How did the line “famous for being famous” go from insult to a legitimate career path? How did the mommy bloggers of the early 2000s become the social media influencers of today?
In her debut book, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, And Power on The Internet, American journalist Taylor Lorenz details how we got to where we are. She tells the story of how users have shaped the successes and failures of social media, and how it has come to shape everything from politics and work to culture and fame. Most compellingly, Lorenz, best known for breaking internet stories for The Washington Post and The New York Times, lays out how the dopamine hits of a constant audience have changed the way we see ourselves – and each other.
Extremely Online is an attempt to catalog a side of internet history often lost to cyberspace, written with the sensitivity of someone who clearly loves being online (Lorenz is still on X even after Elon Musk said she had “stalker ex gf vibes” due to her sharing of articles about the platform). By surfacing the experiences of pioneers such as Julia Allison – a young newspaper columnist who, in the late ’00s, turned to blogging at a time when it was considered very silly – Lorenz rebalances a narrative dominated by Silicon Valley tech bros, frequently lauded as geniuses uniquely responsible for what exists today. As she argues, it’s users such as Allison who are the true geniuses, spotting the vast potential of the social internet, inventing the influencer industry, and defining how it works. It is they who figured out how to monetise attention. Users, Lorenz says, have more power than they realise.
Hi Taylor! In the book, you lay out what you see as key points in social media’s evolution. Can you talk us through those choices?
I wanted to focus on moments, characters, or eras in time that were really influential – like, what really shaped the modern internet landscape. We live in this content creator, influencer-dominated social media world, and so I wanted to chart the evolution of the industry, but also how we as users all became posters online. I start with the mommy bloggers, because I think they were the first to truly build personal brands online and then monetise them far before YouTube or anything like that.
Just to tangent, it’s been a little bit frustrating because I feel like there’s this narrative about the influencer industry and where things came from that’s just false. Just this morning I was pitching a radio network, and they’re like, Oh, well, we already did an influencer piece. And I’m like, OK, but everything you said was wrong, so why don’t you have me on to tell you how it really was?
What do people tend to get wrong about the evolution of the influencer?
Oh, so many things. A lot of people think [influencing] started with YouTube. A lot of people think that it’s a recent phenomenon that’s just sort of happened in the past few years [Lorenz argues it started with mommy bloggers on platforms such as Blogspot and WordPress]. They also refer to content houses as a TikTok thing and, as I write in my book, the first was in 2009. There were so many, and so many formative content collectives, like 1600 Vine [a luxury apartment in Hollywood where some of the biggest Vine stars lived and made content together], that predate TikTok. People also think influencing is a Gen Z phenomenon. They forget that it was Gen X women that did this first. This is 20 years of shifts and user behaviour and user-driven platform development. And the way that this industry started, and the way that a lot of this stuff emerged, is from people that were actually outside of the bounds of institutional power.
What you lay out in Extremely Online is an account that challenges the Silicon Valley framing – that these platform founders had brilliant insight and created everything as we know it. What you’re saying is, that’s not true. There was a lot of naivety and fumbling on the part of these people who are often thought of as our dark overlords.
Yeah, they almost never understood how their creations would be used. It goes against this narrative of these genius founders. It’s a reminder that these people are not geniuses and, I think I say this in the intro, it’s more about the creativity of the users. And so I just think, again, that community side gets lost, the user side gets lost. And the social history of the internet is really important to tell, because if you’re only reading the Silicon Valley side of the story, you’re missing so much.
So, we users have shaped what social media is now. We’re the ones that have turned it into a way to make us money, rather than keeping it as a communication network or something like that.
Yeah, and the reason it’s been so commercialised by users is because we have a broken hyper-capitalist system that we’re all living in. So I mean, again, like so many of those first content creators and so many content creators today, the reason the industry is booming is because of these deep flaws in the labour market and the fact that so many people are shut out of traditional employment.
People always get so mad when they hear that one of the top careers for young people is “influencer”… and it’s like, basically what they’re saying is they want to be an entrepreneur because they feel like at least then they have some modicum of control over their destiny. Because there’s no control. None of us have it, there’s no stability. And so if you can get some level of fame, if you can get some level of attention, [that’s] the most valuable currency in today’s world. And if you have online attention, you can literally do anything: you can launch your political career, you can launch a business, you can shape anything. People recognise the value of it and so they seek it.
People love to say, oh it’s narcissism. And sure, maybe for some people. But most just want stability and control over their lives.
Do you think there’s still scope for users to shape social media differently? Or do you think we’re very much on an industry-driven trajectory that’s fixed now?
No, I think users always have a lot more control than they think. And look, I mean, in many ways, we are at the mercy of these platforms. But I just look at how powerful users shape things. Look at the power of users abandoning Twitter, how it harms the platform – and by the way, Elon Musk has alienated all of them. But you know, I think that we all have control over our online experiences and I think we should build better apps that aren’t run by the same 10 people, and build more niche spaces and build a more diverse and robust social media ecosystem.
Reading your book, one of the things that I thought was quite exquisitely naff was the language used at the beginning, when everyone was trying to figure out a lexicon for the internet… like the use of “ceWEBrities”.
Oh my god, so my original intro to the book was all about language, and it was all about charting the evolution of how we speak about it, and what is a “creator” – how did we get this word “creator”? And what are all the different ways that people spoke about it, and also the misogyny. Julia Allison talks about it but it was like, “fame whore”. All the women were “fame whores” and all the men were self-promoters.
I would love to read more about that, the changes that language went through, and the way things are spoken out. As you say in the book, the way people wrote on blogs was, looking back now, so totally mundane in today’s context, but at the time it was considered wild.
Yeah, well, it was revolutionary and that’s also why I just think Julia Allison deserves to be vindicated. It made me so frustrated that I couldn’t include links, because I just have hundreds of links about her that are the most misogynistic articles, and she’s saying the most basic things – things that are so normal now – and just the way she was vilified. It was this whole notion of like, you can’t seek attention, it has to be bestowed on you, who are you to say that you’re worthy of attention, and who are you to post what she called “head to toes”, which was literally just selfies. And the vitriol she got, like, eww, it’s disgusting the way she’s flaunting her body in these photos and who puts themselves in photos. Who puts themselves in photos? Literally everyone, every day. Julia deserves a redemption arc, because she’s not credited with anything. Of course, all these Silicon Valley people want to act like they invented the creator economy. Julia invented the creator economy.
The interview has been edited and condensed. Extremely Online is out on 3rd October but you can pre-order it here, if you’re into that sort of thing.