A remarkable history of the social web over the last 20 years, from early blogging to TikTok during covid. Brings to light the formative and often unrewarded roles of women and people of colour in establishing and building much of the things we now take for granted on the internet.
"For all the platforms that Silicon Valley has created and algorithms they've tested, the real transformation has occurred closer to the ground. The business of Big Tech doesn't hinge on what they've invented but on what they've channeled." (Page 1)
"The internet has steadily changed everything around us: who we know; how we meet; how we work; how we date; how we play; who gets famous; whom we trust; what we want; and who we want to be." (Page 6)
The earliest blogging platforms like Blogger, Blogspot, and later WordPress, were the first real transition for many from being media consumers to media producers. Suddenly, there were no real gatekeepers anymore.
BlogAds launched in 2002, and AdSense in 2003. Blogs with good enough traffic could monetize and, from there, essentially turn into media companies.
One of the biggest pioneers in these early days was Heather Armstrong, owner of dooce.com. She was the prototypical "mommy blogger."
"A generation of mothers turned to the internet, either as readers, or writers, or both. Blogging gave them a needed outlet for their creative energy as well as a way to connect with others like them. What began as a hobby ultimately found millions of readers with a shared, unmet need: solace, entertainment, and camaraderie during a period of life that was often isolating and overwhelming." (Page 20)
Mommybloggers like Armstrong would reveal their own lives online, get traffic, and then monetize their websites with ads. They single-handedly created the model that influencers/creators use today. This typically favoured white middle-class people, however.
"Black mothers and mothers representing other marginalized identities were not granted the most lucrative brand deals. This bias went well beyond blogs and would become an even bigger concern as social media became more visual." (Page 24)
With monetization and growing attention came fraught tensions and trolls, however.
"They were among the first people to commodify themselves online, to post candidly about their personal lives—and then monetize." (Page 27)
To begin with, social media was mostly about friends in your real-life network. It took a very long time for social platforms to embrace celebrity, and for celebrities to embrace social platforms.
Friendster saw early success but couldn't get servers online fast enough to keep up with demand. So MySpace cloned it in 2003 with one crucial difference: it let users make changes to their HTML/CSS, allowing them to adapt and personalise their own pages. MySpace grew massively when "MySpace Tom" poached Tila Tequila from Friendster, bringing all her followers with her.
"Scene" kids made MySpace a cultural influence. By 2007, MySpace was the most visited site in the world.
In 2004, thefacebook.com launched from Harvard. It saw explosive early growth through exclusivity. Rather than the model of allowing anyone and everyone to friend you like on MySpace, Facebook instead sought to replicate real-world networks.
"From the start, MySpace danced with a combustible combination of teenagers, models, bands, and a free-for-all atmosphere. The Wild West of the internet, it had been a refuge and a launchpad, but it also revealed the terrifying damage that the firehose of social media attention can inflict on a person." (Page 37)
Facebook dominated in the end. In 2006 it introduced NewsFeed which meant more visibility, which meant more sharing happened. It was the first infinite scrolling stream of updates.
Paris Hilton was perhaps one of the first people who was "famous for being famous." Next came Kim Kardashian. Then "micro fame" became a thing that people were talking about. Could it work for anyone?
With Tumblr launching in 2007 and the rise of microblogging, the internet seemed to suggest so. Julia Allison was one such "micro famous" person in the New York scene who used Tumblr to enter the spotlight.
"At the time, media observers didn't know how to react to what Allison was doing. Bloggers were a mainstream concept by the late aughts, but they had their own lane. Allison wasn't a familiar kind of author. She was a journalist who used photos, text, video—every medium available—to invite users into her world and build her brand. She talked about dating and sex in one breath and the trajectory of the tech world in the next. She called it "lifecasting." (Page 50)
There was a significant cost to this, however, where she suffered horrific misogyny and online hatred. She is now, Lorenz says, mostly passed over and "undervalued for her pioneering role" in forging the beginnings of the influencer industry.
