The Lurker

How Joanne McNeil copes with the inundation of news online

Daniel Zender

On Super Tuesday, when a slate of Democratic candidates were vying for their party’s presidential nomination, Joanne McNeil was in the apartment she sublets in West Harlem, on the fifth floor of a prewar walk-up. The place was in the middle of a renovation; the living room had been emptied of furniture, and the floors, still unfinished, were covered in a thin layer of dust. Slabs of wood lay idle against the walls and tucked into corners. But the kitchen was untouched, so she settled in there. The cabinets were seafoam green; leafy plants, hanging in pots by a window, clamored for sun. McNeil began her day by preparing a bowl of hot oatmeal, sitting down at her table, opening her laptop, and turning on The Daily, the podcast hosted by Michael Barbaro, of the New York Times.

That day’s episode was, of course, about the presidential election. Barbaro interviewed Brian Keane, a fifty-two-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. Focused on the mind of a suburban voter, the episode began with a producer researching the cost of houses in Keane’s neighborhood. The first home was a colonial with four bedrooms and three bathrooms, priced at $1.3 million. “I think it’s safe to say well off,” Barbaro said. “An affluent suburban community.” McNeil looked up from her laptop and scoffed.

“Really? You picked a white man in Northern Virginia?” she said. She rolled her eyes. “There’s still such an accommodation to New York Times readers who are very wealthy.”

For those of us who are people of the internet, the natural impulse might have then been to tweet—to take this tiny outrage and air it in the digital public square. Social media has made press critics of us all. But McNeil was on her laptop. And she doesn’t use Twitter when she’s on her laptop. Ever.

McNeil, who turns forty this month, is tall, with a long chin and straight brown hair. She wore a gray sweater with rainbow stripes and black jeans. She had a contemplative look. It’s not that she has a desire to be disengaged from the world and its problems. But she does want to remain disengaged from the frenzy surrounding the news—the chatter; the impulsive, unhelpful reactions. She controls her access to news and information by lurking, as she calls it, which is also the title of her debut book, published in February. Lurking is a history of the internet and how it turned people into “users.”

Lurking, as McNeil practices it, follows a defined set of rules. First: confine Twitter access to your cellphone. She buries the app in a folder to allow for distance, to force herself to notice when she’s opening it. Twitter doesn’t deserve that much prominence, she says.

Second: When on Twitter, don’t mindlessly scroll through your never-ending timeline, clicking on and replying to everything that piques the slightest interest. Be selective about whose tweets you read. Directly visit the profiles of individuals you trust—you don’t even need a Twitter account to do this on public pages. “I don’t mean lurking as an act of reconnaissance, eavesdropping, or something sneaky,” she writes in the introduction to her book. “Lurking can be a waiting room before communication, in brief delay like the brutal clang of an old dial-up modem sound, a moment to pause and prepare oneself for an exchange with others, to get one’s feet wet before plunging into the network and its encasement and amplification of identity.”

Third: compartmentalize everything. Instead of subjecting herself to the tyranny of a timeline full of links and anxieties from the thousand-plus accounts she follows on Twitter, McNeil has curated a series of private lists from a selection of accounts—some she follows, some she technically does not. It’s through these lists that she receives a filtered version of the Twitterverse, less boundless echo chamber than local library. She has a list for technology, one for politics, and one for the book world. She has a list called the “catbox” that includes people whose opinions she holds in contempt. (“It’s like the garbage,” she told me.) There’s also a list of accounts she isn’t sure belong to real people. By making these lists, she finds she’s able to sort out the substance from the vapidity and to contextualize breaking news with informed opinions. “Twitter lists are one of the best functionalities,” she said. “It’s funny, because I’m legit lurking on them—that is my most regular lurking experience. I don’t follow all of them. They have no idea.”

McNeil has other ways of organizing her internet intake, too. On her laptop, she uses Chrome tabs to check her email and visit the homepages of news sites like the Times. Links to stories she finds on Twitter also get opened in tabs. Newsletters don’t; she reads most of those using an app called Stoop, which routes newsletters onto its platform so that they skip your email inbox. “I feel more in control,” McNeil said. For entertainment—Hulu, Netflix, and a recent notable addition, cable news—she uses Safari. She listens to podcasts using the Overcast app. On Point, a collaboration between Boston’s WBUR and NPR, is her favorite. “I try to make sure that the things I look at on the Web are extremely engaging,” she said. “It’s a struggle to make sure I’m focused.”

