Columbia Journalism Review

The Lurker

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

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