Numlock Sunday: Taylor Lorenz, Extremely Online
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Taylor Lorenz, author of the new book Extremely Online.
The book is excellent, I am so fond of Lorenz’s history of the social web, and her continued perspective shifting the history of how the internet developed away from the Great Man theory of CEOs and back towards the actual people who created and defined communities.
If you’re in San Francisco, you should come out to an exciting event a week from now: Battle of the Books: Extremely Online vs You Are What You Watch. Taylor and I will be debating pop and digital culture, and what’s really making a difference.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Taylor Lorenz, it is so good to have you. Thank you for coming on.
Thank you for having me.
You are the author of the brand new book, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence and Power on the Internet. It's a really great read. It's a swashbuckling story all over the history of creators online. It has so many recognizable stories, but also so much stuff that I didn't actually know about them. It's a really, really good book. You must be so proud.
Thank you. That means a lot coming from you.
Yeah. I want to dive into some of the history on this kind of stuff, because I think it's just so rich. One that really drew my attention was basically the history of TikTok, which goes back to an app that existed well before it. We talk all the time about TikTok, TikTok, TikTok, but you go into depth about Musical.ly, which was the app that preceded this and eventually led to this cultural phenomenon. You talk a lot about different users. Can you take us back a little bit and explain what these folks were doing, what made this app unique and how it led us to where we are today?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, one thing my book charts is the rise and fall of all of these social platforms for the past 20 years. So one thing that happened is Vine's death in early 2017, that really created this opportunity for the short-form video landscape. Instagram and YouTube failed to launch creator tools. They had tools for posting, but not for basically creating content and posting it.
Musical.ly was one of the most sophisticated short-form video creation tools out there and its social functionality led to a lot of really early viral challenges. Even back as far as 2015, there was the Don't Judge Challenge, which was a real breakout moment for the app. It showed users showing ugly videos of themselves, pressing their hand to the camera and then showing themselves looking beautiful. And Musical.ly also really showed a lot of power very early on to manipulate the music charts and sounds and audio. And that was something that Vine never really cracked. So Musical.ly took off really early. By 2017, 2018, they faced a lot of steep competition because the app was so incredibly successful, but really underrated. There were all these clones of it, including ByteDance. ByteDance cloned the app and then actually went to Musical.ly with a purchase offer and bought the app officially in 2017, and they relaunched the app as TikTok in August of 2018.
I talk a lot about how people think TikTok was this overnight success, but it really wasn't. And I talk about power users of Musical.ly like Baby Ariel and others that were building these massive audiences and pioneering audio trends years before TikTok even launched in the U.S.
Yeah. It was really interesting because you and I are a similar age. When I was growing up there was a website called YTMND, which was combining short-form video often in the form of gifs with music. Then obviously Vine completely changed people's relationship to how that can work and made individuals the star of it. And then it just seemed like after the annihilation of Vine, there was a lot of experimentation going on in that social realm.
Yeah, that's a whole chapter in my book, this chaotic period at the end of Vine where I think it wasn't really clear which app would recapture that audience and also where the biggest content creators would go. There was a huge battle for talent in the early half of the 2010s and in 2016 and 2017 basically. Facebook had all of the biggest Vine stars before YouTube had them. People now think of Jake and Logan Paul and all these other people as YouTubers. They started as Viners, and actually they were huge on Facebook and put all their effort into Facebook even before YouTube. Facebook video was able to really successfully recruit these creators. They just ultimately couldn't contain them because they hadn't rolled out revenue sharing, and so the creators fled to YouTube. I think that was a huge miss on Facebook's part.
A lot of the history of these social networks that you profile is the incumbents really missing something fundamental about how the internet was evolving. What are some other examples of that?
So many examples of that.
I think that's one of the core themes of my book, is that these men in Silicon Valley pretty much have no idea what's going on I would say 90 percent of the time. Most of their success is due to luck and this creative community of users that actually pioneer the most crucial features of these social products. And they almost drag the tech founders kicking and screaming along with them. And then, of course, the tech founders profit.
I talk about this also, but just in regard to Twitter itself, I mean some of Twitter's most iconic features were pioneered by power users. Things like the hashtag, the at sign, the retweets, that native reshare. It's time and time again. I mean, every single platform has had this weird dynamic. Because social platforms are very different than traditional tech platforms in that the value that comes from them is really the value that the users get from each other. So it's all about community and content, and if you can't foster that community of engaging content creators, your social media app is not going to last very long.
