Taylor Lorenz and Brian Merchant - Transcript

DISCLAIMER: This is NOT a certified or verbatim transcript, but rather represents only the context of the class or meeting, subject to the inherent limitations of real-time captioning. The primary focus of real-time captioning is general communication access and as such this document is not suitable, acceptable, nor is it intended for use in any type of legal proceeding.

Chris Taylor: Thank you so much for being here. My name's Chris Taylor. I'm the adult librarian over at, actually not here, over at the Mark Twain branch at 97th and Figueroa. Thank you for joining us. Before I introduce our authors, I just wanted to say thank you to Exposition Park staff for letting me do this program here and to the Friends of the Library for Exposition Park. I'm not sure if you're here, but if you are, thank you very much. Small World Books is in the house. Thank you so much for being here. They're selling the books, so buy... Absolutely. Absolutely. Buy as many copies as you can afford. So I'm joined by Brian Merchant and Taylor Lorenz celebrating their two new books, Blood In the Machine: The Origins of the Rebelling Against Big Tech and Taylor Lorenz, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet. So thank you so much. Welcome to you both.

Brian Merchant: Yeah.

Taylor Lorenz: Thank you for having us.

Chris Taylor: So my first question. You both have outlets that you regularly write for. Brian, you work over at LA Times. Taylor, you're over at Washington Post. At what point did you think, "This is what I want to write about next, and this is going to be a book-length treatment on this subject."? Taylor, go ahead.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, I got my book deal. It was the Pandemic, and so we were all stuck at home, and I just was kind of thinking. It was early 2020, and so I thought I would. I decided to write a book, and that was also when a lot of, everyone was shoved online and you had a lot of venture capitalists suddenly sort talking about the internet and internet culture and that was when they pioneered the term “the creator economy,” and there was just a lot of revisionist history. So I thought I'll write about how it really was.

Brian Merchant: Especially since you were there in the trenches for...

Taylor Lorenz: I was living it.

Brian Merchant: That’s right, set the record straight. Yeah. I long way back in the dusty era of pre-pandemic, pre-Trump, different world, 2014, I wrote an article for Vice called "You've Got The Luddites All Wrong" after just kind of randomly going through an academic article that I found lying around that was kind of articulating why the Luddites really sort of rose up and resisted technology and those wielding the technology against them. And it was just such a rich subject that really kind of felt like such an illuminating moment to have that turned, to have this group of people who had very good reasons, a very good moral justification to oppose the way technology was being used. This was kind of just as the headwinds were blowing towards the tech-lash and all of that. So it really kind of lit me up and I just spent, I guess I've spent the next eight years, the last eight years, Jesus, thinking about the Luddites and writing about them.

Chris Taylor: Awesome. Thank you both. So you both said these are kind of correctives to larger narratives and I was wondering what were the myths that you were trying to dispel with your books?

Taylor Lorenz: I'll start off. I guess with mine, it was just this narrative about the influencer world. I think a lot of people thought that it was a newer phenomenon, that it was, a lot of it is ascribed to Gen Z specifically, and it was actually Gen Xers that really kind of pioneered it. And so I just wanted to write about how that industry arose. Actually, Joanne McNeil is here. She wrote this great book called Lurking that I loved. That was very inspiring. Shout out. It was really inspiring for me. It was one of those only books, honestly, it was just another book that was written that was not just a corporate narrative about Silicon Valley. I felt like a lot of the story of social media has been told through these platform specific books or the Social Network version. And so I wanted to talk about the content creators and influencers, whatever you want to call 'em, that kind of built this whole sort of industry on top of social media.

Chris Taylor: Thank you.

Brian Merchant: Yeah, those are some of my favorite chapters, the early ones where it's really going back to the mommy bloggers and to the Gawker era and looking at what was really starting to take shape. That was way before TikTok obviously. Yeah, the Luddites, I think, as a term has been popularly used for centuries as a technophobe or somebody who has a knee-jerk reaction against technology or hates technology or doesn't get it, can't program the VCR or wants to smash an iPhone and it encompasses more than that. And I think that's one thing, and I think that it's important to reclaim the term and what it really means because it's also sort of wielded against anybody who might have a very good critique or reason to protest or resist technology. And you would see it, especially over the last 20 or 30 years as Silicon Valley really became this nexus of power in modern culture and modern society. And Luddite was wielded as against any number of people.

Molly Crabapple who had good reason to protest her art being plagiarized and stolen and repurposed and used by these art generators. All the tech guys called her a Luddite ad nauseum and her knee jerk before we me,t and we've worked together once or twice. Her impulse was to reclaim the ter,m too. And so I think this is going on sort of more broadly right now, and this is one of the main missions of the book is to sort of, it's a book-length reclamation project, I guess not just of the term Luddite, but this whole idea that technology is beyond reproach if it's being built by these companies.

Chris Taylor: One thread that was in both of your books is about popularity and there's a little bit of distrust of the popularity of both influencers or creatives or whatever you want to call them. And then also of the Luddites. They were very popular in their day, and that was kind of used as a way to dismiss the work that they were doing. I was wondering if you could speak more about kind of popularity and what that generates.

Brian Merchant: Yeah, sure. Well, in the Luddites case, it maybe was a little bit different, but maybe there's similarities because it generated fear. It generated fear among the, I guess you could call them the sort of the technological elite. Those who had the means, who owned the factories, who owned the larger operations, who could attract the capital to build big factories that could automate work and mass. And when the Luddites sort of led their uprising, it was as much against the material conditions which were being degraded by those machines, by those entrepreneurs and those industrialists. It was also a resistance to being forced into this new mode of work into factorization, as they would call it, having to stand at their command. They had these lives where they had autonomy. They could run their own schedule, they could work at home, they could sing songs with their families. And this new work regime, which was basically sort of inaugurating the factory system for the first time, was incredibly oppressive. They saw it. Nobody liked it. Everybody hated it. And so when the Luddites registered this complaint, this protest, it was much larger, much broader than just the cloth workers, and that's why sort of the elites of the day and the crown issuing all these proclamations, rousing troops to occupy industrial towns and areas, and they had to crush this rebellion outright because it was so popular because people cheered the Luddites in the streets as they engaged in machine breaking. They were the Robin Hood of the day.

