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Taylor Lorenz, tech journalist: ‘The first influencers were women because media did not speak to their interests’

The ‘Washington Post’ reporter, a digital culture specialist, has written the definitive history of content creators on the internet

Taylor Lorenz influencers
Taylor Lorenz, ‘Washington Post’ journalist and author of the book ‘Extremely Online’ about the history of influencers.Brian Treitler
Jordi Pérez Colomé

“This is the chosen one. It’s going to change things going forward for the internet and pop culture,” said an influencer’s manager in 2012. “Man, I’ve been saying for years that there’s going to be something from the internet that is the viral entity that can come and compete all the way,” he added. That influencer was Grumpy Cat, one of the defining figures of a radical change that the internet has brought about.

The quotes from Grumpy Cat’s manager (the feline died in 2019) come from the recently-published Extremely Online by Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz. The book’s subtitle is The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet. Explanations for these three decades of web boom have often been made from the sidelines. Here, Lorenz tells the story from another vantage point: that of the influencers. At first, they were famous for having influence, but now, they’ve come to be known as content creators. Lorenz knows this story well: she was a Tumblr influencer and today has a half million followers on TikTok and 129,000 on Instagram. Of course, there’s a dark side to this fame. She’s a target of far-right media, due to her stories on the cultural and political wars of social media.

In an interview by video call from her home in Los Angeles, the mecca of content creators, she speaks of why content creation is important. Her book focuses on the United States, but “every country has its own version of this story,” she says.

Question. The arrival of influencers in the 2000s was not a total invention. In the book, you talk about pre-influencers like Big Brother and Survivor, who were already creating these kinds of figures.

Answer. Reality shows began democratizing fame. But those influencers weren’t yet able to monetize. Also, they still had to get by a casting director and depend on a chain, not everyone could do it, like they can today on the internet.

Q. Paris Hilton was a key part of that transition into monetization.

A. The first influencers were high-society people. Others watched them to know what was in fashion. But they were very privileged. That’s part of the reason why they were able to take advantage of the opportunities that the internet had to offer, their connections and privilege, like Kim Kardashian, who came from a wealthy family. But they were quickly replaced. Bloggers began to emerge.

Some day, there will be a TikTok president

Q. And above all, the mommy bloggers. The first influencers were nearly all women. Did it happen by chance, or is there some reason for that?

A. It’s not by chance. First of all, women have been traditionally excluded from the labor market. In the case of mommy bloggers, in the United States we don’t have paid maternity leave. Many women, due to the fact that child care is very expensive, decided that they were going to be full-time moms and wound up writing a blog. In the second place, women are still the most active users of social media, they spend more time on those platforms than men do, they adopt new platforms more than men do. And in the third place, the media was not talking about women’s interests. Meanwhile, men’s interests have always been overrepresented.

Q. Content creation is similar to what is done in television and movies: romance, jokes, fights. What sets a content creator apart?

A. To a certain extent, it’s similar to traditional Hollywood. The difference lies in the ability to have a meaningful relationship with one’s audience. We see Brad Pitt on screen, but we don’t think of him as our friend or that he’d ever respond if you wrote him a message. Whereas with an influencer, you have a more ample relationship. They have an interactive relationship with their audience, they take advice from their community in terms of the content they create and sometimes show members of their audience in their videos. It’s a two-way relationship. Hollywood celebrities finish a project, maybe they’ll do a press tour and come back nine months later for their next project and no one expects them to respond to anyone. Although, the rise of influencers in our culture has made it so that young people have more and more expectations when it comes to responsiveness among famous people.

Q. These days it’s almost obligatory.

A. These days, if you want to be an actor or a musician, the fastest way to do it is to get followers online. Also, you can monetize, you’re not only depending on your earnings as an actor. It’s the same with music: TikTok is very important.

Q. Is social media no longer a trampoline to having a career, but rather a requirement for having one?

A. It’s all become so competitive. There’s so much content. Everything is faster.

Q. Another problem is that there’s nearly infinite talent.

A. That’s a huge problem. The scale of collective action needed to really exercise power over the platforms has to be enormous. If 1,000 top YouTubers disappeared tomorrow, 1,000 more would immediately emerge to replace them. Platforms can respond to a lot of public outrage. We’ve seen it in the past. Sometimes, they change minor policies, but of course, their business model is based on exploiting the work of these content creators, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. It’s a fundamental challenge for content creators, so it’s important that they own their own audience. The big trend in recent years is not just to rely on one platform, but to diversify.

Q. Could it be that this kind of pressure and laboral difficulties is making the careers of influencers as limited as those of athletes?

A. Yes. Being an influencer is for young people: it’s incredibly demanding, psychologically exhausting, you’re competing against everyone on the internet and your cultural relevance is not going to last forever. You eventually have to do what a lot of athletes do, which is launch your own brand, become an entrepreneur. There are many kinds of paths to follow, but it’s really tough. People think you’re just publishing video selfies all day. But it’s really hard. It’s a huge amount of work and you can’t take any time off because you’ll lose the algorithm.

