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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


How a Person Became a User

Joanne McNeil





Among my earliest memories is an unknown commercial, some weird, solemn vignette that I watched on TV. I was four years old when I saw it, or not much older. The name of the state where I grew up was tricky to say and it always captured my attention. “Come to Massachusetts,” said the woman in the commercial. A little girl repeated the sentence after her. “Now that spring is here,” the woman continued. “Now that spring is here,” the child echoed again. “Help us celebrate the New Year,” the child said alone, with no guidance. The words were inviting, but the voices were chilling and still. The woman and child never appeared on-screen. They were spectral voiceovers layered over footage of a gray river … I think. Who were they to each other: Teacher and student? Mother and daughter? Who were they to me? This memory has been corrupted over time and I could be misremembering any or all of it. Each time I revisit it is another laundry cycle with bleach. The other details I remember with even less confidence. Trees, I think. Swans, maybe? As I recall, there was a variegated taupe glare to the picture. It was, after all, a low-budget video production from the 1980s projected on a 1980s TV screen. I think there was a drawing of the swans—or geese—something birdlike and long-necked in a child’s scrawl with crayon. I don’t know what the commercial was selling. A credit union? A cult? In retrospect, I wonder if it was a state tourism initiative.

Come to Massachusetts … for what? I was already there. Now I remember those words and haunting voices when I drive around the state’s south shore in the spring. They have been ricocheting around in my head for more than thirty years. That little jingle-like memory comes to mind, like “Up in the air, Junior Birdman” or “Miss Mary Mack” or “Do you like butter?” at the sight of buttercups. I remember that little rhyme to myself, while I have no confidence in it. Maybe I dreamed it up. I have no evidence of it.

I spent last spring in Massachusetts and I heard the lines in my head again. I tried to get to the bottom of this memory again. I turned to Google to deliver either the memory or an origami unicorn in its place. I fed the search engine variations of the words “Come to Massachusetts,” as I have done many times before. Every year there is more of what I don’t want: more TripAdvisor posts, more Eventbrite pages, or headlines related to the 2013 marathon bombing or the failed Olympics bid. I zoomed out and searched in more general terms. “Mass tourism commercial 80s” brought me to YouTube clips with kids in polo shirts on old ships, Ted Danson leaving a bar on a soundstage, and a giant plate of lobster served to Marvin Hagler. This was someone else’s childhood memory that could be confirmed with a search string.

I want to pin the memory down like a rare moth. File it away and forget. I feel driven to categorize it and give it a name. Maybe one link, someday, will lead me to an archive with specifics about the “Come to Massachusetts” campaign, directed by such-and-such, airing on this broadcast affiliate from launch date through end date. But what use is unquestionableness for something so insignificant? I can’t go back there. It is over. It means nothing to my life today. Why does this sensation feel unnatural to me rather than an ordinary longing that humans have experienced through the ages? Most childhood memories have that lens flare of unknowing. The gossamer remoteness of an undefined memory—mine, while totally unfamiliar—exists outside the illusion of order and the vastness of information online. The internet has groomed me to expect that all of culture is indexable and classifiable. In the absence of metadata, I feel a deeper loss and disconnect.

Most other culture I remember from when I was a kid I can instantly retrieve. While my childhood was largely pre-digital, TV segments and commercials and holiday specials, just as I remembered, have been uploaded to the cloud by other internet users over the past decade. Before it became arcane history, the content would have been enclosed in a plastic black brick with a Polaroid rainbow spine and Sharpie notes on the label lined up on a shelf of equal-size black bricks in someone’s den. Now, as files, these clips swim around with the rest of the miscellany on YouTube for users to stumble on in moments of wistfulness and self-reflection. Search, as in turn to a search engine, has become part of my rote process of remembering things. I think of a search string to enter as soon as vague memories come to mind, even if I don’t care much to see. I am pinning down moths like a job. Google and YouTube—sometimes eBay, for the old toys, now collectibles—rarely fail me. I don’t need to touch what I’m thinking of, but someone else’s blurry cell phone snapshot is enough to confirm the reality of it.