Taylor Lorenz: I would say with popularity, I mean, it's such a different sort of situation, but I do think that the whole influencer world is kind of defined by only the most popular creators in the public narrative. And so people have a really gross misunderstanding of what it actually is. They sort of are like, "Oh, well, oh, it's just all like Mr. Beast and Charli D'Amelio or something." And the vast majority of content creators, they're not like that. And they're actually maybe a podcaster that you listen to. They're live streamer about ride sharing or something. There's a lot of people doing a lot of interesting independent media facilitated by this tech ecosystem. So yeah, I guess especially in the early part of my book, wanted to talk about the origins of it and specifically a lot of the feminist origins of this, the content creator world, a lot of it was rebelling against the traditional women's media ecosystem.

Chris Taylor: Yeah. Actually, could you speak a little bit about the first few chapters of your book, because really interesting, it talks about news blogging and mommy blogging and how they parallel and separate and how they kind of revert to a, well, I'll let you say it.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah. Well, I talk about the dawn of blog culture. I started as a blogger myself, and in the early aughts, I mean, obviously, there was tons of blogs and a lot of political blogs and a lot of tech blogs and interest blogs, cooking blogs. But I talk about the mommy bloggers as sort of the first to build this personality, highly personality-driven media and commodify their lives in a specific way that built the foundation of the influencer economy. Obviously that comes with so many downsides, not just for the women and the hatred that they got. Also just the ways that they felt like they had to exploit their lives in certain instances. I will say though, I mean a lot of those women people, I think there's people think of mommy bloggers as family channel operators today, and it was much more anonymous. I mean, some of the blogs didn't even have photos on them or they were very pseudonymous, but they were a lot more progressive I think, in a lot of ways than people thought. Some of it was just, I mean, it eventually became very Instagram mom, Pinterest mom, but those early bloggers were kind of pioneers of their time.

Chris Taylor: That's interesting. And I actually wanted to ask, so as far as monetizing that work in those early days of the internet that changed, but during that time, where would the revenue streams come from? What were the options that they had? And they're kind of creating a new way of working in a lot of ways.

Taylor Lorenz: There was no money in the industry as anybody here could remember. It was hard to make. You made money off banner ads primarily, and a lot of these early mom bloggers, they were hesitant to put banner ads. I talk about Heather Armstrong's post in 2004 when she decides to put ads on her blog, and that was this seminal moment. It really did sort of normalize it to a lot of smaller mom bloggers, and of course people were running banner ads all over the internet on blogs at this time, but when mothers did it about their blogs, about their personal lives, it was viewed as this insane thing. People tried to get their kids taken away. It was crazy. And a lot of what they were writing was so benign by today's standards, literally just what somebody would put on Instagram today. I mean, some of it was oversharing a little bit, but yeah. Anyway, I talk about that as sort of like this, they pioneered a lot of revenue pathways that a lot of independent media creators ended up adopting.

Brian Merchant: Yeah, it's so funny to think back to that period too. I mean, I remember for years with a friend, I ran a blog too, but we didn't even… monetizing it. We didn't even know how it was. It wasn't even…

Taylor Lorenz: You were corny if you did it, I felt like. Or I don't know. I mean, I do remember the stigma around it and at my peak when I was popular, I wouldn't even have thought to really make a living off it.

Brian Merchant: Yeah, it was just kind of for fun. I mean, you want the views, you want the attention, you want to get that link from Gawker or something. But yeah, it's completely…

Taylor Lorenz: But the way that those mothers were, I mean these women were doing this as full-time jobs and they had their own media companies essentially that they were running, and then they were like, please, can I put some banner ads? And people were like, “how dare you?”

Brian Merchant: Make a little money.

Chris Taylor: So I wanted to ask you both about the settings of where your books take place. Taylor, yours is most generally in the internet, online, but it kind of ends up being in Los Angeles. I thought that was pretty interesting. And Brian, yours, 18th, very different place, also a great place, 18th-century England. So I just want to know what were the specifics of those places and how they play into your story and what was important to capture?

Brian Merchant: So the Midlands of England and the West Riding of York and Manchester, it was sort of the strip north of London is where most of the Luddite uprising unfolded. I mean the setting, I didn't really think of it much. I went there. I went there to do archival research, and I wound up staying with a Luddite scholar who lives in an old weaver college with a cottage rather an old weaver's cottage with the electricity only running to half the house. And it was really a trip and he showed me all around. And so I did get a sense of the place and went to some of the old machinery museums that you look at some of the implements of the industrial revolution in Manchester and so forth. But the setting was kind of secondary. It was neat to see all that stuff, and I think I hope going there helped me tell the story a little bit better. But yeah, I was really interested in the themes.

Taylor Lorenz: Well, what I love about Brian's book because it really takes you into a different time. And maybe this is just because I don't read a ton of history books, but it felt like you're just, I don't know. There was a lot of interesting detail and I was wondering how much time you spent there actually on the ground.

Brian Merchant: How long was I there? I guess a month in total. I was doing, most of the time I was there, I was sitting in the archive. England is so cool because most, at least mid-size towns keep archives where you can just go and you can read letters that were written 200 years ago and they're just there. They just find them in a drawer and you're just reading these very personal correspondences. And so they still have sort of documentation, especially during this period. A lot of the magistrates were writing letters like furiously trying to get the government to send more troops and things like that. The people who run the archives are so nice, but you're also surrounded by people with this interest in the history. So people are just there looking through, yes, old deeds and stuff, but also unearthing family heirlooms and communications between relatives stretching back hundreds of years. It was really fun.

Taylor Lorenz: I spent a lot of time on the internet archive. A lot. I don't think I could have written my book without the internet archive. They deserve everything.

Chris Taylor: Yeah. I was going to ask you, what was it like just doing the research for, I'm sure you use the Wayback machine to get into all those old blogs and thefacebook.com, whatever you could find in there. But I was wondering how many dead links you found and images that were no longer there, and what was it like being in that the early 2000s ecosystem?

