Taylor Lorenz has become used to being abused. The journalist, who works at The Washington Post and was previously at The New York Times, has been sent death threats, been stalked and faces regular online harassment. Her parents have also been targeted and driven out of their home in the dead of night after fake police calls. Last year, she had to be escorted to safety from a conference panel after a man who had been live-streaming violent threats about her turned up, and recently she found an advert on Craigslist offering a fee to anyone who could take and supply covert images of her. Lorenz does not file from the front line of a war zone or an authoritarian regime but rather her apartment in Los Angeles, where she covers technology and online culture.
“The internet has given me my entire career and I love covering it,” Lorenz says. But since rising to online prominence, with a million followers across her social media accounts, she has erased any trace of personal information about herself on the internet, including her age (she will say only that she is in her late thirties) because “it’s just so vicious; you just can’t believe how cruel people are. I definitely have just lost all faith in humans.” She doesn’t sound upset — she’s become hardened to this world.
Her new book, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet, unpicks “what we have done to the internet and what it has done to us”, she tells me over Zoom, in front of an Instagram-friendly backdrop of plants in white pots and brightly colored books. It covers the first 20 years of social media, from MySpace and YouTube to mum bloggers, and she spoke to more than 600 people when researching it.
“Harassment and bullying had been a serious problem on social media platforms since the MySpace era,” she writes in the book, and “tech companies had never prioritized addressing it, allowing misogyny and hate to spread with abandon”.
She is far from being the first woman to deal with a deluge of online abuse. “Popular female creators were often forced to deal with a barrage of rape and death threats,” she writes of influencers who had made vast sums from YouTube by 2018. “Many well-known [female] YouTubers were brought to a breaking point.”
But the attacks on Lorenz have not only come from nameless, faceless trolls and keyboard warriors. She has been under fire from the American right. In 2021 the Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson singled Lorenz out on two consecutive television shows for — irony klaxon — posting about online harassment and how it had damaged her. He began by calling her “privileged” and dismissed her experiences as “not real harassment”.
On International Women’s Day in March of that year, Lorenz tweeted that “the harassment and smear campaign I’ve had to endure over the past year has destroyed my life. No one should have to go through this.” This prompted Carlson to tell his three million viewers that “by most people’s standards, Taylor Lorenz would seem to have a pretty good life, one of the best lives in the country, in fact. Lots of people are suffering right now, but no one is suffering quite as much as Taylor Lorenz.”
“It’s just so vicious; you just can’t believe how cruel people are.”
She has also been in online skirmishes with Glenn Greenwald, a journalist involved with the Edward Snowden whistleblowing scandal in 2014. He described an interview she gave to MSNBC in April last year about online abuse as “revolting: she should try to find out what real persecution of journalists entails”. Lorenz fired back, challenging his credentials, prompting him to call her a “deeply unwell Swiss boarding school-educated neurotic who is paid by The New York Times to lurk outside teenagers’ TikTok houses”.
She did not go to boarding school, but attended a short study-abroad program in Switzerland organized through her school, Greenwich High in Connecticut, whose alumni include Truman Capote and Hope Hicks.
The MSNBC experience was, she says, “the most irresponsible, disgusting thing that I’ve ever been through” — “a million times more harmful than anything I’ve ever been through on the internet”. At the time of the interview she was struggling to contend with the effects of Covid due to being immunocompromised (“what’s a cold to someone [will make her] end up in the hospital”), relentless harassment of her family and friends, and attempts to get her fired. And three friends had died by suicide in rapid succession.
During what Lorenz says was a three-and-a-half-hour interview, she was asked to read “graphic rape threats” she had received, with the result being a two-minute clip in which she broke down and said she had PTSD and had contemplated suicide.
The pile-on it triggered was unbearable, she says, not least because she became emotional “for a second” in a portion of the interview she had asked the channel not to use. The resulting clip “completely took everything out of context. I don’t have PTSD; I lost three friends,” she says, pausing to compose herself as her voice cracks. “What I was upset about is the physical violence that I’ve had to deal with, and the stuff that my family has had to deal with, where my parents are being driven out of their home in the middle of the night by psychos terrorizing them and other members of my family [who have been routinely subjected to “swatting”, where Swat teams descend on a household and break down the door when reports of a major crime are lodged] …
“That’s what’s hard to deal with,” she explains. “That’s what’s making me upset. And having to deal with all of that while living through a global pandemic, when I’m extremely high-risk, and watching all of the people I care about die around me. Like, who would be thrilled about that situation?”
“My parents are being driven out of their home in the middle of the night by psychos terrorizing them.”
That episode exposed her to “the worst of the internet” and it has fundamentally changed her relationship with it: she now knows that “every single little thing I ever say or do will be weaponized against me”.
Lorenz was born in New York and grew up in Connecticut, and considered a career as an artist before becoming interested in online culture in the late Noughties via the blogging site Tumblr. Brief biographical details aside (among them, her posting of her engagement to a fellow journalist in 2015, after which she has never again shared details about her romantic life), her personal information remains walled off — but her opinions are free-flowing in The Washington Post and on her Substack, as well as on her social media accounts.
It’s easy to dismiss her book’s subjects as lightweight, and to wonder about the contradiction in detailing the minutiae of the late Nineties and early Noughties web in that most old-fashioned of forms, a book. But “internet culture is culture”, Lorenz says. “And I think that, increasingly, the online world is the default reality. What happens online is in a sense more real than what happens in person.” If something takes place, but is not posted on the internet, “it’s like it didn’t happen”.
She also — somewhat unbelievably — remains optimistic about the benefits of our world becoming ever more online. Part of that comes with the job description. Another significant part, however, is that being immunosuppressed during a global pandemic has shrunk her real-life interactions to almost nought. “The internet is my life; my entire social life is online” (Lorenz doesn’t want to disclose her condition, she says, because of security and her health insurance).
She is broadly happy that she remains able to participate at all, but admits that it has been “psychologically hard” to deal with attitudes towards Covid and “the cruelty that people have towards vulnerable people”. In the early days, the focus seemed to be to “protect our healthcare workers. And now it’s, like, oh, this nurse got long Covid? She can die because she’s a drain on the system now. That’s toxic.”
Lorenz can’t say exactly how many hours she spends online each week, but it’s “a lot of time. I don’t have anything else going on in my life … maybe people would be, like, ‘That’s sad,’ but I really love what I do.” Apart from taking a brief reprieve via her nightly viewing of horror films, which she describes as “therapeutic” (and would be the industry she says she would like to enter if she were not in journalism), she admits that her relationship with the internet is “unhealthy” at times. She is guilty, she says, of sometimes caring “too much” about what people say about her there. “I do get validation from the internet.”
She is not alone in that, obviously. Lorenz doesn’t believe this is a modern phenomenon, but rather that “the loneliness is the symptom, and then people turn to their phones for connection”.
Taylor Lorenz’s Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet is out now from Simon & Schuster
Charlotte Lytton is a London-based freelance journalist contributing to CNN, The New York Observer, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times of London, among others