It was great to see those stories evolve, and again, people confuse folks who make technology with the people who use that technology to make the community.
Exactly. The reason that I wanted to write this book is for a couple of things, but I think that the story of the rise of social media has been primarily told through the lens of these corporate narratives. Especially when you look at the big books, right?
It's always the platform-specific narratives that take hold. It's like the dawn of YouTube, the dawn of Instagram, the dawn of Twitter, and I love all of these stories. Or The Social Network. Oh my God, The Social Network has been such a defining narrative.
But it's all of these stories about these boy geniuses that create these apps that take over the world, and almost none of those pop culture narratives include the user side of things. It completely ignores this incredibly resourceful and creative community of power users that emerges with each platform and really shapes the platform, and often is largely responsible for the platform's success or failure. I wanted to tell the story of the rise of social media from the user side, and talk a lot about the relationships between these platforms and the users that transcend them and how that industry has actually emerged.
There are two examples from the book that I loved. The first one that I'll ask about is Tumblr, which felt like a platform that was very, very much steered by its users. That even the folks who ran Tumblr very much allowed the content of it to be steered by its users. I'm a gigantic sucker for charts and you have a chart in your book basically about the rise of a specific type of blog, the "fuck yeah" blog. Do you want to maybe talk about some of these emerging ideas and emerging styles that can redefine what these networks look like?
Yeah. Tumblr was really this bridge platform between the blogging world, which I would say is the early social media world where people were building audiences and connecting through blogs, which were this distributed network, and then what social media became, which is these different platforms that offer a very streamlined experience and have all this social functionality like reshares and follows and stuff like that.
I think Tumblr also really mainstreamed this notion of interest-based creators, so with the “fuck yeah” Tumblrs, which were these interest-based Tumblrs like, “fuck yeah sharks” or “fuck yeah flip flops” or “fuck yeah donuts,” these Tumblrs took off because they were basically a way for users to subscribe to specific themes of content that they were interested in, and it allowed these content creators to build massive audiences, which they could then monetize or leverage into the book deals around specific topics.
That previously wasn't really possible, especially not if you didn't want to put your face out there. YouTube was sort of emergent. There weren't really these interest-based YouTubers yet. Sure, you had blogs, but again, blogs were not social media, so you didn't have these interest-based accounts emerging on Twitter. Instagram hadn't launched yet. Pinterest hadn't launched yet. Tumblr was really where it was at from I would say 2009 to 2012.
I feel like places like Reddit would look unrecognizable without the influence of that element of Tumblr.
Absolutely. I mean, Reddit at the time — I don't get deep into forum culture because I don't really consider it the same as social media, but I did originally include a lot more about these platforms in my original draft, and they were just so radically different than how we think about them now. I think so many of these forums were actually shaped ultimately by social media because they're almost offshoots of social media now, and they feed off social media and they also feed content to social media, and they have this symbiotic relationship with social media. But I would say Reddit and those other forums, especially in the aughts, were more like scattered forums. There weren't these interest-based communities that had emerged as prevalently yet.
I think that's a really cool finding from it. I also want to talk about a very... I think that this was a moment where a lot of the creator needs and the creator power went mainstream. You talk a lot in your chapters about YouTube, about the ad-pocalypse. How there was this one-two punch of creators attempting to take back some negotiating power from YouTube as well as the same time that you wrote about a quick succession of scandals when it came to the content that was actually being valued on that service and the fallout thereof. I think that that's just such a cool moment in the history of the web. Do you want to talk a little bit about what went down there and what you reported on?
Yeah, absolutely. 2017 was such a pivotal moment for the social media landscape and how the public perception of technology shifted. You had the 2016 election, which started to bring scrutiny to platforms like Facebook for platforming misinformation. Same with YouTube. And Trump's inauguration was in January, and suddenly people just began to look really skeptically at these platforms, which were previously were primarily portrayed in the media as forces for good. People thought that Twitter was going to bring democracy. There was the Arab Spring. All these platforms were talked about against very liberatory things.