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, it was all sort of primary material. There wasn't a ton of coverage. And even all the websites that I first got my bylines on are gone. I mean, just because the web has, this is what's called Link Rot. I've since learned, but I talked to a lot of people. I interviewed around 600 people for the book. I just talked to every single content creator that responded to my Google form. So I ended up just interviewing tons of bloggers and content creators from that era and people involved in early YouTube. That was another thing that was hard to find was, but then there's things like there was the video of the 7/7/07 meetup, one of the first YouTube meetups on July 7, 2007 that you can watch these videos of the one thing about everything that I wrote about is these are content creators. So there is content, but it was just about sort of digging it up and finding the right links.

Chris Taylor: Speaking of archiving the work that people are doing, there's a really great story about Vine. I mean, it's also very sad. But about the content and where that went. Could you kind of go through the history of Vine, because it's a big precursor to TikTok, but it's kind of not very well known, and it was done quite dirty, I would say.

Taylor Lorenz: I know I miss Vine. I actually, in 2018, tried to write a book on Vine. I tried to write one of those platform books that I'm now shit-talking, but yeah, because I had done a lot of reporting on Vine content creators and 1600 Wine, specifically where I'd spent time, which was this apartment complex in L.A. that all the, a lot of top Viners lived at. Yeah, I talk about Vine as, I mean, Vine was the first mainstream mobile video app basically. And I talk about the hostility that the founders had towards the people on the app, and the biggest people, and I get it, it was probably the most obnoxious group of content creators that you could have found, but they were so, it's hard to defend, and I understand why, but they were so openly hostile to kind of anyone that really achieved virality on the app to the point that they were just openly antagonizing them.

And then the people, the content creators were like, “Hey, we're like huge celebrities now. Do you think we can make some money on this app?” And they were like, “Absolutely not. Go fuck yourself,” basically. So they all left. It did I think sort of cripple the app to the point that it never was able to recover. And then it was so mismanaged by Twitter at that point too. I mean, it's interesting. Well, you mentioned LA earlier. My book, so much of LA and so much of what I cover is kind of entertainment industry-adjacent. It's like its own sort of secondary entertainment world, and the platform's relationship with talent is what sort of set the stage for the hostility between the platforms of the content creators because the whole reason they didn't want to play Viners is they were worried that people would, celebrities would want to be paid to tweet. And that had been a big point of contention. I mean, Justin Bieber, as I also reported in my book, wanted to be paid by Instagram to post. And so there was this misunderstanding, I think, on both sides of who was bringing the value and the value of the platforms versus the value of talent. And it took years to kind of work those out.

Brian Merchant: Were you on Vine?

Taylor Lorenz: I was heavily on Vine. I also ran the People Magazine Vine account.

Chris Taylor: Am I mistaken in thinking that a lot of the work that was put on Vine is now lost and…

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah. Well, Hannah Donovan, who I interviewed was, she was basically brought in to be, to shut the app down. It was really sad. I'm actually the only interview that she ever did on it. It was very hard for her. She didn't realize that was happening when she took the job. Her whole entire thing when she was there was just to archive as much as possible so you can find web profiles for most people. Did you have a Vine? Do you have a…

Chris Taylor: I didn't have a Vine.

Taylor Lorenz: You didn't?

Chris Taylor: I didn't. No. The video thing, I just, no, I don't have a TikTok either.

Taylor Lorenz: Oh, man. I know. Well, we're going to get you one day. It's fun. Vine was fun because it was like, I mean, TikTok is so people now, people go into these apps knowing that they can get rich and it's like a lottery basically. Vine is just fun. It was naked self-expression, a lot of it. And yeah, it was fun.

Chris Taylor: I was wondering, so did you have any particular primary sources that you really fell in love with while you were doing this research for both of you? Either websites or letters, manuscripts, things like that?

Brian Merchant: Yeah. Well, George… we'll have a lifelong affinity for George Miller, who's the protagonist of the…protagonist. He's a complicated, but he comes one of the sort of leading Luddites in Huddersfield, which is one of the cloth-making districts. And he's kind of this young, charismatic guy who kind of becomes the local sort of General Ludd for very good reasons. You know. He's in his early twenties, a period that I lived through long ago, and he has dedicated his entire young life to learning this trade, the cloth-finishing trade, seven years of apprenticeship. And he sort of emerges kind of on the scene, and there's all of these industrialists and entrepreneurs setting up shop, and Enclosure is going on. The common lands are being sort of reallocated to the rich. He's watching his wages go down. He is watching people in his community starve. He's looking out and he really sees no future for him and his peers, and he decides to do something about it. And a lot of the arguments that he makes, it's kind of secondhand. A lot of what we get from George is from an oral history, and a novel that was based on interviews with his relatives. So it's sort of this remembered sort of synthesis of who he was. So there's a lot of recorded bits, and he does show up in trial transcripts because he winds up, well, not to give things away, but he winds up being arrested by the state for doing Ludism and more, and he winds up getting hung. And so there is this, he's probably the best-sketched Luddite, and he's probably been dramatized a little bit, but he also really stood for something that inspired a lot of people and continues to today.

