About the Book by Taylor Lorenz Titled “Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet”

From a New York Times review by Clay Shirky headlined “Creation Story”:

Early in “Extremely Online,” Taylor Lorenz’s terrific history of the online creator economy (so far), she tells the story of Heather Armstrong, a pioneering “mommy blogger” known as Dooce, on a horseback ride sponsored by a clothing brand in 2013. Saddling up is famously hard on unhabituated groins, and the eventual pain had Armstrong recalling breathing exercises she’d seen in a book on natural childbirth. Later she blogged that one of her defining images of the trip had been “hairy vaginas.”

Her fans loved that post — Armstrong was also a pioneer of oversharing — but the brand “hated it,” Lorenz reports. They hadn’t meant it when they said to be natural and fun, because they threatened to pull their sponsorship if she didn’t delete the post. Armstrong was one of the first to experience what would become a common pattern: social media platforms allowing for uninhibited voices to become stars, and those stars generating both revenue and backlash — which can be especially ferocious against women.

Over the last couple of decades, these new media personalities, usually creating content that addresses their fans directly and autobiographically, went through similar experiences on Blogger, Myspace, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, Vine (R.I.P.) and TikTok.

Lorenz, who covers technology at The Washington Post and was formerly a reporter at The New York Times, is a knowledgeable, opinionated guide to the ways internet fame has become fame, full stop. She zooms by people and places widely covered by the mainstream press (Tavi Gevinson and Fortnite get one paragraph each) but slows down for people (and animals) whose popularity was driven by internet-native media. Two of the internet’s most famous Cats, Grumpy and Keyboard, are discussed at length — “Though the photo booth didn’t open until 1 p.m., the line to meet Grumpy Cat began forming at 6 in the morning” — to demonstrate the growing relation between online virality and real-world fame.

Lorenz excels at identifying relatively obscure events as turning points. In 2009, the Station, YouTube’s first creator “supergroup,” whose members lived in the same house in Los Angeles (naturally), were given money left over from a Carl’s Jr. ad campaign to make promotional videos for the fast-food chain, on the cheap. The resulting videos wildly outperformed the company’s expensive banner ads, and changed the economics of online media in ways that weren’t immediately obvious to outsiders. Later that year Business Insider declared, “YouTube Is Doomed,” not understanding the rising popularity of its rapidly professionalizing creator class.

The axle of the book is the story of Vine, a video service that launched in 2013 and — improbably, given its six-second limit — became one of the most used mobile video apps in the world. Copying the Station’s “collab house,” several Vine stars — Randy Mancuso, John Shahidi, Anwar Jibaw, Jake and Logan Paul, Lele Pons — moved into an apartment complex in Hollywood and promoted one another’s work, dominating Vine’s “Popular Now” list in ways that frustrated the company.

Vine’s rapid success and sudden implosion encapsulate most of the book’s themes: the creators who understand a new platform better than its inventors do; the competing interests of talent, agents, advertisers, audience and owners; the particular hostility directed at successful women online. Vine closed in 2017, in part because of poor relations with its star creators; as Lorenz dryly notes, “The company’s only problem was itself.” Vine’s demise fueled rather than dampened the fervor for short-term video and autobiographical content, sending experienced creators to other platforms, especially TikTok.

Lorenz has a beat reporter’s eye for detail, which can occasionally be overwhelming. Explaining the rise of online gossip sites and “Dramageddon,” a falling-out among a friend group of YouTube-famous makeup artists, she introduces six gossip sites and 13 creators in four pages. (To be fair, “Dramageddon” was also exhausting to witness firsthand.)

But “Extremely Online” aims to tell a sociological story, not a psychological one, and in its breadth it demonstrates a new cultural logic emerging out of 21st-century media chaos. The book ends with a discussion of how Covid-19 exacerbated global media consumption, and finally led both investors and mainstream media to see this new ecosystem as a creative and economic force.

It’s not clear whether the patterns Lorenz has documented — the inventiveness, the cluelessness, the competition, the drama — will settle down now that the creator economy is being taken seriously as part of the media landscape, or whether those same cycles will continue to repeat, just with more money at stake.

Clay Shirky is a professor at N.Y.U. and the author, most recently, of “Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream.”

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