And then there is a fourth rule, which helps her observe all the others: going offline, even briefly, is the key to her philosophy. At times, McNeil takes breaks from Twitter, deleting the app for a weekend when she feels it’s interfering with her life. There’s just too much to process, and she’s experienced this since at least the dawn of cable news, as she’s found the cycle of political coverage, in particular, to be loud, incessant, and prolonged. On phones, breaking-news alerts light up our screens in unison, a silent symphony of panic and alarm; we’re compelled to aggressively refresh our Twitter timelines. Readers can’t look away, even when doing so is the only thing that will make us feel sane. The internet, McNeil believes, has flattened everything, at once offering new levels of accessibility and muddling the complicated realities of the physical world. The way platforms like Twitter are designed, she worries, they’re bound to make us lose sight of ourselves, as we scroll endlessly through the intangible. Recently, she’s become one of a growing number of thinkers who are suggesting ways, and granting permission, to responsibly step back. If that sounds apathetic, you’re wrong. I spent a day with McNeil, reading virtually no news. And yet the news was all we talked about.

Readers can’t look away, even when doing so is the only thing that will make us feel sane.

 

A few blocks away from McNeil’s apartment, at a little café called Double Dutch Espresso, she ordered a hot coffee, black, and sat at a tiny table near the back. She pulled out her iPhone and, for the first time that day, opened the Twitter app. It was after 11am. “This feels like a quiet news day because people don’t want to push out stories they’ve been working on for three months on a day when everyone’s attention is elsewhere,” she said. She opened her laptop, a silver MacBook Air. The desktop was arranged neatly, its little blue folders all in a row. She saw me notice this, but didn’t want me to get the wrong impression. “I’m a person who pushes everything under the bed, so it’s still a mess,” she said.

McNeil was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, a small city outside of Boston. As a preteen, she walked from driveway to driveway, delivering copies of The Enterprise, Brockton’s daily newspaper, for a few dollars per week. (In bad weather, her mom drove her, idling at the curb while she tossed the paper onto each doorstep.) In the afternoon, she often made trips to the local Barnes & Noble, where she’d pick up the latest Spin and Seventeen magazines. In the evening, she’d settle in with her own copy of the newspaper, flipping through the news and arts sections.

In the mid-nineties, when McNeil was about fourteen, her father brought home the family’s first computer. It was boxy. She’d heard of AOL, but unlimited browsing was a luxury of the future. The McNeil family paid for dial-up hours monthly, and overages cost extra. “I sometimes would get in trouble because the bills would come in and my dad would be like, ‘Joanne, what are you doing on the computer?’ One time it was one hundred dollars and my dad was so mad.” In those days, the internet was made up primarily of static portals, message boards, and chat rooms designed, at AOL’s behest, by media outlets. “I would wander around channels for politics,” she said, “but it was all adults.”

In 1998, McNeil graduated from high school and headed to George Mason University, in Northern Virginia, where she majored in economics. The internet had by then become more sophisticated; her class was the first at the school to have dorms outfitted with Ethernet. McNeil could now access the Web as much as she wanted: for email, academic research, and Napster. “Finding music was the carrot,” she said. “It was interesting to discover things this way. I was like, ‘Oh, I get it now. Someone has these files saved to their computer, and this computer is talking to this computer, and all these people are on campus.’ ”

After college, McNeil worked a series of secretarial temp jobs, struggling to find her footing in a profession. She began writing fiction and, in 2008, started a blog called The Tomorrow Museum, where she mused on how technology was influencing the arts. She spent a lot of her spare time on Twitter, which soon became her primary social outlet; most of her friends, McNeil told me, are people she met online. When she felt ready, she would go to “Tweetups,” where relationships formed on the internet were established in real life. Her experience differed from the descriptions of social media she read about in magazines. “Literary outlets would be critical of the idea of the internet in the first place,” she recalled. “You’d see stories in The Atlantic about ‘Is the internet making us lonely?’ or ‘Why is everyone on Twitter talking about what they had for breakfast?’ If it was a cultural story, it was always complaining.” She began to consider herself a tech person as well as a writer.