Taylor Lorenz: She ended up more as a background source, but I talked to this woman, Ingrid Nielsen. I don't know if any of you guys remember her, but she was at one point one of the biggest beauty vloggers in the world. She started, she's a young Filipino woman, American woman who had created a beauty YouTube channel in, I think it was like 2010 or 2011, and also made one of the first viral coming out videos very early and dated this other big YouTuber, Hannah Hart. Anyway, Ingrid, I wish I could have gotten. I originally had a whole other chapter on her story alone, and it was becoming way too many stories about just like women. It was very women. My book is still very women heavy, but it was they wanted to take it out. So it's not as much of her personal story, but so much of what she told me really changed the way that I thought about that era and thought about early YouTube and thought about the people that it enabled and kind of how it shaped the beauty industry too. And the fashion, like the influencer world is such a female-driven industry, and again, it's maligned so heavily, but especially with Ingrid and all these other women, a lot of them were really creating these new beauty brands and kind of like changing norms around beauty that forced companies like Maybelline and Covergirl. I mean, Ingrid ended up being one of the first digital content creators that was the face of covergirl for a while. And it just changed. It really pushed the beauty industry forward a lot, and it just gave me appreciation for what these influencers that, so many people call vapid and self-centered. They're actually very thoughtful people and they're very entrepreneurial, and kind of a lot of them were initially building outside the system. So shout out to her. She has a candle-making business now, and she's completely offline. So…

Chris Taylor: Yeah, I was going to ask you about burnout and the experience of, kind of the experience of being an influencer because I think it's very worthy of defending, but there's also, it's really hard work, and I was just wondering if you could speak to the specifics of the labor and sort of the arc of the careers that you're often seeing.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, I mean it essentially, you're in the media and entertainment business, so people's careers are very hard to maintain a business like that for very long. One, because of the economic realities of building a business on top of these platforms. Like, I mean, back in the blogging days, you had people coming to a destination, which you owned. Now your business is totally distributed across these platforms that are arbitrarily changed through algorithm, and it's so unstable, so it's hard. And on top of that, yeah burnout is just, you can't stop creating. And I talk a lot about the mental health aspects of all of that in the book. And I think people, I don't know, I was reading some hate comment today about my book and I was thinking, which you should never do, but I did. But you know the guy was like, and I think this is the sentiment a lot of people feel is like, “Why don't you condemn social media? You're not talking about the bad of it.” And I just don't think it's all bad. I just really don't. I think that the current platform ecosystem is really bad, but I think the media landscape today is significantly better than what we had 20 years ago. And also I think it's like, I was reading Sam Lessen, who's this VC actually talking about why TikTok should be banned. And it seems like his primary reason, and you hear this time and time again, is like, “Oh, the young people are getting too much. They have access to information, and now they have an ideology that's too progressive that I don't like. And so we need to shut it down.” And I don't know, especially since I've been reading Brian's book, it's kind of, I've just changed my thinking about that.

Brian Merchant: I saw you sparring. Did he respond to you on…

Taylor Lorenz: No, of course not.

Brian Merchant: Of course not. Yeah. But yeah, it's trying to like kind of usher it under the umbrella of like it's Chinese propaganda, right? That's what it's saying…

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, but which it's stupid. And of course it's not. But it's just the way people talk about technology. Is this good or evil? And I think Facebook I think is probably evil, but there's a lot of gray area, and I think these content creators often operate in that gray area where they're amazing. It's a media, it's a shift in the media and information landscape, and it comes with a lot of good or bad, but I think there is good. And so yeah, my book includes a lot of that stuff.

Chris Taylor: Yeah I think it is maybe a little bit of like, it's easier to kind of view it yeah as a binary because I also am inclined to agree with you. It's funny, shout out to my editor who's been really trying to get me, we've been talking about social media and especially X and Twitter, and yeah, it's been an absolute shit show given you know the crisis in Gaza right now. And a lot of the impulse is just to say that social media is just, it's this standin, its like letting people play-act, like they're doing real work. It's slacktivism and stuff. But I also, as cynical as I am, I also don't necessarily believe that because there is a lot that we're seeing. I mean, just look at the media, the way that the media is sort of treating this crisis right now. We would not be seeing a lot of the voices that we're seeing now. That we would not be getting a sense of opposition that we are. And there is some merit in that. Yeah, that's it. It's all happening on this platform, that's an absolute garbage fire.

Taylor Lorenz:Yeah, Twitter is such a shit show. But yeah, anyway, and I think a lot of content creators, by the way, if you talk to them about that, have a very complicated relationship with these platforms. You know?

Chris Taylor: Yeah, no,what’s something I really appreciate about your book, Taylor, is that very rarely am I encountering–this is my own fault, but very rarely am I encountering writing about social media that doesn't involve handwriting concern for you know what's happening to these kids or whatever. So it was really nice to read something that was a little bit removed, and here's what’s going on and here's the terms under which they're working, here's how this has been dynamic. So that was really great to read.

Taylor Lorenz: Also, sorry, one other thing I just want to say about that too is when you dismiss the content creator industry and you take it as just like, "Oh, these silly kids taking selfies," and you don't recognize the labor of it all. But I think that's why we're in this position that we're in now where we have, as my colleague Drew Harwell, and I just worked on this big print package. This is millions of people are working in this new industry that has emerged in the past couple decades with zero–not only the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, they count canary trainers. They count the most niche jobs ever. They don't even count content creators. So how can you serve the needs or address the labor concerns of this massive new workforce when you just dismiss it as girls taking selfies all the time?

Brian Merchant: Something you told me was really interesting, and I wasn't aware of this until you mentioned it, and I looked into it, but that SAG really was, when it was…

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah

Brian Merchant: ...early Into trying to make inroads into the creator economy. Because they recognize the labor. Right?

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, exactly. They've been trying now since 2021, podcasters and influencers can join, and it's been huge, huge, the primary way a lot of them have health insurance.

Brian Merchant: Really?

Chris Taylor: On your beat have you seen sort of an increase in awareness or sort of self understanding as like "I'm a worker, I'm a laborer, and maybe I have more to do with a traditional job or with a worker than I thought I did?" Maybe has that changed over time from your view?

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, I mean, I think SAG has done a lot actually to push that because they come, I was at the Streamy Awards recently, and they had these representatives there being like, “It doesn't have to be this way.” And there's a lot of parallels between the gig economy where it's this app enabled work where you're dependent on these algorithms that you don't control, that there's no stability, and you're a 10-99 worker. So there is, especially with I think younger people who have a more pro-labor stance, there is more of a stance towards that. But then you also have a lot of them drinking the Kool-Aid, like, “Oh, no, YouTube is great for me. Oh no, I am going to be the next Mr. Beast,” whatever. But even Mr. Beast has said that there should be a creator union. So…

Chris Taylor: There you go. Excellent. Brian, you've written quite a bit about SAG and WGA as far as AI goes, and I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about that and how that kind of finds its way into Blood in the Machine?

