Tech Writer Joanne McNeil, Author of Lurking
"I believe in aristocracy... — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke."
Joanne McNeil is a tech writer and the author of Lurking: How a Person Became a User. She was the inaugural winner of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation's Arts Writing Award for an emerging writer. Jason Kehe of Wired wrote that McNeil “manages a sensitive sharpness to which more tech critics should aspire.”
Stephen Harrison: Ok, so what quote are we chatting about today?
Joanne McNeil: It’s a quote from an E.M. Forster essay about this idea of the aristocracy of the sensitive.
“I believe in aristocracy… — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”
Have you read much E.M. Forster? I have not.
I was hoping you’d ask that! I haven’t really, either. I originally thought I should pick a quote from one of my favorite authors. But the thing about my favorite authors is that it’s almost harder to distill their writing into one line that I think is really representative of their work. On the other hand, this was something that I read on a lark. And it spoke to me!
There’s a key idea in this quote, this notion of the “aristocracy of the sensitive.”
Yes, it’s an idea that pops back into my head ever once in a while—"the aristocracy of the sensitive.” I’m also comforted by his [Forster’s] uncertainty with the language. He’s writing down this profound thought about people struggling through the ages, and meanwhile his own language is very timid. It’s kind of like, “Am I using this word correctly? I don’t know, but I'm going to go with it!” As a writer, it’s so refreshing to see someone write with that kind of uncertainty while also putting forth an idea that’s so recognizable.
You can almost hear Forster pause as he’s writing the quote.
Yeah, and he’s like, “Just so you know, this is what I mean by this word.” I love that. Because as a writer you’re expected to have this absolute confidence in what you’re doing. Sometimes the words don’t come out quite right.
Are their people in your life who embody this ideal of the aristocracy of the sensitive?
Yes, certainly friends of mine that I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life. But a lot of times it’s people you don’t know very well. I think about those exchanges with a stranger where they were very helpful and you get this glimmer of, “Oh, this was a good person. This was a good interaction.” And I like knowing that this person is just out there in the world.
Forster observes in the quote that a lot of these people are not powerful or celebrities.
I mean, maybe it’s a quality that is more common in an ordinary person than a leader or public figure. That’s something that I think about: is there something about the personality of a public figure that sways to public opinion or the status quo?
But when you read “aristocracy” as he uses it in the quote, it’s hard not to imagine someone who works at a grocery store or someone who has had a very ordinary, possibly very hard life.
I love the last line “and they can take a joke.”
Well, the essay continues on, and he gets into other ideas. The reason I stopped here is because I like this idea of openness. Someone who can take a joke can be open to a lot of different experiences. People who have a sense of humor can connect with people. They love the liveliness of being human and they recognize the absurdity of life.
Your book Lurking is in part a personal history of the internet. The Forster quote has me thinking about the internet’s potential to connect people. Have you found the internet has helped you make friends?
I’m always careful about how I word this. Anybody who has read the book knows that I’m not an internet booster by any measure! But I still feel that the opportunities made available by the internet itself (and not the companies that have taken this giant piece of the internet), but the internet itself, have offered this great possibility for communication. I know I’ve benefited from it. I’m not sure if I can name any friends that I haven’t met through the internet! The reason that I am so passionate about internet criticism is because the internet itself is quite valuable to me, and I see how valuable it is to society.
Your book had me thinking about the early internet and specifically how AOL Instant Messenger gave you the option when you designed your profile to select your favorite quote. And I remember thinking long and hard about that choice of quote! Why did AOL, Facebook, and others ask that question?
That was one of the great things about the internet platforms early on. They gave you this opportunity to complete a questionnaire about yourself and have that stand for who you are. I remember seeing someone’s quote was by Anne Sexton. I thought, “Oh, who is that?” And I went to the library and picked up a book of her poems and realized these were great!
The reason you had to do those questionnaires was because you couldn’t get a sense of someone back then through their timeline. Instead of looking at people’s social media posts, the user would have to define themselves via questionnaire answering about their favorite movie, favorite book, or favorite quote.
We don’t have those questionnaires anymore because the social media posts themselves do that work. But it’s funny that you bring this up because picking out that quote was agonizing for me as well! I do miss those questionnaires, in a way, because they can be quite revealing about a person.
Audio version available here