publication is about .

What I hope for it, should asocial. come to be as a kind of , 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…and then log off.

Lurking

The unsupported use case of an actually-autistic, mediocre midlife in St. Johns, Oregon—now with added global pandemic. http://slow.dog

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store