Taylor Lorenz

Taylor Lorenz at home in Brooklyn. Photographed by Nina Westervelt.

Taylor Lorenz reports from the frontlines of internet culture, venturing deep into chat rooms and comments sections to deliver breaking headlines on everything from Facebook’s latest policy on political ads to the emergence of “Ok boomer.” Her byline at The New York Times (and before that, The Atlantic) is required reading for Silicon Valley venture capitalists, marketers and trend-watchers and anyone (i.e. everyone) curious about how the internet is shaping the ways in which humans express themselves and communicate.

Below, Taylor, whose fixation with digital culture began over a decade ago when she discovered Tumblr, discusses her winding career path, her "stupid" optimism and why be being a woman makes her especially good at her job.

Hi Taylor, thanks for taking the time to chat. You’ve been quite prolific recently. We especially liked your article about Michael Bloomberg’s meme marketing campaign. Was that pitched to you?

Oh that absolutely did not get pitched. The opposite. I had heard the Bloomberg campaign was making all of these digital hires and were going to start working with influencers. Then my former colleague Scott Bixby at The Daily Beast scooped me on this ad they had posted to an influencer marketing platform. I was mad because I am so competitive. When other people break news on my beat I get so upset, I take it as like a personal failing. I went back to all my sources and I was like, "You need to tell me now, what is going on!" [laughs] I knew the memers were posting Bloomberg memes, but I didn't want to write a story based off that. I wanted the scoop on things like how the money was being distributed, if they were working directly with the memers, what the org chart looked like, and who was in charge of strategy. Luckily, I was able to file the story right before all the ads started going up.

Yes, it was excellently timed.

I seriously get so competitive. I don't even know the state that I go into. I'm like, “If I'm not the first to write this detail about this meme campaign, I'll die!”

Will we be seeing more influencer marketing tactics from candidates in the 2020 election?

Yes, definitely. A lot of people think influencer marketing is an Instagram model selling FitTea or something. But it’s really just about leveraging people with a wide digital audience to build your own.

You dabbled in politics yourself at The Hill.

Yes I wrote breaking news and I ran a bunch of their social media and video strategy. I covered the 2016 election using things like Snapchat and Facebook Live. After the election in 2017, I started covering a ton of protests and rallies and marches.

You were actually physically assaulted at one.

Yeah, I was clocked to the ground while I was live-streaming in front of 3 million people at Charlottesville in 2017. It's not something I generally talk about.


I don't talk about what happened to me much to be honest because it's not important. Having watched someone die in front of me, it just felt gross to talk about some fucking loser who hit me. Even now it feels weird to talk about; I never bring it up online. Afterwards all these trolls accused me of being a deep state actor or something - it was awful.

Did it affect your decision to switch career paths?

Honestly, I think about that moment a lot. I stayed down in Charlottesville and covered Heather Heyer's funeral and the subsequent aftermath of the rally. Then I basically went from that to covering Milo Yiannopoulos's free speech week at Berkeley, which was also insane. Covering all those rallies and protests—I was covering more than one per week for most of 2017—if anything, those experiences made me realize that I was doing pretty intense reporting.

I’d wanted to be a reporter before that but I didn’t think I could make it. I’d come to accept that I was just going to be a social media strategist who wrote on the side. After covering Charlottesville and the whole 2016 election, and all these protests, I realized I was actually very good at reporting. I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to go for it.” I'd tried to get hired before at a million media companies but failed various writing tests and beat memos. But by then my freelance pieces for Mic were getting more attention. I thought, if this doesn't work out in a year, I'll go back to running social for brands. I got an entry-level reporter job at The Daily Beast and took a massive pay cut, I mean it was literally more than half my previous salary. I sold all my belongings and moved into a tiny sublet in Crown Heights. My mom was like, "This is the worst decision ever."

Well clearly, things turned out ok.

