The tech journalist and author on the algorithmic American dream, the unsung heroes of social media, and her new book ‘Extremely Online’
Having reported on online culture for over a decade, Taylor Lorenz has experienced the internet in all its beauty and its ugliness. She’s had her social media accounts disabled for criticizing powerful (and petulant) CEOs. She’s been the victim of doxxing, stalking, rape threats, and smear campaigns. But Lorenz has also witnessed, firsthand, the internet’s power to connect people; foster niche communities; promote new forms of gender expression; educate the public about issues facing marginalized communities, and provide them with a platform to tell their stories.
Yet the story of the internet itself, Lorenz realized, has been told primarily by one group: middle-aged male tech founders. “Our culture is obsessed with the power of Silicon Valley, so the narrative you often hear is like, The Social Network version. The history of social media has been told through the lens of these older male tech founders, who are not creatures of the internet—they’re entrepreneurs seeking to exploit it,” she says. “I wanted to talk about the contributions from users—many of whom are women, queer people, and people of color. I was like, I’m going to write about the rise of social media, but not the version told by tech founders—the people’s history.”
Lorenz charted a course to interview the unsung figures of the social internet—interviewing 500-some sources, from scene queens to mommy bloggers and Vine stars. Like the reporting that has established Lorenz as, arguably, the foremost authority on online culture, Extremely Online delves deep into how the digital and physical world influence each other—challenging power dynamics, forging new economies, toppling existing hierarchies, and creating new ones. “These days, what happens on the internet is already far more impactful than what happens in our day-to-day life; it will reach more people, and scale further than anything in the real world,” Lorenz reflects, before correcting herself: “I shouldn’t say the real world—I mean the physical world. Because I think that actually, the digital world has become our default reality.”
Camille Sojit Pejcha: Why did you decide to write Extremely Online when you did?
Taylor Lorenz: During the pandemic, everyone had to live in the online world, and suddenly had to pay attention to what happened there. I saw a lot of revisionist history from [people in] Silicon Valley talking about how it all emerged, and I was like, I’m going to write about the rise of social media, but not the version told by tech founders—the people’s history.
We’re also witnessing the end of an era [for the social internet] and the beginning of a new [one]. So I felt we should look back on the first 20 years: remember the good and the bad, the lessons we learned, and incorporate those into our thinking as we work to build a better internet.
Camille: In the book, you draw attention to how tech founders often don’t understand what’s valuable about the platforms they’ve created—and that many of the contributions that led to the success of platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Vine came from everyday users. Why do you think that is?
Taylor: Our culture is obsessed with the power of Silicon Valley, so the narrative you often hear is like, The Social Network version. The history of social media has been told through the lens of these older male tech founders, who are not creatures of the internet—they’re entrepreneurs seeking to exploit it. They don’t understand what’s really powerful about [social media]—they just want to use it for their own profit. People shape the platforms because they understand the platforms, and that’s because they’re immersed in these online spaces themselves.
Looking back, there were a lot of pivotal moments on the consumer internet that people didn’t think that hard about at the time, and a lot of influential people who led to the early success [of social media platforms] have been overlooked. I wanted to talk about the contributions from users—many of whom are women, queer people, and people of color.
Camille: The creator economy was dominated by women, especially in the beginning before it was taken seriously by industry gatekeepers and mainstream media institutions. How would you say gender dynamics shape the social internet as we know it?
Taylor: People are obsessed with women online, and the content creator world has traditionally been dominated by women, but I would say that’s changing. There are a lot of women taking control of their own image, but also a lot of people exploiting [them]. The internet used to be this refuge for people who were shut out of traditional medium entertainment. But now that there’s all this money to be made, you see big players like Mr. Beast—men that are going into it with a specific mindset, and it’s to pillage and profit. Their goal is not self-expression or community building. It’s ‘How can I most effectively monetize this space?’
“A few years ago, there was so much talk of the metaverse, with people imagining there’s going to be this alternative reality through VR. But the truth is, we’re already living in the metaverse.”
Camille: What do you think of the way mainstream media handles internet trends—especially those involving women?
Taylor: [I think they’re] a way for people to covertly express misogyny. The outrage bait is a way to get their older readership riled up because it confirms their worst suspicions about women or young people, and allows them to project this disdain onto them. The subtext of it all is, Who gave these women the right to say that they’re noteworthy, or to leverage the internet for their gain? Who do they think they are?
Camille: I think that’s why the best writing about these online trends comes from young women themselves—cultural critics and writers like Rebecca Jennings or Rayne Fisher-Quann.
Taylor: Yes. They both come at it from a feminist lens, and they also understand how the internet works—that you can engage playfully with girl dinner and share memes about it and laugh, while also discussing women’s labor in the home. There’s value in cultural criticism and thoughtful analysis, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun with it!
Rebecca’s around my age I think—we’re friends—but if she was born 10 years later, I think she would have just been a TikToker. That worries me because now that young people can have their own platform, they don’t end up going into traditional media. [The result is that] we don’t have a lot of nuanced voices in magazines; we only have the people that are just like, Let me write this outrage article about girl dinner, and they’ve never logged on to TikTok themselves.
Camille: You’ve made content independently and also worked at major media outlets. Are there any misconceptions about legacy publications that you’d like to push back on?
Taylor: So much of what gets published by legacy media props up institutional power. I would also argue that many [of these] top institutions publish a lot of misinformation, and we shouldn’t put them on a pedestal. They’re businesses, and I think they’re important for democracy because they have resources—but that doesn’t mean that they don’t often use those resources to push misinformation.
