Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet

The world is a big oozing mess, but to create meaning and order in our lives, we develop and sanctify boundaries between the clean and the dirty, the heroic and the cowardly.

Here are some excerpts from this 2023 book by Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz:

* In April 2007, he confronted the masterminds behind Socialite Rank. It wasn’t a group of top – tier socialites teaming up behind the scenes; in fact, it wasn’t anyone most people knew at all. The all – powerful website was run by a completely random pair of Russian émigrés named Valentine Uhovski and Olga Rei. The duo was not remotely born into high society and they had essentially created the blog as a social experiment.
New York Magazine ran a cover story on the shocking reveal. Elite society was astonished. They realized they had been brought to their knees, to tears, to a frenzy — by two people they wouldn’t have given the time of day. The outsiders had upended the ultimate insiders, and it had cost less than a trip to the hair salon.

* Most legacy publications didn’t see blogs as a threat at first. Bloggers looked like curious eccentrics, a band of second – rate scribblers with too much time on their hands. The old guard scoffed that bloggers’ writing wasn’t up to the standards of the New York Times or Vanity Fair. They doubted that bloggers could ever break consequential stories without the access and talent monopolized by legacy media.
Readers, on the other hand, enjoyed the lack of polish. The media environment of the 1990s was centralized and corporate after waves of mergers left only a handful of conglomerates whose content was middle – of – the – road, burnished, and safe. In 2002, Wired declared “The Blogging Revolution,” a paradigm shift in how people distributed and received information: “Readers increasingly doubt the authority of the Washington Post or National Review, despite their grand – sounding titles and large staffs. They know that behind the curtain are fallible writers and editors who are no more inherently trustworthy than a lone blogger who has earned a reader’s respect.” Blogs offered readers everything that legacy media couldn’t, revealing what writers really thought. What’s more, blogs also enabled real – time interaction between writers and readers through comments sections attached to posts. Unlike message boards, blog posts primed the discussion with original, substantial content that was ripe for debate.

* By 2009, fashion bloggers like Bryan Boy and Garance Dore made their foray into high – brow fashion circles. Bloggers were suddenly sitting in coveted front – row seats during New York Fashion Week, then at Dolce & Gabbana’s show at Milan Fashion Week, in a shocking upset that fashion insiders dubbed “blogger gate.” “Bloggers have ascended from the nosebleed seats to the front row with such alacrity that a long – held social code among editors, one that prizes position and experience above outward displays of ambition or enjoyment, has practically been obliterated,” wrote Eric Wilson of the New York Times.

I want to share with you an Andrew Gelman (Columbia University Statistics professor) blog post from November 2011:

Journalist Jonathan Rauch writes:

This is the blogosphere. I’m not getting paid to be here. I’m here to get incredibly famous (in my case, even more incredibly famous) so that I can get paid somewhere else. . . .

The average quality of newspapers and (published) novels is far, far better than the average quality of blog posts (and–ugh!–comments). This is because people pay for newspapers and novels. What distinguishes newspapers and novels is how much does not get published in them, because people won’t pay for it. Payment is a filter, and a pretty good one. Imperfect, of course. But pointing out the defects of the old model is merely changing the subject if the new model is worse…

Yes, the new model is bringing a lot of new content into being. But most of it is bad. And it’s displacing a lot of better content, by destroying the business model for quality. Even in the information economy, there’s no free lunch…

Yes, there’s good stuff out there. But when you find a medium in which 99 percent, or whatever, of what’s produced is bad, there is a problem with the medium…

I believe there are inherent problems with the blogosphere as a medium. Lack of a payment model militates against professionalism and rewards noisiness…

In terms of the environment and the incentives it creates, the blogosphere, I submit, is the single worst medium for sustained, and therefore grown-up, reading and writing and argumentation ever invented.

Andrew Gelman responds:

I wonder if his problem is that he’s aiming for too big an audience. We have something like 5000 subscribers here. Maybe if Rauch were willing to settle for an audience of 5000 rather than millions, he could be mild, moderate, think things through, and get it right. To be all these things and have a huge audience? I think that takes a huge amount of luck. It happened with John Updike, and Francis Fukayama, and Tyler Cowen, and . . . not so many others. But if you’re willing to accept a niche audience, you can be as serious as you want…

Rauch writes that journalists like himself are “the kind of people who punched their tickets on newspaper police beats where they learned quaint notions of fairness and accuracy and keeping one’s opinions out of it and all that.” Given that Rauch is currently posting nothing but opinions and has stated that he will do no reporting on his blog, and given that I haven’t seen any police reporting from him lately, I think it’s safe to say that he doesn’t actually view fairness, accuracy, and the traditions of the police beat as valuable in themselves but rather as some sort of hazing that you had to do in the old days before you could get to the fun stage of opinionating. So I can feel his frustration that bloggers today feel free to express their opinions in public–just like Rauch, but they never had to do all that police-beat stuff first. Rauch had to eat his spinach but these dudes get to skip right to the dessert. Talk about violating “quaint notions of fairness”!

