The early 2000s were the birthplace of the modern internet—especially social media and the creators that power its endless algorithmic engines. It’s been close to two decades since those strange days when MySpace ruled the webways and Facebook still had a “the” in its name, but looking back eeks a twinge of memory from those who were there to experience it.
Taylor Lorenz is one of the biggest names for covering digital culture, and now the Washington Post columnist is out with her new book Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet. The book charts the start of what we now know as the creator economy dominated by influencers making their living off the tech-giant-owned social platforms. She described her work as a “nostalgia trip for anybody that’s spent time online for the past couple decades.”
The work recontextualizes the internet’s earliest ‘viral’ public-facing figures who were so maligned at the time, recasting them as pioneers for the modern creator economy. It also waxes on the harsh reality for deceased apps like MySpace and Vine, both of which failed to recognize the ways the wind was blowing and truly pivot to the star-struck digital ecosystem.
Gizmodo talked to her about her book, especially how some of the folks from the internet’s early days who created the current creator economy were lambasted by the public and endlessly harassed.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kyle Barr: Why did you decide to write this book about the origins of the creator culture that we have now? I think it’s a really interesting look, not just at the big players, but also the small individuals who do not get the time of day today, and especially woman creators who did not get it at the time either.
Taylor Lorenz: It’s kind of shocking just how much of the internet was built by women and their stories are always left out conveniently. I didn’t set out to write a women’s history, but I just kept finding that women were the ones that were shaping these platforms. I decided to write this book because I really wanted to write a history of the rise of social media from the user perspective and specifically power users in the content creator world and the effect that that’s had on the ecosystem because I think most of the narratives that we’ve sort of consumed about the rise of social media are corporate narratives. It’s through the lens of certain companies. It’s the social network and the bazillion books about Facebook or all these other platforms. I wanted to zoom out and tell that story and in parallel how this half-a-trillion-dollar content creator industry emerged almost out of nowhere.
Kyle Barr: You start this book off really from the layman’s perspective and you start off looking at the ‘mommy blogs’ as they were called back then, and that’s an aspect to the internet that I don’t think anybody even really remembers a lot. They look back at that time and they think, oh yeah, that was just a bunch of people just getting onto a new hype trend, but they were creating something.
Taylor Lorenz: The mommy bloggers were the first to really build personal brands on the internet and then monetize them at scale and the way that they kind of pioneered the use of social media, and I do consider blogs kind of a form of social media. I mean, they circumvented the entire women’s media ecosystem and forced the women’s media ecosystem to change what they were doing. (It) was really radical, and there was no money in it at the time when they started. They eventually monetized and they monetized in the face of just relentless misogynistic hate. I mean, they were vilified. They were accused of trying to profit. People wanted to get their children taken away because they were supposed to just be mothers and motherhood as a sacred act and how dare you talk about things like struggling to breastfeed or hating your husband sometimes or postpartum depression, which is what all of these women normalize. They changed the conversation in women’s media so much, and so yeah, they really kicked off the beginning of this new media landscape. That first generation of YouTubers really relied on a lot of revenue pathways and business models that mommy bloggers pioneered.
Kyle Barr: Why do you think that even 20 years ago, people were radically against the idea that this personal blog should be monetized or these people should be getting paid for their time in any way?
Taylor Lorenz: They of course had no problem with political blogs and tech blogs, which were very well monetized by that point. But when women and women who were creating content around their lifestyle, personality, and motherhood put ads on their blogs, it was the most scandalous thing to ever happen. These women were just eviscerated by the media and by the public, and I think it just goes back to this notion of women’s work and the idea that what they were doing as labor, I mean, they were changing the people’s sort of understanding of what labor was, and that was a really hard battle. A lot of these women wrote these long blog posts explaining their days and explaining, ‘okay, guys, I have to put ads on my blog because I’m actually working 16 hours a day on top of raising my kids.’ Most of them quit the internet. Most of them are not on the internet or met very tragic ends, and it’s very sad. The internet just chews up women and spits them out despite the fact that they are responsible for mainstreaming so many really important ideas and industries and platforms.
Kyle Barr: You brought up Julia Allison in your book. She was one of those pioneering women that caught so much flack for her escapades at Gawker, which Gizmodo is almost one of the legacies of Gawker and Gawker Media, so there’s that interesting aspect of things. If you want to talk about how you kind of brought on Julia as almost this main figure of the early blogging.
Taylor Lorenz: For a lot of young women, especially young millennial women like myself, Julia was this kind of aspirational figure on the internet. She was funny, she was beautiful. She would have this fun life. She would go to parties and she documented every aspect of her life and what was called lifecasting then, but it would just be called vlogging now. And this is just being an influencer, but she was doing it back in 2006, 2007, 2008. She had a blog and then she had Tumblr, and then she ended up being on Vimeo and YouTube. She signed one of the first big deals with YouTube’s original sort of multi-channel network. So she was so ahead of her time and she was doing these sponsored content deals and affiliate marketing. She would link her clothes so that women could shop for them. She had fans, but the media could not handle this woman basically. I mean, her original sin with Gawker was actually just promoting links to her blog in the comment section of Gawker articles, something that is normalized now. Back then it was just…she was crucified. The articles are the most misogynistic stuff. They called her a whore, a fame whore. She was solely talked about in the context of men. They implied that she was dating or sleeping around with powerful men, and that’s why she had the attention that she did. She was vilified and driven off the internet, and she was one of the first true multi-platform content creators.
Kyle Barr: Do you think it’s a visceral reaction? Are people still upset about the same things that they were upset about 15 years ago and they just can’t let go of them?