My entire career, people have conflated me with the industry that I cover, because I make content myself. There’s a dismissiveness to it: ‘Oh, all you need is a million followers on TikTok, and you’re a journalist.’ It’s like, Okay, you try getting one million followers on TikTok—it’s hard! It’s a new type of labor that a lot of people don’t succeed at. There’s this old-school mentality from people who view the internet as this secondary form of media and entertainment, when in fact, it is the default for pretty much everyone under the age of 40.
Camille: I feel like there was an era when social media users were hungry for aspirational content, then they wanted authenticity, but that’s over now too. I’m curious: Where do you see that trend cycle going next?
Taylor: We’re in this corporatized era, where the real world is just a stage people use to create content. A few years ago, there was so much talk of the metaverse, with people imagining there’s going to be this alternative reality through VR. But the truth is, we’re already living in the metaverse. We have these online avatars of ourselves that exist on the internet every day, and what happens on the internet is already far more impactful than what happens in our day-to-day life; it will reach more people, and scale further than anything in the real world. I shouldn’t say the real world—I mean the physical world. Because I think that actually, the digital world has become our default reality. We’re all distributed across social platforms and all these spaces online, and the real people and places around us in the physical world have become like props. The online world is the real world now.
Camille: Are there any narratives being pushed about the way young people engage with the internet that you’ve found to be untrue through speaking and reporting on these communities?
Taylor: People want to project a narrative onto kids like, Oh, they’re so resentful because their parents have put them online. But actually, they’re putting themselves online. These young individuals have internalized this hyper-capitalist consumer culture. I’m fascinated by the kids on TikTok who have embraced hustle culture. There’s one who is 13-year-old and on the road to 200k. They’re all so young, and [are already] commodifying themselves, regurgitating propaganda from tech companies.
The concept of the American Dream was pretty much dead by the turn of the millennium, and social media gave it a second life, where suddenly people were being told that anybody can make it on the internet. Of course, this has always been a lie. But you see a lot of young kids who have been chugging the Kool-Aid since they were born—they were raised on YouTube. So much of succeeding on the internet is luck and privilege, but people want to ascribe it to hard work. I wish that we would have a less profit-driven internet, to get back to this goal of just connecting people and building community. But that just seems to be accelerating [to a place] where people want to profit from every single interaction online.
“The concept of the American Dream was pretty much dead by the turn of the millennium, and social media gave it a second life, where suddenly people were being told that anybody can make it on the internet.”
Camille: Is it just me, or has the internet also gotten more puritanical in a crazy way?
Taylor: I feel like I’m losing my mind. The internet has gotten so puritanical. The content moderation is off the rails. I’m so against social media platforms being the arbiters of what is ‘disinformation,’ when companies like Facebook simply rely on government sources or censor all debate around a specific issue because they’re not able to moderate it at scale.
The frustrating part is that so much of the discourse around this subject has been co-opted by the far right. They’re pushing these horrible laws, like the one in Utah billed as [centering] online safety, when it’s just eliminating kids’ privacy to communicate online. Then when you start talking about the issue, people conflate that argument for free speech with supporting the right—when in fact, it’s the right that espouses the language of free speech to strip us all of free expression.
Camille: I feel like sex workers have been raising the alarm about this for years, and now it’s affecting everyone.
Taylor: This is how it always goes. It starts with marginalized people, but eventually, it will affect you. I can’t even begin to express the harm that’s being done not just to sex workers, but all marginalized communities.
I wrote a story recently about Instagram wholesale blocking dozens of words from searches. I care about this a lot because I’m severely immunocompromised and now tens of millions of disabled people are blocked from searching terms like ‘long covid.’ It’s terrifying, that level of blunt moderation and censorship. People are worse informed than ever, and you have the tech platforms cracking down on conversations that we should all be able to have.
Camille: Where do you think countercultural activity is still occurring online?
Taylor: A lot of it happens in forums and Discord servers: this underbelly of the internet that’s still about facilitating connections around niche interests. On TikTok, these small movements or communities can blow up, because something will make its way into the algorithm [via] edits and stitches. I think it’s a little hard on mainstream social platforms because it’s so corporatized. Every little trend or niche just as immediately becomes an article about whatever -core, and then gets absorbed by mainstream media.
Camille: I wonder if fatigue with that cycle will push people toward trends that are harder to monetize, like Corecore, where vagueness is both an aesthetic and a way to resist commodification. It feels like right now, everyone still wants to get their bag, and that’s become accepted in a way that it didn’t used to be.
Taylor: I do think that those notions of selling out are gone. Working with a brand is now a status symbol and a mark of legitimacy. For instance, a content creator used to get legitimacy by saying ‘Oh, look, here’s my feature in People magazine, or I’m in The New York Times.’ Now people don’t trust media, and brand partnerships are the new seal of approval. It’s like, ‘I’m seen as legitimate because I am in a Prada campaign.’
Camille: In the book, you focus on communities who were underestimated at the time—influencers and content creators who were undervalued by media institutions. Now those people have been absorbed into these mainstream structures, it makes me wonder: Who’s being radically underestimated right now?
Taylor: I have to say, teenage girls. People just don’t respect women on the internet, and no one is more disrespected, I think, than young women. I wrote this piece for Byline in June about the 10th anniversary of ‘selfie’ being declared word of the year. And you have to go back and read the coverage of it—it was insane! So much of it was about young women being called narcissists just for putting themselves in their own pictures. Now these things are normalized. Often, women pioneer user behavior—they’re the first to use technology in the ways we all come to use it later on, but they get villainized for it. So yeah, I will always say, never underestimate teen girls!