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When Taylor Lorenz turned in the draft of her new book, Extremely Online, she found that she had written 60,000 words on the history of Vine.
“My editor was like, what the hell,” she says, laughing. Lorenz’s incisive commentary on the app’s rise and fall captures the fundamental tension between social platforms and the creators they rely on — a dynamic that’s been a central focus of her reporting over the past decade. “Vine was TikTok before TikTok,” Lorenz writes. “In 2014, Vine owned the market despite challenges from multiple rivals. The company’s only problem was itself.”
It would not be the last social platform to get in its own way and squander a chance for dominance. In her book, Lorenz casts a sympathetic eye on the people using these platforms to create culture and build their livelihoods, highlighting cases where platforms’ indifference or outright incompetence threatens to derail the nascent creator economy.
“Creators want to monetize, and time and time again Twitter failed”
Lorenz describes Extremely Online as “a social history of social media,” starting with the mommy bloggers of the early 2000s and tracing the path of the creator to the TikTok influencers of today. Throughout the book, Lorenz focuses on those creators, providing fresh perspective even when the corporate intrigues they’re caught up in are already well known. (For those of us who live online, at least.)
My favorite part of Extremely Online was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the incredibly detailed history of Twitter that it offers. Lorenz documents how Twitter users created its most popular conventions, from the @ symbol to the hashtag, ultimately inventing themselves the service it would one day become. When open source developer Chris Messina pitched Twitter’s co-founders on codifying the hashtag as an official feature, the men initially rejected the idea, saying hashtags were “too harsh and no one is ever going to understand them.”
Extremely Online went on sale this week. On Tuesday morning, Lorenz spoke to Platformer about how Facebook missed its first big opportunity with influencers, what Elon Musk doesn’t get about creators, and why we should all stop tweeting.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Zoë Schiffer: In the book, you chart the rise of Twitter and how influential creators were in shaping the platform — both in the design of the product and its cultural importance. Did Twitter sleep on the opportunity to cultivate that community in a more intentional way?
Taylor Lorenz: Yes. Twitter had a leg up on Instagram initially, because it was very much a hub for culture. But creators want to monetize, and time and time again Twitter failed to roll out monetization features. Granted, it’s hard to monetize short-form text, which Elon Musk is now discovering. But the company’s leadership didn’t seem to want to, in their early days. They didn’t want to have to pay celebrities to tweet — they were concerned about that. And at first celebrities were like “why would I post somewhere for free? You should be paying me.” Now it’s 15 years later, and they didn’t have a coherent monetization plan for people.
It feels like that misunderstanding impacted the roll out of Twitter Blue last year, when some celebrities who didn’t subscribe had their blue checkmarks taken away.
It was a misunderstanding of the value add.
Right. Twitter needs celebrities more than celebrities need Twitter.
Celebrities don’t need Twitter at all! Creators don’t need Twitter at all! It’s so weird to see Musk thirstily tweeting at MrBeast.
“A creator’s goal is to maximize engagement. The platform’s goal is to monetize.”
I want to talk about two power dynamics you discuss in the book. First, the dynamic between brands and creators. In the early days, brands had more power. How has that changed?
Content creators have more power by the minute. Initially, brands had the upper hand, because we didn’t have a robust e-commerce situation. But now there’s infrastructure, and content creators can spin up a product and create their own brand. By the mid-2010’s, you see brands and influencers working very closely together. But influencers figured out, “Why would I advertise someone else’s products when I could just launch my own?” Kylie [Jenner]’s lip kits were a pivotal moment for that.
What about the dynamic between creators and platforms? It seems even more fraught.
It’s fraught, and it’s always been fraught. Content creators are always in tension with the platforms, because their goals are not aligned. A creator’s goal is to maximize engagement. The platform’s goal is to monetize. But once that starts happening, the creator wants to keep some of the monetization for themselves.
There’s a moment in the book where you talk about Vine creators migrating to Facebook — and how Facebook failed to capitalize on the opportunity. What happened?
Facebook fumbled the bag. They had every single big content creator before YouTube, and they refused to roll out monetization features in a meaningful way.
And then TikTok came along…
TikTok put creators first in a way the other platforms hadn’t. Other platforms were wary of creators, because tech platforms want to dictate what their platforms are. And they don’t always like when creators use them in their own ways.
“Elon Musk is speedrunning every mistake these other founders made for the last 20 years.”
By the time Vine brought in Karyn Spencer to manage creator partnerships, it was too late. The relationship had soured so much.
Okay, now we want to do a few rapid fire questions. Why continue to tweet (“post”)?
I don’t — I use my Twitter for advocacy around COVID. For people who want tech news, I tell them to follow me on every platform except Twitter. I’m just tweeting about COVID until I run to zero, honestly.
Is X dead, then?
Of course. I think the 2024 election will carry it because the political people are so addicted to it, but it’s not a platform for the future. Elon Musk is speedrunning every mistake these other founders made for the last 20 years.
What does Threads need to do to pop off?
Stop with the crazy community guidelines. It was a warning sign initially with the Adam Mosseri comment around Threads not doing anything to encourage hard news. I think Mosseri is so scarred from running the Facebook news feed before the 2016 election, and getting hauled before Congress to talk about misinformation, that they’re scared of anything newsworthy. So they won’t ever be able to create a true Twitter competitor.
Blocking “potentially sensitive topic” keywords from search is so out of control.
Should reporters today invest in growing their followings on text-based social networks like Threads, or are they better off mastering short-form video?
I don’t think it’s an either-or — and it really depends on the type of journalist you want to be. Short-form video for growth’s sake, but writing for writing’s sake. Writing good tweets does still help you get you assigned stories.
If a creator could only pick one place to focus: TikTok, Reels, or Shorts?
TikTok, obviously — because of the growth.
“Twitter has been worthless — it’s helped me get media attention, but that’s it.”
I’ve found that going viral on TikTok doesn’t really translate into getting more followers, though.
TikTok broke the follower thing, because it’s a huge burden on users. You have to manually find people to follow and unfollow. It’s so inefficient and it makes no sense. The far superior way to deliver content is with the algorithmic feed.
Is the Substack moment over, for tech reporters?
I think the hype cycle has died down. Substack is just one tool for independent journalists, but a good independent journalist doesn’t put all their eggs in one basket.
You’ve been using social media extensively to market your book. Which channel has been most effective for you in actually converting posts into sales?
Instagram stories. On TikTok people like to follow the journey, but it doesn’t convert into sales. Plus, they just keep buying the audiobook. Twitter has been worthless — it’s helped me get media attention, but that’s it.
Actually, you know what else did really well, is when I replied to Elon. He said something mean about me, and I replied and said he should read my book. That got me 100 orders.
I guess Twitter is good for fighting with Elon.
Which tech platform does the best job protecting users from harassment? Which does the worst?
The order is (from worst to best): Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram. But they’re all bad.