McNeil now contributes a column to Filmmaker magazine and dabbles in sci-fi. (A recent short story, “After the Eclipse on Paragon Hill,” is about the mass recall of “foreign memories” among a group of coworkers after an eclipse interferes with implants that control their minds.) She’s also a teacher. At the School for Poetic Computation, a hybrid school and artist residency, she has a writing class for students who are mostly tech workers. Soon, they’ll publish a tech criticism zine called First Pancake.

At the café, in a few keystrokes, McNeil logged in to Pinboard, a site that calls itself “social bookmarking for introverts.” Pinboard’s homepage looks like something straight out of the nineties: pared down, mostly white space with small black type. Here, McNeil stores links to news stories that she wants to remember later, along with reviews of her book and research materials for future projects. Pinboard also lets her browse what other people have deemed worthy of saving. There were, of course, countless stories about the day’s primaries. But McNeil wasn’t interested in reading them—not yet, at least.

She continued scrolling, pausing at a Forbes link, her cursor hovering. She sipped from her coffee. She clicked, and the URL took her to a story about self-driving cars, which may be the focus of her next book. She skimmed it, highlighting a portion of text, which she saved to her Pinboard account. Then she opened a new tab and typed in the URL for Archive Today, a service that preserves webpages. “It’s a blog,” she explained, “and sometimes they get taken down.” Archiving is important to a lurker; you may need to set an article aside for a day, or a week; only then will you know how valuable it really is, in the long term.

McNeil got up to go to the bathroom. Alone for a moment, I pulled my phone out to sneak a look. The screen was littered with news alerts. Anxiety pulled at my chest.

Make space not just for the headlines as they appear on our screens, but for what underlies breaking news.

Very Online: Joanne McNeil, like all of us, sometimes needs to log off. Nicole Antebi (2017)

For as long as human beings have shared information, we have been stressed by it. Our modern sense of overwhelm—alternately blamed on current events, the amorphous “media” that reports on them, and the technology that delivers the news—comes with immense precedent. Serial news reports, as we now think of them, began to circulate in Western Europe in the seventeenth century. Information once reserved for elites—kings, warriors, priests—became more widely available, from more sources, than ever before; news arrived as often as every day. Readers had to start adapting to the heightened pace of the news and learn how to assess it for credibility and bias.

The first local news infrastructures in North America emerged mainly in the form of hyperpartisan newspapers and pamphlets passed around among colonists. The articles brimmed with conspiracy. Even as news circulated within the continent, it still took at least a month for information to sail across the Atlantic, which left European settlers in America feeling nervously out of the loop about the goings-on back home. “I think it had to do with the nature of communications, where you have long silences and then you have these information dumps, when all of a sudden you get six weeks of newspapers and magazines all at once,” Helena Yoo Roth, a historian working on a doctorate in revolutionary America at the City University of New York, told me.

By the 1760s, however, more outlets were entering circulation, delivering serial publications across the British Empire. It began to feel as though “the ocean had disappeared,” Roth said, which shifted people’s anxiety in a new direction. “There was a constant overwhelming of sheer volume, what to them seemed like an insane volume of information, without the ability to differentiate for quality or authenticity.” The result was political upheaval. “It turned out learning more about each other might not have been necessarily a good thing, in the sense that, in shared ignorance, both sides of the Atlantic could continue on imagining and assuming things that weren’t true about the other that made the empire work.” Awareness turned adversarial. So on came the American Revolution, with a frenzy of news and misinformation darting across the ocean.

