Very Online – Columbia Journalism Review

“Ours is a period of increasing noise,” Jason Parham wrote earlier this year, for Wired. “Everything is bleeding into everything around it. All trends, large and small, now suggest a new cultural mood—but only until the next Vaseline-smeared obsession comes along.” Parham is one of several writers tasked with covering the internet and its subcultures—a sprawling beat that defies clear definition. The best of these journalists are immersed in the internet but do not obsess over viral moments, which fly by too fast and seem, in isolation, to be trivial. By focusing on creators, communities, and the algorithm-based platforms that drive trends, these writers find ways to cut through the noise—and surface a deeper understanding of life, online and off.

Recently I spoke with five reporters, each of whom casts a different gaze, drawing from different areas of expertise and defining their own beat within the beat. Journalism, strained for resources, often fails to reflect the diversity of the world, and certainly the internet; as Rebecca Jennings, a reporter for Vox, told me, “I think there needs to be way more people covering this beat that are not middle-class white women and white men that live in New York or LA.” To their credit, the journalists I spoke with aim not to be comprehensive—the internet is simply too vast—but to embrace their idiosyncrasies. Parham is fascinated by “how we think about Black ideas and Black creativity and Black brilliance”—subjects that have traditionally been left out of internet reporting. Jennings is focused on pop culture, the creator economy, and how platforms shape behavior. Through his Garbage Day newsletter, Ryan Broderick takes an anthropological approach to the internet, where content is rarely “new,” but mined and repackaged. In his newsletter, Today in Tabs, Rusty Foster bookmarks links that everyone is (or could be) reading. And Taylor Lorenz, who works for the Washington Post, identifies as a tech reporter—“internet culture,” she’s argued, cannot be distinguished from the culture at large.

Though I talked to each person separately, their responses to my questions seemed to be in conversation with one another, as they spoke about their points of access, their limitations, and how they view the world through the internet. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

 

How would you describe your beat?

Ryan Broderick: What I’m doing used to be considered trend reporting, maybe. There’s a little bit of anthropology to it, because you’re sort of explaining to outsiders, hopefully correctly, what an “in” group is doing. So that’s one part of it. The other part of it is that you’re doing a little bit of systems reporting. 

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It’s a lot more cultural reporting, I suppose, than what tech reporting was about ten or fifteen years ago. And of the tech-culture reporters I’ve spoken to over the last couple of years, we’ve all said that every story feels like this Russian nesting doll of weird specializations. You’re constantly saying, “Okay, there’s this thing that happened and that thing that happened, which is happening inside of this thing, which is happening in this larger system that’s owned by this company that’s trading with that company, which is then being preyed upon by these politicians.” It’s a really complex web. But the way I sort of chase it is trying to answer a question that’s as simple as possible. 

But then I don’t kind of fight it when it starts to get complicated. Because the internet is very nonlinear. So oftentimes, the thing that’s happening right now could be reacting to a thing that actually happened like five years ago, but then got stuck in an algorithm and came back. Or it’s impacting a thing that hasn’t happened yet. It’s a very bizarre space to operate in. And I think it’s gotten much more bizarre since the pandemic, because there’s just a lot more people online. At least that’s what it feels like. 

Taylor Lorenz: I don’t know why I’m a hater on the term “internet culture.” I think it’s like, I have a chip on my shoulder about it because of all the years and years that people refused to acknowledge what I do as “tech” reporting. I think what I cover is just how technology shapes the way that we communicate and connect. 

So that can be, you know, how kids are talking to each other in class on Google Docs. Or it can be how a YouTuber with ten million fans swings an election. It kind of runs the gamut, but a subtext throughout my beat is really online influence and online power dynamics—and how those power dynamics play out on the internet, and how they affect culture, business policy, everything you could think of. 

Jason Parham: I broadly cover pop culture—subcultures on the internet and offline, as well. That could range from film and music to TV to Twitter to fandoms online. I have always approached it from the vantage point that I’ve always known, which is, you know, I’m a Black man in America. I want to cover communities and stories and experiences and people and trends and ideas that are, I think, sometimes innately from a Black perspective. One, because that’s just what I’m interested in, and I think that’s what deserves to be part of the canon that we are creating online—of how we think about Black ideas and Black creativity and Black brilliance. But also because I think traditionally at Wired—this is not to discredit anything, I love working at Wired—there wasn’t a ton of attention given to Black folks online.

