Book Review: Extremely Online

11 min read

With the ubiquity of “social” sites in 2023, it is easy to forget that the world did not always operate with an omnipresent online mirror as a backdrop. To get to where we are today, the internet, and the behaviours adopted by society since its advent, had to take shape one piece at a time. Extremely Online by Taylor Lorenz is the story of that journey, making it a great read to see repeating cycles of platform booms and busts that have delighted users, tormented creators, and lead to the birth of many techno-billionaires.

Throughout the book, we see the ever-increasing rise in what I will term “virality velocity” (who doesn’t love a good alliteration). Throughout the time period of 2000-2023, content gets shared ever more rapidly, stars are minted quicker only to fall faster, and the toll to keep up keeps getting more expensive.

How Online Sharing Began

When computers first started to become available to households, blogs were the most popular form of self-expression. The essential characteristic of the blog that allowed it to gain steam early was that it was individualistic and distributed (one person could set up their own blog without having to plug into a larger network), and in the early 2000’s companies such as Blogspot or Wordpress were offering affordable services to help everyone get online. Lorenz mentions that by 2006 (just before the start of the broader birth of modern social media) there were 60 million blogs. As opposed to more formal publications, early blogs were not paywalled, and likely covered more diverse topics than the mainstream papers could handle. I find it remarkable that even today, blogs are still quite prevalent and popular - even if they have been somewhat commercialized by corporate entities such as Medium or Substack.

What I find fascinating about this initial section is that blogs represented the first moment in which attention was converted into money through two mechanisms – ads and sponsorships – for individuals (who would later be known as “creators”). The niche nature of many of the blogs allowed for targeted advertising before targeted advertising was really a thing. Companies went to the sites where viewers were, instead of going to a single gatekeeper that attracted users with features such as video or post sharing.

Lorenz spends a considerable amount of time covering the “Mommy blogger” movement, noting that many of the most successful early blogs were started by stay-at-home moms. There are three important takeaways from this section:

  1. Creating content that is competitive enough to warrant ads or sponsorship takes time and dedication, to the point of being comparable to a full time job.
  2. Audiences seek content that is both relatable, and that they may not be able to get from existing social mechanisms. In this case, the blogs offered an “inside look” into the dynamics of a household, allowing other moms to feel like they were not alone in their struggles. Likely due to the time constraints of parenting, readers weren’t able to have the same in-depth conversations with others. The blogs served as a means of connection.

Readers craved an antidote to the idealized depiction of motherhood that was championed by traditional media, and they found it in blogs.

  1. Readers strongly rejected initial forms of monetization, because they didn’t view the work that was going into the blogs as worthy of payment. This is a common troupe throughout the book, in which there is a disdain for people that make money off of producing content online.

The Birth of Platforms

Blogs are decentralized, with each person or company having a separate website. It is difficult to browse five or ten blogs in a single sitting. Additionally, while the audience may know the creator, they likely didn’t know very much about each other. Myspace changed all this with the introduction of the “friends” concept (well, not technically the first to introduce it, but the first to do it well). The ability to friend others allows bilateral connections and the ability to discover others on the platform. Content, therefore, is the juice that makes you “friendworthy”. In 2007, Myspace was firmly on top, as the number one most visited website in the world. Similar to bloggers that sought to monetize their readership, users of Myspace that had a lot of friends suddenly began to seek to cash in on their stardom.

Facebook introduced an interesting pivot into the scene, capitalizing on the friend concept, but not necessarily allowing for virality in the same way that Myspace had. Users had their full names, and friending someone was supposed to mirror a friendship in real life. Pages were standardized rather than customizable. Yet soon enough, with the introduction of the News Feed feature, we see an increase in virality velocity. It isn’t enough for people to just see their true friends posts, because their real-world friends cannot produce enough content to keep them continuously engaged. Only introducing everyone to the masses can do that, and thus increase advertising revenue along with it.

News feed itself was ironically what allowed the uproar over News Feed to spread so quickly.

Being a Creator Becomes More Formal

YouTube is still mainstream today, and there is a great book about the history and journey of the company that I would highly recommend - Like, Comment, Subscribe by Mark Bergen. YouTube introduced video into the online zeitgeist, and viral hits such as Chocolate Rain and Annoying Orange were quickly born. More importantly, YouTube highlights an important shift in the landscape; suddenly creators could get paid directly from the company for ads through a formal program, in this case the YouTube Partner Program. YouTube would pay creators for premium content, and in return, YouTube got a brand-safe site in which they could run ads.

Even today, YouTube continues to be one of the best places for a creator who wants an easy way to split revenue with the platform for advertisements. Some channels that started with an individual creator have since ballooned to entire enterprises complete with HR, finance, and editing departments. Additional techniques for monetization (that Lorenz also covers) include affiliate links and paid sponsorships within videos. With more money starting to be assigned to social media advertisements as a whole, becoming a YouTuber, influencer, creator etc is not the recipe for destitution that it once was. There is serious money to be made, assuming that you can both break out from the crowd and amass enough of a following, and also that you can stay near the top. The latter is a hard part, both logistically and mentally.

