Life didn’t end well for the internet’s first-ever paid influencer. In the aughts, Heather Armstrong was a superstar of the burgeoning social-media world—a “mommy blogger” whose warts-and-all diary entries about the messiness of modern motherhood drew as many as 8.5 million eyeballs to her personal website, Dooce.com. She leveraged that readership into unprecedented sponsored-content deals with Verizon and other brands, which paid her in cash and free swag to hawk their wares. For a short while, at least.
Armstrong flamed out in 2015. This April, she published a final blog post on Dooce.com that hinted at the darkness underneath it all. “Everywhere I looked, I saw nothing but my own worthlessness,” she confessed, a month before she took her own life at the age of 47. Few people read it, because the attention economy’s gaze has long since pivoted from personal blogs to tweets, TikToks, and Instagram stories.
To most people, this turn of events might serve as a cautionary tale about the perils of a life lived as a personal brand on the internet. But not for Taylor Lorenz. In Extremely Online, the tech journalist’s new book documenting the history of the $230 billion social-media industry, Armstrong is hailed as a hero who pioneered a future in which individuals, especially attractive young women, could transmute their images and experiences into content gold.
“The emergence of mommy blogs was a form of liberation for women,” writes Lorenz. “They were among the first people to commodify themselves online and then monetize.” There is no hint of irony or doubt about the internet’s hollow form of women’s “liberation” in Extremely Online. “Social media,” the author says, “is often dismissed by traditionalists as a vacant fad, when in fact it is the greatest and most disruptive change in modern capitalism”—a revolution that has somehow “empowered millions who were previously marginalized.”
Lorenz’s overarching thesis is that the only conflict that matters in the Age of Social Media is a battle of the sexes. She posits that the true heroes of Silicon Valley’s web 2.0 era aren’t the male CEOs and misogynistic tech bros who funded and built apps like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Those are the traditionalists, propped up by institutional journalism. The revolutionaries? They’re the power users furiously singing and dancing their way into everybody’s algorithms and the internet-savvy influencers—like Lorenz herself—who are covering it all. In other words, Elon Musk is out. Kim Kardashian is in: “The business of Big Tech doesn’t hinge on what [Silicon Valley] invented but what they channeled. It’s users who revolutionized entirely new approaches to work, entertainment, fame, and ambition in the 21st century.”
That is true to an extent. After all, a stage needs performers, and few would pay for a OnlyFans account run by, say, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, even if he were announcing the future of WhatsApp, a Meta-owned chat platform used monthly by 1 out of 3 people on the planet. The names on the list of top OnlyFans earners are all women—including Bhad Bhabie, a 20-year-old rapper from Florida who earned more than $50 million in 2022 from her OnlyFans page. Young women also dominate photo- and video-first sites like Instagram and TikTok in terms of views, interactions, and earnings. But Lorenz doesn’t reckon with the massive success of the male-heavy online gaming industry and related social apps like Twitch and Discord. She also has relatively little to say about X, formerly known as Twitter, whose user base is 62 percent male—even as she devotes multiple chapters to the defunct video site Vine.
What does it profit a young woman—or man—to gain the whole world wide web and lose her own soul? Extremely Online never makes the case that the terabytes of images churned out by smartphone-savvy Gen-Zers of all genders are actually any good. The assumption is that it must be if people click on it. Yes, a streamer like PinkyDoll may make $7,000 a day by robotically repeating the phrase “Ice cream so good” on a loop, but perhaps we should be embarrassed by this fact.
Lorenz also doesn’t reckon with the 88 percent of Americans who believe social media is at least partially to blame for skyrocketing rates of depression among teenagers, according to a YouGov poll. Members of Gen Z are also 3½ times as likely to report negative body image than Baby Boomers, according to research by consulting giant McKinsey. Teen girls, in particular, are facing a mental-health crisis. This week, 42 state attorneys general sued Meta, alleging that Facebook and Instagram target children and addict them to the scroll.
