Slouching Towards BethleMeme: Taylor Lorenz Explains the Internet
Joan Didion’s 1968 essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was rightfully praised as a “devastating depiction of the aimless lives of the disaffected and incoherent young” during a time of domestic social unrest and global conflict.
A better writer than Taylor Lorenz, the 39-year-old chronicler of teen internet fads, might be capable of channeling Didion’s detached semi-empathetic derision into a worthwhile commentary on our current generation of aimless youths and their predilection for orgies (more figurative now than then) of self-indulgence.
Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet, which Lorenz wrote “almost entirely from bed, as a medically vulnerable person (still!) trying to survive a deadly pandemic while being doxxed, stalked, harassed, and attacked by some of the worst corners of the internet,” is indeed a chronicle of incoherent youth.
But it is not a worthwhile book. Not in the conventional sense, at least. Future historians (or alien conquerors) may one day consider Extremely Online as a crucial primary text in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the American Empire.” For the vast majority of mentally stable humans living today, Lorenz’s “social history of social media” is neither interesting nor comprehensible. A “who?” followed by a “who cares?”
Written in the breathless style of a pre-teen internet (and Adderall) addict composing the Wikipedia entry for “Content Creator,” the book bombards us with words and names you’ve never heard and will wish you hadn’t: DigiTour, ROFLCon, A Night to ReMEMEber, lifecasting, ceWEBrities, FameBall, Webutante, Young Klout Gang (not to be confused with the Clout Gang), Keemstar, Dramageddon, Hype House, Drib Crib, Vlog Squad, FaZe Clan, GrapeStory, Lilhuddy, Dax Flame, Pokimane, Fred Figglehorn, WhataDayDerek, Lonelygirl15, Vsauce, Smosh, TheBdonski, among others.
Lorenz considers the social media “revolution”—specifically, the emergence of “influencing” or “content creating” or “going viral” as an increasingly viable path to fame and fortune—to be “the greatest and most disruptive change in modern capitalism,” the results of which have been “socially and economically liberating” for “millions who were previously marginalized,” including but not limited to teenagers who don’t want to get a real job when they grow up.
Extremely Online is less a social history of social media than it is a joyless retelling of how tech and marketing executives gradually learned to optimize ROI by “cultivating creators” (paying children to sell stuff to other children on the internet). Like the time Trident paid [some teenagers you’ve never heard of] to “[croon] about the gum’s ‘layers of flavor’ while holding a pink teddy bear.” Revolutionary, indeed.
Lorenz lauds the so-called content creators as visionary entrepreneurs who found a way to translate their “likes” into money. In other words, people who discovered how to use social media the way former president Donald Trump used the tabloids. She proceeds to highlight the “accomplishments” of her protagonists without even a hint of apprehension about what the internet revolution has wrought on society. It’s hard to take her any more seriously than you would the author of a book titled Fun Way to Enjoy Fentanyl with Your Family.
Dogs and cats with custom merch lines. Viral videos about sexual assault, suicide, and murder. An entire generation hooked on Chinese spyware. Earlier influencers such as Tila Tequila, who rose to prominence by posting semi-nude photos of herself and parlayed that into a reality TV career before getting canceled for doing a Nazi salute. The guy who “got high on marijuana and decided to create fuckyeahsharks.tumblr.com.” Humanity’s worst impulses, monetized.
The book’s content, so to speak, is begging for the wry and withering treatment of an outsider—someone like Didion or Tom Wolfe. An early influencer quoted in the book actually cites the legendary author and cultural critic as an inspiration. “He’s a brand,” she realized after seeing Wolfe in his iconic white suit. “I’ve got to be known and become a name.” It’s possible that Wolfe’s celebrity had more to do with the great writing than it did with the suit, but why even bother at this point?
Lorenz can’t muster a critical perspective due to the fact she, too, is extremely online. In her world, Paris Hilton is a “visionary” for showing ordinary Americans how to become “famous for being famous” by parlaying her “many headlines [and sex tapes] into a successful digital brand of her own.” She toasts the demise of “legacy media” despite writing for the Washington Post, being published by Simon & Schuster, and appearing on MSNBC. The future is bright. (It’s not.)
If you’re looking for a book about capitalism in the internet age that will make you question your belief in capitalism as a force for good and make you wish you had been born during the Bronze Age, Extremely Online is the book for you.
Now please, for the love of God, go outside.
Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet
by Taylor Lorenz
Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $29.99