“I want to tell the stories that have been written out of history by Silicon Valley,” says Taylor Lorenz.
In her forthcoming book, “Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Power and Influence on the Internet,” Lorenz — a technology and digital culture columnist for the Washington Post — chronicles what she describes as a “history of the social internet.” Starting with the blogging boom of the early 2000s and ending with the current TikTok era, Lorenz covers everything from the surpassing influence of early aughts mommy bloggers to MySpace to the rise and fall of Vine, pulling seemingly disparate stories from different platforms into a cohesive narrative about the construction of social media as we know it today.
Ahead of the book’s release on Oct. 3, Lorenz chatted with Variety about what led her to write “Extremely Online,” TikTok’s disruptive influence in Hollywood, the behind-the-scenes drama of Vine’s downfall and why “Facebook really fumbled the bag.”
What previously untold story about the internet were you trying to tell with this book?
There’s been a lot of phenomenal books written about the corporate side of social media. I loved Nick Bilton’s “Hatching Twitter,” Sarah Frier’s “No Filter,” Mark Bergen’s “Like, Comment, Subscribe.” These are all seminal books about the different platforms, and, obviously, the hundred Facebook books that we have in the world. They all tell the story of the rise of social media through the lens of specific platforms and really the corporate — they get into the user side a little bit — but it’s mostly these corporate tales.
I wanted to talk about the rise of social media from the user side. I don’t cover tech on the corporate side. I cover it from the user side, so more how people use technology and social media and how it evolves through the lens of this half-a-trillion-dollar industry that’s emerged out of it, which is the content creator industry, and talk about how the rise of social media facilitated this massive industry and how the moments on the internet that we look back on as silly little things — like, “Oh, I remember when that happened” — were actually really pivotal in shaping the modern internet that we have today.
I also think it’s important to set the record straight on where the “creator economy” emerged from, because in 2021, when Silicon Valley finally woke up and was forced to take internet culture seriously because of the pandemic, there was just so much revisionist history. They were talking about how MrBeast founded the notion of productizing himself — that’s just not true. Beauty vloggers were doing that back in 2012. Mommy bloggers pioneered a lot of these revenue streams, so I wanted to also talk about that. No one has written that history, that’s just an industry that that hasn’t been covered outside of marketing books or books that are focused on specific content creators. I wanted to write an internet history book, the rise of the social internet, but not just YouTube, not just Instagram. I love those books, I can’t express enough… I just feel like they’re pieces of the puzzle. And I wanted to put together the whole thing.
You note in your book that TikTok is much more of an entertainment platform than any other social media platform. Given your extensive knowledge of its infrastructure and impact, how do you think it will transform Hollywood moving forward?
It’s actually this regression back to the original promise of MySpace. MySpace also positioned itself and talked about itself in almost identical terms to TikTok. If you go back and read the marketing decks for MySpace, they talk about it as this entertainment platform and this hub for people to get discovered and talent to get discovered, like bands and entertainers. I talk about these two warring notions of social media, which is this L.A./New York notion of social, which is very focused on entertainment and media and that MySpace model, versus the Facebook model, which is this Silicon Valley thing that focused on friends and connections.
In the end, now with TikTok, we’re seeing that this MySpace model was ultimately more compelling. MySpace was just ahead of its time in a lot of ways. Obviously TikTok is transforming the entertainment industry in so many ways. It’s forced them all to embrace short form video… Everyone’s just trying to make these annoying short video things to have a TikTok competitor.
I’ve written so many stories about this, but obviously it’s democratized a lot of entertainment, where anybody can theoretically find an audience online, even if they wouldn’t traditionally have been let into Hollywood. It’s forced Hollywood to welcome new talent into the industry that probably would have previously been excluded, right? Or maybe wouldn’t have their big break. Just thinking of all these people that have gotten cast on shows specifically because of TikTok — and I wrote about this recently, in regards to the strike — but one thing that we’ve seen since 2020 is this merging. There used to be content creators and traditional Hollywood people. Now it’s really all just merged together. That’s why you see so much huge support for the strikes on TikTok, because a lot of these content creators are also working actors or working writers, they’re very adept at using the internet. With that shift, traditional institutional players are going to be further and further challenged, because the internet can give talent more options and more leverage. There’s that woman, Sarah Pribus, who I quoted in a story recently. She makes content about her acting, she’s a working actor in New York, but she talks openly about how there’s times when she doesn’t make enough. She mostly does commercial work, but she makes more as a content creator.
