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Taylor’s Version

At a moment of peak social media outrage, Taylor Lorenz’s debut book, ‘Extremely Online,’ feels quaintly dated

by
Nicholas Clairmont
November 08, 2023

Original photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Original photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Taylor Lorenz and her work represent a chasm between the American news media and its readers. While ordinary readers may well be blessedly unaware of the “internet culture reporter” and the drama that follows her and her hundreds of thousands of “followers” on Twitter and every other social media platform, no friend of mine in media is unaware of her or without an opinion. She and I have both been in journalism since around 2014. For a decade she’s gone from publication to publication, working for Mic, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. But she has always stuck to her internet culture beat. The idea behind that beat is that what people do on the internet is not just what editors call “news of the weird.” It is not illegitimate, or merely for teenagers, or dedicated to passing fads, or otherwise inherently unserious. It matters. And it is only going to matter more as time goes by. Journalism should adapt to that reality. Lorenz staked out that ground early, and she was dead right even against claims that her beat shouldn’t exist at all. Her stories had to serve as both coverage and demonstration products that there should be stories like them. She deserves credit for it.

That credit has come in the form of a book deal. Her new book, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet, avoids doing the things that made her a famous figure in internet culture in the first place. Lorenz usually engages in relentless beefs with people on social media, makes baffling claims without evidence but with complete and utter confidence, and kicks up shit. While Lorenz herself treats the stakes of brand endorsement deals, right-wing Instagram mom accounts she dislikes, or whatever she is covering today as if they were embedded war reportage, it’s almost not important for those of us looking on to know if it’s all an act. At its best it’s dumb fun, something that even The New York Times seems to have obliquely acknowledged by relegating much of her work to the Style section during her time at that publication, before she failed onward to The Washington Post, where her work now runs.

So with Extremely Online, I’m surprised to report that Taylor Lorenz has produced what is overall a professional and level-headed history of the internet, with the thesis that the more small-d democratic the development of internet culture and internet platforms are, the more they have thrived. Much worse than being outrageous or full of lies, the book is quite boring. It’s not very good, but it’s not very bad. Extremely Online is over 300 pages of what, mainly, reads not as scandalous and narcissistic drama-mongering but rather a business press account of various deals between “creators,” social media apps, and venture capitalists.

Some of these deals are world-making or include figures in the billions. Think Facebook buying Instagram. But long sections, such as the descriptions of the interpersonal drama between young adults in “collab houses” (luxury dorms for professional video content creators, basically), are dedicated to people seeking a few thousand dollars here or there. What value do these stories provide?

Perhaps they’re directed at the youngsters out there who are hoping to join such collab houses someday. Morning Consult now reports that 57% of teens want to grow up to be influencers, at a time when the social fabric and the political ethic of toleration have decayed. As they’d put it online: Second look at touching grass? The meatspace: RETVRN? Lorenz’s writing makes it clear that, even as she approaches the subject in the style of a pure reporter, she thinks it is sad when her subjects retreat from online life. But again and again, she describes people—and women in particular—who seem to be damaging their lives and their psyches by spending so much of their time and attention online, convincing themselves it is their only career option, or avenue for dating, or source of medical (mis)information. Perhaps Lorenz is dependent upon these women to be subjects for her stories—Go forth and be miserable online, she suggests. I’ll write the pieces and collect the clicks.

The book contains many stories of the rise and frequent fall of social media companies, almost always through the lens of how it looked to people trying to make money as professional users of the platform. We hear about the rise of Friendster and Myspace, and then of course how their market share was swallowed up by Facebook. Lorenz does an unusually good job explaining Instagram, and how its own aesthetic has developed over time as users and advertisers have negotiated whether authenticity or polish is the preferred vibe. With other platforms, the shallow view Lorenz takes in her journalistic approach is not so useful or amusing.

A long segment in the middle of the book is dedicated to a period in the development of mobile-native short-form video, the battle to be the Twitter of scrolling video content. Online social video is a story that obviously includes YouTube, and the much-missed Vine. It culminates with something called Musical.ly, which became TikTok. At no point does avowedly feminist Lorenz mention that TikTok is owned and operated in conjunction with the intelligence services of China, a one-party dictatorship that is currently carrying out a genocide of the Uyghur people. A Uyghur woman I interviewed in June told me about the prison guards who raped her, and the way she tries even today to use humor to process the horror that was inflicted on her for being a member of this Muslim minority. Lorenz is not interested enough in any of that to consider it germane to the story of TikTok that the owners of TikTok organize such treatment. She sure includes a section on an arcane 2014 comments section feud called Gamergate, though!

Fashionable opinions about whether social media are destructive to the social fabric in America, the opinions Taylor Lorenz’s career represents, have stopped being cute or quaint. There have long been arguments from the older and stodgier elements of society that any new technology from the pocketwatch to the Walkman to the violent videogame are going to be the end of America. And they have long turned out to look silly. TikTok is quite unlike those, in that it is a product controlled by a genocidal foreign adversary connected to a microphone and camera on the person of most American young people, which also determines the news and information media programming those same young people consume. Arguing it’s just a trifling concern to worry over it would be like telling 1984 protagonist Winston Smith he’s being silly, or focusing on the wrong thing, to think it matters that The Party has a telescreen in his house, watching what he does, and blasting propaganda messaging into his face. Of course it matters!

