Very Online

Five journalists on covering the internet in search of meaning, not viral trends

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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