"Across the country, people opened up about their daily lives into their webcams, making heartfelt confessionals, ranting, and goofing off. These video diaries captured the same freewheeling energy as the blog boom, but with a new level of immediacy and access." (Page 62)
The early years of YouTube feel like a lifetime ago. A single Lonely Island SNL sketch went viral and brought early success to YouTube. Then, LonelyGirl15 became a phenomenon. The platform continued to grow along with the new vlogger format.
Internet fame, in the case of Chocolate Rain's Tay Zonday, was often fleeting and disregarded by mainstream media, or people who weren't online that much. It was hard to know how to make money from so much attention and didn't seem like something that was even possible.
YouTube launched the Partner Program which would mean revenue for creators who were already making things for free anyway. Managers began to emerge as well: Ben Lashes was an early manager for the likes of GrumpyCat, helping his owner land brand deals.
"Lashes's success with Keyboard Cat made him the go-to manager for early viral internet stars. Before long, he quit his day job to become a full-time meme manager. He proved a savant when it came to spotting viral internet figures early and growing them into multinational consumer brands-Grumpy Cat, Nyan Cat, Success Kid, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, Scumbag Steve: think of any big meme in the 2010s and, chances are, Lashes was their manager. He not only signed them but also helped each creator make the most of their digital fame." (Page 73)
Still, even with things beginning to improve, YouTube needed better and higher quality content to convince advertisers longer term. But they also needed revenue from those ads to pay creators more. This was something of a chicken and egg problem.
"it was now the only major platform on the internet offering to pay users, an idea anathema to every other social media company on the rise." (Page 76)
The Station was the first YouTuber content house, formed in 2009. Carl's JR, an early YouTube advertiser who had been convinced to run a campaign, also gave $10k to each of the members of this house at the same time. They had expected that the results of this campaign would mostly be generated by the traditional advert. However, in a massive lightbulb moment, this was not the case at all.
"Ezra Cooperstein, VP and director of the ad agency running the Carl's Jr. YouTube campaign, told Adweek he was hoping the creators' videos would give the campaign a modest boost. As he saw it, the real campaign was their takeover of the YouTube home page. Once the campaign launched, however, Cooperstein was stunned. The nine creator videos collectively amassed over 11 million organic views within forty-eight hours. Meanwhile, clicks on the home page banners generated barely 100,000 views of the brand's official commercial. What's more, the YouTubers' followers were far more engaged, staying with the content longer than those who clicked a home page banner ad, then quickly navigated away." (Page 81)
As YouTube's partner program took off, the first VidCon happened and the early YouTube creators realised there was a real cultural impact happening. YouTube then introduced a $5M grant program to break the chicken and egg problem and create a self-reinforcing loop.
Creators were breaking the one million subscription mark by 2010. By 2021, YouTube ad revenue was $28B with $15B going directly to creators.
The iPhone launched in 2007, creating apps for the first time. They would be anywhere and everywhere with people.
"In their early years, Twitter and Facebook were often discussed in similar ways: both were technologies that opened up new forms of connecting with your friends. (Facebook's "status update" feature was rolled out just a few months after Twitter launched.)" (Page 103)
Twitter was a way of publicly microblogging your "status". It had a similar dynamic to group chats, although they didn't yet exist at that point.
Twitter brought two subtle but major shifts:
With user engagement, the @, RT, and # all became commonly used operators.
Celebrities began to join, establishing the first direct line to their audiences that they could control themselves. Businesses started to act differently, too, with the DKNY PR Girl being the first brand to begin acting like a human online to increase engagement.
"Media companies hired their first crop of fulltime social-media editors, primarily young Millennials whose entire job was to run brands' social media accounts." (Page 110)
Tumblr had different dynamics altogether: the re-blog and no follower count whatsoever. Its focus was on iteration and creating content so that it would spread. "FuckYeah----" Tumblrs were a hugely popular trend.