Search for something (knowledge, addresses, answers, acceptance, belonging, entertainment, labor, love, whatever) drives the internet. It is why a user opens a laptop or checks a mobile screen. A search string is a key. It unlocks information. The door that opens is a rupture in time. Search is revealing. There is the utter despair, resignation, neediness, and ego that blend together when I google my name at 2:00 a.m. on a Friday night. No one might be surveilling me, per se, in one-to-one Stasi-style peephole intimacy, but I know when I do this pathetic thing. And search is affirming. What else offers such minor yet instant and reliable delight as an image search for “afghan hound swimming” or “peacock in flight” or “monica vitti as modesty blaise”? Search is endless because nothing on earth, certainly not Google, contains all the answers. And search is often Google. The company is the intermediary between my ideas and action forward, the glue between my questions and answers, a placeholder for thoughts and a way to sort my desires.

Here is an experiment: type the words “I am 60 and…” in a Google search box to see the autocomplete results comprising aggregate previous searches. “I am 60 and alone” is often the first result. “I am 60 and I need a job” is another. “I am 60 and I have no friends” follows that. Now try “I am 65.” The first suggested search might be “I am 65 how long will I live.” These are people, personal stories, individual lives. They might be reaching out to find others under similar stress and circumstance, looking for compassion—blind and anonymous—or consolation, some odd wisdom, or anything at all. I click on “I am 60 and alone.” This search string brings me to several message boards, where people offer advice and commiseration. Try this search experiment for any year. See the wishes people tossed in the well. When I search for my age, I get results on children and marriage. The autocomplete for “I am 15 and” brings up “i have never been kissed” and “i want a job.” But even “I am 70 and” delivers unexpected results like “I am 70 and a virgin.” It is common to feel stigmatized or ashamed for asking questions or wanting things, but the internet offers an illusion of the eyes and ears of no one, not even a priest behind the curtain, just you and the network. Maybe Google hasn’t got the answers, maybe it cannot parse the relevance of your request, but it does something; it has a purpose, it fields your request, it follows commands.

Strange anonymous requests didn’t start with Google or the internet. The New York Public Library has an archive of similar questions that librarians have fielded over the years. “I went to a New Year’s Eve Party and unexpectedly stayed over. I don’t really know the hosts. Ought I to send a thank-you note?” reads one of the cards, noted as a telephone call from a “somewhat uncertain female voice” on New Year’s Day 1967. “How many neurotic people in U.S.?” someone asked in 1946. These anonymous callers knew who they were calling—a librarian—but internet search alienates the questioner from an answerer. This estrangement, coupled with the ease of typing, widens the possibility of make-believe in the form of a question.

Search strings used to be phrased like ingredients:

revolution AND french OR russian NOT american

physics AND aviation NOT aerospace

You don’t need coding experience to recognize that this query language is styled like computational methods. In retrospect, Boolean search strings look like the liberal use of #hashtags #for #emotional #emphasis by today’s social media influencers. When I search for information now, I feel like I should add “please” and “thank you” to every request. There is no way around it, talking to the Google search bar like a human generates more relevant results. To home in on the information sought, a user might type “how do i download a printer driver for mac” rather than “download printer driver mac,” or “why is the capital of ohio columbus” rather than “ohio capital columbus.” Sorry to bother you, but please, Google, tell me, why is the capital of Ohio Columbus? When you’ve got a minute, let me know. Search strings that resemble sentences, with hows and whys and whos and mentions of “I” or “my,” muddle how the person typing the information isn’t representing their personal experience in each request. Someone who types “I am 70 and a virgin” hasn’t necessarily given Google an autobiography in brief. A user searching “stages of pancreatic cancer” might not mean “(I am experiencing) stages of pancreatic cancer” but rather, “(my nephew is experiencing) stages of pancreatic cancer” or “(this fictional character in my screenplay is experiencing) stages of pancreatic cancer” or “(I am researching) stages of pancreatic cancer.” This is why I can only side-eye data science researchers who wish to declare one state is more queer than another or more gullible to conspiracy theories than the other, based on unreliable data like Google Trends. Who can say for certain why other people google what they do? A search engine is no truth serum. It is distilled curiosity, which has no borders and is, by definition, undefined. Real people search, but real desire cannot be identified. Words, on a page or screen, should never be interpreted as a perfect Xerox of a person’s mind (or else this sentence might have come out as poetic and profound as I intended).

