Online, no one gets to be young

A conversation with The New York Times' Taylor Lorenz about internet mental health, influencer mansions, tribalism as a national-security threat, VC bros, Jack Dorsey's anti-racism hypocrisy, and more

Hi Inklings,

Welcome back to The.Ink, a newsletter by me, Anand Giridharadas.

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I’m looking forward to diving into this conversation with Taylor Lorenz, but first:

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You think you know the internet. Taylor Lorenz knows the internet.

She is a technology reporter for The New York Times, covering internet culture. Which today, especially in these last few months, feels synonymous with culture.

She was into the internet before it was cool. She mastered the art of going Tumblr viral while working a temp job. Her secret? Photos of bagels and sunsets — and liking every post she saw.

What makes Taylor’s work so compelling to me — and, more importantly, to AOC — is her understanding of what lurks beneath the memes and hashtags and viral posts and influencer mansions we see — the power dynamics, the money chase, the invention of new ways of being young, new ways of making your mark.

The other day, we had a conversation about everything from the “creator mansion” phenomenon to Jack Dorsey’s hypocrisy in funding anti-racism work, from Silicon Valley venture-bro culture to the mental-health consequences of online harassment.

“On the internet, no one knows you’re a kid”: A conversation with Taylor Lorenz

ANAND

You had to convince your editors a few years ago that internet culture was a worthy thing even to report on. Now it feels so crucial, given the way it shapes how people communicate and express themselves. But it's also in our politics, it's a form of warfare that countries wage on other countries. Tell me about advocating for yourself to have this beat.

TAYLOR

Well, I developed this beat that is pretty much solely based around my interests, which is such a dream for any reporter, to be able to write about the stuff that you're interested in. By that I mean online culture and social technology, and how tech affects how people communicate and socialize. I've been writing about that stuff for a long time. I started almost 10 years ago. I was writing on my Tumblrs before that. 

I was at this temp job, and this girl that I shared a cubicle with introduced me to Tumblr. I wasn't really an online person back then. I had Facebook in college, but I wasn't creating content for the internet. I just got obsessed with Tumblr. So I had 80 Tumblrs, and I would make Tumblrs for anything. I would just make these Tumblrs about whatever came into my head and then just reblog things on them and try to make them go viral. Viral back in those days was like 10,000 followers.

I got an audience, and that's how I got into media, by making these semi-popular Tumblrs.

ANAND

And when you were creating these 80 accounts, what were the best-worst ones you created?

TAYLOR

I did one where I just rated sunsets and wrote about the sunset every night and people would submit their sunset photos. I did other ones around food, like pasta or bagels. I just reblogged pictures of people's bagels and people would submit their bagels. I used to love bagels. I had one that was reblogging things that looked like sprinkles that weren't sprinkles. It sounds so stupid, but it was funny at the time.

ANAND

From all that creation you were putting out, you were getting a good amount of information in terms of what works and what doesn't. What was your early pattern recognition of what makes things go viral?

TAYLOR

I was spending like 17 hours a day on Tumblr. I woke up and I was on Tumblr. I was on Tumblr all day at my temp job. I worked retail on the weekends back then and I would wake up early before my retail job on Saturdays and Sundays and schedule posts for all of my Tumblrs. I had a Blackberry. I don't even think you could check Tumblr, but I remember going on Tumblr on the computer at work at my retail job.

One thing that I realized quickly is that you had to get reblogged by bigger accounts. So if you got a popular account to reblog you, your stuff would get shared. That was my main strategy.

I also realized the best way to get followers was to like every single post that I saw and follow everyone. And then like every single thing that they posted, because that would get people to notice you. And they would see your name and then maybe follow you back. I still do this when I'm on my phone.

ANAND

Taylor, this is hurting my feelings. I was wondering why you liked a tweet of mine the other day and now it's becoming clear. It's just a habit.

If we were to fast forward to what you do now: The territory of your reporting is complicated. When you write about teenagers and technology, there are a lot of sensitivities there; some of them are minors. Can you give us the details about how you actually do your job? How many accounts do you have on different things? How do you actually reach out to people? Do you have burner accounts?

TAYLOR

I have burner accounts to lurk, but I would never, ever reach out to anyone from a burner account because I want them to know that I'm me. The burner accounts I have are just extra Instagram accounts to keep track of trends. I have one that just follows extremists, because I wrote about that one time. I have others that just follow big mainstream influencers or YouTubers, celebrities that I don't want to follow on my main. I have another burner to look at accounts that blocked me. 