"In its heyday, a reblog by "Fuck Yeah Menswear" could sell out a coat." (Page 118)
Sites like Buzzfeed and Mashable would aggregate content they'd find on Tumblr and repackage it with sponsored posts and ads. The best example of this kind of thing was "The Dress."
"Soon, celebrities, including Taylor Swift, were weighing in. The post attracted nearly 30 million page views in under twenty-four hours. BuzzFeed ended up having an officewide Champagne toast to celebrate the record-breaking numbers." (Page 122)
"If millions of people would be staring at a wall of beautiful images, some would be tempted to turn that wall into a billboard. From Instagram's inception, [Instagram founder] Systrom had been unambiguous about where he stood on this temptation: strongly against it." (Page 129)
The original energy of Instagram was the community and the photography—the pure value of the images themselves rather than any interests more commercial than that. But this original vibe didn't last all too long until it started attracting attention from stars like Justin Bieber:
"At one point, Instagram was forced to expand its infrastructure simply to handle the flood of engagement that Bieber's posts alone would generate." (Page 130)
Early on, celebrities drove a lot of the site's traffic. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion (which seems like a bargain, in retrospect).
The real tension on Instagram was around adverts. Founder Kevin Systrom was deeply against them, but influencers wanted a way to make money. Because advertisers wanted to advertise and couldn't do it through Instagram itself, they had to go through the influencers. Systrom's anti-advertising policy had the unintended effect of accelerating the growth of the influencer industry wholesale.
Then, around the same time, affiliate marketing services began to emerge in 2011. This allowed influencers to make money through a cut of the revenue, but also allowed brands to know where that traffic is coming from, and which traffic sources were driving the most sales.
RewardStyle was one of the very first for bloggers, they then created a similar service for Instagram called "LikeToKnow" later known as LTK. Instagram did much bigger numbers.
Operating around the time of the emergence and rise of apps like Vine, Snapchat, Musical.ly, and Twitch, there was a parallel universe at work. The same tactics being used by influences/creators could also be used by the Alt-right, ultimately funneling the youth toward MAGA by 2016.
"Gamergate was a coordinated, deeply misogynistic harassment campaign that relied on manufactured outrage cycles to terrorize women who espoused progressive values. It began when the ex-boyfriend of video game developer Zoë Quinn attacked her in a blog post, making false and defamatory claims about her that were then elaborated upon and amplified by anonymous Redditors and 4chan users. Several other women became characters in what was an increasingly complex fabrication driven by antagonism toward advocacy for greater diversity in the video game industry, and then just general antagonism toward liberal ideology. Thousands of men used the hashtag #gamergate to identify and target outspoken women in gaming with nonstop rape and death threats." (Page 164)
"Vine was TikTok before TikTok." (Page 145)
Bought by Twitter for $50M before it had even launched, Vine was a video-focused and mobile-first app that was all about video. Limited to six-second clips because of mobile data limitations, it became the constraint that allowed for incredible creativity on the platform.
Snapchat and Musical.ly (later TikTok), also both video-focused and mobile-first, came out around the same sort of time. There was also the emergence of Twitch, but it never really suited mobile well.
Then, around the same time, Hollywood started buying multi-channel networks (MCNs), bringing increased legitimacy to the creator industry.
"The money and attention that digital stars were now receiving brought YouTubers, Viners, and other online creators into the mainstream. They went from kids wasting time in their parents' basements to the entertainers of the future." (Page 163)
"It stopped being about making this cool studio where creators could come and execute their creator vision, and it became about money." (Page 163)
Early brand deals for Viners legitimised them massively:
"In past eras, teen stars arrived through the music industry, movies, or TV. They were trained and vetted. They had put in thousands of hours and jumped through scores of industry hoops. Social media, by contrast, didn't impose such a gauntlet, and fans didn't seem to care." (Page 170)
This also led to the creation of the first ever Vine hype/collab house, 1600 Vine (named/chosen because this was its literal address in Los Angeles). This building was home to Viners like King Bach, the Logan Brothers, Lele Pons, Amanda Cerny, and many more.