People used to talk about the internet as a place. The information superhighway. A frontier. The internet was something to get on. Even the desktop metaphor was in turn clarifying, then confusing: it helped people understand how a personal computer organizes information, while it invited a user to think of the experience as three-dimensional and spatial. Now people talk about the internet as something to talk to; it is a someone. Even casually, people discuss the internet—insentient, dumb—as living, real. A friend or a foe. Something with eyes. Perhaps you have consulted “Doctor Google” about cold symptoms. Come up with a clever pun and a friend might encourage you to “tell the internet.” Bloggers post open letters entitled “Dear internet.” Headlines like WHAT THE INTERNET THINKS OF THIS WEEK’S BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE or THE INTERNET LOVES ALPACAS discuss collective reactions on social media platforms as if they were the opinions of an individual person. Kate Bush, as ever, was there first (“I turn to my computer … like a friend”). This metaphor reveals how emotionally present and invested people feel when they use the internet. A familiar but mysterious companion, the internet is seductive, idiosyncratic, unreliable, and contradictory, while it is also at your service and by your side. But when anthropomorphized, diverse and divergent communities of users are reduced to a single identity.

The personification of the internet was always there for the taking (“Hello world”), but it took users more than a decade of search and social media to activate it. Over the years, the internet was further populated with archives, texts written by humans in blogs and video clips and essays and other media. People who talk about the internet as a person are not totally wrong. We might think of the personified “Internet” as the macrocosm of all internet users. It is the Voltron of all the family photos, diary entries, jokes, hotel reviews, support group message boards, and VHS-ripped detritus of everyone who ever lived a digital life. We are who we are looking for. A request like “I am 60 and alone…” is not to nobody, and it is not to Google, either. The results are ours, that humanity is ours. Google commodified the act of finding it inside one another.

Before Google, I searched with HotBot, and before that, I didn’t really use “search.” I clicked around. I hopped from lily pad to lily pad. The corpus was limited. A user had to dig for information rather than ask for it, politely (“please, Siri”) or not. What we call “search” these days is more of a demand than a struggle to find out what. “Give me this” rather than “where is this?” Perhaps a fruitless search, like that old commercial I’ll never confirm, is the only real search. That is why it is especially frustrating when Siri and Alexa retrieve the wrong information. Users of voice-activated services have off-loaded the final decision of any search—is this trash or treasure?—to the machine.

There were only 2,738 websites in 1994 and about ten times as many the following year. By 1996, the number of websites shot up to 257,601, and by 1997 there were more than a million. That number doubled in 1998 (the year that Google launched). Then it ballooned to seventeen million websites in 2000, which was the year of the dot-com crash. The total continued to climb as broadband expanded through the following decade. I got these numbers from the Internet Live Stats project, which charts this growth in comparison to internet users. In 1995, there were 9,297 users for every website. That number plummeted dramatically and then gradually. In 2001, there were seventeen users for every website, and by 2010 there were ten. Now it hovers around three people per page. It is all lily pads now. I wonder who is paying all the hosting fees. Limited content made for common reading, which is why many of the people who were online in 1995 remember the same websites, like Salon and Suck magazines. A textbook publisher put out a yearly directory called the The Internet Yellow Pages, a bright door-stopper of a volume like the phone books for commercial numbers. Users consulted paper to find something on a screen. Most of the first websites I visited, I found out about in alt-weeklies and magazines. The internet was a place back then, not yet a person, so those guides were like AAA TripTiks.