Brian Merchant: Yeah, the writer's strike happened after the book was completely done.

Chris Taylor: Oh, excuse me, sorry.

Brian Merchant: No, no, no, no. The manuscript was filed and it just takes forever to get a book pressed and printed and bound. But I've been writing about it in the column because it is just a natural extension of a lot of the same things that the Luddites were were fighting against, to the point where I think that one of the clearest examples of modern Luddism is the stance that the WGA took against AI and the use of AI among the studios. That is, they recognized it as a potentially existential threat as something that wasn't going to actually replace their labor, but was going to be used to sort of degrade their conditions or as leverage against them, where previously they would come in with an original script.

The studios wanted basically to reserve the right to create an original script with AI, bring it in, have them rewrite it for a lesser fee, miss out on residuals and that kind of thing. So the writers saw, pretty instantly, what was going to happen. And if you went down to the picket lines and you talked to 'em about it, that's exactly what they would say. I mean, some were worried that eventually it was going to completely be used to replace their work. Others thought it was complete garbage, but the studios were just going to use it as an excuse to drive down wages and pay. And by basically saying “No,” by saying, “No, we demand to have this level of control over our labor process,” by putting a red line there. They're basically doing Ludism. The Luddites did not have these tools at their disposal, it was illegal to form a combination or a union you could not organize.

There was no democracy really. Your representatives were not elected. So you could try to tell them to vote one way, but they had no reason to listen to you, no stake. So yeah, I think this victory that they've won is immensely important because it underlines how powerful the politics of refusal can be. Especially refusing to submit to exploitation by the use of a new technology. We see this throughout history in this book. Technology gets rolled out and management tries to use it. Not even, it may save labor, it may not, but it's an excuse to sort of roll over or tear up a social contract. It's an excuse to steamroll a tradition and to say, “Well, now we can pay you less. Now we can… Well, this doesn't apply. This regulation doesn't apply.” You see that in the way that the gig economy has rolled out, that wound up being the biggest selling point for Uber to investors and everything. It's not this great technological breakthrough that you can call, instead of calling a cab, you can press a button and the cab comes. It's like, wow. But instead, “Oh, we're a software platform. We're connecting an independent contractor to a user. There’s no taxi involved here. No, this is…” and that way they can ignore municipal taxi codes, and that's what they did city after city. And it's very similar to what happened 200 years ago when the entrepreneurs said, ”Oh, well, we have these machines now. We don't have to apprentice somebody for seven years to use this machine. It's a new technology. We don't have to adhere to standards of thread count. We don't have.” All of these protections that governed the industry for so long. They made the case they could throw them out. And it was in many cases, not true that the machine could do that work. You still needed workers less skilled, more vulnerable workers usually, but it was the excuse technology provides this powerful excuse a lot of times. And I think that the writers recognize that and they have led the way, and we're seeing, I think a lot of the UAW recognize that the big three auto companies were trying to make the case that, “Oh, it's less work to make electric cars and the batteries are kind of, it's all different. So it's a different…” and then the UAW said, “Uh uh, no way.” And they also drew a hard line and now they've got an EV plant and battery plants are going to be unionized as well as a result. So I think things are changing a little bit, and there is a lot of power in sort of saying no, and it's hard to stand up against that culture we talked about earlier, thinking that technology defaults to equaling progress. And sorry, that was kind of…

Taylor Lorenz: No, I totally agree.

Chris Taylor: I was wondering on, your beat, if you'd seen influencers, content creators responding to AI with trepidation or curiosity or playfulness or kind of like, I'm sure that there's a lot of different responses, but like what have some of the more interesting ones been?

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, Brian and I were talking about this a while ago. I mean, they're extremely pro AI pretty much universally. I think because they're so incredibly overworked. And these are people that if you say, “Oh well, I've got this video editing software that can really easily do this edit that previously took you two hours,” of course they're going to do that. There are some people, I was talking to a video editor actually just last week who works in the content creator industry, and I was like, “Are you worried that you're going to be replaced in X, Y, Z?” He was more just like, “I can take on more clients now and I can just work faster.” So I think that for them, there's not this concern. It's more just like, “How can I make more content?”

Brian Merchant: I think the interesting difference there is a lot of these creators, they're part of what's often an exploitative and difficult sort of work environment at large, but they do have control over their own labor process.

Taylor Lorenz: Yes, yes, yeah, yeah.

Brian Merchant: So they get to make the call. If you have power over these technologies and these tools and you get to decide how to use them.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah.

Brian Merchant: They're not going to scare you as much.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, exactly. And I think that's the key distinction.

Chris Taylor: It's interesting, because I think that there's such a level of intimacy with content creators where I was just thinking, I'm like, “Oh, I kind of figured that the person that’s starring in the video is shooting it and editing it and everything. And that's…” I'm sure I'm not the only person that thinks that, but there's a lot of invisible labor that happens with that because it's such direct communication.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah. There's a guy right now, a former Vine executive who's been trying to build an IMDB for content internet content creation, because his whole thing is, “There's this hole.” I mean the content creators in front of the camera, sure a lot of them start out as these, sometimes, everyone does start out usually by themselves shooting or maybe just with a friend, like a two-person team. But any successful content creator scales very quickly and essentially they're running their own little workshop of creative, like they’re kind of, they're handing off a lot of creative work or partnering and they have these collaborative kind of working environments to the point that… I mean, of the biggest people, I think MKBHD now has like 250 something people working for him in New Jersey. He has that huge office in New Jersey. It's like a whole system. And a lot of them, Johnny Harris too, who's a big YouTuber, he used to be at Vox actually, he's doing this thing now where he's spinning out other channels to other journalists. So he has this whole network that, and at that point then you become the boss. Then you're kind of just running a media company, which comes with its own set of challenges.

Brian Merchant: Sergio, how many people, so I feel like, not to put you on the spot here, but Sergio Avedian here, he runs a great show called Show Me the Money Club on, it's part of the Rideshare Guy. It's actually kind of like a venn diagram between Taylor's work and my work. I feel like you're right in the middle. You're talking about gig worker rights on a YouTube channel creating content. How many people work on that show? I know you have a co-host.