The whole entertainment industry has been forced to dance, but I don’t think that Hollywood executives are ignoring the internet. A decade ago, there was this hard line between the internet and Hollywood — and now I mean, look at something like Barbenheimer. It’s as much an internet creation as it is a Hollywood phenomenon.
When Max rebranded and then listed the creatives working on the shows as “creators” in the credits, the creatives were extremely upset by their use of that terminology. What do you think about the way that particular language — “creator,” “content” — has entered our lexicon? What does that indicate about our approach to art and consumption right now?
The reason that language struck such a chord in the entertainment industry, and why people have this hostile reaction to being called “content creators,” or “creators” just generally, is because it speaks to this broader tech creep that’s been happening where our entertainment landscape is increasingly dominated by tech companies and tech platforms and this sanitized dystopian language that they use to speak about creative endeavors. The reason that people have this visceral reaction is because it’s really corrosive and bad. What Silicon Valley has done to the entertainment industry is not great. Look at why people are striking right now. Things like AI and these new types of unfair deals — Silicon Valley seems to want to turn everything into a gig economy, and I think they’d love to gig-ify the entire entertainment industry.
A lot of people in entertainment are sensing that and sensing this notion that that Silicon Valley views a lot of them as replaceable or fundamentally doesn’t respect their creative work. Silicon Valley famously doesn’t respect creativity and writing. It speaks to Silicon Valley’s increase, and the tech world’s increasing dominance, in Hollywood, and obviously that makes people uncomfortable and worried for good reason.
What else do you want readers to know about this book?
It’s so interesting the way that our perception of fame has changed. One thing that got cut — it’s mentioned in there, but I had a whole 3,000-word thing about this originally — is this evolution of language and how we talk about fame. Who is a public figure has changed so much, and how we view fame and notoriety has changed. Anybody that’s into entertainment, or the future of entertainment and media, would hopefully want to read the book and find it interesting, because so much of this history has been lost to time or forgotten or swept over, and we lived through these moments. But we don’t really go back and think about them or why they were so influential.
One other thing that was so surprising to me: How many times Facebook fucked up. When Vine fell, all of those people who are the biggest YouTubers in the world today went to Facebook first. It’s crazy. Facebook really fumbled the bag, because all of those people were so ready to go full-on on Facebook, and Facebook just refused to revenue share with them. What YouTube has done and just building out this partner program over the past 15 years is really impressive. They’ve really been able to retain a lot of talent that way.
That part of your book jumped out at me. When I read that the biggest Vine stars initially migrated to Facebook and then left for YouTube, I thought, “Wow, Facebook really screwed up.”
It’s such a lesson for anyone in entertainment, too. All of these tech companies or big Hollywood conglomerates — they want to just exploit people, they don’t want to pay. Pay your talent. Pay your talent, and they are happy, and they will keep creating. When you help them make a living, they can build these businesses and create art, and that ultimately adds value. It just goes back to paying talent what they’re worth, and of course, YouTube could be doing more always, but when you look at their program compared to TikTok or Facebook or anything else, they have the best system.
Do you foresee that deficiency in creator revenue becoming a bigger issue for TikTok in the future?
Right now, TikTok is paying people in another form of currency, which is online attention. Because TikTok has nailed discovery so much, it allows people to build these really big audiences very quickly. It’s very hard to scale on YouTube at the level that you can on TikTok. But if the discovery falters on TikTok, they’re gonna be in big trouble, because they’re also not paying people money, and ultimately, people need money to live. What people generally do now is go to TikTok, build the audience and then try and convert those people to YouTube subscribers, because YouTube is always a gold standard.
“Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Power, and Influence on the Internet” comes out on Oct. 3. Preorder it here.