Life is like that. Just when you finally become an expert on something, your expertise becomes obsolete. You spend a couple decades getting good grades and becoming really good at taking tests, then suddenly you never need to take a test again. You master the skills of diaper-changing, then all of a sudden your kids are walking around wearing real underwear and you have no place to apply your talents. You’re Derek Jeter and you get to be really really good at hitting, throwing, and catching, and then before you know it, it’s time to retire. And so on.

Rauch is in a difficult position, I think, in that his particular journalistic niche includes a lot that people are happy do for free. His most recent book, “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America,” is the sort of thing you might very well see on a blog.

Academic publishing

Rauch writes that blogging, and the internet in general, is “displacing a lot of better content, by destroying the business model for quality.” What really struck me about this remark was how different things are in academic publishing. Nobody pays us to write journal articles: we do it for free and we always have. We get paid to teach and to do research. Publications can indirectly make us money–if I publish an important article, it can help me get a research grant–but no part of this system requires the readers of my work to pay for it. If every journal were to become free and online overnight, everything could proceed just as before. The argument that paid writing is better than free writing just doesn’t apply in my world.

Journalists view their profession as a holy calling (they have their own hero system). As noted in the 2021 book, All the News That’s Fit to Click: How Metrics Are Transforming the Work of Journalists:

* …journalism is an anomalous case of cultural production in that its practitioners operate according to a set of normative, rather than artistic, commitments. As media scholar Mike Ananny puts it, “Unlike artistic fields of cultural production, the press—ideally and principally—pursues its autonomy in order to advance public interests.”

* A range of established journalistic norms and practices, such as refusing gifts, denying sources quote approval, and establishing a “wall” between the editorial and business sides of news organizations, stem from efforts to maintain autonomy.

* As sociologist Herbert Gans wrote in an oft-quoted passage from his classic newsroom ethnography Deciding What’s News, journalists “had little knowledge about the actual audience and rejected feedback from it. Although they had a vague image of the audience, they paid little attention to it; instead, they filmed and wrote for their superiors and for themselves, assuming . . . that what interested them would interest the audience.”

What makes a piece of writing “journalism” and hence protected by the First Amendment is somewhat subjective. Journalists, like other professionals, guard their status zealously. They are in an awkward position because their job is essentially making judgments that are not subject to objective criteria. They are often quick to dismiss many bloggers, for example, for the cardinal sin of not doing journalism.

In his work-in-progress, Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression, philosopher Rony Guldmann writes:

* Questioning whether the post-war professionalization of education, business, and journalism was genuinely necessary, Gelernter observes that universities had an obvious interest in “convert[ing] as much of the landscape as possible into fenced-off, neatly tended, carefully patrolled academic preserves,” so that the “smooth, manicured green lawn of science” might replace the “wild sweet meadow-grass of common sense.” Justified or not, this trend toward professionalization doesn’t strike liberals as essentially political… Professionalization is just another expression of liberalism’s ordering impulses and monkish virtues, the artificial devaluation of knowledge borne of encounters with anti-structure—the “wild sweet meadow-grass of common sense”—and an exaggerated respect for knowledge that, shielded from that anti-structure, can be “scored by those with authority.” To maintain their dominion, liberals must discredit knowledge that originates in “embodied feeling” and “nonexplicit engagement with the world” as mindless habit and reflex, lax and disorganized folkways to be uprooted.

* As a dissident culture, conservatism is by definition in a position of weakness. The elites of the dissident culture “cannot begin to match, in numbers or influence, those who occupy the commanding heights of the dominant culture, such as professors, journalists, television and movie producers, and various cultural entrepreneurs.” Even religion has fallen under the dominant culture’s sway. One might have expected it to be at the forefront of the resistance. But “priding themselves on being cosmopolitan and sophisticated, undogmatic and uncensorious,” the mainline churches have offered “little or no resistance” to the “prevailing culture.”

* The Ford Foundation, the New York Times, and Hollywood are just the latest iterations of the “unnatural” life of court society, of the unhealthy self-consciousness and other-directedness that stands in sharp contrast to those who pour their hearts out singing the Star-Spangled Banner, surrendering to the excitement of their hearts “unhindered by ‘cold reason.’”

* The now overthrown WASP establishment “saw itself as the nation’s high end, the top of a vertical spectrum.” But the new ruling class of “PORGIs”—post-religious, globalist intellectuals—see themselves “as separated by a cultural Grand Canyon from the nation at large, with Harvard and the New York Times and the Boston Symphony and science and technology and iPhones and organic truffled latte on their side—and guns, churches and NASCAR on the other.”