Audience Member 1: Yeah. Show Me the Money. It's me and Chris. Obviously we have an editor. I would say maybe five, but overall, on the Rideshare guy, about 24.

Brian Merchant: 24 people on the team in general.

Audience Member 1: Yeah, that's what Harry created, a media empire.

Taylor Lorenz: But yeah, there's a lot of unseen labor even. I mean, there's every single, I mean this is what's happened with and why I think SAG is so involved in this industry and hoping to get even more involved is because there's also, a lot of them have set designers, audio engineers, all of these sort of traditional entertainment jobs that were protected are now kind of like moving. And I actually spoke to, even somebody at the Directors Guild was also saying that they're really interested. There's a lot more people that are hiring directors for YouTube channels and all this other sort of work that they’re all, all the unions and traditional unions in Hollywood I think are grappling with this shift. And it's the same thing where people are like, what it sounds like with the electric vehicles where they're like, “Oh, no, well this is happening on the internet, so it's really different.” You know. And everyone's like, “No, no, it's not. It's just kind of where it ends up going.”

Chris Taylor: Awesome, thank you. I wanted to ask you both about your early experiences going online, encountering technology, if you were computer kids and whatever that means, and how that maybe kind of formed your perspective or your approach to your books or your work in general.

Taylor Lorenz: Well, I mean, I'm very millennial. I started on, I guess we're both millennials. I started on AIM basically, and I spent a lot of time on GeoCities and I didn't have a live journal, but I read a lot of live journals of people, and it was a lot of exploring early internet communities. Obviously had Facebook and stuff in college, but I don't think the true social internet had come to be until I was very far into my teenage years. I think I got my Facebook at 17 years old, which feels late now, and I never had a MySpace. I wasn't allowed to have a MySpace, but I spent time on there looking at other people's pages a lot. But yeah, I wasn't super into tech. I went to an art school for a while and I wanted to be an artist. So I remember learning early, trying to make sort of like early internet art that's really bad and hopefully gone.

Brian Merchant: Yeah, I was a nerdy kid. I had a GeoCities page I made that had a 3D spinning Metallica logo and a flame counter that would tick up every time someone visited. I was quite proud of that. I should see if that still exists. And yeah I was pretty into it. I had Napster. I wasn't following all the Apple blogs or anything like that, but I spent my time in online communities and I had the MySpace and had the Facebook and all of that. And I think it did, you just play a role in the basic sort of building about your sort of baseline assumptions about technology. All this is cool stuff and it's made by companies that you should implicitly trust and you're living your life on it, and it's so cool. And so I do think that it helped erect the scaffolding that I later kind of had to tear down or be more critical of at least. But yeah, I would say it really kind of informed my interest in the space and becoming a tech journalist eventually, certainly because I was partial to the culture.

Chris Taylor: Was there a particular moment or event or was it gradual that kind of put you on the Ludite, the neo-Luddite path that you're on now?

Brian Merchant: Yeah, good question. I don't know. I also just kind of was always just as a journalist, was always drawn to more critical stories, and I was working at a place pretty early on that we all sort of mutually reinforced that critical tendency at Motherboard, at VICE. It was a bunch of shit stirrers really. And we found that a lot of people weren't doing these stories about the environmental impact of a server farm or something that was being ignored or covering Amazon. And people were writing about it, and there were great critics and great academics, but it was something that did feel undercovered and it just kind of, I think snowballed from there. I don't know, once you sort of pulled one piece of the dam out, the whole thing burst eventually.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah.

Chris Taylor: You're less cynical.

Taylor Lorenz: I'm pretty cynical about a lot of stuff, but I'm less cynical as a human being or not as, that's the mean thing to say. I don't know. I love the internet and I always, well, Tumblr was really transformative for me. That's when I really came into my own, and I think I was just so deeply depressed before the internet that it's hard for me to idealize that world, especially being a woman and being so… Growing up in the women's media environment of the aughts was the most toxic time ever. Well, women's media in general is so toxic, but especially that time. And I just remember I was this height in middle school and the way that the media talked about women's bodies. I remember getting on Tumblr and that's where I first learned about body positivity, but all this stuff that is sort of corny now and people kind of joke about, but it really opened up my world. And so yeah, I'm more pro-internet, but not pro-social media platforms. I guess.

Chris Taylor: For people who aren't familiar with Tumblr, can you just sort of describe how it works functionally?

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah. Tumblr is a blogging platform with early social functionality. So it was like you could reblog things very easily. It was kind of like a long form version of Twitter almost. It's slower with the chronological feed. It was very visual.

Chris Taylor: It's still around, right?

Taylor Lorenz: It's still around. Don't why I'm talking about in the past tense, but people don't use it very much anymore.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, it peaked and…

Chris Taylor: Chronological feed is so rare these days.

Taylor Lorenz: I know. Yeah.

Chris Taylor: I wanted to ask you, you both have been on book tour for a little while, and I wanted to ask you, have you been surprised by the reception that your books have gotten or… Yeah, how's it been?

Taylor Lorenz: I think it's been so fun. I don't know. It's been, as somebody that really primarily writes for the internet, it's been fun to meet people in person. I'm sure you feel the same way. There's so many people that I've met since my book came out that I'm like, I wish I talked to you before my book. So it's just been, I feel like I've learned as much since my book came out. Just hearing from people as I did reporting the book.

Chris Taylor: You should be able to go on article tour. It doesn't seem fair.

Brian Merchant: Yeah, I didn't risk asking you if we could turn this into a tribunal type event, but I did an event in New York City where I got some fellow Luddites and writers and tech critics, and the idea was we were going to put tech on trial and we brought a ring camera and an old HP printer, and if we decided, the tribunal would debate, would judge each product, and if its cost to society outweighed its benefits, then it would get the hammer. We brought a sledgehammer and we smashed the technology.

Taylor Lorenz: Your book events look so fun.