Being an influencer is for young people: it’s incredibly demanding, psychologically exhausting

Q. It’s difficult to imagine MrBeast or Ibai Llanos recording themselves 75 years from now, like Harrison Ford.

A. But people like that came from a time in which there were only a few television programs, channels and movies each year, for everyone. Now there’s much more content and it’s much more difficult to reach that level of celebrity. It has more to do with niches.

Q. There are still a lot of people who think that content creation isn’t a real job.

A. That idea is so incorrect. There’s no doubt that it’s a job and I think that many people don’t realize how much effort is involved in content creation. It’s not just recording well. It’s all the work involved in traditional entertainment, but you’re doing it on your own: you think up the scripts and create them. You are the camera. You are the editor. You are the scriptwriter. You are the actor. You are the interviewer. In some cases, you are the journalist. You’re also the businessperson. Content creators are their own small, independent media companies, built on the foundation of social media. Some of them provide work to 150 people. If you think about what it means to lead a media company, most people would agree that this is work. People get confused because we, as users, are on social media, but the way that content creators use social media is very different, it’s on another level.

The cover of 'Extremely Online' by Taylor Lorenz.
The cover of 'Extremely Online' by Taylor Lorenz.

Q. One of the book’s most repeated words to define this work is “fickleness.” Is this a life of uncertainty?

A. There’s no level at which you suddenly realize that you’ve become an influencer. That’s why it’s hard for people to understand the work. Think about Hollywood, about being an actor. You can be an actor and maybe you’ve only appeared in three commercials. But Julia Roberts is also an actor, no? One has had much more success than the other, but that doesn’t mean that the person who has only shot a few ads isn’t an actor. It’s the same for content creators. There’s an enormous range of success and the majority of people who we consider synonymous with this industry really only form 1% of it.

Q. Is it clear that there are three platforms that are winning?

A. TikTok and YouTube compete for number one. TikTok is excellent at growing its audience. YouTube is the best place to monetize in the long run. Then you have Instagram at number three, which is where a lot of brand agreements take place.

Q. Will there be more?

A. It’s almost impossible. Meta and Google have such a strong duopoly in the technological ecosystem that they smash and destroy any competitor. They copy any new function, like what happened to Snapchat, which is now less relevant. The only platform that has been able to compete is TikTok, which is also the property of a multimillion conglomerate [ByteDance]. TikTok spent more than a billion dollars in the United States alone in 2019 in marketing. That’s the level of resources you need to be able to compete against Meta and Google.

Q. Are the real world and the online world ever more connected? Was the January 6 assault on the Capitol a great act of content creation?

A. Yes, exactly. Once they got to the Capitol, they weren’t trying to do anything besides create content. There was no kind of real political objective. In the past, before the internet, it probably would have been very different. Many of the assailants were rightwing content creators who were monetizing, and many of them even used that in their defense where they said: “I was broadcasting on Twitter because it’s what my followers asked me to do, and it wasn’t really my intention to commit this crime, I basically did it for content.” That defense didn’t help, because even if that were true, they still committed the crime. But yes, the outside world became a kind of stage for the internet.

Not all journalists should have hundreds of thousands of followers

Q. Will there soon be a country with an influencer president?

A. Very soon. Content creators have only been around for a short time. You can’t even be a presidential candidate in the United States until you’re 35. The internet is playing an ever more important role in politics. I don’t know when, but eventually, the country will have a TikToker president.

Q. If content creators are the new media industry, what is traditional media? One of those houses that brings content creators together under one roof to create content collectively?

A. In a certain way, yes. The goal of those collectives is to build the individual brand of content creators alongside the general brand. Meanwhile, at publications like The New York Times, they don’t want people to have personal brands. I don’t have anything against The New York Times. I worked really well there. I work for The Washington Post, which does the same thing, and I love it. The mission of the Post is to publish journalism under its brand. It’s not trying to promote the reputation of individual journalists. Every time I talk about this, someone wants to take it out of context and it’s very frustrating, because I firmly believe in traditional media.

Q. Why?

A. If we look at media that is personality-driven, CNN and television are actually a good analogy. They give shows to people, they develop them and do marketing around personalities. I think that model hasn’t been very good for journalism. The reason I work in traditional media is because there are incredible journalists who don’t have an internet presence and they do some of the best work in journalism out there. Not all journalists should have hundreds of thousands of followers. That’s why I think it’s very important to preserve those journalistic institutions, because they allow for a level of journalism that personality-based media can almost never provide.

Q. But would those journalists today need to be on social media to get a job at The New York Times or The Washington Post?

A. It’s really frustrating, but yes, and I don’t think that’s necessarily good for journalism. I agree with the heads of traditional media who say that the reason they can do this journalistic work is that all the workers are serving a larger brand. Also, many journalists are realizing that building an audience on networks is volatile and that whatever you say about the Post or the Times, they are stable. And the reason I’m not an influencer and work in these places is because I don’t think I have to chase traffic and hits all day, and I can take three months on an investigation.

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