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“Extremely Online” with Taylor Lorenz
Important Context spoke with the Washington Post reporter, whose new book is making waves.
When we think of online culture, social media, and big tech, often the first thing that comes to mind is “tech bros”—names like Jack Dorsey, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, and Mark Zuckerberg—who developed the platforms we all use today.
But millennial Washington Post technology reporter Taylor Lorenz is writing the unsung heroes of the internet into the history. Her debut book, “Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet,” recently hit store shelves across the country, and there’s even an audiobook. In its pages, Lorenz makes a compelling case that the real innovators the online age have been the content creators, whose uses of platforms like Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others were never foreseen by Silicon Valley in the first place.
And of course, many of these innovators have been women.
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“Extremely Online'' is a meticulous and impressive recounting of the winding, anarchic history of our modern internet era, from server load issues at Friendster, to a consequential earthquake felt by Twitter employees; to the evolution of “relatable” influencers; to the rise of TikTok hype houses. At the heart of this sprawling tale are the generations of creators who were often vilified or dismissed at the height of their success.
For readers of a certain age, many of the characters and events in the book will be familiar, even if in name only: Julia Allison, Tila Tequila, Heather Armstrong, Paris Hilton, Liz Eswein, and many more. What Lorenz adds is humanity, placing their stories in the larger context of the birth of the multibillion-dollar creator industry and development of online culture. Lorenz gives her subjects the recognition they are long overdue for their contributions. For example, one comes away wondering where we would be today without the often derided “mommy bloggers” like Armstrong, who pushed the bounds of what people could share online while also being some of the first creators to recognize their economic value.
A recurring theme throughout the book is how the media has consistently gotten it wrong—not only in its misogynistic treatment of influencers, which has led to a habitual underestimation of consequential women—but also in its arrogant undervaluation on the internet itself. A popular line among the mainstream press set for years has been that “the internet is not real life.”
Lorenz’s book thoroughly debunks that assumption, noting the ability of prominent influencers to spark news cycles or generate astronomical dollar figures for major brands through partnerships. One notable example the book highlights is the lucrative partnership between Nordstrom Rack and Instagram influencer Arielle Charnas. Lorenz also spills considerable ink on the industry-wide effects of controversies surrounding Pewdiepie and Logan Paul.
“It is quite literally our default reality,” Lorenz says of the internet, discussing the new reality with Important Context. “It is more real than the physical world…in some ways.”
While “Extremely Online” does delve into some of the more unsavory aspects of our new normal—issues like unscrupulous and dishonest advertising, algorithms so demanding they fuel burnout among creatives, racial disparities in influencer culture, misogyny, and the proliferation of hate and conspiracy theories—readers cannot help but be inspired by the democratic potential of the internet. This potential shines clearly through Lorenz’s history of the popular movements and innovations of every generation of content creators even if the commodification of those popular internet trends—the real underlying the story of the book—by venture capital and other financial heavy hitters echoes the warnings of Mark Fisher’s “Capitalist Realism.”
But Lorenz is a true believer.
“[The internet] was founded on these very utopian ideals,” she tells Important Context. “It's just now the internet has been completely co opted by these hyper capitalist, monopolistic tech, social media platforms. You know, that's a problem. It's not the inherent problem with the Internet.”
Lorenz’s book also contains a lesson for tech companies, which is especially relevant today to Twitter—now X.
Right-wing billionaire and conspiracy theorist Elon Musk purchased the company last year and has overseen a dismal brand transformation marked by an embrace of the far right, a rise in hate and misinformation on the platform, an exodus of celebrities, journalists, advertisers, and other users, and steep loss of value.
Although Musk and his fanbase have been reveling at the consternation of “blue checks”—old verified users who drove traffic to the website—since the takeover, Lorenz tells Important Context that icebergs lie ahead, likely after the 2024 election cycle.
“Musk is just speed running all the mistakes that all the other tech founders have made for a decade,” she tells Important Context, explaining that the X owner is charting a course based on personal preference that ignores users.
“He seems to universalize his entire experience, where he thinks sort of his version of the app is the version everyone should want to have,” Lorenz says. “And you just can't force users to use and like your product…They will just not use the platform. And I think he's learning that the hard way.”
Many of Musk’s changes have been unpopular. He recently, bafflingly removed headlines from links posted to his site. As Lorenz notes in her epilogue, companies that fight their users end up losing out.
“tech founders may control the source code, but users shape the product,” it reads.
“Extremely Online” is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the political moment we are living in. It is available today at all major book sellers or directly through the publisher.
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