Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
PressPad, an attempt to bring some class diversity to posh British journalism, is shutting down
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Oct. 3, 2023, 9:40 a.m.
Audience & Social

“Don’t fight the future”: Taylor Lorenz on news publishers’ (continuing) adjustment to the internet

“The personality-driven model of news is not going away.”

In 2017, Taylor Lorenz predicted for Nieman Lab that selfie journalism would become “a thing.” She wrote that even though social media made it easy for journalists to find information and sources without leaving their desks, news consumers would value on-the-ground journalism that pulled back the curtain on the reporting process.

“Why should reporters actually leave the office — you know, with their actual bodies?” Lorenz wrote at the time. “Because it produces better content, and because audiences that can go anywhere to get their news are increasingly demanding to be both informed and moved.”

We only have to look at TikTok to know that she was right.

“I want vindication! All of my Nieman Lab predictions have become correct,” Lorenz told me. “And I do the same prediction every time, which is like, ‘take the internet seriously.’” (Lorenz was also a 2019 Knight Nieman Visiting Fellow.)

Taking the internet seriously is the premise of Lorenz’s new book, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet, out Tuesday. She chronicles the rise of social media platforms and the news industry’s adaptation to the internet through the lenses of bloggers, influencers, and content creators who’ve helped shape the internet into what it is today.

Lorenz, who is a columnist at The Washington Post, and I chatted about the role women played in building the internet as we know it, how the news industry covers (and overlooks) major cultural shifts, the loss of Twitter (now X), and why she thinks the internet is our “default reality.”

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Hanaa’ Tameez: I love the way the book is written. Sometimes it feels as if media and internet history books are written by people who don’t really know how to talk on the internet. But each chapter of your book is four or five pages long and focuses very specifically on, like, “This is the thing that happened and this is what it meant.”

Taylor Lorenz: That was on purpose. It’s also just how I function. I have severe ADHD and I think everyone else on the internet struggles with attention. So I wanted to try to keep the chapters short and keep things moving and keep people interested — which was hard, by the way, because the original version of this book was 158,000 words, so it had to be more than cut in half.

Tameez: What did you learn, in general and about journalism, from reporting this book?

Lorenz: I started out as a blogger. So I remember the blogging days and I lived through them, but I learned so much about the true origins of the blogging industry. I write a lot about mommy bloggers and women on the internet in the first part of the book, and I was shocked by the backlash they got.

I have a chapter on Julia Allison, who I looked up to. I used to shop her recommendations. I didn’t remember the dark side of it as much I remembered being like, “Oh, people are mad but they’re, like, stupid and they don’t matter.” But reading back to the media [at the time], the hostility and viciousness were really shocking to me. Not a lot is shocking to me, and obviously, everyone knows there’s so much misogyny on the internet, but the way that the media treated these people was worse than I had remembered. It changed my notion of how hard people had to fight, especially women, to take up space on the internet.

I also learned a lot about the companies themselves. As somebody who covers tech from the user side, I don’t really cover the corporate side of social media — I cover how people use the technology, not what goes on within those companies. So I read Mark Bergen’s fantastic book on YouTube. Sarah Frier’s phenomenal book on Instagram. I read many of the Facebook books. Oh my God, Julia Angwin’s MySpace book — everyone needs to go back and read that. I learned a lot about these platforms in deep dives.

My biggest takeaway [about journalism] was that traditional media was completely unprepared to cover the internet and emergent industries. I knew all of the stuff about the democratization of news and I think that story has been told, but it’s crazy just how hard the [traditional] media has pushed back against that.

Tameez: Tell me about how that shows up in the book. What are some of the examples that stand out to you that you think are most reflective of that history and where we are now?

Lorenz: A good example is the early blogger culture that I write about. I wrote about Josh Marshall‘s blog [Talking Points Memo]. [In 2002] he pulled this tidbit from a birthday celebration for Strom Thurmond as a news item. Classic blogger, he’s writing up all these short things and then one of them gets picked up and now the national media has to pay attention. There are so many examples like that. Perez Hilton, though I don’t get into as much about him in the book, was also a really good example of going outside the bounds of the entertainment industry. You see over and over again that corporate media is so captured by special interests, power, and proximity to power that they miss a lot of big stories.

