It began, as much does online, innocently enough. There was a photography blog. A personal blog. A bagel Tumblr, where you could submit pictures of your breakfast every morning. Instagram accounts dedicated to all things Kate Middleton and baby Prince George. One blog devoted entirely to E.B. White. “So embarrassing…I had a lot of single-serving viral garbage Tumblrs,” Taylor Lorenz recalls of her earliest forays into blogging, back when she managed all those pages for the reason anyone did anything on the early ’00s internet: for fun, but also for the thrill of that still-nascent jolt of virality.
Two decades later, the promise of viral fame has completely redrawn our incentives for much of modern life. As a new economy of creators and influencers reshape our most everyday anxieties and aspirations, Lorenz has since become one of the foremost chroniclers of this new algorithmic American dream. Through her work at The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and now at The Washington Post, the tech journalist has become a go-to authority on explaining internet culture—with all of its unintelligible usernames, hype houses, and unsung (as well as unsavory) main characters—to the mainstream.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that Lorenz would become a public figure in her own right. In drawing the attention and ire of stodgy Silicon Valleyites, rabid online fandoms, conservative culture war crusaders, alt-right trolls, and old-fashioned media institutions, Lorenz’s own brand has become recognizable. Dangerous too—in a recent essay, Lorenz wrote about being on the receiving end of death threats, rape threats, doxxing, swatting, smear campaigns, a stalker, and all manner of online abuse over the past few years of her career.
“My whole beat is writing about people with millions of followers, and massive media companies,” as Lorenz put it to me on the phone from a stop in San Francisco, where she’s been touring with her new book, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet. Which is to say: If Lorenz’s internet culture beat was only ever about a handful of selfie-obsessed internet addicts with no real power, this line of work would be far less threatening.
In conversation with Vanity Fair, Lorenz talks about the toll of covering the last decade of the internet—and her sense of responsibility for shaping the next.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Vanity Fair: You’ve made quite the career out of covering online creators—these masters of self promotion. Have their tactics influenced the way you’ve handled promoting this book?
Taylor Lorenz: Well, I started on Tumblr as a blogger and a content creator, and then I worked in viral marketing. So before journalism, that’s sort of where my roots lie.
There’s a lot that I’ve learned. One is just how archaic the publishing industry is. I was asking for advice on book covers and color schemes, but it’s really a business of throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. So I had my audience vote on the cover and the subtitle, all these different aspects of the book so they would feel connected to it.
This is so funny because I’m saying this in a traditional media interview, but this doesn’t sell. Traditional media has value for perception of prestige. But in terms of sales, I found that podcasts were the thing that really converted most effectively; I sold 600 books from replying to an Elon Musk tweet about me. Little things like, where you can leverage viral moments where you’re being talked about. I did a whole Dave Portnoy interview that Dave did not release, I think because he thinks he looks bad in it, but I’m a very open book and will happily engage with controversy if it will get me book sales. If there’s ever a time to engage with people I might not normally, now would be the time. [Editor’s note: Lorenz and Portnoy have a contentious history. Vanity Fair has reached out to a representative for Portnoy for comment.]
When you left The New York Times early last year, you said you were frustrated with the way legacy newsrooms struggle with the reality of how journalists like you can now cultivate huge followings. There’s been that ongoing “should journalists be brands” debate. Do you think of yourself as a brand?
This is such a silly debate. It makes me laugh every time, because the notion that famous journalists and writers—Barbara Walters, Anderson Cooper, Woodward and Bernstein, David Grann, Patrick Radden Keefe, Tom Wolfe—don’t have brands is absurd. The relationship between journalistic talent and their media organizations, that’s always been at this point of contention.
The thing that’s changed, and I think what people don’t understand, is that it’s the same thing that’s happened in traditional celebrities, where now you don’t just have to be that top one percent to receive attention. Fame has been democratized. A lot of the backlash around my work is because people conflate me with what I cover, and I totally get why. I did not start as a journalist. I started as more of an internet personality, which is increasingly how more and more journalists are getting their start.