I saw this quote where somebody was saying, “I don’t write about Black people, I write to Black people.” I think that’s the sort of mindset I have when I take on a story or when I approach something or when I look for something to write about. I think, What plurality, what brilliance, what questions can I bring up from something that people may be overlooking or talking about in one way, but I want to talk about in another way? 

Rebecca Jennings: I think the aspects of it that I’m most interested in are the ones that have to do with human behavior—how a platform affects how people like you or I or your online friend will care about something. How it affects the way that we interact online. I care about ordinary people either becoming obsessed with an app, or getting famous on an app, and how that is affecting the creator economy and pathways to fame in general.

I was pretty early to TikTok as a user. I think it was probably like September of 2018, and I started going on it just for the cringe compilations [mash-ups of embarrassing or self-deprecating moments]. And then I found myself going back and spending a really long time on the app. And so I was like, “Hey, I kind of want to do a little explainer on this. I think this is going to be a big thing, because I literally cannot log off.” I just was really using myself as a guinea pig. 

Rusty Foster: I’m not good at describing what Tabs is about or what my beat is. And to some extent, it’s partly because I don’t have to, exactly. The beat is sort of, “Here’s the newsletter.” It is generally just stuff that I find interesting. 

It works best when I don’t spend a lot of time trying to dig up fresh little truffles that nobody’s ever read before—that’s sort of not the thing. The thing is, what is everybody talking about? So mostly I read Twitter and a few group chats. People will feed me stuff that they’re talking about with other people. And if it grabs my attention, and if I find myself with something to say about it, then it goes in. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

 

How do you use social media on a personal basis?

Taylor Lorenz: I’m online from when I wake up to when I go to bed, like many people. I would say that the platforms I use evolve with time, in line with consumer trends. 

I’m kind of on everything. I really try to put myself out there as much as possible, because that’s how you get stories; you have to be present in these spaces. And not only do you have to be present in these spaces, you have to be an active user of these platforms and you have to use them in ways that are organic to the platforms and to users there, so that they understand you and so you can build authority.

If I’m just on Instagram—just posting random photos of my family and friends, like most journalists—I’m basically not using it. One, it makes it harder to build sources and get stories; two, I think that you don’t learn these lessons so intimately. Being a user and being a power user on platforms teaches you so much.

I have three TikTok accounts: I have my main TikTok account, I have an Android phone that I use, and another one on my other burner phone. And then I have more than thirty Instagram accounts, and a couple of Twitter accounts. My main Twitter account is the only one I tweet from, but I just always set up a lot of accounts to kind of force-feed myself “other” algorithms. I’m just kind of curious what other users’ experiences of the internet are like, and so I try to build test profiles as those users and see what comes to me. Sometimes I do get story ideas that way. But if I’m posting, it’s under my real name.

 I don’t think people are really meant to engage with the whole world. It is exhausting.

Jason Parham: I would say, per day, I spend maybe three or four hours on Twitter, Instagram, and some of the other sites. I check Tumblr occasionally. I’m not on TikTok as much as I used to be, only because I’m really only on it when it comes to reporting stories.

In 2018, after my birthday, I cut off Instagram for a few years. I recently got back on with a finsta—a “fake” Instagram account, used privately—but I try to take breaks regularly. I delete the Twitter app from my phone maybe every few months, so it’s not as readily available to me. It can get very easy to get caught up in clicking this little app on your phone and seeing what people are talking about every five minutes. And I haven’t been on Facebook since 2010.

Sometimes, I’ll get asked to write about TikTok, but not being on TikTok for a month or two, I feel like I’ve lost a year of things that I’ve missed out on. The internet moves so quickly. I do think breaks are necessary, but it’s tough. We’re at a really fascinating juncture, where online life and real life more and more are blurring into each other. At some point, I don’t think we’ll be able to take a break from any of it. So I think it’s important, while we still can, to do it. 

Rusty Foster: I deleted my Twitter account completely; the old Twitter account is gone. I was off of Twitter totally for like three years, I think. Then I made a new account and it was locked and I only followed people that I’d met in person. So, for a while, I had this small, intimate, just “close friends” Twitter feed, which was really great. At the time, that was all I needed.