I always reach out from my main account because I'm a journalist and I want them to know that this is who I am. I wouldn't ever want people to be like, "Is this really her?" I think people are so nervous when a journalist reaches out already that you want to be as transparent as possible.

ANAND

Tell me about the creator mansion phenomenon. Explain as if to a complete ignoramus: What is the creator mansion?

TAYLOR

I started doing these announcements "New Creator Mansion Alert" as a joke. I was joking about their Instagram posts that they do to announce them. But now all of these creators really want me to do them for their houses.

Young, creative people have always lived together in group housing. That's nothing new. But for about a decade, content creators have established houses all over LA where they live together, work together, and often have some kind of monetized group channel. The first example of this was The Station, which was back in 2009. It was a bunch of YouTubers, including Shane Dawson, Lisa Nova. it eventually became Maker Studios, but they all lived together in this house that was in Venice. 

The idea is All of us together are stronger than any one of us, and we can kind of collaborate and create this engaging story about our life. Then all the YouTubers started doing the same thing. The thing that's different now is that this new generation of TikTokers grew up watching the YouTubers and the Viners. So when they got to LA, that's what they wanted. 

The other thing that's different now is that because there's so much more money in the space, management companies are backing a lot of these houses. So they'll bring a bunch of kids in whom they manage. I just wrote about this one management company that took advantage of dozens of creators by basically selling them on this dream, having them move into these houses, which then became what they described as a living nightmare.

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ANAND

When I was just starting the reporting on my last book, I reached out to a guy in Silicon Valley for some names of books that were influential out there. He writes back, "Well, books were kind of last generation." So you are, it was just announced, writing a book. I'm curious, as someone who not only covers all the new ways in which people are creating content but has actually done it yourself, what is the enduring power of books for you that you'd want to communicate in that very old-school way?

TAYLOR

People still read books. Maybe they consume them differently. I've never written a book before. I'm always trying to get better at things and try new formats and see what resonates with people. I think it's an opportunity to tell people about the stuff that I cover in a longer, more in-depth way than I can ever do in a single 1,500-word story. 

Would I love to do a Netflix show and a podcast? Of course, I love those things, too. That's how I consume a lot of media. I still read a lot of books. So I think it is still a very relevant and valuable format. But that's funny. It sounds like something someone from Silicon Valley would say.

ANAND

There's this eternal fear in every generation that, because of new technologies and new things in the culture, young people's minds are being destroyed. They won't read anymore. They won't have attention spans. It often turns out to be bullshit. Rock and roll didn't actually destroy baby boomers. So separating the bullshit concerns that are just eternal that older people have about new things, do you actually think there are any shifts we should be worried about in terms of young people and the internet?

TAYLOR

Here's what people should be worried about, which I feel very strongly about. Harassment is what people need to take seriously. And I mean vicious harassment, doxxing, brigading. None of these platforms takes online harassment seriously. None of them even protects you from bullying, really, which is inevitable on the internet. But these platforms have been run by privileged white men, and they have absolutely no idea of what the experience is like for women, for anyone from a marginalized background. And it's horrible. If you want to talk about what's ruining people's mental health, and what's actually detrimental to young people today, it's the fact that they can be exposed to vicious online harassment from an extremely young age.

They’re being brought up in this world where these platforms have absolutely no concern for user safety, and they'll de-prioritize it in favor of engagement and all of these other metrics that they use to monetize. I try to sound the alarm on it all the time. It's very serious. I talk to young people a lot, and I've seen how it can destroy people's mental health and ruin kids' lives. And not just kids; older people, too. But, unfortunately, so often the victims of really horrible harassment are women, people of color, Black people, people that don't have the ability to detach from it. It can feel so overwhelming to them.

ANAND

Is your understanding of someone like Jack Dorsey, who runs Twitter, that he is incompetent at fixing this, or that he does not want to fix it? Is this greed?

TAYLOR

I don't think that he, along with all of the other men in Silicon Valley who run these big tech companies, care about prioritizing user safety over engagement.

ANAND 

And to translate that, is that greed? 

TAYLOR

It's in pursuit of profit. But I don't know that greed is what motivates them as much as this worldview where they don't think harassment is a problem. They just don't view it as a priority. I think they view it as, Oh, these annoying people over there are complaining. But thinking about this stuff critically does not seem to be core to their product development cycle.

