I don’t know the writer of this book, but in some ways I feel that I do. Author Joanne McNeil and I discovered the internet at the same time, as we were working out our own tween identities. Both of our families got on AOL in the mid-90s. We tinkered around with chat rooms, played with websites, clicked around just to see where we could go. As we got older we meandered into the blogosphere, finding like-minded people, ever updating blogrolls. We tinkered with MySpace top eights. We became sad and concerned with the growth of “surveillance capitalism” and social media. We hate Facebook. It seemed like the nostalgic “good ol days” of internet community were long past. But were they the good ol days? For whom? (A lot of that discussion is in the book.) What specifically about it was good for us? How do we take the positive of the internet, protect it, and expand its availability? How do we minimize the negative?
McNeil, a seasoned tech thinker and writer, explores these questions and more in deeper and more eloquent ways than I ever could. For instance, here is a quick summary of the problem of social media right now: “At its worst and at its best, the internet extracts humanity from users and serves it back to other users.” She explains that online life used to be more uncommon, less obligatory, and…different. Now it’s more or less mandatory, and our participation reduces us to users, exploitable beings, commodities. Our lives are reduced to data points for sale. But we aren’t data points. We’re humans. We’re people with dignity.
That’s what McNeil is trying to figure out. She’s trying to figure out how to have the internet in a way that respects human dignity. Her best guess is that we need things to be more like libraries. People are humans and treated with dignity. Librarians help them find what they need as humans. We generally don’t have that on the internet. No one is watching out for your humanity.
What I appreciate most is that McNeil isn’t interested in throwing out the whole thing. The internet is here and it doesn’t have be bad. We can help mold and shape what our experience is online (and isn’t it all “online” in one way or another now). She highlights examples of how that’s worked, and when. I think her answer is above – it’s in mediators stepping up and helping within various contexts to balance all of the things the internet can tinker with – bringing wisdom from data, anonymity and privacy, freedom and dignity, etc. I also think there isn’t an answer so much as a series of things to consider and collaboratively manage.
If you’re curious, here are the chapters:
- End User
I recommend this one to anyone who loves the internet and/or is forced to spend time online.