As I was finishing up Ben Smith’s Traffic, I messaged Taylor Lorenz that finishing Ben’s book had made me excited to read hers. Traffic is the story of the modern internet through the lens of two people obsessed with harnessing the energy that internet traffic was capable of generating, Gawker’s Nick Denton and Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti. It was entertaining, insightful, and oddly nostalgic, but in deciding to limit the book’s focus to, primarily, two parties and properties, Ben asks the reader to extrapolate that the dynamics of the modern internet could be expressed through just two contrasting perspectives on how it should operate. Taylor’s book is an alternative perspective of the past 20 years through the people and platforms powered by traffic.
Before I proceed, let me say that I consider Taylor a friend, and, undoubtedly, my admiration for her work may color my interpretation of this book.
Taylor Lorenz’s Extremely Online is a history of social media, which is more or less what our experience of the internet is, today. I’m typing this into my personal website, which means that no one will see it unless I share it through a social media platform. There was a time when publishing this on a blog as I’m doing was a path to my thoughts being seen by others through other bloggers who might mention my blog or have me in their blogroll. That was the beginning of social media, and it’s where Taylor begins her book. She starts with so-called mommy bloggers and races over the course of almost 20 chapters up to TikTok’s and other algorithmically driven platforms’ dominance of our current internet experience.
In doing so, Taylor centers creators and their innovations over the development of the platforms on which they host their content. This allows her to capture the technological advances and business developments required to move us to our modern moment in social media, but it also allows her to prioritize the rarely told stories of the people whose creative adaptations of these technologies changed how we experience the internet, especially women. However, you may feel about the modern internet, it is undeniable that mommy bloggers, Myspace’s scene queens, and beauty gurus ushered us toward the follower-driven ultra-monetized internet that we experience today. Undeniable as that may be, many histories of the internet avoid denying it by avoiding the topic altogether. Taylor’s fast-paced trek through internet history reminds me of the Roadrunner zipping down a road, flipping everything over and changing the shape of the road along the way, and I think it will become canon as a result.
If you’re like me, and you love the internet, I highly recommend reading Taylor’s book. In fact, it’s one of three books that I’d recommend reading. I do think that Ben Smith’s Traffic is great, and it does a lot to explain how a small group of people’s early theorizing of the web dictated much of what we experienced online in the early days of the social web. If Ben’s book was about damming the waterways, Taylor’s book is about what people were able to do with the resulting irrigation. Finally, (another friend) Kevin Allocca’s Videocracy, which is about video culture, largely driven by YouTube, is an up-close look at the fruits yielded from one platform’s harvest. I think this trio of books is everything you need to understand the internet today.