ANAND

So what would you say when you read a story about Jack Dorsey donating $10 million to Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, which is run by Ibram X. Kendi?

TAYLOR

Congrats to him. I don't know anything about that, but it sounds like another thing that these people do for optics. And it's great, obviously, donating $10 million to anti-racism. I don't know exactly what that means, but that's obviously good. But what would be better would be fixing this platform that hundreds of millions of people use that is being used to perpetuate racism.

If you want to fix racism, start by looking at how it's enabled every minute on this platform that you control.

This is the classic thing that businesspeople do. It's like Exxon giving to save the turtles or something. Why don't you look at what your company is doing and maybe fix that?

ANAND

Given what you chronicle, how do you think the experience of coming of age as a young person is different from before? I'm thinking about coming of age with this harassment as a possibility, but also the inverse of harassment, which is needing to constantly have this marketized affirmation, these likes. I wonder how you think it is changing the experience of being young.

TAYLOR

Everything happens in public now, and the public eye can be turned on you at any second. And I think that has shifted. I would say that's really in the past few years. Anyone can go viral for anything.

What I find jarring is just how many young people are out there engaging within the adult world on the internet. What is that saying? On the internet, no one knows you're a dog. It's very much like: on the internet, no one knows you're a kid. And like I said, for most of my stories, I'll notice something, and then I'll try to find out the people behind it. And it ends up being kids.

They're really competing out there on the internet every day in this adult world, talking to adults. I just never would have talked to an adult when I was a teenager. Obviously, it's slightly terrifying. I think, especially if I was a parent of a teen, I would worry. I try to be so sensitive about that, too, when I write about young people or anyone under 18, especially. I think you see that in things like activism, or the climate movement, or any of this online activism that's happening. It's driven by young people engaging in the adult world in a very direct way. And so I think that's a big shift.

ANAND 

When you find minors becoming stars like this, what have you observed about the best practices and worst practices in parenting that child?

TAYLOR

I wrote a whole feature for The Atlantic a couple years ago on what it's like for parents when your child gets famous online. It's always a very weird experience for parents, because suddenly your child has this fame and power and sometimes money that they've earned solely independently of you. That can feel very scary for a lot of parents. If someone's an influencer online, they probably have a manager or an agent. I would say 85 percent of the time, if I'm talking to an underage influencer, I've gotten into contact with them through a manager or an agent. 

They always want to use their full name, and I always encourage kids not to use their full name. I think they want the full name because they want to get verified Instagram. But I'm always like, “No, don't make this your No. 1 Google result.” Some kids don't, of course, if it's a more sensitive topic. I try to always let kids know.

ANAND

If you go back to an earlier generation, if you think about the phrase “child star,” “child actor,” it's almost synonymous with hardships later in life.

TAYLOR

Yes. By the way, I think that's probably true of a lot of child influencers. If you look at a lot of those like Magcon kids or Vine stars, you see that having the enormous amount of fame and success when you're really young, if you don't have the right people in life guiding you, specifically your parents and a good manager, things can go really south. 

ANAND

I want to ask you about the Trump rally in Oklahoma and the TikTokers and the K-pop stans sabotaging the event as the “resistance” could never have dreamed of. What do you think that story means for the future? Is this a new kind of activism we're seeing? 

TAYLOR 

Yeah, definitely. It's new in the sense of Gen Z-style activism, which is leveraging the internet and influence for a specific goal. Whether that's gun reform to prevent school shootings or the climate movement or holding people accountable that they don't like. It's very emblematic of a type of campaign that people wage online. Leveraging the internet for political gain has been a thing that the right has done very successfully, obviously, in 2016. I think we're seeing a whole new generation of young people get online in a way where they're engaging with politics. You have all of these political hype houses and these people who start political channels who are really young. And so I think that's the new phenomenon.

ANAND

If you're willing to talk about it, I want to ask you about Charlottesville. Can you tell me the story of what happened to you?

TAYLOR

Oh, god. Yeah, it was such a crazy day. I was a director of emerging platforms at The Hill for two years, and I covered breaking news on social media. I wrote up short breaking-news stories and then I covered events on Facebook Live. Me and Jonathan Swan, who's now at Axios, had this Facebook Live interview series that we did.