Not long ago, Lorenz mocked the idea of social media being harmful. “People are like, ‘Why are kids so depressed? It must be their PHONES!,’” she tweeted. “But never mention the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic [with] record wealth inequality, zero social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world.”
Yet it isn’t climate change that’s taking a mental toll on the social-media influencers themselves. The tradeoff of all the fame and financial gain is constant self-exploitation and a lack of privacy and job security. You must constantly adjust to abrupt shifts in recommendation algorithms and feed the beast of content or lose viewers and money. Elle Mills, a teen YouTuber who features prominently in Extremely Online, earned millions of views but burned out in a few short years, retiring from streaming at age 19. Do the ends justify the lurid means?
For most of us, they don’t. But Lorenz is in no hurry to bite the algorithmic hand that feeds her.
In the two decades since Armstrong and other proto-influencers kickstarted the so-called creator economy, traditional news media have declined. Platform-agnostic Gen-Zers now primarily consume their news from the feeds of highly caffeinated “personalities” (influencers, comedians, podcasters, etc.) over journalists, according to a recent study—“The Fandomization of News” was how The Verge summed up the findings.
Lorenz is a transitional media figure who is both a purveyor and a product of this seismic shift, a kind of influencer-journalist hybrid. She lives in Los Angeles, the influencer capital of the world, and emotes the news for her fandom of half a million TikTok and 340,000 X followers, while simultaneously typing up old-timey articles for legacy East Coast outlets by documenting what happens on her phone screen.
Not that she would see it that way. “I find myself struck more by the similarities than the distinctions between the entertainers, artists, digital professionals, influencers, and journalists who populate these platforms,” she recently told Nieman News Lab. “Though we like to consider ourselves distinct by dent of our craft’s supposedly elevated calling, journalists are really just creators by a different name.” Working for a brand is so over; becoming one is the present and future.
It’s little wonder, then, that Lorenz bolsters her career by borrowing from the playbook of social-media celebs she lauds in Extremely Online. Today’s top talking heads on streaming sites rely less on the institutional power of legacy media than a cult of personality to build a paying audience. It also helps to have your peers talking about you, even if it’s drummed-up drama, targeted diss tracks, and self-righteous call-outs; all attention is good attention.
Hence, Lorenz’s speed-run to prominence since 2016 began with a reporting job with Mic—a-once buzzy site for the dominant online news audience of the 2010s: college-educated millennial liberals. She quickly climbed the digital-media ladder, first with gigs at The Daily Beast and Business Insider and then to The Atlantic, The New York Times, and now The Washington Post. She does so while feuding with colleagues and everyone else who disagrees with her punditry. She is as unafraid to lash out at Tucker Carlson, who frequently targets Lorenz for mockery, as she is, say, her Pulitzer-winning colleague Maggie Haberman for allegedly acting like “a psycho” on a Times Slack channel.
She famously went on MSNBC last year to tear up about the hate and harassment she receives online, but then vented disdain at the network for “mishandling” the segment. “No bigger regret in my career than making the mistake of thinking Morgan Radford knew how to accurately report on abuse/ harassment,” Lorenz tweeted. “Her complete mishandling of the story has led to immense fallout and months of abuse. I cannot warn women loudly enough to stay away from her/MSNBC.”
These days, media insiders who don’t defend her seem terrified of her. Perhaps that’s why other reviews for the extremely boring Extremely Online have been overwhelmingly glowing. Mediate, for example, gushed: “Lorenz takes the reader through the shaping of the internet as we know it with fantastic aplomb, encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, and in a breezy, fewer-than-300 pages, does not waste an inch of space or a microgram of ink. Immediately gripping, Extremely Online pulses from page to page.”
It’s hard to say if reviews like that are sponsored content, but what isn’t these days? Lorenz’s rise is a symptom of Big Tech-driven social and media fragmentation. Her historiography strikingly mirrors the breathlessness and superficiality of the phenomena she documents, but histories are written by the victors, all the same.