In the mid-1800s, Samuel Morse’s telegraph introduced instant communication, what we might call the early spine of breaking news. Journalism was again transformed. Information seemed to be coming at us at greater and greater speed, from more directions, disrupting our flow of thought. In 1903, Georg Simmel, a German sociologist, observed as much in an influential essay called “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” writing that “stimulations, interests, and the taking up of time and attention, present themselves from all sides.” The cycle of technological evolution paired with heightened anxiety continued for generations. In 1964, Bertram Gross, an American social scientist, coined the term “information overload” in The Managing of Organizations, a book on administration theory. Alvin Toffler, a social scientist and magazine writer, popularized the concept in his 1970 book Future Shock, applying it to the way human beings struggle to understand things when we’re inundated by an overwhelming amount of data. In an era of personal computing, Toffler warned, that could lead to our ruin.

“People have complained about information overload in different ways back through history,” James Gleick—the author of The Information (2011), which traces the development of communication from African talking drums to Wikipedia—told me recently. “We think information is what makes the world run,” he said. “On the other hand, we’re terrified by it, because we’re aware of information overload and all the concomitant sicknesses that go with it. How can it be that something that we need so much of can give us the sensation of drowning?”

The more information we come across, Gleick continued, the more we seek ways to categorize it, as McNeil does with her Twitter lists. “A kind of anxiety comes with that,” he said. “You immediately want to know: What am I missing? How can I organize all the information I’m getting?” He drew a comparison between the abundance of news and a field of flowers. “When, suddenly, books or scientific journals bring you knowledge and drawings of other types of flowers you have never seen before, you have new issues,” he said. “You have to figure out how to name, classify them. Now new types of science books are designed to create taxonomies of flora. This is all aimed at providing organization for information that didn’t used to need it, because there wasn’t that much of it. Which is, of course, exactly what Google was when it arrived.”

If Google’s aim was to provide a taxonomy of news blossoms, it hasn’t quite succeeded. The internet is a vast field full of nasty weeds; it requires pruning. McNeil draws a comparison that is characteristically literary. “There is a trope in science fiction stories that telepathy burdens people with too much knowledge,” she writes in her book. “If you could read people’s minds, it would be unpleasant to have all that noise in your head.”

 

As advances in technology have transformed how we receive information, people have tried in different ways to manage their exposure. Some have attempted to shut themselves off from the news entirely. When Henry David Thoreau camped out at Walden “to live deliberately,” he argued against reading newspapers. “I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper,” he wrote. “If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter—we never need read of another.” International news can also be dismissed, Thoreau went on, since “nothing new does ever happen in foreign parts.”

Since then, many others have withdrawn from society (with more commitment than Thoreau), flocking to communes and farms and monasteries, away from the world and all its bad news, in an attempt to create utopias or, at least, something less chaotic than reality. The internet, too, was once believed to be such a place; it was “never peaceful, never fair, never good, but early on it was benign, and use of it was more imaginative, less common, and less obligatory,” McNeil writes. As the internet grew, however, a few started to notice its dark potential. And by the 2010s, people increasingly began looking for ways to unplug from the Web, seeking some peace.

In 2016, Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York magazine of the myriad ways smartphones and frenetic blogging culture had both given him a career and broken his spirit. Over time, the boundary between the real and virtual worlds has disappeared, he argued, and there’s no simple means of escape from online oblivion: “When provided a constant source of information and news and gossip about each other—routed through our social networks—we are close to helpless.” He decided to stay off the internet, learn how to meditate, and, after months of preparation, attend a retreat where phones weren’t allowed. “Soon enough,” he wrote, “the world of ‘the news,’ and the raging primary campaign, disappeared from my consciousness.” In 2018, Farhad Manjoo, an opinion columnist for the Times, set out to restrict his news intake to a small number of print outlets. He also vowed to unplug from Twitter and turn off his phone’s news notifications. He wound up with some blind spots (and didn’t totally live up to his goal), but he managed to read a half dozen books and see headlines in print that had been buried on Twitter. “Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more widely informed,” Manjoo wrote in an essay detailing the experience.

There is no consensus on whether relieving ourselves from the toxicity of social media requires us to stop using it. Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and the author of Digital Minimalism (2019), argues that a full and permanent abandonment of our phones and social media apps probably isn’t necessary. Still, it’s important to be aware of our compulsions. When Newport solicited volunteers to quit most of their apps, as an experiment, one woman reported that, in the first week, she began picking up her phone repeatedly to check the weather.

