Discover more from Infinite Scroll
Internet Book Club: Extremely Online by Taylor Lorenz
A confusing book with a bizarre focus
Previously in Internet Book Club: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
Imagine you’re reading a book about the history of hockey. As you dig in, you read a little bit about the early origins of hockey. You read about how hockey started, how the game progressed, how it grew and became more popular. And then, at great length, you read about all the toys that have been inspired by hockey. Here’s the first plastic hockey figurine ever made for a child to play with! Here’s the first time someone made a hockey video game! Here’s the most popular hockey toy of the 90s, a major TV commercial featuring hockey players selling products, the earliest instance of a hockey board game. Here’s the first marketing firm to realize the power of hockey-branded toys and products. Occasionally, in-between all the discussion of hockey products, toys, and branding, there are words devoted to hockey strategy and the actual games.
This is kind of how I feel about Taylor Lorenz’s new book Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence and Power on the Internet.
A History of Influencing
You can’t discuss Taylor Lorenz’s book without writing about Lorenz herself. Lorenz is ‘extremely online’ in the classic meaning of the phrase. She is an endless source of internet drama, and starts online fights and discourse as easily as she breathes. She has enormous Main Character Energy. She has a number of bizarre personality quirks like drinking gallons of water per day, keeping her thermostat at ungodly temperatures, absolutely refusing to ever say how old she is, and being the internet’s most persistent COVID doomer even now in the year of our lord 2023.1 She proudly leans into the culture war and is a constant target for the right-leaning crowd.
She absolutely qualifies as extremely online, but she’s also a capable reporter. She’s been on the internet beat for a while and is a good translator of weird internet trends like Cheugy and OK Boomer. At her best, she’s genuinely insightful and interesting. She understands the way the social internet works - as evidenced not only by her writing, but by her own virality on social media. Taylor Lorenz thus seems well suited to write a book about the social web.
Extremely Online calls itself a ‘social history of social media’. Social history is one of those delightfully ambiguously phrases that can mean anything the author wants it to mean, so I’ll provide a more accurate description: this book recounts the history of influencers and social media content creators. Lorenz starts this history with the early 2000s wave of bloggers, covering the celebrity obsessed (Perez Hilton), the political (Talking Points Memo, Drudge Report) and the personal (Dooce and the mommy blog wave). Lorenz then spends the rest of the book cycling through the various social sites as they rise and fall, documenting how online creators and influencers found each site and used it.
If you’re extremely online and can’t get enough reporting on online trends, subcultures and drama, subscribe to Infinite Scroll!
Extremely Online is fairly surface level in most of its reporting. The subtitle of the book boasts of an ‘untold story’, but almost all of the subject matter has been extensively covered in other books, articles and research. Many of the chapters are essentially micro-histories “Here is the early history of Facebook, here is the early history of YouTube, here’s how Musical.ly/TikTok started”… but it’s all just very rote, quick retellings of stories that have been told many times before.
Lorenz also fails to really articulate very many connective ideas from chapter to chapter. So really what you’ve got is just a series of stories about the websites that created the social internet and the people who were famous on them. That’s not the worst premise for a book, but the lack of original reporting and the lack of thematic constructions are major weaknesses.
A History of Brand Deals
So if the book doesn’t shine in its original reporting and doesn’t shine in its theorizing, where does it shine?
One thing that’s very apparent as you read is that Lorenz is genuinely plugged in to the social currents of the internet. She likes these kids online, making their content and memes and changing our culture. She empathizes with them. She’s got a good grasp of how the different eras of the social internet operated, how the rules and trends have changed over time, how influencers and content creators have adapted to different sites and modes of expression.
So it’s very weird that approximately 80% of the book is talking about how these influencers got brand deals and marketing cash.
Taking things back to the hockey analogy: You certainly *could* write a history of hockey that focused mainly on how hockey marketed itself with toys, board games, video games, and other assorted hockey-branded products. It would just be a really weird choice. Similarly, you can write a ‘social history of social media’ that spends more than half the book talking about the details of brand partnerships. But it feels like a massive waste of potential.
And let’s be clear: Lorenz spends a truly enormous amount of time talking about these brand partnerships. We learn about the vast extent of Grumpy Cat’s brand deals. We learn how TikTokkers monetize. We are told the ins and outs of how Instagram influencers had to start labeling their ads with #ads. We learn in excruciating detail about various the various middle men involved in marketing, brand management and multi-channel network (MCN) companies that help to convert online clout into money via corporate advertising. I currently know more than anyone has ever wanted to know about MCNs. This is absolutely the dominant theme of the book.
