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Taylor Lorenz headshot
Courtesy of Taylor Lorenz

Taylor Lorenz is still Extremely Online

Ahead of the release of her debut book, the Washington Post reporter speaks to Günseli Yalcinkaya about doxxing, hyper-niche internet trends and the future of social media

Whether it’s reporting on emerging social media trends, sharing video explainers on Elon Musk’s Twitter or shitposting from one of her many meme accounts, to describe Taylor Lorenz as extremely online is an understatement. A columnist at the Washington Post reporting on technology and online culture, she’s the go-to voice on the internet, covering everything from the TikTok influencer economy to the rise of niche microcelebrities and the power of social media algorithms. Her frontline accounts of political extremism online, doxxing, and the rise and fall of the creator economy – a term that she notes only surfaced during the pandemic – have paved the way for a new wave of online commentators (myself included). Her commitment to the job is so rigorous in fact that even Musk himself is scared.

Now preparing for the release of her debut book Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet, Lorenz traces the history of social media from the lens of the users who shaped it. Looking back at two decades of social media, the book takes an expansive look at how social platforms have radically altered literally every aspect of our lives, from entertainment to fame, the economy and beyond. Below, Lorenz joins me to discuss her upcoming book – and we discuss terminally online topics, such as doxxing, hyper-niche online trends, clout in an era of deepfakes and the future of social media.

So Extremely Online, where did the idea come from? 

Taylor Lorenz: It was during the pandemic – basically, I wanted to write a history of the internet from the user’s side. I’ve covered the rise of social media and I’m a big fan of all of these books that tell individual corporate narratives. But I wanted to zoom out and tell the story of this whole rise of social media from the user side – and specifically about the rise of content creators and that whole industry. I felt like that story really hadn’t been told – how the content creator industry was birthed and became a thing, and the way it’s shaped these platforms, which affect all of us. 

The book’s name, Extremely Online, what was the thinking behind it? The term comes with its fair share of preconceptions, but I would also argue that we’re all extremely online these days.

Taylor Lorenz: That phrase, Extremely Online, people know it, they use it. But we’re all extremely online – and I wanted to chart the course of how that happened, and walk people through how we all became internet content creators ourselves.

“People consumed mainstream media, and mainstream entertainment had far more clout than the internet – but that’s changed” – Taylor Lorenz

The book chronicles the social media pipeline, from the early days of simply logging on and posting to becoming a full-blown creator economy. So much has changed in ten years – nowadays, we all commodify ourselves online, whether we want to or not – what are some of the biggest changes you’ve observed since you first began reporting on it?

Taylor Lorenz: When I first started reporting on all of this back in 2009, I was just a blogger. I didn’t really know what reporting was. But the industry was very nascent, this whole world looked really new and Instagram hadn’t launched yet. My gateway was Tumblr. It totally exploded. 

When I started out, people were still referring to YouTube as a site for cat videos. And nobody thought it was cool to be hyper online. Like, I was definitely part of that early generation of millennial internet. People consumed mainstream media, and mainstream entertainment had far more clout than the internet – but that’s changed. Nowadays, you see people wanting to become YouTubers or TikTokers, and that’s an aspirational thing. But it wasn’t aspirational back then. This is mentioned in my book, but when they were casting people for the lonelygirl15 YouTube show, which ended up blowing up in the late 00s, they cast the girl’s boyfriend [as someone who couldn’t be] too attractive, because it was unbelievable – like, people wouldn't believe that attractive people spend time on YouTube.

How have you seen your own relationship change to the internet?

Taylor Lorenz: My own relationship with the internet has changed pretty radically, like all of us. When I started out, it was a very desktop-dominated experience – YouTube didn’t even have a mobile app until 2011. I was using Tumblr on my desktop primarily, and the internet was something that you dipped into and spent time on, whereas now it’s our entire world. Now it’s more and more inescapable, it’s impossible to log off. We all live in a very internet-mediated reality and the online world is almost more real than the offline world in a lot of ways. 

I’ve personally felt a huge shift in the past year away from this hyper-maximalist internet aesthetic that seemed to balloon during the pandemic. Maybe people fell too deep and we’re seeing a backlash to that now. What do you think?

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, I totally agree. We were all drunk on the internet during the early COVID days. I feel like the 2010s were defined by this boom in social media, where on every app you post, by default, to the entire world. Now it’s more about reaching the people that you want to reach. And sometimes that’s on the scale of TikTok, but a lot of times it’s more like Discord, or Instagram close friends, or Snapchat, or whatever. I think we’re all just a lot more careful about the internet, we’re more aware of the downsides and the harms. 

I definitely feel that way myself in terms of how my relationship with the internet has changed. I’m not so naive about it, and I feel like we’re all feeling that way. But I’m also super immunocompromised and it’s extremely hard for me, because I still basically live like I’m in 2020, unfortunately. So, I’ve seen a lot more people being able to basically go back into the world and participate in that stuff and I can’t really do the same thing because it’s still extremely dangerous. I guess I never pulled back, I’ve only got more and more online.

At least you’re sticking to the brand.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, that’s true. I feel lucky to have a job that I can do that with. 