Brian Merchant: It was so fun. And I feel like we barely promoted this thing and it was packed and people brought their own stuff and they had their own stories about technologies, and there's a grad student who brought up a little system that had been installed to surveil the janitors at his college that he had protested, and he got a turn with the hammer and smashed that. So everybody had these stories and it was so great to see this undercurrent that's there that people are just kind of willing to stand up and speak out against these longstanding sort of assumptions that we've had. And it was really great to see that community and see folks plugging into it, so to speak.

Chris Taylor: In that spirit, could I ask both of you to pick two items of technology, one to celebrate and then maybe another to give an imaginary sledgehammer?

Brian Merchant: I do have the hammer in the car if you want me to.

Taylor Lorenz: That's a really good question. Oh my God, what would I?

Chris Taylor: And you can interpret technology as liberally as you’d like.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah what would you? You already know what you would smash because you smashed it. What would you do again though?

Chris Taylor: Or what did you want to smash? But it was too pricey.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah, what do you want to smash? I want to smash the CMS at my company, to be honest. It's very broken.

Brian Merchant: We desperately tried to find one of those world coin orbs.

Taylor Lorenz: Oh my God, that would've been so good.

Brian Merchant: Where you have to scan your eyeball and then they give you money to use this cryptocurrency. It's being, yeah…

Taylor Lorenz: That would’ve been good. I'd also smash that.

Brian Merchant: Yeah.

Chris Taylor: Yeah. And then how about an item for each of you to celebrate, to elevate into…

Brian Merchant: A laptop that you've torn out the internet connection to that just has a really nice Word or for some kind of a composer on it. I think the laptop is a beautiful thing. The computer's a beautiful thing. I've kind of fantasized about a company that would make sort of like a suite of products that's just completely, you cannot connect to the internet on it, but they have sleek UI collaboration tools, music production tools. This is, wouldn't that be nice? You could just create without the buzzing, incessant outside world.

Taylor Lorenz: I've always wanted a phone that connects to Google Maps, but nothing else. Like text, because the only reason I don't have a dumb phone is because I need the Google Maps.

Chris Taylor: You need to navigate.

Taylor Lorenz: So I need Google Maps, texting, nothing else.

Brian Merchant: Passes the tribunal. Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Taylor: That's right. We have a little bit of time left. Did anyone have any questions? Because this is being recorded lets hand you the mic.

Audience Member 2: Thank you. So I'm probably going to butcher his name and I hope I don't butcher his idea, but there's a writer named Jaron Lanier who had this idea. I thought it was so striking. Digital Maoism, and you're nodding, I think you're more familiar with that already, Brian.

Brian Merchant: Oh yeah.

Audience Member 2: Yeah. That's, unlike ages past. Certain technology is inherently designed to concentrate power in far far fewer people and give a mere handful of people, usually dudes at the top, usually tech bros, this veto power over livelihoods. And so it's not like a typewriter where there's… okay, we can have jobs to maintain those and they can maintain the computers now and upscale that eliminating whole swaths, whole tracks of need for work. And I know that affects both of you guys in terms of content creation, and I was wondering if you could speak to how in your niche, whether that's journalism or more specifically on the different topics you guys cover, how digital Maoism or that kind of radically concentrated power in the hands of a few has affected the landscape?

Brian Merchant: Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, are you in journalism? Are you asking or the things that we're considering? Well, I mean journalism is a pretty good prism to view it through right now. I mean, the owners of USA Today just got caught running AI bots that are churning out. It was review, like product reviews. They haven't copped up to it, but it sure seems that that's the case. They hired this company to experiment with, and we're seeing more and more of that you know. CNET, somewhat venerable tech blog has been publishing AI articles, Gizmodo, the GMG media.

So yeah, this idea, I mean, that's basically what these tools would be used for and that's why I think the writers and the WGA preemptively before it becomes a threat that's on their doorstep moved to sort of protect their livelihoods from it. Because I mean, that's what this kind of automation is seeking to do, essentially. It's one of those, I mean, I think the issue that I have with that argument is that it sort of separates–I always like reading Jaron Lanier. He has a lot of fun ideas and it's always very thought provoking–which is to say that you can separate the intent. I'm sure he's right that there are some technologies that were expressly more expressly designed to do this than others, but that sort of implies that you can't do the same thing with technologies that already exist or that you can use automation in a way that is directly opposed to people who want to make a living or to turn other technologies to a certain end.

It's almost always the use case. It's asking who the technology serves, and if you have the power in the first place, chances are you can sort of replicate or make sure that the tendency goes all one way, as George Muller would say. But I would say we're confronting a lot of technology is like that right now, from workplace surveillance to software automation, to generative AI, and a lot of this stuff is going to be used pretty explicitly to those ends to try to concentrate wealth and power in a few hands at the expense of others.

Taylor Lorenz: I totally agree with everything Brian said, basically.

Chris Taylor: Thank you. Anyone else? Yeah.

Audience Member 3: Thank you so much. It's wonderful to hear you both. And I think that there's a lot of overlap, as you were saying. As a musician, myself, and singer, and songwriter, I'm seeing the rise of the Writer's Guild, the rise of unions in every other area, and it's just kind of sad for musicians to see no unions for us. The thing that just happened with the Band Camp union, which was just shattering for everyone, where they were purchased by Song Trader who really just does not care about Band Camp at all, or the originality of artists online, and just the way that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 completely obliterated, the radio industry completely obliterated the entire record company industry and the ability of musicians to make a living. So anyway, I wonder if there's any hope for musicians in the new creator economy or if there's no union, so maybe there's no hope.

Taylor Lorenz: Well, I think the way that the internet has affected the music industry is fascinating, and yeah, it's been good about, there's a good book by Lina Abascal. It's called, what is it called? Oh my God, I'm going to butcher the name. It's like, Never Be Alone Again. It's about Blog House and sort of the internet and how the internet shaped music in the early and sort of the late aughts, early 2010s. It's a really good book if you're interested in internet enabled music. I honestly didn't. And she talks about Napster and all that stuff. I mean, obviously it can be really incredible in the sense that anybody can monetize through these platforms, but it can also be really hard. I'm not an expert in the music industry. All I know is that I think the Band Camp stuff, I was looking into that. A lot of people have been really upset about it, but it's only happened recently, and I have been on book tours, so I haven’t followed it very closely, but I recommend Lina’s book.

