Extremely Online | Taylor Lorenz
The author, Taylor Lorenz, sets out to tell a “social history of social media.” When I started reading the book I did not know what “social history” actually meant, but I imagined it to mean that social media's impact on society and culture would be explored. I've since skimmed Wikipedia's definition and I wasn't that far off. But in this book the author does nothing of the sort.
Most failings of the book can be attributed to the fact that Taylor Lorenz is a Washington Post reporter. First off, the clickbait. Yes, there's clickbait in this book. Many sections end with cliff hangers à la “but Vine wouldn't be around for long.” On an online news site these would make sense as they encourage you to read more online articles, but I don't see how they belong in a book I've already paid for. It might be a minor gripe, but it happened often enough for me to still be annoyed by it and to bring it up now.
A more substantial way in which the reporter's mindset impedes the book is its treatment of the rise and fall of social media platforms. Specifically, it focuses on some exemplary individuals who are most affected by the platform. Often this takes the form of anecdotal stories where we are first introduced to a “regular” person that then shoots to fame on one platform or other until that platform goes under and they either pivot to another platform or fade into obscurity. Rinse and repeat for each platform.
In the end, it's unclear whether these stories all sound the same because that's what becoming famous online is like or because that's the bias in the author's selection, not only of the people, but of the part of their lives she focuses on. Completely omitted are the stories of the people consuming content on social media, the stories of those that tried and failed to establish themselves online, and those that tried and had limited success. All these obviously make up a much larger percentage of the population and are, in my opinion, much more important in a “social history.”
Apart from these anecdotes we don't get much. The author refuses to provide commentary on the people, platforms, and culture she is writing about. Instead she cites fellow journalists or influencers, but these quotes often don't provide any additional analysis either. What we get is quite literally a report, an account of things that happened, names of companies that provided online platforms, and a list of people that were most successful on these platforms.
Speaking of platforms I was surprised that Reddit was suspiciously absent. I don't know why. The index tells me that it is mentioned six times one of which is a quote being attributed to “a redditor”, the rest are passing mentions of a topic also being discussed “on various subreddits”. But the author never talks about Reddit as a platform. Without acknowledging the fact anywhere in the book the scope was furthermore very much limited to the US. Platforms like the Russian VK or the German SchülerVZ are completely absent. Everything else that I'd expected was covered though, from MySpace to TikTok, even Snapchat, Twitch, Patreon, and OnlyFans.
Overall, this book provides a list of about 200 people and sorts them to the platforms that they were popular on. But that's mostly it. There's little in the way of describing online culture, no explanation of the dynamics of internet fame, and no exploration of how average lives were shaped by these platforms.