The Price of Being Famous

It may seem that those that have millions of followers should have nothing to complain about, however the book highlights numerous creators who have either developed mental health challenges as a result of the constant pressure of internet fame, been harassed, or lost their revenue when their platform of choice collapsed out from under them. An example that takes up many pages in the book is Vine, a service where users could post six-second videos for the public to see, and gain a following by doing so. When the service ultimately went bankrupt in 2017, many power users of the platform suddenly had drastically less revenue to meet their lifestyle commitments (which were no doubt inflated by having to be interesting all the time to followers).

Even more stable platforms like YouTube experienced drastic changes in monetization policies that left channels confused and experiencing fluctuating revenue. Again, this highlights a trend of increased virality velocity. Instead of a blog, in which the creator is in charge of both the content and the medium, now there is a large company that answers to advertisers making the decisions. Often these decisions are made quickly and lacking transparency into why they were made or how exactly things will change moving forward. Yes, it is easier to initially gain a following, but it is also much easier to lose it. The velocity strikes in both directions.

Maxing Out the Speed

If Facebook and YouTube introduced much of the network effects that got the modern internet going, TikTok put those effects on steroids. Why should users have to go through the effort to seek out any content at all, when it can all be delivered to them based on an algorithm. Such an algorithm can scan all publicly available content and automatically find what would fit them best, giving the viewer a sense that the app just “knows” them, and producing an enjoyable feeling overall. On the creator side, there is now the possibility to go viral overnight, for any single posted video, which fuels excitement and a drive to upload content to the platform in the hopes that one lands. As Sophia Petrillo writes in the BUJPH:

TikTok differs from other social media apps because an individual’s feed is not based on deliberate choices made about the content they want to see. Instead, AI presents individuals with content and uses their reactions to it (in the form of likes, comments, and reshares) to determine other content they might like, facilitating a continuous cycle that starts from the first use and becomes increasingly accurate with repeated engagement.

Suddenly there are no divisions between the content that people see based on friends or following, everything is just in a single pool. Yet, everything is also individualized so that no two users see the exact same thing.

There are Only 24h in a Day

All companies that thrive off of attention are in constant competition with not only each other, but also all the other possible activities that we could be doing with that time instead. Compared to businesses that sell products or services (which have a cap based on the monetary purchasing power of the customer), attention based merchants such as TikTok, YouTube etc instead have a fixed universal cap of 24 hours which resets each and every day. All companies want a piece of that 24h. All creators want a piece of that 24h. As the CEO of Netflix aptly put it:

You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep,” he said of his No. 1 competitor. Not that he puts too much stock in his rival: “And we’re winning!

The final bits of the book are about how Covid-19 amplified our time online. Suddenly, we all have less things competing for those 24 hours outside of screen time. Engagement on almost all forms of social media was up, and it felt like our life was about to get even more extremely online. Mark Zuckerberg went on a very interesting quest to try to make the metaverse a complete replacement for real-world interactions.

Thankfully, that world is not the permanent world we are stuck with going forward. Instead, I think there has been a cultural renaissance in which people are evaluating key concepts of virality and beginning to see the pitfalls in constantly chasing views. Large platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) are seeing large decreases in advertiser activity. Facebook is on the decline, and Instagram may be close to peaking. Of all things, Whatsapp seems to be the future of Meta, as Mark himself notes in a recent interview for the New York Times:

Now WhatsApp has become increasingly crucial to Meta, the company that owns Facebook, Instagram and other apps. More than half of Americans ages 18 to 35 who own a cellphone have installed WhatsApp, according to the company’s studies, making it one of Meta’s fastest-growing services in its most mature market. Ads on Facebook and Instagram that push users to WhatsApp and its sister messaging service, Messenger, are also growing so rapidly that they may reach $10 billion in revenue this year, the company recently said.

Thoughts on the Book as a Whole

I agree with many of the comments in the review of the book made in the Times. It is chaotic, jumping from influencer to influencer and platform to platform. In a way, that perfectly encapsulates the ethos of what the book is all about. The past two decades have been a constant chase for fame, but we haven’t settled on a healthy way to do that yet, if it is possible at all. As a result, users are left with platforms that undergo enshittification, and creators are left with persistent anxiety about staying relevant. In the age of generative intelligence, perhaps many of the competitors on the platforms won’t even be people at all. You may be competing for attention with a tweet-writing bot.

The book highlights that no platform is forever. Facebook will one day fade into the sunset, as will YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. As someone who doesn’t use any of them, I find comfort in the original idea of a blog like this one. Nothing famous, nothing flashy, just a small little corner of the internet.