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How did we come to live extremely online? Mommy bloggers, says one writer

Taylor Lorenz, columnist at The Washington Post and author of <em>Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence and Power on the Internet.</em>
Brian Treitler
Taylor Lorenz, columnist at The Washington Post and author of Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence and Power on the Internet.

Out-of-focus shots, unfiltered photo dumps, unplanned selfies taken when prompted – these are some of the hallmarks of Generation Z on social media.

It's an attempt by the generation to be more authentic than the highly filtered, picture-perfect poses of their millennial predecessors. But journalist Taylor Lorenz says Gen Z weren't the first to claim digital authenticity.

The mommy bloggers of the aughts were showing their not-so-picture-perfect lives long before TikTok and Instagram even existed, Lorenz argues in her new social history of the internet, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence and Power on the Internet. The title references internet use that's so pervasive that it becomes someone's main point of reference.

Extremely Online by Taylor Lorenz, out Oct. 3 2023
/ Simon & Schuster
/
Simon & Schuster
Extremely Online by Taylor Lorenz, out Oct. 3 2023

"The earliest content creators were really, I would argue, the mommy bloggers: the Gen X moms," Lorenz told NPR.

"They had an ability to be real and authentic and talk about these really taboo, tough subjects that, at the time, absolutely no one in traditional media would ever even acknowledge: postpartum depression, addictions, drinking wine at your child's daycare pickup, not always loving your kids or having problems breastfeeding."

Lorenz argues that those mommy bloggers even laid the foundation for today's $16.4 billion influencer industry "at a time when there was no built-in audience on the internet and there was no built-in monetization."

When some of these bloggers monetized their accounts, they were criticized for "selling out" or "oversharing and profiting off their kids," Lorenz wrote in her book.

In her interview, Lorenz added, "Those women were being so graphic and real and breaking stereotypes of what women should be and how women should speak about motherhood. They were the ones that were authentic because they were in this climate that was so hostile to them. Now, people are often authentic as a means to an end."

The hot pink wall of Paul Smith's Los Angeles store at one point became a flashpoint for millennials' highly curated Instagram posts. By 2016, the wall had turned into such a status symbol that more than 100,000 Instagram users uploaded photos in front of it that year alone, according to Lorenz.

"Not to hate on Gen Z, but I do think some of it is just as curated as the Millennial Pink [wall]," Lorenz said. "It's like, let me get the perfectly disheveled aesthetic for my TikTok to make sure that I go viral. Like, that's just as bad as setting up your ring light in front of the Paul Smith wall."

Lorenz reports for The Washington Post, but defines "the media" as creators and influencers on social media as a whole, rather than the legacy media outlets that distribute news and other information.

"When one thinks of 'the media,' they often think of broadcast news and newspapers; in reality, creators are 'the media' of today," she writes in the last paragraph of her book. "The media landscape that they dominate is only becoming more digital and more distributed. Cycles of virality are accelerating. Online influence can make you an overnight Hollywood sensation, morph you into a powerful business leader or take you to the White House. These shifts will only be compounded with technological advances such as the rise of AI. Legacy institutions that refuse to adapt will continue to fade into oblivion."

NPR asked Lorenz about her past as an independent blogger, the tension between legacy media outlets and content creators and how AI will shape our online world.

I remember when Trump's Twitter used to drive the news cycle, and nowadays it feels like the traditional media outlets are finally taking TikTok seriously. Can you talk about how legacy media outlets view social media?

Taylor Lorenz: I think legacy media outlets have always sort of traditionally underestimated social media, or they kind of drank the Kool-Aid really early on and, you know, pivoted all their companies to video because of Facebook and then were sort of disillusioned and started hating social media, but they have never really recognized it as a new competitive form of media.

I think, especially in traditional institutions, they still tend to think that the work they're doing and their brand is stronger than some of these social media native brands generally led by content creators or influencers. They've sort of traditionally underestimated it or they give it to the intern to do, you know, because it's seen as an afterthought, just a place for promotion.

Why do you write for The Washington Post when you could just be an independent blogger?

Lorenz: I started as an independent blogger and completely outside of the media, and I wrote very negatively about the legacy media. But now, I work in it mostly because it makes me sad that it's going away and I want these places to take the internet seriously. When we have a legacy media that has disrespect for the internet and refuses to acknowledge it or cover it or sort of alter their businesses to adapt to it, one, we lose really important legacy institutions and great journalists get laid off. But two, we have a media that's completely out of touch with reality.

Are these traditional outlets competing with the content creators? Who's leading the game?

Lorenz: Traditional media is 100% competing with the content creator ecosystem, which is very much the new media. And they're incredibly behind and incredibly out of touch. And I would say just in the sense that they still sort of think that they have the upper hand and they still think people care about a lot of stuff that people don't really care about. Unfortunately, for instance: journalistic quality, accuracy, high-quality content just in terms of production value, these are all things that people on the internet generally don't prioritize or care about. And so I think that legacy media is behind in all of those ways.

What about TikTok makes it such a prevalent app?

Lorenz: TikTok does a few things differently. It breaks this American sort of model of social media, which is all about following and followers. On TikTok, you don't need a single follower to go viral and you don't need to subscribe to anybody to be served highly interesting, relevant content.

On every other social app like Twitter, you log on to Twitter and you need followers, otherwise you're posting to the void. On TikTok, everything goes into this sort of common algorithm, the For You Page, and the content is algorithmically distributed. As a user, you don't have to spend forever following the right people to make sure that you're getting the right content delivery. And I think it's a very powerful mechanism for discovery and content delivery, and it's far superior than any of the U.S.-based social networks.

How do you think AI will change the media landscape in the coming years?

Lorenz: If you think about social media and the rise of these internet creative tools, they've really lowered the barrier to content production. And so you see more people out there being able to produce high quality content in less time. AI is just going to supercharge that. AI lowers the barrier to content creation even further and makes it even easier to generate videos and photos and illustrations and all of that. So I think it's just going to make the content landscape even more competitive. And I think a lot of content creators, because they don't follow traditional journalism rules, will very much be able to capitalize on that.

You called your book Extremely Online. What was the thinking behind that title?

Lorenz: Well, it's about the emergence of this whole internet economy and how it's shaping everything to the point that everyone today is extremely online. Whether you personally participate in the internet or not, it defines our world.

Online attention is the most powerful form of modern currency. Like, if you have enough online attention, you can literally do anything. You can use it to launch a business, launch a political career, launch a sports team. You can do anything you want with online attention.

This story was edited by Olivia Hampton and Treye Green.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 2, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly used "kid" instead of "kids" in a quote from Taylor Lorenz
Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.