And 2017, it all shifted. So suddenly you had traditional media reporters who had completely ignored the content creator ecosystem for over a decade at that point start to look around and be like, "Well, what is going on on these platforms? Because we accepted them as good and bought this tech narrative, but what's actually happening on there?" And they started to do these stories. I mean, the most famous one is the PewDiePie story that Jack Nicas and some other people wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2017 that was about PewDiePie's racist jokes and some other stuff that he had posted that was very off brand. And then, of course, we had the children's controversy, the Elsagate thing, which was about a lot of disturbing content in the children's content universe.
And then we had Logan Paul vlogging a dead body. All of a sudden, it was just like the media started to pay attention to content creators, and it was like, whoa, what is going on here? This was also the peak of prank era YouTube. So you just had YouTubers acting, I would argue, not the most responsibly that they've ever acted on that platform. Brands pulled their advertising en masse. It caused the death of thousands of channels. It was a huge crisis in the content creator industry and ultimately led to a lot of the biggest creators completely burning out and breaking down.
I'm so glad that you brought up the pranks angle because I actually wanted to bring that up because it felt almost like a motif in your book where when a platform really started to mature and people started to really get a head of steam on it, and you started to see some of the winners of different platforms emerge, so much of what seems like online culture started in many cases as prank-themed channels. It just kind of seems like evolution loves inventing crabs every few years where it just seems like there's always a huge demand for prank-themed stuff. And it's always very important for these networks for a while to build an audience, but then at some point it does have to get pulled back. It just came up often enough, I was wondering what your views were on that.
Yeah, I think prank content is kind of evergreen. I mean, it goes back to the earliest days of the internet. The fail videos that really mainstreamed, how one of the earliest memes was bloopers. It's easy, cheap humor, and that's eternal. I mean, you could look back to even things like silent films where they're essentially a series of prank videos in black and white.
This is baseline humor that appeals across generations and across user bases. I think I agree with you that it's almost a sign of maturity for a tech platform to be overrun with this sort of content, which given the wrong incentive, especially with different algorithms, can often go awry because people can get more and more extreme and end up doing some really dangerous pranks for views.
I'm so glad that you brought up silent film because it was in my mind when I read it; Buster Keaton, a lot of that man's films were essentially physicality and pranks in that kind of regard. Sometimes on himself, so to speak. But nevertheless, it just so fascinated me to watch this be a fundamental human form of entertainment.
Yeah. It's like, what's the difference between Jake Paul jumping off his roof into a pool and Buster Keaton falling off a ladder?
I love that.
I think one thing that I really enjoyed about the book, to bring it back around, is that a lot of it is about what happens when people who historically had not made money doing a thing begin to make money. There was a line in your book that was referring to grumpy cat slot machines, and I was like, yeah, that's a social shift. What do you think the monetization element of the internet and how it's changed has to do with how we consume culture and respect it?
Yeah, absolutely. My book really charts the course of this utopian connected ecosystem that everybody imagined the internet to be in the early aughts to the hyper-capitalist social media landscape of today. It talks about money and this half-a-trillion-dollar industry that's emerged alongside social media, which is the content creator industry, and how that has warped our culture and our perceptions itself and just our economy, our political landscape, our sports landscape, our entertainment landscape, everything.
I mean, I think online influence has become this powerful form of modern currency that you can use to do anything. You have that as a currency, and then you have it also translating to real money, and there's just a lot more money in the ecosystem now, a lot more business incentives at play. I think that unfortunately leads to a lot of good and bad. Obviously, it's great that there's more money for content creators to make a living and create high quality entertaining content that can really rival traditional media. The downside is that there are a lot of scams, there's a lot of competition, and everything, again, is just so hyper-capital. It's all about money. It's all about consumerism. It's all about just this entrepreneurialism and amassing wealth, and that's very dark, I think.
Definitely. I know that you and I are potentially poised for a slightly larger conversation about the intersection of old and new media, but there was a bit in here about Maker Studios, and I know that Disney eventually bought them, and I knew that that wasn't necessarily a perfect fit. I guess I was just kind of curious as to your view as it stands now of what some of the successes and failures are of when these digital channels or these digital creators attempt to transition into more mainstream media.
It's not that the creators couldn't translate as much as, well, here's the problem. It wasn't with Disney trying to get these creators to translate to traditional entertainment. It was that these MCN models were incredibly bloated. A lot of them were VC backed, so they were pressured to pursue growth at all costs, which as we've learned from social media, it's just not healthy for a lot of businesses, media businesses specifically, to grow that way.