Brian Merchant: Yeah, it is. I mean, it is absolutely true. There are some industries, screenwriters and actors that are much more heavily, have a lot higher union density. Journalists are more likely to be unionized, but artists, illustrators, musicians, a lot of people who seek out that kind of work because they enjoy the freedom and the solitary sort of mode of pursuing artistic expression. One thing I've been seeing, and you asked if there's hope, and I've been seeing a lot of solidarity growing between musicians.

Audience Member 3: That's true.

Brian Merchant: Between artists. I mentioned Molly Crabapple earlier in the talk, and she sort of joined up with this Center for Artistic Inquiry and Reporting and released this open letter asking editorial operations not to use Midjourney in their or any of the AI generators in their editorial operations. And it was signed by thousands of people, kind of made a splash. There's a stigma now that an organization would have to want to override or to deal with, and a lot of those artists are sort of forming bonds, recognizing that this is a new age where there's going to have to be new levels of solidarity, united action. I think it's going to be the same with musicians and there are musicians groups. There are things to plug into. But absolutely, I would look into ways to start building power because it's going to be important because these tools absolutely are going to be used against working musicians and writers and artists.

Chris Taylor: I was just going to say that there's been a lot more transparency about venues and the cut they're taking of merch, which I think is a response to this because more and more to make money, you have to go on tour. And so selling merch is a huge part of that, and people are saying, “This venue takes this much money,” and it's been a lot more public. So that's been...a small thing, but significant for sure. So maybe we'll see more of that in the future. Probably have time for another question. Yeah, go ahead.

Audience Member 1: So Brian knows what we do, but Brian, how comparable are the ludite with the textile industry and automation and what's going on with autonomous vehicles now and the Rideshare drivers, right. Our community is pretty anxious about it. I'm not too worried about it, we just put a cone on it and get it over with. But the rest, and then once you answer that, I'll ask a question to…

Brian Merchant: Yeah, yeah. I mean, since I wrote all this, before OpenAI Chat GPT sort of really blew up. My biggest point of comparison was gig workers. Workers who were being organized through algorithms and through apps, and in many ways they are struggling with a lot of the same issues that the Luddites were on both ends. On the one side, you have taxi workers who had been saving up for a medallion for X number of years, and then the algorithm-led Uber or Lyft comes along and kind of disrupts that industry. And then you have all this new workforce, but then as you well know, Uber and Lyft start reducing the amount of pay and work, and that's pretty similar again, to what these factory owners promised all these jobs and the pay was much less than it was before, and they had to struggle with a whole new set of circumstances.

Autonomous vehicles coming along is the next… I'm skeptical right now, because they're so expensive to build. They just had this huge setback, obviously with Cruz in San Francisco and this kind of horrific accident where one of these self-driving cars pinned a pedestrian underneath it and dragged it, dragged her for 20 feet, and so they're kicked out for now. And there's a long sort of history, Uber self-driving car program resulted in a fatality, and it's inching along.

I think it's one of those rare cases where I think it's, it's buffeted by the fact that tech guys really think it's cool to have self-driving cars almost more than any. There's no real financial reason to have a self-driving car when you can have an Uber driver other than Google–the idea was hatched at a time when Google had more money than God and could pump it into this program, and then Uber did the same. And so yeah, we will have to wait and see. I will say that the coning, the safe street rebel folks who are, that’s Luddism right there, baby just shutting it down in this, taking matters into their own hands, kind of voicing the concerns of the community who were pretty on their side by actually just kind of disrupting and shutting down this.

Audience Member 1: Yeah, those cones are cheap on Amazon. And a question for Taylor actually, how about, okay, so we consider ourselves the Mr. Beast of the gig tubers.

Taylor Lorenz: I agree. I agree.

Audience Member 1: No it is true, but if you look at sub count, that's where we are, but our T.A.M., total addressable market is massive. Like 10 million, 12 million people are doing gig work, and we're struggling to grow our sub base to like 300,000. I'm going like, “How do we grow this faster? What do we…” I mean, this is not a question, but maybe over drinks, I should ask you this.

Taylor Lorenz: How do you take over Mr. Beast?

Audience Member 1: How do you? No? I was just kind of, how do, we're struggling. I mean, we're struggling with that growth, really.

Taylor Lorenz: Yeah. I think growth is so hard on these social platforms and it can be really hard. I mean, it's playing to the algorithm, it's playing. You want to do, you want to hit all the trending topics, you want to collaborate with big content creators. You want to grow your own community as well. It's definitely a slog mean there's entire gross marketers that work with big content creators on specifically that because people plateau and I think it's really hard to, like you said, it's hard to break through that plateau. I guess also, I mean, right now TikTok is the primary audience driver. I don’t know if you guys are on TikTok, but I think that's a lot of places where, because of the algorithmic nature of discovery on that platform, it's like everybody goes there to grow their audience and then they try and port that audience over to YouTube where you can actually make money or whatever. But I feel your pain. I've been stuck on TikTok for a minute and it's like, oh, you want to break through? But yeah, it's hard. I wish there was a hack that I could give you.

Chris Taylor: Do you have any questions for each other that you wanted to ask?

Brian Merchant: I don't think so. I think we've asked each other everything at this point.

Taylor Lorenz: We hashed it out.

Chris Taylor: Yeah. Alright, well then we're all set. Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it. The books are for sale. Please go ahead and pick them up.

Brian Merchant: Thank you everybody, and thank you LA Public Library for having us.

Taylor Lorenz: Yes. Thank you so much.

DISCLAIMER: This is NOT a certified or verbatim transcript, but rather represents only the context of the class or meeting, subject to the inherent limitations of real-time captioning. The primary focus of real-time captioning is general communication access and as such this document is not suitable, acceptable, nor is it intended for use in any type of legal proceeding.