Of course, not all news alerts are received by everyone the same way. For some, scrolling is not merely a bad habit; it can be an exercise in trauma. Black people know this all too well: the weight of years’ worth of news reports and videos depicting the extrajudicial murders of people with dark skin cannot simply be shaken away by logging off. Nobody gets a break from being Black. On the flip side, marginalized communities can particularly benefit from social media—by sharing news on their own terms and finding comfort in common responses.

Another recent book, How to Do Nothing (2019), is part manifesto, part instruction manual. Written by Jenny Odell, an artist and instructor at Stanford University, it acknowledges that attempting to escape from media-induced madness is complicated. “All too often, things like digital detox retreats are marketed as a kind of ‘life hack’ for increasing productivity upon our return to work,” Odell writes. “And the impulse to say goodbye to it all, permanently, doesn’t just neglect our responsibility to the world that we live in; it is largely unfeasible.” Odell felt a need for change in her digital-media habits after the 2016 election cycle. “I was seeing that the means by which we give over our hours and days are the same with which we assault ourselves with information and misinformation, at a frankly inhumane rate,” she writes. “Obviously the solution is not to stop reading the news, or even what other people have to say about the news, but we could use a moment to examine the relationship between attention span and the speed of information exchange.” The aim, in her view, should be to make space not just for headlines as they appear on our screens but for what underlies breaking news: racial, economic, and environmental injustice; the human condition.

Jaron Lanier, who helped create virtual reality and later became one of the Web’s most compelling critics, warns that the biggest concern is not information overload, but how bad actors use information platforms. “The problem is the calculation of media, whether it’s news or not, to manipulate people in a way that makes them cranky and scared and irritable and angry,” he told me recently. “Never, never rely on Google or Facebook for your news, because the algorithm that feeds you things is inevitably influenced by paid advertisers who are only paying out of the belief that it will influence you,” he said. “And then there are the interlopers, like armies of fake users and bots that are trying to sway the algorithms.”

In Lurking, McNeil charts how the internet changed as it grew: in 1994, there were just 2,738 websites; by 1998, when Google launched, there were well over 2 million. At that point, she writes, the internet stopped being a place and became “a someone.” That was reflected in the media, too, which reported not just on what informed people said in interviews, but also on the collective voices of the internet “as if they were the opinions of an individual person.”

McNeil likens the shift in our experience of the Web to that of a crowded elevator. “People blamed one another for their discomfort, instead of the elevator itself or proprietors who insisted it was safe,” she writes. Technology journalists tended to frame their stories in these terms, asking whether the internet was good or bad, smart or dumb, rather than focusing attention on its powerful architects. “According to the broader media narratives, it was up to us, the users, to shape our own experiences online, even when the choice to opt out became itself a fantasy.” (And even when reporters covered the phenomenon of news fatigue, they still continued to publish, serving up more fodder for the algorithms.)

It’s easy to understand how McNeil might miss the chat rooms of her youth, intimate and strange. It isn’t nostalgia, exactly—the internet, as she says, was never pristine—but a desire for something earnest that’s beyond the grip of tech companies. “What I am actually experiencing is a longing for an internet that is better, for internet communities that haven’t come into being yet—certainly not on a mass scale,” she writes. She likes Wikipedia, but even that has its flaws—for one, it presents itself as neutral, but it’s not; for another, there are so many would-be entries that are overlooked, and important lines stricken from the record. She finds it hard to imagine collective input working the same way for journalism. What digital media needs, McNeil argues, is the “labor of mediation.” Which is to say: judgment, accountability, editing.

 

In the weeks after Super Tuesday, McNeil’s world had changed radically. A new virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2, had ravaged China, then spread across Asia and Europe; now it had arrived in the United States. What had been a remote problem of faraway people was suddenly an American crisis, as hundreds began to die from covid-19. That number would quickly reach the tens of thousands. Mayors and governors sent out alerts to their constituents with response plans that became more drastic by the minute. In New York, McNeil read that she should avoid the subway, then groups; soon, she was advised to stay home indefinitely. Hospitals were overrun, jobs lost. For weeks, journalists had bombarded the public with information about the Democratic primary. But now the winner of Super Tuesday—Joe Biden—felt beside the point. Overnight, the coronavirus had commanded the attention of people who could hardly believe they had any left.

