Why Taylor Lorenz’s Version Of Internet History Matters

I witnessed firsthand the invisible labor that goes into making online content and the appeal of internet culture in real life spaces at StreamCon in 2015. Hosted at the Javits Center in New York City, StreamCon was mainly a celebration of Vine, one of the internet’s most pivotal apps. While I was there to moderate a panel on the business of short form video, journalist Taylor Lorenz was in an adjacent room writing about the conference and making Vines for People Magazine.

Less than two years later, the popular six-second video app would shut down, sending many online influencers to other platforms, thereby permanently transforming social media into the environment we interact with today. The former Viners reshaped YouTube, turned Musical.ly into TikTok and changed the way tech founders thought about their famous users. Explaining how this all developed requires an extremely online reporter willing to tell the story and Taylor Lorenz has managed to untangle the tale and narrate the history from mommy bloggers to modern micro-niche influencers in Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet, published by Simon & Schuster.

Since StreamCon, Lorenz has covered internet culture for The Atlantic, the New York Times
and the Washington Post, reporting stories about the tech industry from a cultural perspective. The main argument throughout Extremely Online is: Internet culture is culture and we should be more optimistic about social media’s evolution. It’s a strange perspective from a journalist who frequently covers the grittier aspects of being online, from far-right extremism to cultural appropriation, but Extremely Online takes the long view of what transpired over the last two decades.

The story opens with a tale about the bloggers who amplified drama and shifted audience curiosity from traditional media to web clicks. The “untold story” part of the book is the recognition of the women creators who helped develop what we now call the creator economy – and the unfortunate misogyny these bloggers had to work through.

Lorenz forefronts the book with a story about mommy blogger Heather Armstrong who founded Dooce.com back in 2001 and sadly died in May. Lorenz’s point about the early mommy bloggers is twofold: the style and method these early creators used became the model for future online producers and the harsh audience became a permanent fixture of social media. Given the space a book offers, Lorenz is able to give a better view how social media shaped the audience as well, something taken for granted today.

Lorenz also dissects the forgotten stories of New York’s Silicon Alley during the aughts, culminating in mayor Mike Bloomberg hosting Internet Week in 2008. One of the New York based companies, Next New Networks, is responsible for coining the term creator as we know it today. These histories matter because we now have a different view of start-up culture and how the tech industry treats online media. Lorenz does not hold back when critiquing the shortcomings of Silicon Valley and the often-myopic venture capitalists who seek prizes in scale rather than personal engagement and user trust. There is no shortage of lessons that many tech founders learned far too late.

A history of internet culture, like the one in Lorenz’s book, provides context for the overwhelming shifts in the tech industry and massive growth of online media. At one point, Lorenz navigates a critical shift of the end of the golden age of YouTube around 2017, and she celebrates the creators that persist through the work that goes into being an influencer as well as manage to help others participate as well.

Much of the history covered in Extremely Online isn’t really untold, but rather forgotten or lost due to internet rot where many links disconnect, media companies shutter or brands reorganize. For a publication about the digital world, Extremely Online feels more comprehensive in that Lorenz interviews as many of the original innovators and lets them recall their memories of the era.

In the end, the title Extremely Online likely refers to Lorenz herself though she never appears in the text. While many witnessed (including myself) what transpired in the online industry over the last two decades, Lorenz has the keen ability to explain how a new media market became an economic powerhouse with tens of thousands of creators reaching new audiences every day.

The book is an important read for aging internet users who want to know how this all happened or younger readers looking for an explanation of their hyper-mediated world. But perhaps the most important audience would be future tech founders looking to see why internet culture deserves respect.

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