Google created demand for internet search as we now experience it. There were plenty of search engines in 1998—Excite, Lycos, AltaVista, WebCrawler, Yahoo, HotBot, Infoseek, Inktomi, Snap, Direct Hit, Magellan, Ask Jeeves—and none had an obvious revenue stream. The major players, like Lycos and Yahoo, sorted topics in directories with trees of categories (art, sports, news, local), which was helpful for users who logged on and found themselves unsure what to click next. These companies aimed to be “portals,” in the hope that users would save their URLs as browser home pages, with sidebars including headlines, weather, email, and other features. The portal strategy was to keep users engaged on one company’s website: an attempt to convince users that this lily pad was the circumference of the pond. But Google always sent users back swimming. It was not a portal, but a teleportal, a moving walkway to the rest of the internet. Earlier search engines were a perpetual game: What’s behind door number two? Results were often irrelevant, increasingly varied as the total number of websites grew. A search for “Museum of Modern Art,” executed through HotBot or Excite, might have recommended content like fan pages for the museum created on GeoCities or a picture of a T-shirt with the MoMA logo. But Google used metadata like the text descriptions in a link to organize search results. MoMA’s own home page would be ranked highest in search results because there were so many links to that website that included words like “MoMA” or “Museum of Modern Art.” The link would also get a boost if a user searched for “art” or “museum,” too. The local knowledge of internet users was Google’s winning formula. While other search engines crawled through data as data, Google capitalized on the labor of internet users and the small decisions each made while editing their own pages. Users made Google a more intuitive product. Users made Google.

* * *

The London Science Museum has a digital art installation called Listening Post. Bits of text appear in flashing little lights on two hundred smartphone-size screens, while automated voices pipe out from the speakers, amid other evocative sounds. Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s 2001 installation is a symphony of an anonymous collective body. The found poetry was scraped from the internet. The snippets of text, mysterious and ruminative in brevity, were compiled from newsgroups, chat rooms, and other internet communications. The fleeting words are presented out of context. The effect is hypnotic. The piece conveys the vastness of the internet, the vastness of experience and emotion shared, and how, in turns ghostly and this-worldly, it is to communicate through it. I thought of Listening Post when I saw a video taken by someone walking into the lobby of Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. There, back in 2006—Google has since taken it down—a screen would broadcast live search results. It conveyed search strings live as these words were typed around the world, including the profane, the mundane, the esoteric, and the familiar; there was no deliberate presentation to it. Listening Post brought out the life and lively wonder of the internet, but the search screen at Mountain View was more like a moose head mounted above a fireplace. Your curiosity is Google’s query, and they have plenty of queries; you aren’t special. The finite nature of the knowledge you seek is set in contrast with the abundance of desires that route through their servers every second of every day. Wishes, dreams, fears, wonderings—the glimmer of ordinary life—are specks in the sandbox that is its search box. The sand turned to gold because they collected enough.

“Google has single-handedly cut into my ability to bullshit,” Owen Wilson’s character complains in the 2013 fish-out-of-water comedy The Internship, in which he and Vince Vaughn maunder into “Noogler”—new Google hire—positions. The overarching punch line of the film is how Silicon Valley redefined what counts as an alpha guy. Wilson and Vaughn might be the prom kings of the Hollywood Hills, but the sky is the limit to Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s privilege. Historians of technology love tales of lone geniuses saving the world, and a lasting collaboration such as Page and Brin’s is unusual, while at the same time it explains Google’s scope. If Sergey Brin is the colored letters in the Google logo, cofounder Larry Page is the blank white background. Sergey Brin, the extroverted, more politically and culturally minded cofounder, often roller-skated through the office and wore those weird toe sneakers. A modest scandal in his love life was reported in Vanity Fair. Meanwhile Page tends to let the company speak for him, an unusually subdued public profile in a region full of big personalities and eccentrics. They were Ph.D. students when they started the company, a counterpoint to the stereotype that Silicon Valley is run by college dropouts (there’s little stigma about that in the tech industry, where the youth of an entrepreneur is taken as testament that the person wastes no time). Brin and Page were an improvement on virtually every sort of megacorp executive before them. They seem genuinely concerned with climate change, education, and “democracy,” but there’s a difference between individuals, structures, and collective action. How is it possible to operate a private company at this size ethically?