Looking back now, it’s crazy how little confidence I had in myself at the start. Especially when you consider how much bad writing exists on the internet anyway! [laughs]

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“I'm like, 'If I'm not the first to write this detail about this meme campaign, I'll die!'
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You frame your interest in online culture within a broader context of human communication and connection. If you were to psychoanalyze yourself, what would you say that’s all about?

I like to know what everybody is doing. In high school, I used to lurk on unknown friend groups on Webshots. People would put party photos on there. There were these girls from Hollins College that would post and I can tell you every single social dynamic in that group even though they never knew who I was. I followed them for years. It sounds so ... actually it doesn't sound crazy now because of Instagram, but back then… [laughs].

How does that mindset inform your reporting?

I never want to be that journalist that uses their platform to just push a bunch of preconceived notions. I try to go into every story blind. I never want to be cruel to some community just because I don't understand it or come in like I know what I'm talking about. It's better to come in and be like, ”Haha I'm so stupid, I'm an idiot, I'm old, I don't get it, why don't you tell me how it really is?"

A few years ago, your job didn’t exist and you had to fight to prove to your editors that internet culture was a valid beat. Now you’re a Harvard Nieman fellow and an (extremely popular) New York Times writer. What changed?

I think we're just getting to the point in the past year, year and a half, where people have started to care. The New York Times created a job for me to cover this stuff because there's an audience for it in a way that there wasn't a few years ago I think.

And why’s that?

Well for one, there's more money in it. When I started, the internet was much smaller, the platforms hadn't scaled to the point that they have now. A lot of my stories are business stories and the businesses were still emerging.

I think there's just more public awareness about the things I write about in general too like influencers, memes, etc. Also these tech platforms have scaled to unbelievable heights with unbelievable power. I think people are starting to realize the effect that has on our world.

As we live an ever increasing amount of our lives online, do you think there will be a point where “internet culture” just becomes “culture.”

Yeah I think of myself as a culture writer, really. I think “internet culture reporter” is one of those job titles that will sound quaint in a couple years, like “webmaster.” Because the internet is going to be in our brains by then. It already kind of is. [laughs]

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“The internet is going to be in our brains by then. It already kind of is.”
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So many of the great writers covering the internet from a culture angle are women. Like Amanda Hess, Anna Weiner, Katie Notopoulis and Jamie Lauren Keiles, to name a few. Do you think this is just a coincidence?

Those are all writers who literally paved the way for me to have a job - they're phenomenal. I think that when you’re covering culture you have to have a really keen eye for subtleties in communication. And women, I think partly because we’re raised in a patriarchy, are taught to be more empathetic and aware of social cues. And I think that helps. I also think that, as journalists, women have an advantage in some communities since we’re seen as less threatening. For instance, I spend all day messaging teenage influencers on TikTok. If I were a male journalist in my mid-30s, I probably wouldn't get the same responses that I do.

Of course, there are a lot of men who are amazing at dissecting internet culture and picking up on its nuances. The entire staff at MEL Magazine, really. But in general, I find that straight, cis men, gravitate more towards covering the darker side of the internet and things like Nazis and trolls.

MEL Magazine is fantastic.

If you want culture writing that resonates with young people and is thoughtful and intersectional and empathetic but still very critical and accountability-based, it's them.

And you, too. There’s also a thread of optimism in your work that’s refreshing when so much internet coverage is doom and gloom.

I think people see me as an optimist because my stories are empathetic. I'm not someone who is like, “Young people are ruining the world!” or “Influencers are ruining the world!” Because I don’t believe that. A lot of my so-called optimism is really just a lack of bias.

But in general, I do try to see the good in things. That's just my nature. But that doesn't mean I'm not critical, especially when it comes to certain tech companies or business practices.

Also, I just want to say that I've been really hurt in the past year. It's been really hard for me emotionally. Just because I'm an optimistic person doesn't mean I don't have depression sometimes or go through things. I basically stopped talking about my personal life completely on the internet because it's just been so hard to deal with harassment and stuff. It's difficult because when I try to vent about it online, which is the one place I used to feel so safe to express myself, all these people claim I'm doing it for attention. It's like okay, then where am I supposed to vent? The internet is my life. Am I supposed to just shut up about how deeply this stuff affects me? It's been so hard to deal with, especially as my profile has grown. There's this constant pressure to promote yourself, since that's how you get credit and opportunities. But then as you become more and more of a public figure you have to deal with all this shit that makes you miserable.

