Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet by Taylor Lorenz. Simon & Schuster, 384 pages. 2023.
K. was my first—and probably my only—Stan. I met him at Mood Ring of all places, at a party thrown by a mutual friend. He practically screamed when he figured out that I was the one who’d written that essay about Dimes Square, an essay that had “broken a certain corner of the internet,” as a skateboarder I’d never met put it over DM. Though I was more than a bit mortified by my experience, it still felt novel to speak with someone who had read my work so fervently. Essays don’t typically find their ideal reader.
It was our second run-in at Super Taste in Chinatown that elicited his DMs. They started showing up in my requests folder, as messages from unfollowed accounts do. It took me a moment to realize that this particular account was actually his. I suppose his plea was simple enough: he was taking “a self-exile from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn” and “just need[ed] to know” one thing. “If there’s buzzings of me having fucked up and done something, what’s its stature?” He wanted to “find some way to make it right, if only between me and Hashem.” Though initially tempted, always the yenta, I opted not to respond to this message, nor any of the ones that followed. As he’d said himself, this was between him and G-d.
I had, of course, received hundreds of texts, DMs, and emails over the previous weeks, many of them kind, many . . . a bit stranger. I had been told to kill myself, I had been told I had a gift, I had been told enough gossip to fuel an entirely new essay or column I had next to no interest in writing. I would never again write about fake Catholics or rape apologists or under-edited Substacks. One thing was clear, however: all this engagement had changed me, had rewired my brain. There was something about getting called an incel, or worse, a shoddy writer, that made me start grabbing proverbial power lines for fun. Even before my brush with niche virality, I had been shitposting my way through life, letting the language of the internet course through my frontal lobe until my hair stood on end. Afterward, posting felt even more compulsive. Making an especially funny or lacerating post was like netting a butterfly while drag racing but without the risk of physical consequences. My mood went up and down, left and right. It’s so over, we’re so back. More simply put: I was addicted to conflict and also to flippancy. “Who can I make fun of today?” my brain would ask itself.
I suppose this may have been why I was asked to review Extremely Online, Taylor Lorenz’s “social history of social media,” a request that was appended with an apology. “It could be fun,” my editor wrote, “in the way [that] sticking your brain into a microwave might be ‘fun.’” Well, my brain is already in the microwave, I thought, why shouldn’t I write about it? After wringing my hands for a week or two, I said yes. “Ah shit, here we go again,” I mumbled to myself.
Right around this time a friend of mine posted an Instagram Story about interviewing Taylor Lorenz for their Substack; they wanted to know if anyone had any questions for her. S. and I had started corresponding back in February, soon after they wrote about the “Post-Dimes-Square scene,” an essay that several friends had sent my way. More recently, we’d met IRL because they were selling an AC unit on the cheap. I told S. that I was reviewing Lorenz’s book, that I’d hardly read her work, that I was probably in too deep. “Okay I mentioned to Taylor that you’re reviewing her book and she said she’s very down to chat if you want to,” they messaged me a few days later. “She’s like very open to basically talking to everyone lol.”
So I followed Taylor Lorenz on Instagram. She followed back. I explained who I was, and she responded in less than an hour. It was a Monday and we made plans to talk on Thursday—I didn’t want to give myself enough time to overthink things and back out. On Tuesday, she started “liking” my Stories, which were pretty banal that day: a screenshot of a YouTube video about how to fix a running toilet, a SoundCloud mix of my roommate’s radio show, and a meme I’d altered that read, “Therapy is nice, but [author photos of Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Clarice Lispector, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf] is a lot cheaper!” On Close Friends, I posted a screenshot of Lorenz hearting my plumber Story; “Help lol,” I wrote.
By this point, I’d actually started reading Extremely Online and had begun working my way through Lorenz’s column for the Washington Post, where she landed last year after a stint as a technology reporter for the New York Times. In the process of covering “online culture,” Lorenz has come to be known as a sort of older millennial “Gen Z whisperer” capable of penning unflappable, even palatable, articles about wildly unpalatable topics. For a while I’d put off reading her viral article about the notorious anti-LGBTQ Twitter account Libs of TikTok, which she described as “an agenda-setter in right-wing online discourse,” citing its direct impact on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prevented public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom. Racking up over nine thousand comments on the Washington Post’s website alone, the article turned Lorenz into a scapegoat for conservative posters, pundits, and trolls who felt that she had crossed a line by naming the account’s creator, even though a software developer had already leaked this information a few days prior. “The WaPo: Democracy Dies in Doxing,” wrote a user called “luvdc808”; many comments were unprintable and inflected with chilling misogyny.
Scrolling through these comments late at night, I felt a familiar yet distinct sort of dread creeping through my stomach lining and up into my throat. I thought about one of the memes that came out of my own run-in with virality. It was quite simple: two arrows curving their way around a deep-fried and hideous emoji whose inexplicably red face bore an expression of fatigue and horror. The arrows created a never-ending loop that connected the words “Dimetard article” and “Dimetard reaction.” When I’d posted it on my Close Friends Story, I’d added the text: “Me trying to explain all of this to my therapist rn.” I quit therapy soon after—the gap was too wide.
