- “Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet,” rewrites the history of social media from the point of view of content creators.
- Author and Washington Post columnist Taylor Lorenz claims it is content creators who really hold power over Silicon Valley, yet are not recognized nor sufficiently rewarded for it.
- Lorenz also explains how social media platforms marginalize women, people of color and other communities.
- Lack of accountability in changing this monopoly won’t come about while the US government is invested in the status quo of Google and Meta, she claims.
The idea that the history of the internet is as significant, maybe more significant, told from the lens of the users and creators rather than the CEOs in Silicon Valley is the crux of a new book by Washington Post columnist Taylor Lorenz.
In Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet, Lorenz says it is users and creators who hold the power when it comes to social media.
In a conversation Brock Johnson, host of the WBUR podcast Endless Thread, she explains why she wanted to tell the other side of social media history.
“I think it’s so underwritten and for the majority of the rise of social media, there weren’t reporters covering it. It’s kind of crazy to describe how small this beat remains. At least in 2020, there were more reporters covering Facebook alone as a company than all of internet culture.”
Traditional media have been notoriously blind to shifts in social media, she argues, “and refuse to adapt to them.”
Most people think of the rise of social media as dominated by “Silicon Valley men that really saw the future before anyone else and that’s not true,” she says. “Actually, many times they had absolutely no idea what they were doing or they were sort of saved by specific communities that adopted their products.”
Lorenz argues that “social products” aren’t like other tech products in the sense that the user base is the product. The users have a massive amount of influence over the success of a product because at the end of the day the product is the social network platform that users themselves cultivate.
Put another way, the true value of Facebook or Instagram or — dare we say — Twitter/X is the people who use it.
She maintains that users constantly exert their power on the platform’s erstwhile overseers.
“Look at things like the @ sign or the hashtag or the retweet,” she explains. “These were user-driven behaviors that the product then integrated. YouTube itself started as a dating site, but it was the way that users uploaded videos that the company actually leaned into and sort of adapted to and became this widely successful video sharing platform.”
In the book, Lorenz divides social media into two camps: Entertainment model and Facebook model.
“In the beginning, there was this entertainment driven model of social media, which was like people using it for fame and attention and to build audiences,” she elaborates. “This was very much the MySpace model. The Facebook model of social media was all about a walled garden. It capped your
friends list at 5,000 people, because they didn’t want people using it for fame. It was more about manifesting your IRL connections on the internet through this highly curated experience.”
The Facebook model acted as a bridge to attract people online but, ultimately, the entertainment model of social media has won.
“This is where we have these private spaces for group chats and, direct messaging and things like Snapchat. And then you have the public facing side of things, which is, TikTok, basically. If you go back and read MySpace’s marketing materials and compare it to how TikTok markets itself today, they’re shockingly similar.”
Asked how a more equitable and powerful creator economy could be built, Lorenz prescribes first taking the content creator industry seriously.
“[We] need to recognize it as labor and cover it as a labor story. People still think influencing is mostly women taking selfies online. It’s this trivialization of women’s work and of a very female dominated industry. I mean, women built the creator economy. They’re never credited with it. They never get the respect they deserve,” she says.
“If you look at the most highly paged content creators, it’s almost all men. And not only is it all men, it’s mostly white men, it’s almost no people of color. LGBTQ people also pioneered this industry and have largely been pushed out of certain areas of it.”
Quizzed on how TikTok treats LGBTQ creators, Lorenz says all major social media platforms behave the same.
“It’s not like TikTok is uniquely censoring LGBTQ people. Look at YouTube. Notoriously de-platformed LGBTQ creators, restricts their reach, says that their content isn’t family-friendly enough. Same thing with Twitch,” she says.
“Same thing for women. Same thing for people of color. All of these marginalized groups struggle on these social platforms because their content is deemed not brand safe. They get mass reported. Nobody cares about their struggles on YouTube or Instagram seemingly. They care about making TikTok the villain because it’s easier to make TikTok the villain than deal with the systemic issues inherent in our landscape.”
The platforms themselves need far greater accountability to stop that happening. “It’s ridiculous, the amount of power that they have,” she says.
Unfortunately, the social tech landscape right now is dominated by Meta, Google, and TikTok (ByteDance) with “no way for smaller apps that are more responsible to compete and to grow audiences at the scale that Meta and Google have.”
Lorenz also calls out the “intense lobbying” power that US social media giants have that “squash the competition so effectively.”
She pins the blame on lack of oversight on the US government. “[Members of] Congress quite literally have stock in these companies. They want these companies to succeed and they’ve refused oversight. It’s very anti-competitive. Now of course, look at them freak out about TikTok. Not because there’s any inherent problem with TikTok, really. I mean, they pretend that it’s about Chinese ownership. Really, it’s about questioning Facebook and Google’s supremacy in this country.”