I called McNeil. Originally, I’d thought we’d talk about the election results and what she’d read about them. I had wondered how Biden’s win was playing among the inhabitants of McNeil’s curated Twitter lists. I was curious about what political knowledge lurking had delivered since we last spoke. But almost as soon as we started talking, it became clear that the ticktock of the election was far from our minds. And, in a break from habit, McNeil was not relying on Twitter and podcasts for news. “The place I’ve been getting the most updates from is a friend of mine who is a nurse,” she said. “She added me to this group DM where we’re constantly sharing stories and updates. I’d say the group is one-quarter healthcare professionals and everyone has some sort of background in left politics. Having that has been amazing. I check it all day long.”

The group chat, which comprised about fifty people, included links to news stories and dispatches from the hospitals and clinics where its members worked. When McNeil had medical questions after reading an article that confused her, she posed them to the group; since it was a closed conversation, everyone felt free to speak and to admit uncertainty. “It’s kind of how message boards would have been in the nineties and early aughts,” she told me. “People on message boards would trade links, and with no sense of ‘I’m going to go viral.’ It was, ‘Here is my community, and I’m going to share information with you.’ The good things about the internet are coming through these group chats.”

By forcing people inside and requiring that we pay close attention to the news for essential, constantly updating information, the coronavirus had locked us all in an impossible negotiation, as we tried to care for our bodies and our minds. “When your life is likely to change dramatically based on the news tonight or tomorrow, it’s hard to not be glued to the news,” McNeil told me. Her solution—to seek answers from people, not timelines—sounded like an appealing means of escape. And it reminded me of something that Jaron Lanier had said when we spoke: social media as we know it can’t be trusted, since those algorithms are designed to make us nuts. The only way to get reliable information online, he’d told me, is directly from legitimate, human news sources.

I asked McNeil if she now preferred private messaging to lurking on the public Web. Would the shift in her news consumption survive into whatever new normal we were stumbling toward? “I think these kinds of community networks that have come together are becoming very habitual to me,” she replied. “I don’t check the main feed on Twitter, I check group DMs, and that’s more important to me than whatever is happening on my feed.” She was continuing to evaluate her relationship with the internet, that someone to whom she was so attached. “When something dramatically changes like this,” she said, “when everyone has to adapt all of a sudden, it makes you wonder what else can happen and have you living a different life than you did just the other day.”

Within weeks, she found out, when America was shaken by the murders of three Black people. Ahmaud Arbery, a twenty-five-year-old, was killed by white predators while out for a run near Brunswick, Georgia; in May, a video depicting his death went viral. Breonna Taylor, a twenty-six-year-old emergency medical technician, was shot eight times by police who forcibly entered her home one night while she was asleep in her bed. Then Derek Chauvin, a white cop employed by the Minneapolis Police Department, pressed his knee into the neck of a forty-six-year-old named George Floyd for about eight minutes while three officers stood watch. Black people responded by flooding the streets of Minneapolis in protest. Soon, cities all over were in a full-blown uprising against anti-Black police brutality. Press coverage of the coronavirus, which disproportionately affected the same people targeted by violent cops, all but disappeared from newspapers and cable news stations, seemingly overnight.

“Of course, I cannot put my phone down,” McNeil told me in mid-June. When we’d first met, she’d been reading news around the election as a “horse race media frenzy, which is a lot of invention of news, blowing gas,” she said. Since then, her perspective had changed—everything had become a matter of life and death. Political ideas that had previously been considered niche were, she saw, now receiving serious consideration in the mainstream press and on social media. McNeil found herself gravitating toward “systems thinkers”—writers able to make connections between breaking news and broader conditions of life. Reading their work filled her with a sense of optimism. One of these people was Mariame Kaba, who wrote for the Times about abolishing police departments and who tweets from the account @prisonculture. Yes, this meant that McNeil was now logged in to Twitter again. But it was on her own terms.

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at the Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.