It wasn’t just that I found the vitriol directed at Lorenz to be triggering; that would have been too reductive. In retrospect, I think the dread I experienced had less to do with what people were saying about Lorenz and more to do with what I felt I couldn’t quite say to her. I knew I would fumble the interview. I knew we had shared something inherently isolating and that this was exactly why I wouldn’t want to bother her. The same exact thing that made me qualified to speak with her made me want to keep my mouth shut. I regretted letting S. put us in touch, I regretted saying yes to my editor’s request.
A tweet popped into my head, one of several that lived there rent free. “Triangulating a topic back to personal experience is poor journalism,” a podcast host tweeted about me, among other, much less savory things, most of which he eventually deleted. “I guess we just make different types of work,” I’d responded. “Also fwiw I’m not a journalist.” I had been worried that the hard reality of Lorenz’s book would puncture the essay I wanted to write around it. The gap between our writing styles made me squirm with anxiety; even though I appreciated her clear-cut approach, I knew that I would never be able to write in such a disciplined manner. There was a notice tucked inside the book, written by Simon & Schuster’s publicity team. It said: “Extremely Online is the inside story of social media’s far-reaching effects on all corners of our lives, whether you’re an influencer with millions of followers, or more likely, an everyday user seeking connection online.”
But the book I held in my hands didn’t seem to care too much about social media’s effects on our lives, or at least not those of “everyday users.” Its objectives were much more specific and far too lofty to be concerned with what it feels like to post or lurk or subtweet or DM or scroll or have an internet connection in general. Perhaps foolishly, my essay on Dimes Square had been an attempt to devour an entire cultural moment in time. I had wanted to create a cross between a living document and an archival one; I had wanted to acknowledge the way material reality overlaps with the (admittedly privatized) village square of social media. Extremely Online takes this exhaustive impulse even further, but employs a completely different approach, attempting to compress the entirety of internet virality into 384 pages. One by one, Lorenz examines nearly two decades of online “creators” and influencers, bouncing from platform to platform, from “mommy bloggers” to MySpace to YouTube to Twitter to Tumblr to Instagram to Vine to Musical.ly back to Instagram to TikTok (which had acquired Musical.ly) and so on.
Moving with a paradoxically thorough hastiness, Lorenz develops a cast of characters as she hurtles through the years. She writes about Julia Allison, Kiki Kannibal, Lonelygirl15, Tay Zonday, Keyboard Cat, DKNY PR GIRL, “Fuck Yeah” Tumblr, Rudy Mancuso, Mr. Cashier, Milo Yiannopoulos, Jake and Logan Paul, Gamergate, Magcon, Instagram walls, PewDiePie, Elle Mills, Keemstar, Diet Prada, Fyre Festival, Emma Chamberlain, hype houses, and more. She also ends up zeroing in on the entrepreneurs who believed in and helped launch some of these “creators.” This comprehensive approach is as impressive as it is useful, giving readers a lucid, readily digestible, and authoritative historical account of many of the people and images that have danced across our screens in recent years. Lorenz’s style is unobtrusive and somewhat addicting; reading Extremely Online felt a bit like downloading information directly into my brain.
Even so, Lorenz’s hit parade of internet stars only reflects part of an “everyday user’s” online experience, only a portion of their feed. By attempting to be maximalist, by trying to cover everything, the book retains an absence at its center. I decided to write into this absence. Around this point, I realized that my own “research process” involved posting, trolling, scrolling, geeking, tweaking, and freaking out. I had already driven myself mad, made myself miserable, turned myself into a contemporary Lear wandering the wasteland of the digital heath. Everything that happened inside my phone felt like material, like part of an elaborate performance piece. I read about Julia Allison’s marriage and her obsession with Burning Man, I read about the thousands of “burners” stranded at Burning Man, I read about corecore, I read about lorecore, I read about Mixie and Munchie, I read about creepypasta, I even read about “The Right-Wing Avant-Garde in American Fiction.”
Some people are born to post, others grow into it. Eventually I realized that my best posts were reactive in nature, i.e., made in response to the memes or trends or half-baked news stories that cycled through my feed. Each time a new format or concept became popularized, it would lodge itself inside my brain. Soon enough, my mind was full of dancing phrases, a sensation both alienating and sublime. I’m ready to dip whenever; I have got to get meaner. We did it, Joe. Fake plan makers when the real linkers come at them. How often do you think about the Roman Empire? This could be us but you’re playing. Most days these phrases felt like a grim reminder of my internet addiction—I thought of a recent meme of an anime character sitting doubled over in misery as a network of phrases rolled behind him like a cable news ticker (“Zaddy,” “Grimace,” “Yassify,” “Sneaky link,” “Gooning”). On the other hand, this habit felt less disturbing when shared with friends. Sometimes it felt like we were in a lab together, trying to make the ideal joke; sometimes it just felt liberating to gnaw upon phrases and signifiers and post something completely meaningless.