I mean, I’m a child of the nineties, and that was how it used to be—you follow people, you wanted to see their stuff, and you saw their stuff. My little small private Twitter was really just so that I could see what my friends were tweeting about. I followed maybe thirty people, so it was like, I could catch up on everything that they had tweeted every six hours or so. It didn’t take very long. So it wasn’t about being sort of plugged in to “the culture” as a whole or, you know, journalism Twitter or media Twitter, which is where I live when I’m working. It was really just, “What are my friends up to?”

All my life I’ve been online and then gone a little more offline for a while because you need breaks. I don’t think people are really meant to engage with the whole world. It is exhausting. I feel like everybody who works on social media needs to know that you have to be making plans for what you’re going to do when you can’t do this anymore. 

Rebecca Jennings: I make TikTok videos, but they’re really bad and no one watches them.

I would feel weird about having a professional account and my personal account. It’s like, either you’re gonna hire me—I make stupid jokes, and you can handle that at your institution, or you can’t. I don’t care that much to work at a place where I would have to be super-duper professional on Instagram or Twitter. Like, my Instagram is: I go out and I post my friends and my family; I use it like a normal person. Personally, I think that’s kind of important, to be able to use it as a normal person, rather than as a capital-C “Creator.” I wouldn’t say I have a brand on Instagram, and certainly not TikTok. It’s sort of like my brand is just being my whole self, I guess.

 

How do you decide what to cover?

Rebecca Jennings: I think covering every little thing that goes super viral on TikTok is just like running on a treadmill. Because they’re all kind of the same. I’ve written about this before, about how they’re not doing anything novel—all they are is novel, but they’re not contributing anything of meaningful value to the world that will last longer than a couple of days of news coverage. So I try to steer clear of the stories that are basically just, “Oh my God, this XYZ thing is going viral.” I think we’re in a world where there are infinite things going viral at all times, on all platforms. Just picking out a couple of them really says nothing about society. It says something about what happened to show up on your phone that day. So I try to be mindful of that kind of stuff. I look for stories that help me explain something to people, or could be a bigger part of our future, or the way that we interact.

Rusty Foster: I have a kind of ongoing Tabs folder in my Chrome bookmarks so I can bookmark stuff from my phone or from my laptop. Once in a while, I’ll read something and just be like, “There’s no way this is going in Tabs.” If I read something that’s more than a few days old, I won’t usually keep it. I try to make that a hard box: stuff that’s happened recently. So “time based” is the first box. Then there’s just a bunch of pieces. And my job is to put them into a narrative of some kind, or come up with some structure that makes them readable and meaningful in some way.

 People can do all kinds of things by themselves on the internet, but it’s a system made up of systems.

Ryan Broderick: My process is very silly, and probably not good. But it works for me. I have a Google Doc open on my desktop computer and on my phone called “garbage tracker,” and it’s just an empty text file. And every time I see a thing that is interesting to me, I put the link in there. I don’t look at it again until it’s time to write the newsletter. And then I open them all and say, “Okay, do I still care about this? Does this fit into another thing?” And start to piece together a picture of essentially the last forty-eight hours of what I’ve been doing online—which is a lot less stressful than having to, like, try to keep up with everything, because it’s impossible. I feel like, just sort of earmarking or bookmarking stuff that I passively go, “Oh, that’s interesting”—that’s a much easier place to work from, for me. 

I definitely used to come at it from a news-story perspective. The problem that I had with that was that the consumer experience of the internet, I think, has become more and more divorced from the experience of the people who run the internet—and then, also, the experiences of the people who professionally write about the internet. And I noticed this, actually, during the pandemic, when I was spending a lot of time in lockdown, in a bubble with my family and with close friends, and in group chats with non-media people. I was, you know, talking to normies.

Now I sort of have given up breaking news. Or if I have a scoop, which has happened a few times, I try not to make it tied to a news cycle, because I can’t win. I have found more consistent breakthroughs with a kind of story that went out of fashion about seven years ago and was very popular in the blog era: news would happen, and the average internet user would be like, I don’t know what this means or how this fits into anything. Why does this matter? 

Jason Parham: I became a writer at Wired at a really interesting time in this sort of fucked-up democracy of ours. The Black Lives Matter movement was going on. We were constantly being inundated with death going viral, Black death going viral online. And so that was a big thing for me when I first started, in 2017. This was sort of the tail end of the eruption after Mike Brown, the passing of Trayvon Martin. It was difficult to balance what I know to be true as a Black man who has lived in the world and has experienced these things, but also whose Blackness and Black identity is hypervisible online, and that context of Black folks getting killed. Like, why are people all of a sudden latching on to dangerous or hazardous things just to get clout? Or just to go viral or get retweeted or say something? 