These Viners were the monopoly at the top of Vine, all of whom were finding incredible levels of fame and success. And yet, there was significant tension between them and the Vine founders who were, all told, fairly dismissive of the creators that were most successful on their platform.
"Flare-ups between top Viners and the company continued throughout 2013 and 2014, even over the smallest features. In December 2013, Vine introduced web profiles and vanity URLs, short, easy-to-remember links that allowed users to share their Vine profiles outside the app. Top Viners said they received no advance notice of the feature's rollout, however. Nash Grier, one of the Magcon boys and one of the biggest stars on Vine, was minutes too late when the URLs launched. A random user had seized his URL, vine.co/nashgrier. Frustrated, Grier reached out to the company to ask for help in obtaining his username. It would have been simple enough to fix, said Cabalona, and he asked the founders to help Grier out. But Vine co-founder Colin Kroll scoffed at the request. "Colin was like, 'He doesn't need it, let it go,"" Cabalona recalled. "It was a pretty explicit no from Colin." Grier claimed the account "griernash," but it caused unnecessary confusion and harmed his search discoverability on the platform for years." (Page 179)
The Vine founders ended up curating a lot of what was showing up as popular on the platform, without informing these successful creators who knew nothing about this. This created bad blood. Things only got rockier from there, even with some moves to try and appease them.
Fundamentally, Vine couldn't build good relationships with its creators and this caused a major drift to YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat.
This all culminated in "the meeting" between about 20 or so major Viners and Vine staff in 2015. They all demanded $1M each per year for posting 3 Vines a week. This was an unrealistic demand from a group of arrogant kids who were already made rich, but it was also bad management from Vine and too little too late to start engaging.
By October 2016, Vine was dead.
Facebook tempted many away with contracts to support their "pivot to video" but this only lasted a year because there was no long-term interest in monetisation from Facebook. Snapchat didn't handle the influx well either, with all the bigger Viners crowding out the native Snapchat stars.
These waves rippled around the internet for a long time after.
Musical.ly (later known as TikTok) had its biggest viral/cultural moment around the 4th of July in 2015 with the #dontjudgechallenge. This made the song "Cheerleader" by OMI a viral hit and showed the musical influence that the app could have on the wider world. Many Viners jumped to the app after Vine, or around the time that Vine was not doing so well.
At the same time, the Chinese company Bytedance was working on their own app, Douyin, which is very similar to Musical.ly. The main difference is the strength of its far superior recommendation algorithm, powered by AI. In 2017, Bytedance bought Musical.ly and renamed/relaunched it as TikTok in August 2018.
Meanwhile, YouTube content creation continues apace:
"In response, creators significantly accelerated their posting frequency. The production volumes created a cottage industry of video editors, production assistants, and other support roles. The creator industry entered a new phase, as stars began outsourcing production work and building entire teams to help run their content empires." (Page 210)
It's an era of vlogs and vlogging, high posting frequencies, and prank videos.
There was long-standing need for a balance between authenticity and the need to monetize. And, for the longest time, most sponsored content was not acknowledged as such. This subtlety and lack of acknowledgment were assumed to be part of the reason why it was so effective to begin with.
In April 2017, the FTC stepped in issuing a warning that influencers needed to disclose the nature of their paid advertisements or face the consequences. For most, this simply meant adding #ad somewhere in a post.
"While this short hashtag at the bottom of a long post may seem slight, the issue was of tremendous importance in the online creator world. Some influencers' livelihoods depended on the money they made from unacknowledged endorsements." (Page 216)
Instead, this move had the opposite effect, with sponcon engagement shooting up.
"The FTC could not have done creators a bigger service." (Page 219)
This led to some influencers creating brands in partnership with established companies. Nordstrom was particularly bullish on this.