Laura Ingraham notes: “If you’re an elitist who’s spent his entire career working for the Ford Foundation, the New York Times, or a Hollywood studio, concepts like valor, bravery, and sacrifice are probably alien to you. You don’t take them seriously, you don’t know anyone who does, and you naturally think that anyone who does profess to live by them must be mentally defective, even evil.”

Does anyone fret anymore that blogs are killing the MSM?

Taylor Lorenz writes in his her new book:

* As blogs boomed, traditional media felt the hurt, especially local and regional newspapers. Subscription rates everywhere plummeted now that the internet gave readers access to a wealth of free information, including articles from the very newspapers they no longer purchased in physical form. The industry’s century – old business model crumbled, forcing newsrooms around the country to hemorrhage staff and shut down. As they did, gatekeepers went from dismissive to hostile. In testimony before Congress, David Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and creator of The Wire , warned that the blogosphere was causing a media death spiral: “Readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin — namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.”
By the end of the 2000s, it looked more like the parasite and host had merged. As top blogs expanded their headcount by hiring professional reporters, designers, and support staff, they came to resemble traditional media companies, complete with newsrooms and sales departments. Many legacy publishers realized that their best strategy was simply to invite bloggers in. Major publications, from the New York Times and the Atlantic to Glamour and Elle, hired the top crop of bloggers to fill out their ranks of writers and reporters. These same organizations also started major blogs of their own, or bought successful sites outright. By 2009, nearly half of the fifty most – trafficked blogs were owned by corporate media behemoths like CNN, ABC, and AOL. Yet while star bloggers in tech and politics received top billing, another class of bloggers was quietly ushering in a larger shift.
In the end, the defining figure of the blog era wasn’t the nerd or the wonk. It was the mommy blogger.

* JULIA ALLISON WAS A JUNIOR at Georgetown University in 2002 when she started a dating column in the school paper called “Sex on the Hilltop.” Sex and the City was one of the hottest shows on television. As her column became a campus sensation, Allison felt like Georgetown’s own Carrie Bradshaw. The university’s location in Washington, D.C., brought national coverage to her column. (When she wrote about dating an anonymous young congressman, the Washington Post was swift to reveal his identity.) Her peers enjoyed her candid style, but within months, her headlines began to enrage Georgetown alumni and some students. “I didn’t write about sex very much,” Allison told me, “but all the conservatives at Georgetown were so upset. I became this lightning rod.” Still, Allison soon landed bylines at national outlets like Cosmopolitan and Seventeen. Film producer Aaron Spelling even optioned her life rights when she was twenty – one.

* [Julia] Allison got an idea when she saw Tom Wolfe on a book tour that year. Everywhere he went, he appeared in his iconic white suit. “He’s a brand,” she realized. “I’ve got to be known and become a name.” Wolfe built his brand in another era, but he wasn’t the only archetype for Allison to follow.

* Nearly every article documenting Allison’s rise contained a disturbing level of misogynistic language and tropes. Tech journalists, who were overwhelmingly men, implied that Allison was promiscuous. They used highly gendered language to slut – shame her and question her credibility as an expert on media and technology. She was accused of trying to sleep with the powerful men in tech whom she interviewed or partnered with. Fast Company ran a piece titled “Sometimes Breasts Aren’t Enough, Julia Allison.” Wired and the rest of the tech press was similarly hostile.

* By 2012, she decided that she couldn’t handle any more online assaults. “It had been about ten years of my life, and I was exhausted,” she said. “I felt beaten down, I felt completely disillusioned, and I wanted a different reality. More than anything, I wanted to be off the internet. I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’ll make money, but I can’t make it this way anymore.’ And I never looked back.”
She set out to erase herself from the internet. She spent hours deleting over 14,000 tweets, one by one. She removed Tumblr posts, made other accounts private, and restricted access to her viral YouTube and Vimeo videos.
Every so often she dipped her toe back in, and each time she regretted it.

* Allison lives a quieter life now. She resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her fiancé and was recently accepted into a master’s program at Harvard’s Kennedy School in leadership and public policy.

* In 2013, creators were happy to wander into malls with no security and get mobbed by fans. But that was a naïve dream years later. The turning point came in June 2016, when the YouTuber and music artist Christina Grimmie was murdered by a fan in Orlando. Grimmie had posted on social media asking people to attend a concert she was giving and, after her performance, she stuck around to meet her followers. As she opened her arms to give a twenty – seven – year – old fan a hug, he fatally shot her once in the head and twice in the chest. Police later revealed that the fan had stalked her for years online and fantasized about the two of them being together. When he realized he couldn’t have her, he chose to murder her.

* Before YouTube’s algorithm change, users would hop frequently between short, catchy videos. Afterwards, creators noticed that the more they let fans into their daily lives, the deeper the engagement they’d generate on their videos. The algorithm was encouraging a return to the Lonelygirl15 era.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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