Extremely Online | An Excerpt from the Marketing & Communications/Sales & Influence Category
December 21, 2023
Acclaimed Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz presents a groundbreaking social history of the internet, revealing how online influence and the creators who amass it have reshaped our world, online and off.
Taylor Lorenz has been writing authoritatively about the internet for a very long time. She was one of the first technology reporters to focus on online culture and creators rather than internet companies. She has been writing about how human beings have used the internet to gain influence since before the term influencer existed. That makes her better positioned than anyone to write the definitive book on the topic, which she has delivered in Extremely Online. The following excerpt is Chapter One of the book: “The Blogging Revolution.”
Let’s go back to the year 2000.
It was the year of the Y2K scare and the peak of the dot-com bubble. The web had been around since the early 1990s, long enough to spread euphoria and trepidation. The first browser had come out seven years earlier, but moving data over the internet was still arduous. Many ambitious companies hitched their cart to the proliferating internet, but their disruptive potential was qualified by many observers. Amazon, for example, was considered a threat to bookstores and music shops, but little else.
Millions of people were starting to enjoy being online. They logged on through portals like AOL, using dial-up modems that moved at a crawl. But once online, they could instant message and email friends, join chat rooms, and shop. They could even read articles from the few newspapers experimenting with putting their content online. Heavily pixelated photos, Flash animation, and ASCII art were as glitzy as it got at the time. (On a 56K modem, it would have taken twelve hours to download a single TikTok video). As for online clout, Half-Life forum admin was the best you could hope for.
That would all change, however, with the rise of the blog.
The “web log” originated in the ’90s, when a cadre of early internet users began creating their own websites to share their thoughts and favorite links with the world. The barrier to entry was relatively high, since launching a website in those days required buying a domain name and knowing how to code.
That changed at the turn of the century, as blogging platforms like Blogger, Blogspot, and WordPress emerged. When it came to visual design, these platforms were unexciting. They offered cookie-cutter websites—usually text-only. But the bare-bones solution was sneakily revolutionary. Blogs could be set up in minutes. Suddenly, anyone with internet access could become a publisher. Media consumers became media producers.
It’s hard to remember how novel this was. Before the blog era, if you wanted to share your ideas with the public, you had to make it past layers upon layers of legacy gatekeepers. Letters to the editor, call-ins to the radio, article or book submissions—all had to be approved by a faceless authority at a moated institution. Even for those who’d been admitted through the tall gates of legacy media, publication opportunities only presented themselves after years of rising through the ranks, flattering the powerful, and simply lucking out. You could always go it alone and create your own underground zine or DIY publications, but your reach was limited as long as the gatekeepers gate-kept.
Not so with blogs. You could say whatever you wanted, on any subject, in any style. For your entire life, you’d been an outsider. No longer.
Predictably, some of the first notable blogs focused on technology, and while their impact might have been large within the tech world, they rarely made an impression outside of it. However, in the political world, a blog’s influence could extend beyond a narrow group of industry insiders, as shown by one blog with the somewhat cumbersome name Talking Points Memo.
Journalist Josh Marshall started Talking Points Memo days after the Bush-Gore election in 2000, when the result was still up in the air. He was covering politics for the bimonthly publication, the American Prospect. Marshall had some web-design chops, and he happened to have a vacation scheduled for the week after Election Day. As the Bush-Gore contest intensified, Marshall launched Talking Points Memo and posted commentary by the hour.
Marshall aggregated important news items and interspersed them with insider tips he received from fellow journalists and campaign officials. He seemed to post at lightspeed compared to everyone else, plus he could offer more color and candor than legacy media could. Soon Washington insiders were refreshing the site faster than Marshall could update it.
Talking Points Memo wasn’t the first online site to cover politics by the minute. Years before Marshall launched his blog, a former CBS gift-shop manager by the name of Matt Drudge launched a political gossip newsletter called Drudge Report. While Drudge’s website made a big splash—growing especially fast during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal—Drudge was not a blogger but an aggregator. Marshall was playing a different game, reporting original stories and commenting in his unique voice. Within months, he decided to take the radical step of quitting his job at the Prospect to blog full-time.
Marshall got in at the right time, as he was among the first wave of bloggers who were attracting real audiences online. Talking Points Memo delved into the minutiae of policy debates and the Washington rumor mill. The writing was wonky and candid, not the view-from-nowhere type of writing that political news junkies were used to. That was the point.
As Talking Points Memo and its ilk got off the ground, the blogosphere bloomed around them. The total number of blogs doubled every six months. In 2006, there were 60 million blogs in existence. Blogging platforms expanded the web to non-techies, and soon new blogs emerged on everything—from indie music to Hollywood classics, to fashion, gaming, parenting, and drug culture—along with thousands of personal blogs that functioned as online journals.
Most legacy publications didn’t see blogs as a threat at first. Bloggers looked like curious eccentrics, a band of second-rate scribblers with too much time on their hands. The old guard scoffed that bloggers’ writing wasn’t up to the standards of the New York Times or Vanity Fair. They doubted that bloggers could ever break consequential stories without the access and talent monopolized by legacy media.
Readers, on the other hand, enjoyed the lack of polish. The media environment of the 1990s was centralized and corporate after waves of mergers left only a handful of conglomerates whose content was middle-of-the-road, burnished, and safe. In 2002, Wired declared “The Blogging Revolution,” a paradigm shift in how people distributed and received information: “Readers increasingly doubt the authority of the Washington Post or National Review, despite their grand-sounding titles and large staffs. They know that behind the curtain are fallible writers and editors who are no more inherently trustworthy than a lone blogger who has earned a reader’s respect.” Blogs offered readers everything that legacy media couldn’t, revealing what writers really thought. What’s more, blogs also enabled real-time interaction between writers and readers through comments sections attached to posts. Unlike message boards, blog posts primed the discussion with original, substantial content that was ripe for debate.