When Charlottesville started to take place, I had been covering the Alt Right. I had covered Trump's inauguration. I was on the ground covering it and happened to livestream exactly when James Fields plowed the car through the crowd. I was like, “This is horrible,” but I just kept streaming because it was really important, and I wanted the millions of people who were watching to see what's going on. Then this guy came over and assaulted me, and that ended the stream, unfortunately, and he was arrested.

ANAND

Who was he?

TAYLOR

That guy was a counter-protester, and he was going around swatting cameras out of people's hands, hassling other reporters. And then he finally assaulted me. I was really confused at the time. You could hear me in the livestream thing: "I'm a reporter, I'm a reporter." And then I realized that that was why he started hitting me. The footage that I shot, it was ultimately used in the ending scene of “BlacKkKlansman.”

I just want to say one other thing that's really important to me to note. That guy was technically a counter-protester, but I would not at all say that he was emblematic of the counter-protesting that was going on that day. 

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ANAND

The other day, you got one of the most exciting things a person can get, which is an AOC tweet talking about how meaningful your reporting was to her. Through your lens of someone who understands the uses of these platforms, can you explain why she is a significant political figure in her understanding of how to use these tools in office?

TAYLOR

She just understands how to communicate on these platforms. She very much is of a younger generation. I think part of her appeal is obviously her policies and her work in building authority and political authority for herself. But she just understands the internet in a way that most politicians don't and don't care to. Just the fact that she's replying to tweets shows a willingness to engage with people. That includes a lot of her own constituents, but also the internet at large. I think you see a lot of these other politicians, they're just kind of up on a hill. They don't really engage with people. She's very good at using the internet.

You can be very sophisticated and have the best team on the internet, but still not resonate the same way that others do. I think of it as the Will Smith approach where he's this big celebrity who basically hires the best content creators and comes on these platforms. But it never will resonate as much as a YouTuber. Somebody that just has a compelling personality,

And AOC also just has compelling policies. I think that's the other thing that gets missed. The policies appeal to young people, so of course she's going to perform well on the internet, because she's speaking to a generation that's been largely ignored. 

ANAND

So, in other words, it's not that being cool on the internet makes people gravitate to these politicians' policies. It's actually these politicians’ policies that young people feel makes them cool on the internet.

TAYLOR

Exactly. 

ANAND

I know it's not entirely your area, but a lot of the platforms you cover have become the latest front in international warfare.

I wonder how you see these acts of war through social media. How do they build on the ways we are already behaving online and make them worse? 

TAYLOR

The goal of any bad actor is to exploit your opponent's worse tendencies or vulnerabilities. One huge vulnerability is the fact that we are all so divided online. So you see a lot of bad actors, including international bad actors, exploiting that and leveraging that. And taking advantage of how fractured we are as a country. These platforms need to be better about clamping down on that.

But a lot of it is domestic, too. Look at QAnon. Facebook just shut down a bunch of groups. There's a lot of bad actors here, too, that are doing harm through these platforms. 

ANAND

You famously had a very bad experience with Clubhouse, this invite-only networking app, and specifically with some venture capitalists therein. Can you explain to people how small the world of these venture capitalists is? And how that has shaped what kinds of technologies we have and don't have?

TAYLOR

These privileged few venture capitalists have an enormous amount of money. They are literal billionaires. Like Ben Horowitz is a literal billionaire, and the fact is that he doesn't take issues like harassment seriously. And it's clear from his many tweets and the fact that he funds these technologies that just don't have any accountability. You see these privileged few basically fund exploitative technologies over and over again. 

It's basically money above everything else and capitalism solves all. Some of them claim to be libertarians. They are not. I mean a lot of libertarians I know hate them, and I think for good reason. They're obsessed with money and status. And it's so funny because their world is so provincial. They're all so hyper-aware of these little interactions. 

I grew up surrounded by finance people, and I knew a lot of people that went into finance. The VCs remind me of the mid-2000s finance bros. It's very much that ethos of Screw the little guys, we're going to profit above all else. And: Yes, I invested in Uber early and I'm going to talk about it now everywhere, because that's my status symbol.

ANAND

I would say that one difference is that the people who work in finance are at least straightforward about their own motivations.

TAYLOR

Oh, exactly. They're transparent. These other tech people act like they're saving the world and doing a public good. And I think that they're increasingly culturally irrelevant. There are certain VCs that really do understand culture. But most VCs don't. I think that they're out of step with the current moment. They hate that.

