I love anthropology even more than I love algorithms. Watching people use my products like Second Life and YouTube was always fascinating because unexpected things happened every day – emergent behavior. Taylor Lorenz is one of the best reporters right now in finding and sharing these stories. It’s gotten to the point where I can sometimes read an article title and just know it’s her byline. She was kind enough to let me fire five questions at her. Here you go!
Hunter Walk: Can you share a bit of your background, what led you to journalism and how you ended up covering tech for The Atlantic?
Taylor Lorenz: My career path is hard to describe. I actually made a list this year of all the jobs I had before my current one and it was 38. Basically, I worked in a bunch of other fields and around 2010, while I was working a series of shitty temp jobs, I discovered Tumblr and it changed my life.
I ended up creating a bunch of semi-popular tumblrs which lead to a job running social media for a bunch of fortune 500 brands at what was then one of the best creative agencies in NYC. I did that for a couple years then worked in strategy and social media roles at various media companies.
I always wanted to report on the stuff I do now, but it was impossible to find anywhere that would let me do that full time. I kept working in strategy, biz dev, audience development roles and writing on the side. Eventually, I started writing freelance for Cooper Fleishman who is one of the greatest editors of all time.
Cooper encouraged me to report on what I cared about, not just follow whatever beats were out there. He also helped me come up with ideas for what I consider some of my best work. The stuff I wrote for Cooper at Mic caught the attention of a bunch of editors who offered me full time jobs. Once I had a full time job covering the stuff I do now with Ben Collins, (another one of the greatest editors of all time) as my editor I feel like people finally started paying attention to it. In April The Atlantic recruited me and here I am.
There’s like 900 forks in the road between that, but that’s the gist.
HW: You’re on a really amazing run of insightful, funny and unique articles about social media, tech and teens. What’s your process for finding these trends and nuggets?
TL: I love writing about emergent behaviors and evolving social norms on different apps/social platforms. I end up writing mostly about teens because they tend to use technology in really weird and creative ways, but I have covered lots of other groups and communities. For instance. I recently wrote a piece on how Twitter became the top social platform for the nudist community.
I find this stuff always by going down random rabbit holes online. I have eight Instagram accounts and spend a lot of time on the Explore page.
HW: When you get a tip or happen upon a trend, how do you validate it’s actually something meaningful and not either just a few people doing something weird or you’re being pranked for the lulz?
TL: Most people don’t try to prank me? I spend enough time on the internet to know that if someone DMs me asking me to cover bofa I’m like, lol. I think if people in whatever communities you’re covering see that you’re earnest and not some disingenuous person who’s going to use them for clicks, they’re pretty helpful. Granted, I don’t cover political trolls on 4Chan or people who will almost always lie for fun.
The useful tips I do get are from people I trust who spend way more time on the internet than I do. Before writing about anything I talk to a lot of people and lurk for a couple weeks. I would also just say that sometimes “a few people doing something weird online” can still be a great story! I think people have respect for you as long as you’re not trying to oversell something or dramatize it (like teens are snorting Tide Pods for Bitcoin or whatever).
HW: Anecdotally I feel like much of the best “tech + culture + society” writing right now is being done by women – you, Alyssa Bereznak of The Ringer, Nellie Bowles and Erin Griffith at the NYTimes, Jessi Hempel at Wired (just to name a few). I wonder if this gender split strikes you as accurate and if so, does it surprise you at all?
TL: First of all, Nellie, Alyssa, and Erin are three idols of mine. I’m grateful to even be listed in comparison to them. I’d also add Jamie Lauren Keiles, Amanda Hess, Katie Notopoulos, Julia Alexander, and Paris Martineau to that list.
The fact that we’re all women is something I’ve thought about. Amanda Hess had a great video recently where she talked about internet mysticism and the rise of astrology in female communities online. At the end of the video she talks about male mysticism and how that takes the form of conspiracy theories and Alex Jones-type stuff. I’m underselling the video, but it made me consider the way men and women approach beats, particularly when it comes to online culture.
I think different people are drawn to different aspects of life online and it does sometimes feel like men are more drawn to covering some of the most toxic parts. That’s not to say that there aren’t many great women covering these spaces (Kelly Weill, my former colleague at The Daily Beast, for instance, and many others).
When it comes to online culture coverage though, I think you need to be extremely good at picking up on subtleties and subtext in communication and this is not something men are famous for. Still, writers like my colleague Alexis Madrigal, Miles Klee at Mel, or Max Read and Brian Feldman at New York Mag all write about Life Online with great nuance.
HW: What/who are your internet guilty pleasures, or since you cover this world for a living, do you actually just like to back away from the screen when you’re not researching/writing?
TL: I watch four to six horror movies a week. I’ve seen so many that my bar is really low and I’ll watch almost anything in that genre.
I also read and watch a lot of trashy sci-fi. I’ve seen everything in the sci-fi and horror categories in Netflix, Hulu, HBO. I read a lot of fan fic for shows I like that ended. I also enjoy hiking upstate!
Thanks to Taylor for giving me the chance to ask her a few questions. Follow her on Twitter @TaylorLorenz.