Soon little bubbles of taste, influence, and community formed, and they started to enter the mainstream.
It was from a reader tip that Marshall learned of a December 2002 toast given by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott at the hundredth birthday tribute to longtime pro-segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond. In his remarks, Lott openly praised Thurmond’s overtly racist 1948 presidential campaign.
While the Washington Post and ABC News ran brief stories about Thurmond’s birthday gathering, no outlet made particular note of Lott’s remarks. After the reader’s tip, however, Marshall ended up writing some twenty posts about Lott’s speech and its aftermath. Marshall assembled a broad argument against Lott, citing similar remarks in Lott’s past, establishing a pattern of praise for neo-Confederate causes and a refusal to condemn segregation. Soon, other bloggers, and then Washington media, took notice. Lott took to TV to try to repair his image, but his avoidance of apology only led to him being excoriated by both the left and the right.
Within two weeks of Marshall’s first blog post, Lott resigned from his leadership position in disgrace. Washington insiders realized that the story would have never taken off if not for Marshall and the blogosphere. A blogger had just sacked the Senate majority leader.
On December 13, 2002, the New York Post ran the headline: “THE INTERNET’S FIRST SCALP.”
Throughout the 2000s, in every field they touched, blogs circumvented gatekeepers and tore down old structures. Launching a blog required next to no monetary investment, which made it a venture within reach to all.
Here was the great advantage that promised to upend capitalism as it existed before the internet. With hard work and the cost of a few large pizzas, someone could take on a company with thousands of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.
In 2002, a company called BlogAds launched to help blogs sell display ads on their sites. BlogAds was soon followed by Google’s AdSense and other competitors, allowing top blogs to adopt an ad-driven business model similar to that used by print publications, but with vastly lower overhead and superior targeting capabilities.
Marshall started using BlogAds in 2003, and by the following year he was making nearly $10,000 per month. A few years later, ad revenue had grown so much that he was able to hire a team of reporters—often from old-media outlets—growing his staff to about twenty-five by 2012. A decade in, Marshall was no longer a reporter or a blogger; he was running a full-fledged media company. So it was elsewhere: popular sites like Gawker and FiveThirtyEight started with just one or two people, but as audiences grew, they were able to scale up into full newsrooms.
As bloggers proliferated, they didn’t just adopt traditional beats; they shaped the cultures around the topics they wrote about. In 2005, Garrett Graff, who had helped run online outreach for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, became the first blogger to receive a White House press pass. That same year, Perez Hilton had Hollywood in knots, out-tabloiding the tabloids with his blog PageSixSixSix, which was later dubbed “Hollywood’s Most-Hated Website.” Music blogs like Pitchfork were defining an indie scene that the major labels scrambled to made sense of. Fashion blogs like the Sartorialist were identifying new looks before the glossy mags picked them up. Nightlife blogs like Hipster Runoff and photographer Mark Hunter’s The Cobrasnake cultivated a new aesthetic for the era and launched internet “It” girls into mainstream celebrity culture.
In 2021, W magazine wrote, “Hunter’s unfiltered nightlife shots defined an early digital aesthetic—and ushered in the social media age.”
“My site was Instagram before there was Instagram,” Hunter told me. It was the first time “regular” people were able to build their image off online party photos en masse. “There was this whole underbelly of nightlife getting documented and put out there,” explained writer Lina Abascal, who documented the scene in her book Never Be Alone Again. “Sure, there were photographers at Studio 54, but there wasn’t the internet… a whole night would be captured by people like Mark and uploaded online for people to go through.” The model Cory Kennedy became a quintessential “Cobrasnake star.”
By 2009, fashion bloggers like Bryan Boy and Garance Dore made their foray into high-brow fashion circles. Bloggers were suddenly sitting in coveted front-row seats during New York Fashion Week, then at Dolce & Gabbana’s show at Milan Fashion Week, in a shocking upset that fashion insiders dubbed “blogger gate.” “Bloggers have ascended from the nosebleed seats to the front row with such alacrity that a long-held social code among editors, one that prizes position and experience above outward displays of ambition or enjoyment, has practically been obliterated,” wrote Eric Wilson of the New York Times.
As blogs boomed, traditional media felt the hurt, especially local and regional newspapers. Subscription rates everywhere plummeted now that the internet gave readers access to a wealth of free information, including articles from the very newspapers they no longer purchased in physical form. The industry’s century-old business model crumbled, forcing newsrooms around the country to hemorrhage staff and shut down. As they did, gatekeepers went from dismissive to hostile. In testimony before Congress, David Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and creator of The Wire, warned that the blogosphere was causing a media death spiral: “Readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin—namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.”
By the end of the 2000s, it looked more like the parasite and host had merged. As top blogs expanded their headcount by hiring professional reporters, designers, and support staff, they came to resemble traditional media companies, complete with newsrooms and sales departments. Many legacy publishers realized that their best strategy was simply to invite bloggers in. Major publications, from the New York Times and the Atlantic to Glamour and Elle, hired the top crop of bloggers to fill out their ranks of writers and reporters. These same organizations also started major blogs of their own, or bought successful sites outright. By 2009, nearly half of the fifty most-trafficked blogs were owned by corporate media behemoths like CNN, ABC, and AOL. Yet while star bloggers in tech and politics received top billing, another class of bloggers was quietly ushering in a larger shift.
In the end, the defining figure of the blog era wasn’t the nerd or the wonk. It was the mommy blogger.
Excerpted from Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.
Copyright © 2023 by Taylor Lorenz.
All rights reserved.