Yeah, we can only imagine.

Overall though I feel lucky and am still pretty positive about life, which is so stupid. I don't know why I am. Something is broken in my brain that I'm like that.

By virtue of your subject matter, you interview a lot of teenagers. Much has been written about how technology and access to the internet has made Gen Z lonelier and more depressed than previous generations. In talking to them and spending so much time in their worlds, have you found that to be true?

I hate that kind of coverage of young people because it's so misleading and unfair. A lot of what the mainstream media focuses on are symptoms of wider social issues. It's not the phones that ruin things. It's this completely fucked up, unequal society. I write a lot about college kids, and the student debt crisis is absolutely crushing. A lot of teens are also extremely concerned about climate change. These are deeper issues than just Instagram.

What were you like in high school?

Oh my God. Here's the thing. Even though I tried to expose myself to as much as possible when I was in high school, I really led a very sheltered life. I never had MySpace. I read horribly sexist women's magazines that set completely unrealistic standards. It wasn't until I got on Tumblr, to be honest, which was right after college, that I realized that there was a whole big world out there beyond the social structure that I grew up in.

I think kids today are really lucky because they have access to that from the instant that they can get on the internet. Obviously, that comes with a lot of problems, too. I don't want to sound like Mark Zuckerberg saying all connection is good. I do believe that it’s valuable to help people be more connected, just not necessarily in the way that Facebook or Twitter or whatever envisions it. A lot of teenagers are lonely and could benefit from more healthy social connections. It doesn't have to be in-person, but it also doesn't have to be through some big multi-billion dollar corporation.

You're famous for the lengths you go to find your stories, from spending hours in chat rooms to toggling between dozens of Insta accounts. Just reading your recent Personal Tech column in The New York Times was exhausting. Do you ever worry about your consumption level or feel the need to “unplug”?

I try to maintain a fluid relationship with work. If I need to take a break, I take a break, and when I want to be online, I'm online. Some nights I’ll stay up until 3am on Twitter and others, I’ll go to bed at 8pm. I think everyone has to find their own offline/online balance.

I will say that most of what I consume is through video and audio like YouTube, Instagram, and podcasts. I'm on Twitter a lot since I find it easier to skim. Growing up, I always felt like I was smart but there was a barrier there or something. I couldn't ever read or write as well as I could think, and I definitely still feel like that. But when I'm on the internet now, I feel like I'm sort of catching up. I'm like, oh my God, there's so much I want to watch and learn and do.

Well, that about wraps things up. Anything we didn’t touch on?

I don't know how you would put this in the interview, but there's an amazing group of reporters that are coming onto my beat now that I really, really love. People ask me a lot if I get nervous about new competition. It's funny because there are literally 500 political reporters and nobody asks them stupid questions like that. I have such a giant field, and people are like, "Oh my God, someone else is writing about TikTok!" A lot of times they write about angles I never considered or people I didn't know about. Even if they hate something I wrote, their feedback makes my writing better so I'm really grateful.

Any names in particular?

Well the entire team that covers internet culture and online creators at Business Insider and Insider. Amanda Perelli, Paige Leskin, Lindsay Dodgson. There's too many to name there because they're all so good. I love Kahlan Rosenblatt's work at NBC. Literally everyone at MEL Magazine makes me want to cry every week with jealousy. Also there's James Wellemeyer who I literally met when he was in high school, who is now a college student and an incredible freelance journalist who has scooped me on things.

I finally made a Twitter list of everyone whose work I love since every time people ask me this I forget so many people. I update it a lot too so if there's someone you think I should follow please tell me!

Keep up with Taylor:

Twitter: @TaylorLorenz
Instagram: @taylorlorenz
TikTok: @taylorlorenz