There are flaws in that model of journalism, too. I think that the way that Perez covered the entertainment industry was also very corrosive, and what he did to [Britney Spears] was horrible. But there is something democratic about the ability to be like, “I actually don’t care about alienating all the celebrity publicists,” or “I don’t care if I’m not getting invited to the White House Fourth of July party,” or “I’m going to report this news because I’m a blogger, and I can do that.”

It was so interesting to revisit that. I think [things are] different now because we have traditional media competing on the internet. I still think corporate media is way too close to power, but everyone’s involved in this internet economy. If people see a viral thing, they also want the traffic. It’s just a different business model now. In the aughts, the power of gatekeepers was so much more significant.

Tameez: What trends and patterns you noticed in the news media coverage over this time period? What worked well? What was wrong?

Lorenz: One trend I saw over and over again was this outright dismissal of technology being used by women and young people. The most recent example of this is TikTok. The media, even today, still speaks about TikTok as a teen dance app. When I was going back through the early YouTube stuff, oh my God — the number of articles that were like, “YouTube, the site best known for cat videos…” And this platform is going to fundamentally change democracy. It’s crazy how things are written off.

Vine is another example. Vine died before it truly took off, but it’s TikTok’s spiritual predecessor. The way that it transformed mobile video, the way that it transformed our understanding of video, the way that it taught all of us to post video, was really transformative and important.

Another thing I talk about in the book is the role that the media coverage played in shaping perceptions of the influencer industry. By 2017 it was like, “Oh, okay, we have to pay attention to content creators now because they’re doing things that are viral and shocking,” but it’s only covering the bad things. Not that there has to be boosterism, but it’s only covering the scandals. Fundamentally, it is a posture of disrespect. It’s disrespecting the content creator industry. In so many articles there are subtle digs at the content creators themselves, like, “Oh, they’re these silly, vapid people that just take selfies for a living.”

I wrote a piece recently that was a reexamination of the selfie. This year is the 10-year anniversary of “selfie” being Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. For a long time, any time a celebrity or Barack Obama posted a selfie, that was a Huffington Post article. You go back and read the coverage of how it was talked about as “narcissism.” Like, it’s just taking a picture of yourself for a memory. [The media] put all of these very gendered stigmas around it.

Tameez: I was just reading your Nieman Lab prediction for 2017. You wrote it would be the year that selfie journalism becomes a thing.

Lorenz: This is how people consume news! I want vindication! All of my Nieman Lab predictions have become correct. I do the same prediction every time, like, “Take the internet seriously.”

Tameez: You often talk about how the separation between “online” and “offline” is not a thing. Like, the world is the internet and the internet is the world, right?

Lorenz: In fact, I would argue the internet is the default reality. What you do and say on the internet can scale and reach a level of people…your online reputation matters way more than your “real” one because of the scale of it. What happens on the internet is, I would say, often more important often than what happens in the “real world” — I hate that phrase — because of the scale and because of the impact and the reach that it can have.

Tameez: How have you seen these trends that you’ve reported on in the creative economy bleed into journalism, either quietly or not quietly?

Lorenz: It’s all media! No one would think of me as a media reporter, but that’s what I cover. It’s new media, so obviously that affects news media. Every single one of these shifts has transformed the news industry as well. The way that people consume information is now by default from personalities on the internet, and that has affected journalism. You can look at each of these steps. With blogging, there are clear parallels because most of those people were doing journalism on the internet. With the rise of mobile video — I had a Snapchat show in 2016. Snapchat was really pushing publishers’ content on Discover. Now it’s all content creators. Mobile-first video content has been pushed on us by tech companies for 10 years. I think we as journalists need to be there and put out content in the format that people consume it.

Tameez: Why is it important to understand this history of the internet for journalists and the public? Why now?