"Over half a decade before the YouTuber MrBeast would be lauded by Silicon Valley men for mainstreaming the idea of creator-driven products, DBA and the women they represented were creating household brands. While the public and much of the media dismissed female influencers as vapid, DBA recognized them as savvy businesspeople. Some 92 percent of DBA's clients are women, and 94 percent of its team is female." (Page 223)
YouTube had several controversies in 2017. Most notable was PewDiePie's, where Disney severed ties with him.
After this and other controversies, many other advertisers started to depart YouTube because it could not guarantee that their adverts could not be shown next to content that wasn't brand-safe (or just awful shit, basically).
In response, YouTube started to demonetize content and channels, as well as dramatically changing the algorithm. It was unclear what the rules were, or what was and wasn't appropriate.
"As the company rolled out tighter restrictions, they had dramatic ripple effects. The change, which became known in the online creator community as the "Adpocalypse," affected nearly every notable creator. Immediately, top YouTubers saw their earnings from ads plummet. Certain videos and channels were demonetized, often without clear reason. For creators who'd spent years learning YouTube's rhythms and algorithms, it was disorienting. They'd come to depend on the platform to maintain their livelihoods, and now the bottom was dropping out." (Page 234)
Another crisis boiling was the proliferation of awful content algorithmically targeted toward children. This was the result of unscrupulous creators, too much content, and not enough human moderation (most of it was powered by AI).
"To try to suppress extremist content, abusive videos, and the bizarre content, it made over three hundred tweaks to its algorithm in 2017. At the same time, the company tried to wrangle its talent and hold them to a higher standard." (Page 240)
Then, er, Logan Paul vlogged a literal dead body while asking people to like and subscribe.
Along with drama culture and a wider environment of harassment and bullying, the demand to constantly be posting meant a punishing work schedule for creators.
"Taking a break from posting on YouTube, Instagram, or livestreaming meant more than just a temporary drop in viewership and revenue. Taking a break sent a very negative signal to the algorithms that now rewarded frequent posts and repeat viewers. If a creator fell out of that cycle, they could see their livelihood vanish." (Page 251)
The unique power of TikTok is its AI-powered algorithm, developed by owner ByteDance, that can melt people's brains somewhat.
"This innovation sped up the cycle of virality to a breakneck pace, the mechanics of which were bewildering to some observers. "With every new TikTok star who dances or smirks their way to a million followers come just as many more people asking why they deserve to be famous in the first place," Rebecca Jennings wrote in Vox. "The cycle of overnight fame and equally swift backlash is going to keep happening." (Page 266)
When covid hit in 2020, the number of users on the app skyrocketed. This in part led to creators being seen as more legitimate. This also coincided with a massive increase in users on Twitch, and more infamously, OnlyFans.
"OnlyFans' pre-tax profits increased from $61 million in 2020 to $433 million in 2021. Total active users increased 128 percent in the same period to almost 188 million, while the number of performers increased by a third to just over 2 million. Those performers earned a collective $4 billion, more than double the prior year." (Page 275)
2020, as a broader event, validated creators for VCs and Silicon Valley money.
"Tech news site The Information estimated that in the first six months of 2021 alone, venture capital firms invested over $2 billion in at least fifty creator-focused start-ups." (Page 284)
In classic VC style, they completely misunderstood "the creator economy," as they had dubbed it, and whiffed a whole bunch of investments. The biggest whiff of all was Clubhouse, raising $200M from A16Z at a completely insane valuation of $4B. It was a total flop.
All the same, the overall effect was to see many more platforms take monetization and payments much more seriously than before.
"The explosive growth of the creator industry is the culmination of decades of user-driven platform evolution. The internet connected the world, allowing talented creators to bypass traditional gatekeepers and build fanatical audiences directly. When one thinks of "the media," they often think of broadcast news and newspapers; in reality, creators are "the media" of today." (Page 287)
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