Taylor Lorenz: I can’t say enough how much she deserves a vindication, because even when the excerpt came out of my book recently, which excerpts that chapter, and even people on the internet were still saying somebody called her fat. That’s what you have to say after what this woman was put through publicly? And since my excerpt came out, she’s received more coverage in the New York Times that’s actually quite positive.
Kyle Barr: There’s another theme in the book about legacy media, legacy producers’ reaction to the new paradigm, and how eventually they just completely incorporated content creators. News Corp was one of the first people to latch onto MySpace, and you could argue also drove it into the ground. But when Legacy media just immediately latches on as soon as they start making money, it’s an interesting look at just how little attention there was to these people up until the point when corporations realized that they could start using them.
Taylor Lorenz: At the end of the day, the only respect content creators get is the money that they make. I mean, I talk to so many women content creators, and you hear this a lot when people talk about Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, actually, it’s a complete disrespect of what they’ve achieved and who they are. The only lens through which their success can be appreciated by society and men is their financial success. I mean, I don’t talk a lot about sex workers in my book, but they also help pioneer so much of this transformation. Some of them would say ‘I don’t respect Only Fans girls, but look, if she’s making millions, I guess she’s a businesswoman.’ And it’s like, well, that’s how you understand their success only through money and usually because you can use them in some way.
Kyle Barr: You also have this section about Vine and about Vine’s rise and really untimely demise. What do you think Vine did that was pioneering and why do you think that it got cut off in the way it did when people were still finding content on it and finding use for it?
Taylor Lorenz: It made me so sad because I love Vine. That was my favorite social app, but ultimately, the founders had a very hostile relationship with their user base and especially their power users on the app, because this was pre-algorithmic feeds and algorithmic delivery of content. It was very ripe for manipulation. And I talk about this sort of group of Vine stars that live at this place, 1600 Vine, that basically ended up monopolizing the entire app and how hard it was for the content creators or for any other content creators to break through. It was also a case of how the people that owned Vine themselves couldn’t really accept how people ultimately used Vine.
Kyle Barr: What do you think creators mean to a platform like that? As you discussed, if Instagram’s creators suddenly start monopolizing content or if Instagram starts to forget why it exists in the first place, does that lead to that platform becoming less used, less interesting by most of the user base? It’s such a quickly changing industry that I think the creators are the ones really just making the statement of which apps are getting used and which ones aren’t.
Taylor Lorenz: Creators are the ones generating the value for these social platforms. It’s the people creating highly engaging content that keep people hooked on these apps. You need content creators, and that’s something that every tech platform has been forced to learn over the past decade. I talk about the Facebook model versus the MySpace model in my book, this fame-driven model of social media versus this friends-driven model, and ultimately, people want the fame-driven model. They want to reach people, they want to reach people at scale. And so I think apps like TikTok lean into this very hard, and they give creators just an opportunity to reach their audience. They don’t have the monetization capabilities that platforms like YouTube have, but yeah, it’s a constant evolution, and one app will roll out an update that angers creators and then they move somewhere else. It’s sort of this ebb and flow.
Kyle Barr: I mean, where do you think that’s going next? Because with TikTok, everybody’s tried to emulate TikTok but is that platform looking long in the tooth?
Taylor Lorenz: I think we’re at the beginning of TikTok. ByteDance’s product team is so unreal. I don’t know what American company (00:33:30) can compete with that. They evolve and test it. They’re just extremely good. It’s an extremely good product, and I think YouTube is competing, and YouTube has definitely given it a challenge, but discovery on YouTube is trash, and Instagram is a bloated mess. Nobody can post anything on Instagram because there’s so many content moderation guidelines on there because of the scrutiny they receive around disinformation that it’s actually very limiting for content creators. Unless a new platform comes along, TikTok really is dominant now. I think it’s also notable that no new platforms can come along and really upset these industry leaders because there’s so much competition. I mean, it’s notable that the only company, the only social platform that could meaningfully challenge Google or Meta is owned by a multi-billion dollar Chinese tech conglomerate that could spend $1 billion in marketing on app download ads in 2019 alone.
Kyle Barr: What do you think the internet really means to people who spend, and we all do spend so much of our time connected with each other. What do you think that changes with people in that kind of extreme way that you’re touting on your cover?
Taylor Lorenz: I chose the title Extremely Online. I think we’re all getting more extremely online, and it’s sort of been this evolution for all of us where we’re, our lives are more and more enmeshed with the internet, and I mean, I do consider the internet to be kind of the default reality almost. I think increasingly the IRL world is almost just a stage for the internet or content on the internet. But for the past decade, it’s been warped by these platforms that have really screwed up incentives. They prioritize engagement and profit above all else. So I think a lot of people’s more recent experience of the internet and just our world generally is being reshaped by algorithms. I have to shout out Kyle Chayka’s new book Filterworld. I think algorithms are increasingly shaping our world, and I mean, look at things like meme stocks or the more extreme candidates coming up.
Kyle Barr: But you’re saying that’s the fault of the way that current companies have tried to monetize the internet?
Taylor Lorenz: It’s the current platforms. I don’t think that the problem is inherent to the internet. I think connection is good, and we should be seeking to build more connection and empathy with each other, and the internet is a really powerful tool. I believe in the new media ecosystem so much. I really want to see more independent journalism. I think what the internet can enable is incredible. But we’re in just this weird transition period right now where things are bad because it’s dominated by these really evil platforms.
Taylor Lorenz Talks “Extremely Online”