Most reporters are internet culture reporters who don’t know it yet

It’s the comment people can’t stop posting: “We’re already living in the Metaverse.”

It started two years ago when Facebook responded to the hype of its Metaverse product by changing the company’s name in October 2021. This month I wrote a short blog post about how most of us live with a digital filter over our lives: We’re always “logged in” even when we’re not. In November, Chaos Monkeys writer Antonio Garcia-Martinez echoed this sentiment, writing that “the little ‘m’ metaverse is already here and firmly in place. It’s the optional, virtualized reality composed of Twitter, Instagram, and even the substack you’re reading.” And then, about a year later, Jon Askonas wrote for UnHerd, “You’re already in the metaverse,” where he something very similar to one of my core tenets: The internet was once a place and is now a perpetual filter over day to day living. That year, in an almost identically titled article in The Atlantic, Megan Garber wrote, “Our constant need for entertainment has blurred the line between fiction and reality—on television, in American politics, and in our everyday lives.”

And with good reason, because it’s true. The line between online and offline is less clear than ever. The physical and the digital have merged. Where we used to have to dial in from the computer room, we are now always online. “Logout” and “Login” are no longer events since 2013.

The dissolution of our awareness of the barrier between internet life and “real” life has had the greatest impact in journalism. There was a time when a small punch in journalism was “internet culture reporters,” a punch that was generally considered youthful, although one that rose in stature as the internet grew in importance. But what does it mean to be an “internet culture reporter” in a world where we never log off? In a world where on-the-spot reporting budgets are not only slashed, but non-existent for most people? Where journalists are expected to be creators of capital letters to make ends meet and our common workplace is Twitter and TikTok? This means that we are all internet culture reporters whether we know it or not.

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Most of us synthesize what we see on Twitter, TikTok, and occasionally elsewhere online, and write stories about what we see. By now we all know that any article that starts with “People argue that,” as typically exemplified by media outlets like the New York Post, is actually a summary of what’s happening on Twitter or TikTok, not a data-backed trend in the physical world. Political articles in particular are prone to this: how many articles about “the right” are really about viral conversations on Twitter? Embedded reporting today means leaving the workplace (Twitter) and into the field (Telegram).

However, most of us have no other choice. Nobody pays for coverage of the physical world, which unfortunately costs money. This also applies to databases and the time to question subject matter experts.

I don’t think it’s the end of the world that a lot of story ideas come from social media. But when all journalists are reporting on and off the internet, things can go wrong, especially when journalists pretend to be less internet-based than they actually are. Rarely does one see speculation about how a platform influenced the story or how a particular story unfolded in the context of the internet. Key details are often left out, even when one is aware that journalists write about the internet and not about the physical world.

Take TikTok and mental illness, for example. Some teens will “choose TikTok over a therapist,” reported Christina Caron in The New York Times. But this is not a new phenomenon; It’s as old as the internet. Almost every TikTok “mental health fad” has a long history, from dissociative identity disorder, which has deep roots in 1990s Usenet newsgroups and later found new life on LiveJournal and Tumblr, to self-diagnosing autism, that occurs in online spaces goes back at least a decade. Details like these are important, but unless the reporter’s tact is explicitly internet culture, they’re almost certainly going to be ruled out. However, many “culture war” comments are based on a single tweet or TikTok being used as representative of a behavioral trend. The irony is that once they’re reported on, they have a knack for creating themselves.

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Of course, it plays a role that most story ideas today come from a small cadre of power users. Ideally, we would at least adapt to the reality of journalism, which consists mostly of internet culture reporters. It would be clear that when we write “right” we really mean right wing internet communities. I think that’s fine; These people are not nobodies. They just shouldn’t be confused with the whole country, and let’s get the context straight: we’re talking online about a population in a specific place, with specific influences, with a specific history and with a specific reach.

When every major outlet was putting out an article about how hip New Yorkers are now “tradcaths,” where did Twitter play a role? It’s one thing to be aware that this isn’t a widespread trend, which at least a lot of these pieces were. (They were always quick to clarify that they were talking about “Dimes Square.”) But within the smaller group being reported, why them? Were they viewed as some sort of “influencer class”? If yes why? How was the dynamic there?

As a small but illustrative detail, in the jumble of trending articles about Catholic converts, people frequently brought up Red Scare Podcast co-host Dasha Nekrasova’s sedevacantism, an obscure belief that the pope is illegitimate. Well, it’s unclear if you found the church through physical world fellowships. If you traversed online law in the 2010s, you would surely be familiar with it. Sedevakantists were just as much a part of this particular ecosystem as were the Old Norse neo-pagans.

Then-Vox internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings better described the phenomenon in her article on why Catholicism seemed so amenable to memes, contrasting it with the “Instagram-enabled evangelism” that was just beginning to gain popularity at the time lost . Jennings’ article wasn’t a deep story, but it seemed more grounded in reality than the New York Times’. Jennings recognized that the story wasn’t about attending Mass or proselytizing or even religion at all. It was about something uniquely digital with digital influences.

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The difference that gave Jennings the proper framework to describe reality is that she is an internet culture reporter by title, not just an internet culture reporter who doesn’t know that this is her job, and therefore hers bad job. After all, the distinction between an internet culture reporter and a “normal” real-world reporter is a distinction that makes increasingly less sense.

Katherine Dee is a writer and co-host of The Podcasts We Met Online and The Computer Room. You can find more of her work at or on Twitter @default_friend.