I think they recognize their power is waning. I mean, they still have an enormous amount of power just being billionaires. But the stuff that I write about is technology that they just don't understand. They have no clout in that world. It's funny because some of them were like, “I'll never talk to The New York Times again.” I was like, "Who cares? When is the last time I ever quoted a VC? Like you guys are so irrelevant to my beat, it's not even funny."

There are some VCs who are phenomenal people. And some of my extremely close friends work in VC. I just was thinking about the people in my group chat. It's not that being a VC is inherently bad, especially these lower-level people who work in VC. I have issues with the top one percent of VCs who happened to invest in Uber early and are now millionaires and billionaires and think that that means that everyone needs to just do what they say or listen to them. 

ANAND

I'm curious about how you maintain your own digital mental health. I often feel at the end of a day when I've been getting into it with someone or weighing into the discourse of the day — I will be with my kids two hours later and realize I'm not entirely OK or not entirely present. This stuff lasts. We still call it internet culture as though it's some foreign thing, but it's our life.

You're so much more immersed than most of us. Does that mean that you're just in worse than us all the time, or have you figured out ways to protect yourself and shut things off? What do you actually do to keep healthy?

TAYLOR

I would say that I am in worse shape a lot of the time than other people who probably spend less time online. The internet is overwhelmingly toxic in a very different way now than it was even a few years ago. That's undeniably true. But what I've had a much harder time dealing with is people recognizing my work. It's been really hard. I think I'm still not used to people that I don't know knowing who I am. 

Because of the nature of the internet, as soon as you become notable, people want to know everything about your personal life and your background and all of this stuff that I really worked hard to keep offline. And that's been really, really, really horrible. I mean, I've gone into kind of a deep depression over it. I've thought about quitting my job over it. I hate it. It's this invasiveness where people want to comment on your life and they have no idea.

ANAND

Do you have any practices you follow to shut it off?

TAYLOR

No, the only thing I've done is it's made me completely shut down emotionally. I'm skeptical of new friendships. I'm skeptical of anyone who reaches out to me. I archived all my old photos. I stopped even posting about any friends of mine. I have stopped communicating with a lot of friends. That's my only strategy, but it’s made me miserable.

To be clear, the reason why I don't do this stuff is because of harassment. I've been viciously doxxed, harassed, stalked. Any little thing you do makes you vulnerable. I was engaged, and I broke off my engagement. Because my engagement announcement was put online, these horrible trolls used it against me and started harassing everyone affiliated with me and my ex. That's the internet. 

I don't have any strategies. I have wanted to join a support group over it. I don't know how other people deal with it. 

ANAND

On a different and hopefully more uplifting note for you, you've already done so many interesting things in your young life. You’ve talked about maybe wanting to go back into creating social media content. What is the biggest professional dream that you have that is still kind of ahead of you?

TAYLOR 

Well, my dream forever was to have the job title of reporter. When I got the job at The Daily Beast and my business card said reporter, I literally put it next to my bed and up against my light, and I would look at it. It was crazy, because I just wanted that for so long. And when I got it, I was just like, “Oh my God.” So I'm definitely still in the phase where I love being a reporter, and I don't ever want to take it for granted. But media is changing so much, and I love that. There are different forms of media that I think I would love to get into. I used to have a podcast, so maybe I would do a podcast again.

I've been working at this pace since I was 12 and started working. But I have other aspirations, too. I want to be an interior designer at some point in my life.


Taylor Lorenz is a technology reporter at The New York Times, chronicling internet culture. She writes about social media, online trends, influencers, fandoms, memes, YouTubers, TikTok, and more.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Some recommendations:

  • Amy Sherald, the artist who painted Michelle Obama, is back with a groundbreaking portrait of Breonna Taylor for Vanity Fair’s September issue. [Vanity Fair]

  • You might very well bust your hip attempting this dance. Courtesy of Taylor Lorenz, check out Brian Esperon, the 28-year-old who choreographed the viral WAP dance. [Twitter]

  • I went for a masked run this morning, and I can attest that exercising with a mask on can feel like trying to inhale with a blowdryer in your face. But it’s important if you work out in public spots around others. Here are some tips for running with a mask. [Runner’s World]

See you soon!

Anand


Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Lorenz