Even last year, there was all this talk surrounding Web 2.5 and Substack and newsletters. There was a moment when it all felt incredibly promising. Not that it’s all completely fallen through or anything, but the buzz has certainly died down.

Taylor Lorenz: The Web3 stuff was so silly, I shut out all of that. I’m not against the concept of Web3 but the crypto bullshit was ridiculous and insane. I think the concept of ownership now that we’re seeing, where people do not just own digital goods, but even the fact that Instagram Threads is being built on an Activity Hub, which is going to allow people to have interactability with other apps like Mastodon, and these open-source communities. That’s definitely the future of social media. But there was so much hype around this crypto nonsense that it drives me crazy. 

”We all live in a very internet mediated reality and the online world is almost more real than the offline world in a lot of ways” – Taylor Lorenz

What’s next for newsletters?

Taylor Lorenz: What happened in 2021 is that all of these Silicon Valley people had berated influencers and talked so much shit about the influencer world and, frankly, had super misogynistic and crazy views of it. Then in 2021, the pandemic forced them to recognise they were totally wrong. That’s where the phrase ‘creator economy’ comes from, which literally no one used ever until 2021. That was the tech people, it’s not something anyone within the industry actually used. 

So, we’ve seen this classic Silicon Valley hype cycle for this world, because they just discovered it for the first time, and they poured all this money in – which, by the way, signals the end of the cycle for everything. It was silly, because I think they put a lot of money into things that ultimately don’t really scale or the creators don’t have a need for. It's not to say that newsletters are doomed or anything, but there’s a threshold to how many newsletters you want to read a day. So, I think people suddenly started to realise that it’s actually really, really hard to grow a newsletter.

And I guess you touched on this earlier, but the way we consume content has pivoted towards very hyper niche content. Whereas previously we saw this with ‘core’ and ‘wave’ trend-chasing, that no longer feels particularly relevant either – it’s all plateaued into something very Mid.

Taylor Lorenz: There’s always these new areas of whitespace that people latch onto and rush into and think, oh this will change things, whether that’s a newsletter or podcasts. And then everyone rushes in and then realises, it’s actually much harder, and we don’t need quite so much content in these areas, or these revenue models are harder to scale, and then the hype dies down. I do think niche content is definitely going to be the teacher. We’re definitely past the age of mass media. Of course, there are still big moments like Barbie and Oppenheimer, but we rarely have them. It’s hyper niche and it’s speaking to a really specific audience. It’s not necessarily trying to reach everyone.

These days it feels like everyone’s a critic, everyone has a TikTok explainer or a YouTube essay on literally anything. But where does traditional media fit into this? 

Taylor Lorenz: We’re in the golden age of criticism, where everyone has analysis. Most of these people don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, and there are very few people uncovering new information. A lot of analysis has the air of journalism, especially on YouTube and TikTok, but they’re repurposing information they’ve found elsewhere, or grabbing lots of information and misrepresenting things in a sort of unintentional, or sometimes intentional, ways. 

You’ve had your fair share of doxxing and online abuse from trolls. How have you dealt with it all? 

Taylor Lorenz: All of it has been informative and I’ve learned some lessons. Obviously, I’ve done stupid things on the internet that I wish that I didn’t do. Nothing crazy or problematic, necessarily. When West Elm Caleb happened, I made this video being like, before we completely destroy this man’s life, let’s remember he’s a person and I’d love to know the context in which this all happened. People went ballistic – like, OK this guy sucks, obviously he’s toxic, but there’s this rush to issue a verdict on everyone online, and if you challenge that verdict, you’re in trouble. I wish I had caveated what I said, but I think being aware of how the internet can be weaponised by the worst people online is really helpful, because you don’t realise how the internet can be used against you until it really happens, and then you learn the hard way. 

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and would love to get your take on, is how clout – or the influencer economy, more generally – will evolve in an era of deepfakes and AI-powered unreality? 

Taylor Lorenz: Undeniably, a lot of creative work is going to be outsourced to AI, which is sad and scary. But I also think it’s going to be a great creative tool. But it’s worrying when you see it replacing creative people with AI, which you see happening in Hollywood right now. 

I saw a meme about Gen Alpha posting their own content – I definitely think we can already see their influence with viral trends like Boring Ahh, NPC influencers and Skibidi toilet. Where do you think social media is heading? Is Gen Alpha going to plunge us further into insanity? 

Taylor Lorenz: Gen Alpha is growing up in a truly online world. People always talk about the metaverse, but we already live in the metaverse in the sense that the world we live in is a world where our digital advertisers, our reputation, our personality has more power than our physical realities. I have no idea what Gen Alpha will develop, I’m sure they will start their own tech platforms that will be horrible and exploit people, but I don’t know! Actually, Max Read recently wrote something on his Substack that everyone would be much better off if everyone realised that the entire internet is made for seven-year-olds – and it’s so true!

Finally, I’m dying to know: what are some of your favourite meme accounts?

Taylor Lorenz: @crapgenerator2000 @c0achdickandballs @this.and.a.blunt

Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet is out October 3. Preorder here