The Discreet Thrill of Lurking Online

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The Discreet Thrill of Lurking Online

Four years into the practice, I discovered I was lurking: Aside from sharing snapshots with friends on a private Instagram page, I was consuming strangers’ social media content without ever posting or commenting myself. You would think a person who relied on and took joy from these conversations would contribute to them — would report that she, too, made the chocolate lava cake in tin cans, or that hyperbaric chambers can work wonders post surgery. But no. Even as I delight in others’ connecting over the internet, I remain a confirmed lurker. I’ll hit a heart icon and contribute to a like count, but I find the public nature of social media participation to be too performative for me. In the online world, where anyone can put themselves onstage, I’m happy to sit in the audience and clap.

I started lurking the year before Covid. I was working two in-office jobs (one as an editor at a design firm, another as the managing editor at a magazine), writing freelance stories on the side and going back and forth between my apartment in San Francisco and my then-boyfriend’s house in Oakland. I was always moving among different meetings and modes of transit, and I never had enough time for anything — including working out or meal prepping. Consequently, it felt as if the walls of my pants were closing in. So, I cracked open the WeightWatchers app.

Alongside tools used to track diet and exercise was something that I didn’t expect: a sort of in-app Instagram, open only to members. By that point, the shine of social media had worn off for me. I was over the feelings of comparison, the troublesome echo chambers. But Connect, as the platform was called, was something else.

Unlike my other feeds, it was not a pool of people I knew because they fell into my geographic region, field of work or socioeconomic class. These were people united by a common problem. The coastal elites, farmers in the Midwest, Floridians, doctors, former college athletes. People who loved Trump. People who hated him. People who really wanted to remind you that we were only supposed to be talking about weight loss. It was a community teeming with random people I would probably never meet in real life, telling stories about trying to do their best — and cheerleaders in the comments who were right there with them.

Connect turned out to be a gateway drug. I would find myself digging into the comments on Humans of New York, an Instagram account that chronicles the lives of the city’s dwellers, and PostSecret, which encourages folks to send in anonymous postcards that detail the intimacies of their lives. I followed long threads of comments at the ends of online recipes, and absorbed the inside jokes on Zillow Gone Wild, which shares the wackiest houses on the real estate platform. Not to mention long back-and-forths over “Am I the Asshole?” posts on Reddit.

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