Taylor Lorenz’s road to becoming a technology reporter featured many twists and turns. She started out by blogging on Tumblr and rose to internet stardom, soon realizing she could turn her passion into a reporting gig — but editors didn’t agree. “It took a really, really long time to convince people that this could be a full time beat,” Lorenz says. People made fun of her in 2010 when she would call herself a tech reporter.
She never stopped writing about tech but spent most of that decade working on social media for ad agencies and big outlets including McGarryBowen, the Daily Mail, Mental Floss and The Hill — leading and innovating their social media presence. She finally got a full-time role at The Daily Beast, and took a major pay cut. The gamble paid off as she got hired by The Atlantic and The New York Times before landing her current role at The Washington Post — and she has half a million followers on TikTok.
Throughout this journey, she’s also made the news a lot — from revealing the identity of the woman behind the Libs of TikTok account to her brief suspension from Twitter in December for “doxxing,” according to Elon Musk — and has become a favorite target of right-wing trolls. Lorenz spoke with Quill about finding her niche, online harassment and the impact of the pandemic on her work.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your process for finding stories?
Every story has to add to the larger discussion around media and technology. It’s not enough to say “here’s a TikTok trend.” The story needs to say something deeper. That’s what I look for when deciding if something is a good story. There’s so much going on, I feel like I’m drowning in stories every day. So I just choose whatever I’m interested in that speaks to a larger narrative.
Unfortunately, you’ve faced a lot of harassment and doxxing due to your work. Can you talk about what that’s been like for you?
Here’s what’s traumatic about it: It’s not the actual harassment, it’s the way the media covers harassment. It’s the cable news people who amplify these harassment campaigns. And I’m not just talking about Fox News — I’m talking about all cable news. I don’t care about getting doxxed, I was doxxed by my Vine fans in 2013, and many more incidents. This is a consequence of covering the online ecosystem, because harassment and network harassment have become so commonplace. The harm that I’ve dealt with and the frustration I’ve experienced was because of the media. People who are so bad at covering online harassment that they make these campaigns ten times worse and have truly put my life in danger. As somebody who works in media, I think it’s inexcusable that there are still so many journalists who don’t know how to properly cover harassment, sexual assault or any sort of abuse or online attacks. That needs to change.
What do you think the media misses when it comes to understanding media culture and trends?
Lots of people just buy into surface-level narratives. They don’t do the work of really trying to understand things on the internet or try to understand online influence — which is a through line for my beat. They see a TikTok trend, but don’t understand why it is meaningful, or they see a right-wing outrage campaign and they just take it as fact instead of looking deeper to understand why certain narratives are being promoted. They are consumers instead of users. I think we should write about the internet from the perspective of being users.
How has the pandemic impacted your work?
There’s all these things that I haven’t been able to cover because I’m immunocompromised. This is what disabled people have been dealing with, literally forever. Hopefully people can wake up and realize that we need to build a more inclusive industry that allows for greater access to events and more inclusive coverage. I think the pandemic exposed how out of touch a lot of media people are. I mean there’s media people who just ran off to their homes in the Catskills or the Hamptons and many who don’t know a single person who died of COVID. Isn’t that crazy?
What was your entry point into internet culture?
A girl at one of my temp jobs introduced me to Tumblr and I became obsessed with it. I started making blogs and a bunch of media people followed me. I had never really thought about journalism before, but I just started meeting more people and became more interested. I really didn’t like the way that traditional media was covering internet stuff and so I thought maybe I can get into that realm.
What did you blog about?
I just posted things I thought were funny. It was the era where single-serving Tumblrs were popular, and so I made just thousands and thousands of them. I would make a Tumblr for anything I could think of. I was living in Williamsburg at the time, so I made one about the neighborhood, the L train, bagels, the weather, my dating life, etc. I think people started to notice me because I would reply and reblog a lot. I got invited to a bunch of Tumblr meetups and I would go to BuzzFeed meetups, also. I mean, I was just obsessed with the internet.
How do you think internet culture has shifted since the early 2010s?
The biggest change is that online culture has just become mass culture. There’s no separation. In 2009, you were online or offline. It was very desktop oriented. YouTube didn’t even have a mobile app back then.
Is it difficult to be an objective journalist and also a social media personality?
What does it mean to be objective? Who would you say is objective? I would love people who ask that question to name who they think is an objective journalist. Whenever I ask, they never have an answer. To be a journalist, the most important aspects are to be truthful, fair and accurate. Why are some perspectives considered objective and some considered radical — such as the fact that people of color deserve rights or women shouldn’t be discriminated against? You’re always going to bring your unique perspective and background to anything. That does not mean that your story is not accurate. That question drives me crazy.
How can reporters better understand and make use of the internet?
If you’re going to write about something, be a user. You can’t write about technology that you don’t use really well. Just like you don’t want to review a car without driving it or write about a makeup product you’ve never used, unless you’re writing about the corporate side. I always cover things from the user side, so I think being a user is very valuable.
What advice do you have for newer journalists?
Don’t let somebody else determine your self worth. There’s a lot of credentialism in media, and there’s a lot of people who believe they are at the top of the food chain and are not very welcoming to younger journalists. There’s this mindset of, you have to pay your dues and one day you’ll get that lofty job at a big publication. Your goal should be to do your best work in whatever way makes you happy. The internet has created a wealth of opportunity, so you don’t have to work your way up the traditional ladder. Never aspire to work for a specific place, just aspire to do the work that you want to do. Do your own thing, experiment and don’t worry about buying into some outdated system.
Feature photo courtesy of Taylor Lorenz
Carlett Spike is a Delaware-based writer and editor with work published in Columbia Journalism Review and New Jersey Monthly, among others.