As a journalist on the internet beat, journalist Taylor Lorenz has followed influencers and the social media economy for nearly a decade. In many instances, she has become the story herself, particularly on right-wing social media, and she brings her own first-hand experience to the table in her reporting. For someone like me, who first came across her commentary on TikTok, who better to explain the online influencer economy than someone who’s made it their brand? What events led to the advent of content creators and influencers—often professionalizing themselves from their bedrooms? In Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet, Lorenz charts a “social history of social media,” mapping how modern influencers and their drama evolved hand in hand and upended the platforms that brought them to fame.
At its best, Extremely Online traces how early influencers evolved into their modern-day counterparts. It chronicles the social media platform decisions that sowed seeds for creators to thrive or let them become forgotten. With an eye for recent history, Lorenz takes us through creator tours, multi-channel networks, influencer houses, and the challenges that emerge as a creator’s content becomes popular online. She walks us through policy-level shifts, like the Federal Trade Commission’s crackdown on undisclosed advertising or YouTube’s “apocalypse,” when controversies dried up revenue streams for creators. But at its worst, it is a play-by-play of every article tracking tech platform decisions and influencer subcultures—dating back to the nascence of MySpace, Friendster, and the blogger revolution, and reaching its hands into the TikTok trends of just last year.
Extreme Online comes with the appeal of crawling through Wikipedia pages of long-forgotten tech CEOs but offers little else beyond these histories. When it loses focus on internet influencers, it quickly devolves into a play-by-play of company histories, detailing how one social media giant “changed,” “disrupted,” “and “transformed” the landscape. Platform decisions are either the most innovative thing ever or a terrible blunder in the worst interests of themselves, digital strategists, and influencers. Once we have made our way to TikTok, its shtick becomes old. Maybe “the untold story of fame, influence, and power on the internet” needed fewer stories to focus on, or a better-defined entry point into the social media revolution it is trying to describe.
Extremely Online often can’t decide which story to tell, zooming in on dozens and dozens of influencers, only to leave their stories behind as social media marches onward. From mommy bloggers to scene kids, prank stars, and aspiring entrepreneurs, their narratives boil down to who they are, what niche they occupy, and what is happening to them—and the story rarely returns. It seemingly picks who to follow at random, and their narratives feel disconnected, which is especially unhelpful since many follow forgotten influencers that did not make it to household names. Instead of picking one (or some), it chooses to tell all of them with little underlying threads or themes. The only true connective tissue is the passage of time. Over the course of the book, its characters become buried in its pages and forgotten once we flip past.
It’s unable to engage with the economics of influencing at times. It delves in-depth into how YouTube’s revenue split incentivized creators, unlike other platforms, but other platforms’ monetization schemes are a mystery. Lorenz explains how pushing short-form video content became the smart platform strategy for social media but neglects to explore how Facebook’s “pivot to video” destroyed some media companies and seemingly all video journalism. The myriad of attempts to create content creator unions or efforts by influencers to organize for transparent pay policies from platforms or definitive ownership of their content is absent—beyond simply quoting big-name influencers as they criticize a platform policy. Neither are discussions of algorithmic penalization of content, like that which LGBT+ creators have described for years. The book’s broad scope also means less time spent on more contemporary issues that creators face. Toward the latter few chapters, she unpacks creator burnout, extremist influencers online, and the experiences of Black content creators losing credit and monetization for their work to white creators. But it feels like an afterthought when we finally get there.
In Extremely Online, influencing is a disruptive force that “demolished traditional barriers” and “empowered millions who were previously marginalized,” even as we charge through famous controversies left and right. Its revolution is a social one decades in the making and one that the world is arguably still trying to figure out. But what’s left is a book that feels dated, even as it describes trends and subcultures that came to life in the late 2010s. By its end, the book falls under its weight, giving a nearly-always impressed view of influencers: how they transformed the creator ecosystem or how platforms accidentally and intentionally shaped their content.
Influencing on the internet could have been simply too big to tackle because many of its chapters could have been books themselves. For another author, gamergate, parasocial relationships between fans and creators, or the consequences of accidental virality could be explored at length. The aesthetics of online authenticity or the evolution of social rankings sound like reasonable theses to try out. For all the book does to delve into how platforms changed their visual designs or cultural know-how, there is more impressive digital ethnography or blogging to read instead. Aside from a few instances, it features little original reporting, preferring to shape a manuscript cobbled together from existing news articles.
Extremely Online is not an untold story of the internet but a trailing series of open internet tabs, stringing together quotes from tech startup CEOs, content creators, or influencer-devotees given to outlets and offering sizable histories for how the influencer economy came to be. It’s set up to explore the breakdown between “legacy media,” traditional advertisers, and the rise of creators stockpiling cultural sway online, but it quickly loses track of what it wants to say. For the “extremely online,” it never ventures past familiar territory. For those uninitiated, it is brimming with online influencers, never distinguishing between obscure and household names, yet it barely scratches the surface of what happened between the dot com bubble and now.
Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet
Simon & Schuster
Published October 3rd, 2023
Reema Saleh is a writer, journalist, and digital media producer. When she's not doing that, her face is buried in whichever fantasy book has caught her eye. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @reemasabrina.