While doing research, I realized that Taylor Lorenz had devoted an entire Instagram account to her book. But I found that she tended to post more TikToks and tweets and memes than actual promo. I admired this decision, even though it made me crave a book that didn’t quite exist yet. I wanted a true expression of “poster’s brain”: jokes, gossip, stalkers, trauma, and friendships born out of a shared sensibility, though I understood the obvious downsides of publishing something that vulnerable. On September 14, Lorenz published an article for Byline, an online-only magazine launched this summer that became instantly infamous for not paying its contributors. “For a week in September, I was your best friend on Instagram,” was how Lorenz began her essay, in which she described paying a twenty-three-year-old named Franck Germain $200 to log into her Instagram and watch thousands upon thousands of strangers’ Stories for a week. So that was why she liked my posts, I thought. How naive I’d been. I imagined what would have happened if Franck Germain had somehow logged into my account. What would he have seen? A DJ with a hairless Sphynx cat? Eric Adams praying at the Western Wall while wearing a beaded bracelet that said “HUSTLE”? A litany of 0.5 selfies? That cute little dried-out alien in Mexico City?
I was only halfway finished with Extremely Online when Lorenz and I spoke on the phone. Even if I was a “bad” journalist, I was an experienced enough critic to recognize the up and down sides of the completist approach she was taking. Almost immediately, she noted that “I don’t put myself in my work ever.” I asked her where this instinct came from, and she mentioned her early days online, running “Twitter accounts for big media brands.” Even if “you have a crazy story,” she said, “you actually have to put it out very neutrally to then allow the reader or followers to quote tweet it and say, ‘Oh my god look at this.’” “We’re in this hyper-hyper-capitalist hellscape,” she continued, “to the point that we’ve encouraged everyone to commodify everything about their lives as content creators . . . but I think if you write a book that’s just like, ‘it’s dark, it’s doom and gloom,’ nobody will engage with that.” Eventually we moved on to the more obviously positive aspects of online life: banter, surprising new friendships, a community that circumnavigates or even flattens literal geography. I asked her if certain internet phrases got lodged inside her brain, and she laughed, mentioning the canonical Vine that went “Shower time, Adderall, glass of whiskey, and Diesel jeans.” “I fucking love that one,” I said.
As soon as I hung up, I went back to feeling guilty. I had written the bulk of this essay between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and felt some abstract need to atone for saying anything critical about a book written by someone who had also been subjected to insidious trolling. But by this point I had more fully realized what troubled me about Lorenz’s writing style. If you write like you run a brand’s Twitter account, you cannot rely on the reader knowing that you find the capitalist underpinnings of the internet to be dystopian or “dark.” My misgivings also had to do with the book’s form: by cycling through miniature profiles of “creators” at a breakneck pace, Lorenz was imitating one of the most brutal aspects of virality: brevity. In this way, the shape of the book successfully imitates the experience of scrolling. Extremely Online only has enough time to deal with these people’s moments of peak fame (the algorithm eats its young, demanding ceaseless production). By calling every single one of her subjects a “creator,” Lorenz has made their achievements interchangeable, underscoring their blandness even as she attempts to center them. Though they are getting another instant of recognition, they are ultimately being treated like disposable vape cartridges.
About a week after I filed my second draft of this review, everything inside my phone changed. Nothing was funny anymore. I became obsessed with the language of the occupation. I became a student of circular logic, false equivalencies, elision, passive voice, dehumanization, and the obfuscation of material reality. Being jaded had not inoculated me, nor any of the friends or acquaintances with whom I began feverishly texting and DMing. The entire system had exposed itself to us and wanted to devour us for noticing. History was marching through our phones and it felt like there was nothing we could do but watch. I watched our corpse president hug the prime minister, I watched him read clumsily from a teleprompter as the prime minister nodded along. I watched American newspapers change their headlines by the hour, scrubbing away a violent reality I had just seen with my own eyes.
I began to obsess over the advantages and disadvantages of utilizing subjectivity as an essayist. Turning myself into a character suddenly felt petty; hadn’t the false promise of individualism gotten us here in the first place? But the more I read, the more I affirmed the importance of having a self, of sharing experiences, of building connections with others. The more I was bombarded by the language of journalistic “objectivity,” the more I craved compassion, perspective, and research conducted by an actual human being. What is the value of journalism if it is being used to protect the status quo? What does it mean to write with supposed neutrality as American bombs fall out of the sky? I wanted to watch everyone’s feed at once, I wanted to pry my eyes open Clockwork Orange-style to take in the soul-shattering horror of it all. Though my own story felt meaningless, it was in concert with those of others; to quote the publicists at Simon & Schuster again, I was just “an everyday user seeking connection online.”