Company culture is to a company what motivation is to character. It is the personality and drive that come through in products. Google’s culture of laid-back efficacy was influential and boundary-breaking. A stereotypical Google employee has perfect SATs, but loves April Fool’s Day humor and a weekend with nature. Not all of its engineers are triathletes—some enjoy snowkiting and kayaking, too. There were office ski trips from the very beginning. Google is the summit of the Montessori-to-MIT pipeline, for a person bright and logical who does not think Sergey Brin’s toe sneakers are weird. The headquarters in Mountain View has mini-golf and a T. rex fossil mold, snacks and Ping-Pong, scooters and climbing walls. Teams can reserve a “conference bike,” an octopus-like contraption that seats seven (yes, they conduct meetings on it). There’s free food—very good food—with many varieties of cuisine. It is a dream come true to a certain type of worker, and even those who aren’t fully on board with these trappings might prefer the decent lunches and refined indoor air quality to anything else out there in officeland. Until recently, this public-facing corporate quirkiness served as cover for a company-wide problem of sexual harassment, bolstered by how lax—even encouraging—it had always been about workplace relationships (Brin, Page, and Eric Schmidt all have, at one time or another, reportedly dated their subordinates). Tens of thousands of employees participated in a walkout in November 2018, following a New York Times investigation that revealed numerous abuses of power (among the damning findings: a ninety-million-dollar exit package awarded to an executive who left after an accusation of sexual misconduct by a subordinate). The problem is a thicket, of course, but unlike with some of Google’s other ethical impairments, the company has a definite goal: to rid itself of sexual harassment. Actions it has taken in the wake of this scandal, including an end to forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims, appear to serve that goal. But the gumball machine façade that insulated Google from public scrutiny for as long as it has continues to be hard to crack.

The word that almost always comes up when people talk about Google’s staff is “brilliance,” a specific and subjective interpretation of that word. There’s nothing romantic or out of the ordinary about Google “brilliance.” There’s no poetry to it, nothing tender or exuberant. Valorizing “brilliance” is how Google disguises its employees who come from less privileged backgrounds, economically and educationally. Google has an internal class system legible by the color of worker badges: full-time employees wear white badges, contractors wear red, and interns wear green. Red-badge workers are internally known as TVCs (“temps, vendors, and contractors”), and many of them found work through temp agencies. In 2007, the artist Andrew Norman Wilson, a contractor in the video department at the time, noticed workers wearing yellow badges. They were ScanOps, the division hired for the Google Books project. These workers were there to scan every book, page by page. Every book in existence, or so Google wished the world might think. The employees were visible for reasons other than the yellow badges. They were predominantly “black and Latino, on a campus of mostly white and Asian employees,” Wilson wrote in an essay about the ScanOps workers. He also made a short film called Workers Leaving the Googleplex. The ScanOps employees began work at four in the morning, and left in the early afternoon so they wouldn’t mingle with white-badge employees in the parking lot.

In Silicon Valley, hiring humans (other than triathlete-mathletes) is always less preferable than programming machines to do something. Google cannot eradicate its demand for yellow-badge-tier labor, but it can make these workers invisible. “As long as the data gets collected, that’s all that matters,” a Google Street View driver once told me. I appreciated his stories about what music he would play in the car, driving around and photographing his surroundings for the map. Once he met up with some of the other drivers at the New York International Auto Show. But all his human experience is erased from how Google Street View presents the images he created. A user browsing Google Street View might assume, very reasonably, that a machine created them. It is photography without a human perspective, but humans, indeed, are the ones who have photographed these panoramas. Sometimes Street View is an accidental paparazzo: Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville were stitched in the fabric of Google’s panoramas of Rolle, Switzerland. Leonard Cohen, on a lawn chair outside his home, became a frozen landmark in Street View documentation of Los Angeles. The picture was taken shortly before he passed away. There’s no way to tell if the driver recognized these public figures. A driver is expected to perform as a robot would under these circumstances. Only rare glimpses, like the reflection of a car in a mirrored skyscraper, remind the user that you are observing another person’s experience.

Copyright © 2020 by Joanne McNeil