Lorenz: I don’t think you have learned anything or can have any kind of coherent predictions about the future unless you understand the past. You have to understand how all of this stuff emerged — it’s not the way Silicon Valley likes to say it did. I was triggered into writing this book, to be honest, in 2021, because of the revisionist history from these tech CEOs when they started to enter what they call “the creator economy” — which, by the way, is a term they decided to start using two years ago to distance themselves from previous statements they made on the influencer world. When we don’t reexamine recent history, I think we ourselves forget. It’s so easy to be like, “Oh yeah, I kind of remember Vine,” but do you actually remember what a pivotal event that was? Or do you remember what happened [during] the shutdown of Vine and what lessons you can take from platforms of these big moments?

Even things like The Dress or just these silly viral moments that you live through and they’re these sort of internet ephemera in the moment — they ended up shaping culture and platforms and how we use technology. It’s the same reason I wrote about 10 years of the selfie. You forget so quickly because [with] the internet. We all have the memory of a goldfish now. I think it’s just so important to remember history.

[My book] has already been assigned in one college class this fall, but I really want people to learn about this and remember it — especially with young people, because they were, like, 10 years old when Instagram launched. I wanted to set the record straight and and educate people about it. Also, I love the internet and it was a fun trip down memory lane.

Tameez: We have to talk about Twitter. What are the big takeaways or the lessons of Twitter, either from the book or the history of Twitter, that can help us understand where it’s going or where it’s at?

Lorenz: What’s happened to Twitter is, I think, a tragedy. Obviously Elon Musk is intent on destroying it as a means for communicating news and getting accurate information, and that’s horrible. I think Elon Musk is going to learn the same lesson that every social tech CEO learns, which is that you ultimately cannot control who’s popular on your platform, as much as you want to. It is a losing game.

He’s been shoving these far-right content creators down people’s throats and I think what he’s done in the process is dismantle this crucial platform for journalism and for free expression. And it’s a huge loss. I don’t know what’s going to replace it, but certainly it’s not going to be one to one. If you have to find a silver lining — and I think overwhelmingly the death of Twitter is bad — I talked to Luke Winkie, who’s a friend of mine who’s also an internet culture reporter, [about] this idea that there’s there’s a reset happening, and I think that’s good. I think there are people on Twitter who have way too much power because they’ve amassed a big following. I honestly think all platforms should just, like, reset. That would be so great. Like every few years, we need a cloud reset. That’s what I told Luke, because we need to hear new voices. We need to hear young voices and it’s really hard to compete on Twitter when you have institutional people, like myself, with hundreds of thousands of followers that have this institutional backing. It can feel very hard to get started as a journalist. So in that sense, I guess it’s good to level the playing field for young journalists a little bit. But it’s also just as hard because that’s where young journalists would go to get opportunities.

The lesson is diversify, and never rely on one platform. I think the media was way too reliant on Twitter for years. I’ve given so many talks in so many newsrooms, like, get off Twitter, please use all these other social platforms because if Twitter goes away tomorrow, you’re fucked. And now Twitter is going away and look at what’s going on. It’s horrible. I’m so sad. I wish I had my Twitter to promote my book. Ever since Elon [temporarily] banned me, nobody can find my stuff.

Tameez: Do you have a preferred alternative?

Lorenz: I love Threads. I’m a Threads girl. It’s great.

I also love Mastodon. I don’t think it’s ever gonna be the default [platform] but as a tech journalist, Mastodon is really great because a lot of really smart tech people and tech academics are all on that side.

You know what I like about Threads? It’s easy to use and basic. I have a lot of problems with Instagram, but it’s generally stable. I trust it from a security standpoint. I like the ability to also see people’s Instagrams really easily. You can post a little bit longer on there so I just feel like I’m able to get my thoughts out. There’s so many flaws with it and it’s not a one-to-one replacement, but if I had to pick, I’m a Threads person.

My engagement on Threads is way higher. I only have 102,000 followers on Threads and I have way more engagement than Twitter. I get like 500 to 1,000 engagements on every single post. Whereas on Twitter, I put out a story and it’s like, two retweets, and they’re both like, “fuck you, die.”