The recent results have been demonstrably sinister. Many Western young people reacted to the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by siding with the attackers, deeming civilizational suicide by Israel to be the only acceptable option. With most of Gen Z using TikTok as its combination of Google, cable TV, Facebook, Tinder, and a diary, it sure is worrying to observe the way that pro-Israel content has performed relative to pro-Hamas content since the rampage on Oct. 7 began. The latter has gone up exponentially, while the former has foundered, even as China’s “wolf warrior diplomats” have firmly taken the side of the terrorists.

Taylor Lorenz accepts an award onstage at the WIBA Awards during the 76th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 26, 2023
Taylor Lorenz accepts an award onstage at the WIBA Awards during the 76th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 26, 2023

Victor Boyko/Getty Images for WIBA Academy LLC

For someone like Lorenz, this creates a strange combination of vindication and falsification. She was always right that what happens on social media matters, even for geopolitical-scale matters, as well as for big abstract virtues like truth and human decency. But because she and her employers at places like The New York Times Style section and The Washington Post do care about what happens on social media and don’t care about truth or basic human decency, it was predictable that we would see a Lorenz article doing effectual PR work for TikTok in the wake of the company’s emergence as a major tool for China’s endorsement of Hamas. Just another day in the life of its generational campaign to overturn the global world order and reestablish the hegemony of the humiliated Middle Kingdom! “Israel-Gaza war sparks debate over TikTok’s role in setting public opinion,” came the Lorenz-headlined piece in WaPo, arguing that it is wrong to worry about any skew in the way TikTok’s algorithm treats the issue—a take you could set your watch to, since Lorenz has spent years doing a sort of ByteDance hasbara, defending the social media company’s hold over American civic life with a vigor and reliability for which she should be compensated.

Despite the overall presentation of a surprisingly boring but competent and in-the-weeds nonfiction account of the recent business history of the social internet, written in the literary style of a straight reporter, close readers of Extremely Online will get the sense that there is something personal and strange going on inside the author’s heart. “We’re all now deeply cognizant of our status, our metrics, our potential for micro-fame or outright celebrity,” she writes, meditating on how gossip blogs changed the world (for people who pay close attention to gossip blogs). “Even for those who’d been admitted through the tall gates of legacy media, publishing opportunities only presented themselves after years of rising through the ranks, flattering the powerful, and simply lucking out,” she writes, on the demands social media makes (of journalists willing to present themselves falsely to their social set). Shortly after: “For your entire life, you’d been an outsider. No longer.” By the end of the book, Lorenz says that “this book is a personal history in many ways” and, much more strangely, that Tumblr “saved my life.”

Lorenz, a close student of strategies for viral fame and success at gaining online attention, might categorize an honest assessment of her online and journalistic persona as a “bad-faith” (or cynical) strategy. She is quite adept at situating herself at the center of news cycles in ways that virtually no other journalist can do. After claiming that International Women’s Day was an occasion to “support” female journalists like her, she wound up denounced by (then-)Fox News demagogue Tucker Carlson on his show, part of what she said was a “smear campaign” that had “destroyed my life.” After the Carlson incident, she went on a counterprogrammed MSNBC segment about the harassment of female journalists online. And then, to keep things rolling, she denounced MSNBC for having “fucked up royally” by offering insufficient or incompetent support, leading to further coverage on Fox, and on and on.

Much worse than being outrageous or full of lies, ‘Extremely Online’ is quite boring.

This was of a piece with an earlier episode in the Lorenzian outrage cycle that came from her accusation that someone used the word “retard” on the then-popular app Clubhouse, later amended because the not particularly dire accusation also turned out to be false. Her larger concern, according to The New York Times, was that, as an audio-only app that did not leave easily AI-censorable text behind, people on Clubhouse were having “unfettered conversations.”

It was also of a piece with her participation in The New York Times staff’s “This puts Black @nytimes staff in danger” Twitter campaign to manipulate workplace safety law to censor an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton.

Tired of this walking pseudo-event yet? Welcome to Taylorworld, where there’s always something outrageous and dramatic going on.

But there’s also nothing going on since she “wrote this book almost entirely from bed” and is a famously extremist Branch Covidian who, even now, believes that the story of the pandemic is that we did not commit with enough vigor or for enough time to strategies like masking, stay-at-home orders, and social pressure not to commune in person rather than on Zoom and social media. Her remedy for how society can stop failing to conform to such policy preferences is through a cleverly rebranded form of censorship called “anti-disinformation,” which is a partnership between government intelligence agencies and private internet technology firms to determine who can say what.

A big part of Lorenz’s career is based on getting jobs from the claim that the job she wants should exist, and then shamelessly demanding (often using the threat of accusations of misogyny should anyone disagree) respect for coverage of TikTok teens and fashion brands’ social media strategies and the online drama between reality TV stars. And she’s right: The amount of money and change in this area of life demands journalistic coverage. The trouble is that Lorenz does not provide journalistic coverage. She doesn’t just understand the minutiae of the PR and social media worlds, she is also of those worlds, employing their tools and strategies in her reporting. Which leads to biased coverage, empty stories, and bad writing.

That’s a shame, as the internet really matters.

Nicholas Clairmont is the Life and Arts editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine and a freelance reporter and writer. Follow him on Twitter @nickclairmont1.

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