I’m always trying to make it make sense to myself, in a way. It’s really tough, because viral trends—I don’t quite totally understand the nature of them. I think it’s very easy for Black identity, in the way that it’s co-opted online—whether it’s in the context of death, something like TikTok, blackface, whether it’s in the context of memes and language or appropriating the Real Housewives—to get really complex and muddy. I try to bring focus to it in a way that shows that what we’re doing, and what we created, is beautiful, and also that it’s not okay that people are appropriating this or that.

I see myself as a journalist for Wired, but I also see myself as kind of a documentarian, in a sense—a historian, almost. I think there is that sense of duty, where we’re writing about something or people or an idea or a movement that may not have gotten the sort of coverage that it deserved. I want to do it the right way. I don’t want to—you know, for lack of a better word, I don’t want to fuck this up. I did a history of Black Twitter last year for Wired, and I was so worried the whole time: What am I missing? I hope I covered all the big strokes.

I have to tell a story as best as I can. And you know, the internet is the internet, especially Black Twitter. They’re gonna fry you regardless. It’s almost like a badge of honor that you did something right, if people are talking about it.

 

How do you navigate the algorithms?

Jason Parham: I always feel like I’m trying to beat the algorithm, in a way. It’s suggesting I should watch this or listen to this, or, you know, this should be on my Twitter timeline or my Instagram timeline. But I’m like, let me push back against that. I have found myself unfollowing a lot of media people in the last year, and following “regular” Twitter users, because I feel like they talk about vastly different things. The media bubble on Twitter is very insular, very feral, chaotic. It’s the same cycle of stories from the same perspectives. I found myself wanting to get caught up in different echo chambers on Twitter, smaller niche communities, even subcommunities within Black Twitter.

Rebecca Jennings: I think about the power structures that make things go viral—they’re so insidious. We like to think of it as: Twitter is pulling the lever, or TikTok is pulling the lever, or “this thing goes viral.” But really, algorithms are designed to exacerbate humans’ most base, shittiest impulses, the impulses that like to look at “pretty” people—our version of pretty is obviously this very historicized and contextualized version of what we think of as desirable. We want to see pretty people doing fancy, rich things. We want to see fights, we want to see drama, we want to see gross, horrible things and really horrible takes and really cringey things and just the most extreme version of everything.

That’s a failure of an algorithm in one regard, but it’s also a failure of humans. I think if we’re talking about algorithms, we need to talk about the part of them that just gloms on to the worst aspects of human behavior—and what are ways that we can change that. We know that algorithms are not neutral things; at the same time, they do exploit existing biases among people who don’t really think of themselves as being manipulated. 

Rusty Foster: I hate algorithm feeds. I hate them so much. I’m terrified that they’re going to get rid of chronological feeds totally, and they won’t be accessible anymore. That would sort of be a disaster for me. It would be fine, but I would be unhappy.

 

How do you think about representation and amplification?

Rebecca Jennings: The space of internet culture reporters is very white, very middle class—you know, one segment of the population that is in no way representative of the actual population. I think there needs to be way more people covering this beat that are not middle-class white women and white men that live in New York or LA, or wherever. That’s for sure.

When it comes to deciding what’s newsworthy: I look for stories that help me explain something to people or could be a bigger part of our future or the way that we interact. One example is the whole West Elm Caleb thing. I was really adamant I would not cover that. I was just like, This is some random guy who’s doing normal, if shitty, dating-in–New York behaviors. And I do not want to contribute to this pile-on that I thought was really horrible. So instead of that, I wrote sort of an opinion piece about normal people doing normal bad things who should not be nationwide names. Of course, we should still be holding people accountable. But when it comes to, you know, “averagely shitty” things—this should not be a news story. And as a member of the media, I didn’t want to contribute to that. 

I think that we as internet culture journalists need to be better about being mindful of the extent to which we create “hype cycles.” The same thing happened with the word “cheugy.” I saw that TikTok long before it went super viral, but I didn’t think anything of it. And of course, it becomes the thing of the week, and now it’s still a term that people use. It was literally the hype cycle that created that term—it wasn’t the TikTok itself. I try to be aware of the influence that journalists wield, creating that hype cycle. We’re supposed to be covering this stuff, and yet so often, we are the ones perpetuating it.