What was happening is multi-channel networks (MCN), which in theory were a great idea and remain a very useful part of the industry, are basically these parent companies that would go around to a bunch of channels and say, "Hey, in exchange for a cut of your ad revenue, I'll hook you up with brand deals and I will provide you resources and you'll be part of this network so you can go to other channels in our network and collab with them and stuff."
That sounds great. What the reality is is once these companies received millions in venture funding, they just started signing hundreds and sometimes thousands of content creators. Then suddenly they're taking portions of these content creators’ channels, and they're unable to really provide the support that the creators ultimately need. So the channels started cratering and going out of business, and then also the creators would get really resentful and leave, and it sort of all fell apart. Fortunately for the ones that got acquired, that bottom fell out after several years, so at that point, Maker had been acquired by Disney, and others that were not acquired, they kind of fell by the wayside, so a lot of them don't exist anymore.
I will say as well that you're correct that the early internet stars failed time and time again to transition to traditional entertainment.
They have a fundamentally different skillset, and I would argue, and have argued in the YouTube video, that it wasn't until the pandemic that you saw these two industries really merge. Because you saw, actually, it was all the traditional entertainment people and this new hybrid class of Gen Z people that are like, yes, they write TV scripts and they want to maybe write a pilot for a show, but also they have 800,000 followers on TikTok, and they grew a big audience during the pandemic by making content online.
So you have this mixing and merging that's happening now, I think, with the younger generation coming in that's more digitally native and doesn't see the distinctions in entertainment between the internet and traditional, and you have traditional people who actually got on the internet and just obliterated a lot of the early content creators that frankly were getting fame because they didn't have as much competition.
Got it. Yeah. It seems like it's always extremely competitive out there.
Oh, yeah. I mean, it is so competitive. This is why creators can't even take a week off, because they're running media companies and it's hard to take a break. You and I both have... Well, I don't have my own media company. You do. But it's very hard to just not publish for a week. Your audience doesn't like that.
I guess then I'll hit you with this last one before we get to the definite plug area and pitch. So what would you like people to see differently about digital media and social media after reading your book?
A couple things.
Number one, my book, it's not a women's history of the internet, but it ultimately became one because it's absolutely shocking how many women played fundamental roles in shaping the social media ecosystem and building the creator industry and have been completely written out of history by Silicon Valley narratives and media narratives. And it's horrible. I mean, a lot of these women, it was just shocking to me that over and over and over and over and over again, it was women that pioneered these new business models. So that was really interesting to me.
And then I would say, especially in the journalism world, there's this narrative of the failure of digital media, and I think that's largely because you had these bloated media companies in the early 2010s that were bloated by VC funding that people thought were the future of digital media, and the future of digital media was going to be these brands like Buzzfeed and Vice and these corporate brands that really basically modeled traditional media, but were online, but were functionally run very similar to traditional media.
In fact, we have had this digital media revolution, but the real digital media revolution is the content creator industry. That is the new media. It's not Mashable and Vice. It's Logan Paul and Emma Chamberlain, and Substack writers and podcasters, and all of these types of people that create content around certain topics or niches or personality traits, lifestyles, whatever. There are creators for every niche, and there's media for every niche.
And that industry is thriving. It's growing. It grows year over year over year over year, and I think we're just at the beginning of this new media landscape.
So I just wish people would understand things that way because nobody covers this. Well, not nobody, but in 2020, there were more reporters covering Facebook alone than internet culture reporters in the entire industry. I think that just shows what a poor job the legacy media has done of covering this industry and covering this beat, and there should be a lot more attention on it because it’s reshaping everything.
I couldn't agree more. The book is called Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence and Power on the Internet. Taylor, where can folks find the book and where can they find you?
You can find me on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube. I'm @TaylorLorenz. I have a Substack, too. Taylorlorenz.substack.com. I just use it to send announcements, but subscribe. The only app I don't use for news anymore is Twitter, but everywhere else you can find me. I'm even on Threads.
Ooh, amazing. And the book's available wherever?
Oh yeah. The book is available literally everywhere. It's out now. Get it anywhere you can. It is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, your local bookstore, bookshop.org. Request it from your library.
All right. Well hey, thanks so much for coming on.
Thank you so much for having me.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.