It’s almost impossible, when reading a book whose themes, and some of whose characters, you're intimately acquainted with to not get wistful, and even a little nostalgic.
It was through the dual lens of my own recent history, and a curiosity about how we got where we are today, that I read Washington Post tech reporter and social media doyenne Taylor Lorenz’s book Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet ($14.99 Kindle, £14.29 UK paperback).
It's a smart, insightfully told tale of the rise (and sometimes fall) of social media, and of influencers and other online stars, and how all of it changed media, and society at large.
More than just a history lesson, Lorenz’s well-researched book does a better job of connecting the dots than almost anything else I’ve read on the subject of social media’s meteoric growth, and the unexpected rise of the influencer.
Time and again, Lorenz proves that seemingly unconnected events are all part of a continuum. Whereas I once thought platforms like MySpace, Vine, Twitter, Instagram, Tumbler, and YouTube defined social media and its stars, Lorenz’s book makes it clear it was often the reverse.
Platform users and later creators would produce online content and then, through the tools available on those social media platforms, learn what worked, what didn’t, and how to connect to an audience through their content (and later how to make money off of them).
The platforms, on the other hand, often learned the harsh lesson of what it meant to ignore those creators and influencers, and try to steer the platforms in a different direction.
Riding the digital tide
Whenever Instagram or YouTube shifted its waves to match the vigorous strokes of their most active members, the two seemed to succeed in tandem. And when the platforms insisted on going their own way, or didn’t care to help propel their most valuable users along, they drowned along with the ill-fated creators (fortunately, as Lorenz often points out, many creators and influencers simply picked up their swim gear and walked over to a different platform).
The book traces the early, crucial role mommy bloggers and fashion influencers played in the growth of creator culture and the influencer economy. They changed the way people talk about motherhood – sometimes at great personal cost to themselves. It's shocking and disturbing to read how often the rise and fall of influencers ended in literal tragedy.
Lorenz smartly points out the racial disparity that often plagues the creator and influencer sphere, but surprisingly never mentions one of the most successful creators in the world, YouTuber Marques Brownlee, a.k.a. MKBHD. That may be because Brownlee’s an outlier, or maybe it’s because the book is primarily concerned with the mainstream influencer economy, and less so with the one that’s risen up around tech.
A golden era
As someone who lived through what may have been the golden age of early social media, I especially enjoyed the part of the book that covered its somewhat innocent, early rise, the initial bloom of virality and memes, and the first batch of rising online stars.
Reading about how Ben Lashes basically discovered Grumpy Cat, and the dwarf kitten’s appearance at SXSW 2013’s Mashable House (I was Mashable’s Editor in Chief at the time), whisked me back to those few days in March 2013 when I watched, astounded, as hundreds of people all lined up to meet the always sleeping Tartar Sauce (the cat's real name). I barely realized at the time what a privilege it was to be a part of that, nor how quickly that moment and its relative innocence would pass.
Lorenz neatly ties together each epoch of the rise of influencers and the creator economy. It was fascinating to read how the concept of collab houses (tight clusters of big-name creators sharing a house or space) rose up with Vine and YouTube, and persists to this day with TikTok.
It’s also clear throughout the book how the rewards of an extremely online lifestyle are almost matched by the toll it takes, especially on some of the most successful creators.
The book tends to skate from platform to platform, essentially where, in each generation, the influence and relevance were greatest. In the end, we arrive at TikTok, a platform that does all the things various platforms have attempted over the last two decades, but in a better and more effective way than most of them.
It does not deal in any depth with Elon Musk's Twitter takeover and makeover, nor does the book really address the abuse Lorenz suffered on that platform. She does, though, write about the abuse and misogyny that pervades virtually all online experiences and social media.
There may be a bit too much about the internal and cross-group and creators’ beefs for my tastes, but I think that’s more a product of my age, and just how far a distance I’ve traveled from Grumpy Cat to Bella Poarch.
I get older and less relevant, while social media constantly rejuvenates with fresh platforms, new stars, and better ways of connecting with audiences and, yes, their pocketbooks.
Lorenz’s book illustrates, in some ways, how the more social media and its stars change, the more they stay the same. The rise of influencers and online fame is ultimately not much different than the growth of other industries, filled with entrepreneurs and self-starters with a passion for their field, and a belief in themselves. They will rise because of – and often, in spite of – the platforms.
If you want to understand why Italian model and fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni has 29 million Instagram followers, Zach King is making visual effects videos with Wonder Woman Gal Gadot, or how MrBeast earned $21 million dollars on YouTube in 2021, I suggest you read Extremely Online.
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.