Tameez: What do you think are the biggest takeaways for journalists and journalism from your book?

Lorenz: I think there’s a couple of things. One is that we need to expand our ideas about what journalism is and be a little bit more open to non-traditional formats of news. I think a lot of journalists want to gatekeep the industry, and I get it, because it’s hard to do journalism, but one lesson is to not gatekeep because these changes are going to happen, whether you like it or not.

The second is to adapt to new formats. Don’t fight the future. Work within it, be realistic about it. We can talk about the downsides and the upsides. There are many! But don’t dismiss it.

And I really hope that tech journalists can broaden their understanding of technology and start paying attention to the the power that users, content creators, and people have. It’s not just about the corporations. So much tech coverage is around the corporations themselves and not the way that people use technology and the culture side of it. So I would love to see a world where there’s more reporters covering that side of tech.

I don’t know if this is still true, but last year there were more reporters covering Facebook than there were internet culture reporters. That’s a perfect example of this mismatch. I think those reporters covering Facebook are doing a great job; I’m not saying we should get rid of anyone. But we need a lot more people covering the internet critically, and it can’t be what these traditional newsrooms love to do, which is have this one girl in the corner and not give her any support or any institutional backing for covering the craziness of the whole internet.

The personality-driven model of news is not going away. I think journalists and newsrooms in general need to adapt to that and figure out their role in it…I wish newsrooms would stop trying to [police journalists’ use of social media] and just accept that journalists are human beings and have personalities and backgrounds.

Tameez: In the acknowledgments of the book, you highlight all of these women journalists who cover tech and internet culture. Throughout the book you highlight all of these women internet users who were representative of different turning points. What lessons or advice do you have for women journalists and journalists from marginalized communities as they go forward?

Lorenz: The lesson is good luck to you, because we’re living in a fucked-up system. I think anyone working in media can learn a lot [from this book]; it’s ultimately all about the news and entertainment industry. But I would say a big lesson for newsrooms is to not write off things that women and young people care about. So many of the most important technologies today, especially social technology, were primarily used by women and young people initially, and they get written off and not taken seriously.

One thing I hear from friends who are journalists of color is that when they try to cover these huge, influential things on the internet that affect people of color, they’re told it’s a niche thing. And I think what my book shows is that these things that are called “niche” — they scale and end up being really important.

I think we need to change our notion of tech journalism, too. When I started to call myself a tech journalist, people were so angry and mean to me about it, like, “She just writes about YouTubers.” That’s tech journalism! There’s this notion in tech journalism that if you aren’t reviewing the new iPhone and writing about Qualcomm’s earnings or something, that’s not real tech journalism.

Tameez: Is there anything else that you want to add or that you think is important to know?

Lorenz: I really wanted to shout out those women [tech journalists] because it’s kind of crazy how dominated my beat is by women. It’s almost exclusively women that have chosen this beat or that end up in this beat. I think there’s probably many reasons for that. But it gives me a little hope that women are the ones that are writing this history, because the internet, especially this whole creative economy, was built by women.

My grandmother wrote a lot of women’s history books, actually. I was thinking of it when I was writing this book, because she wrote this book about female inventors called Feminine Ingenuity: How Women Inventors Changed America. She was brilliant. I think if she had more opportunities…she was always obsessed with journalism and the media…[but] she had to be a mom back then.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Oct. 3, 2023, 9:40 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Audience & Social
Show tags
 
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
PressPad, an attempt to bring some class diversity to posh British journalism, is shutting down
“While there is even more need for this intervention than when we began the project, the initiative needs more resources than the current team can provide.”
Is the Texas Tribune an example or an exception? A conversation with Evan Smith about earned income
“I think risk aversion is the thing that’s killing our business right now.”
The California Journalism Preservation Act would do more harm than good. Here’s how the state might better help news
“If there are resources to be put to work, we must ask where those resources should come from, who should receive them, and on what basis they should be distributed.”