Jason Parham: Media is a very white space. And sometimes the problem is, there just isn’t the bandwidth or the staff to cover things that should be covered. I think the cultural desks don’t necessarily always get a ton of resources. Culture sometimes is an afterthought, when so much of what we see today or what we talk about today is driven by communities that I find are important—and that are deserving of validation.

 We’re supposed to be covering this stuff, and yet so often, we are the ones perpetuating it.

Taylor Lorenz: This beat is so incredibly under-resourced. It’s very hard; it’s a very contentious beat. It’s a very tough beat to nail. You also have to be fluent in internet communities in a way that a lot of people aren’t, especially media people. It’s not hard to find those people, it’s just that media companies don’t traditionally dedicate this as a job—they think of it as fluff. Like, That’s silly trending news over there. Oh, you’re writing about silly YouTuber things and teenage things with teenagers. They don’t understand that online influence is radically reshaping every single aspect of our society, and it’s upended the entire world that we live in. So they don’t think of it as this core, important beat that intersects very heavily with business and politics. Instead, they think it’s this entertainment-adjacent beat—and, as we know, a lot of companies don’t take entertainment coverage seriously, either. It’s been a journey to help news organizations understand what this beat requires. And that you cannot just hire someone to cover internet culture and put them in a corner and not offer any kind of support. That person is basically walking into the war zone that is the internet every day.

Ryan Broderick: I try to start with the idea that the internet is just a bunch of random people. And, you know, I don’t want to be part of some weird pile-on. I don’t want to be some weird anti-cancel-culture person, either.

 If I’m going to amplify something, I should go into it with some kind of humanity. Basically, just some sort of acknowledgment that this horrible thing happening on the internet is probably happening for some reason. One person’s actions—and the story—is probably more interesting if I can find that out. People can do all kinds of things by themselves on the internet, but it’s a system made up of systems. So there are probably some really bad incentives that have led that person to do that thing, or there’s some sort of bad feedback loop they’re stuck in. I think focusing on that more than the individual tends to give you a better story.

  

What have you learned since being immersed in your beat?

Jason Parham: It’s very easy to write about what everybody else is writing about. I try not to listen to what other people suggest, if that makes sense. I think we are in a really interesting turning point in digital culture; there’s just so much noise pollution now. It feels like everything is a trend on the internet now—everything is worthy of being talked about in its own weird way. Because we sometimes race to write about everything, you miss the smaller important things. So what I’ve tried to do with my own reporting is focus on the things that I think are important. Not to say I’m not listening to what other people are talking about or suggesting, but it’s rare that I would take a story suggestion from somebody else anymore.

Ryan Broderick: The American right has had so much success with internet culture, or like memetic political movements, because of Trump. They’ve leaned into it very fully now. And by doing so, it means that it takes like thirty minutes to explain why they’re doing anything. But the emotional information is immediately understandable to their base. I don’t see political outlets trying to explain any of this, because traditional journalism doesn’t really have the room to explain, you know, nine months of lore. It’s really funny, because this is exactly the problem you’ll see in internet communities like Supernatural fanfiction. Trying to explain the latest drama going on in some nerd fandom is just as complicated as trying to explain why Marjorie Taylor Greene is trying to pass a certain bill. And I do think that’s a direct result of the internet. 

That is happening on the left, but because of the way the Democratic Party works, you don’t see Chapo Trap House drama being mentioned by Nancy Pelosi, which would be insane. And I’m glad that doesn’t happen. You don’t see Bernie Sanders doing vague tweets about the Red Scare podcast. But the right has fully embraced that information structure. So everything is just bouncing around all over the place in a really chaotic way.

Rebecca Jennings: The pandemic radicalized so many people about exposing systemic failures—what’s broken and what can be fixed and what needs to be fixed. And so I think that’s an expectation, that every story needs to kind of reckon with that a little bit as well. 

Taylor Lorenz: I’ve cultivated my own audience that kind of travels with me wherever I go. Which I think is, by the way, how media is moving.

I do believe that it’s really important to preserve aspects of legacy media and help legacy media evolve to operate in this new media climate. And so I really want to work at places that might not totally understand it, but are interested in understanding it. And that are willing to invest and really take it seriously. And a lot of places say that, and then ultimately they don’t. I think editors have to learn the lesson that this beat is important. And it should be core to every newsroom.

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Karen Maniraho is a CJR fellow.

TOP IMAGE: Adobe Stock

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