One of the problems with Extremely Online is how little we learn about the central characters of the stories. Lorenz tells us far more about their struggle for monetization than their content, their style, their personality, or their hopes and dreams. She obviously covers some of that, but she clearly cares more about the money. Charli D’Amelio, a mega-star who until 2022 was the largest account on all of TikTok, is covered several times in the book’s later chapters. Here is the single sentence Lorenz devotes to the content she makes:
Her content was vintage Musical.ly, lots of dances and lip-syncing
Such detail! We learn literally no other facts about the kinds of TikTok videos D’Amelio makes beyond this single sentence. But what we do learn is about her collaborations with Hype House, her partnership with Hulu to make The D’Amelio Show, the Rolls-Royce she got from a brand deal with Triller, and the footwear line she launched. And it’s like this for every online personality and event Lorenz covers.
An early milestone for YouTube was a Carl’s Jr ad campaign in 2009, where Carl’s Jr bought not only banner ads but also gave nine YouTubers $10,000 each to make a video about their hamburgers. The videos are described as “Each YouTuber created a video showing how they ate a Carl’s Jr burger”. There are seven breathless paragraphs about the importance of this ad campaign, how it changed ad companies’ spending strategies, how the conversion rates were superior on the YouTuber videos, and so on. But we never learn who the YouTubers were! We never learn what made the videos funny, memorable, why they worked so well. This section features two named persons. Neither of them are YouTubers and both of them are marketing executives involved in putting the ad campaign together.
You are what you write, you write what you are
There’s a saying in politics that goes “Don’t tell me your values, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value”. In the case of this book, it’s “Don’t tell me what you care about, show me your writing and I’ll tell you what you care about”. And there are far more paragraphs in this book about multi-channel marketing networks than there are about the nature of the videos, essays and content being produced online.
There are a lot of other topics that are technically covered in the book. But the writing on some of these so perfunctory it almost seems like Lorenz felt obligated to cover them but resented it. There’s a chapter late in the book that is totally disconnected from the rest of the narrative that jams together two pages on OnlyFans and sex work, two pages on how TikTok Gen Z politics helped elect Biden, and three pages on black creators and their struggle for recognition. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as clear an instance of ‘I was told to throw this into the book so fine, here it is’.
I think this highlights one of the really difficult things about writing a book about the internet - getting the scope right. Too large and you’re just going to fail, because ‘the internet’ or ‘social media’ is a gigantic topic. But in narrowing down, you often accidentally reveal your own innate desires and biases, rather than what’s intrinsically important, interesting and notable. You end up focusing on some bizarre sub-sub-sub category of thing that only looms large in your particular mind.2
So what does Taylor Lorenz care about? Beyond brand deals, it’s hard to tell. She’s broadly on the side of ‘the creators’ against the big business of tech. But there’s just genuinely not much else in the book. If you asked her directly, she’d probably be a bit embarrassed about just how extensive the book’s coverage of brand deals is. The book is obsessed with creators and especially obsessed with monetization. It’s a much worse book than Lorenz is capable of. Lorenz is a deeply weird person with a penchant for stupid online drama, but she’s also proven to be capable of insightful, interesting work. That’s why it’s a shame that I can’t recommend this book or give it a positive review.
Here’s the weird thing: I’m not sure Lorenz even realized she was doing it? The book is pretty open with its stance that it’s about creators, but Lorenz never says she plans to focus on brand deals. It seems almost like an accident. It’s such a weird editorial choice that it feels like it must have come from deep within Lorenz’s id, as though it were an unconscious manifestation of her desire for her own brand deals, recognition and sweet, sweet ad cash. If I was a less responsible writer I’d do a bunch of speculation and amateur psychologizing around this point. Nobody can really say what’s going on inside another person’s head, but the only thing we have to go on is what’s in the book. And it’s a shame that virtually every character in this book is described not as the sum of their content, but as the sum of their marketing deals.
In researching this post, I discovered that Lorenz had tweeted *thirty eight times* in the past 24 hours about COVID. In November 2023.
I’ll be writing about another instance of this soon - a book about online fandoms that falls deep, deep into a rabbit hole of describing a One Direction fanfiction conspiracy.