Almost no figure from the early days of the internet was more misunderstood and maligned than Julia Allison. In the mid-2000s, Allison dominated the online world as one of the first multi-platform content creators. But practically no one recognized her as such, in part because there wasn’t language to talk about what she was doing. Today, she would be referred to as an influencer. Back then, most people, especially the media, resorted to misogyny. Julia was villainized and brutalized by journalists, pundits, and online trolls.
The story of Julia mirrors the story of so many women who played formative roles in online culture. These women forged entirely new career paths, built the now-half a trillion dollar content creator industry from the ground up, toppled traditional notions of fame and power, but they paid a steep price. Their names have been stricken from Silicon Valley corporate narratives, their lives torn apart by online hate, and the media, even today, continues to trivialize them as silly “it girls” — if they’re mentioned at all. I included Allison’s story in my new book, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet, because there has never been a reckoning or a reexamination of what these women were put through. Julia has never been publicly vindicated. And yet, every last thing she predicted about media and technology came to fruition.
Julia Allison was a junior at Georgetown University in 2002 when she started a dating column in the school paper called “Sex on the Hilltop.” Sex and the City was one of the hottest shows on television. As her column became a campus sensation, Allison felt like Georgetown’s own Carrie Bradshaw. The university’s location in Washington, D.C., brought national coverage to her column. (When she wrote about dating an anonymous young congressman, the Washington Post was swift to reveal his identity.) Her peers enjoyed her candid style, but within months, her headlines began to enrage Georgetown alumni and some students. “I didn’t write about sex very much,” Allison told me, “but all the conservatives at Georgetown were so upset. I became this lightning rod.” Still, Allison soon landed bylines at national outlets like Cosmopolitan and Seventeen. Film producer Aaron Spelling even optioned her life rights when she was 21.
By the time she graduated and moved to New York City in 2004, Allison seemed poised for greater success. She had an undeniable magnetism, and she was unafraid to hustle. Her goal was to parlay her bylines to a writing career in New York City media. She even hoped to land her own TV show. That year, on a list of goals she brought to the city, she had written “become a cult figure.”
Upon arriving in New York, Allison relentlessly emailed editors around the city. But she hit a brick wall. A few bylines and a college column weren’t impressive enough to big legacy magazine editors-in-chief. Eventually, AM New York, a free daily paper, gave her a weekly column. The pay was $50 a week.
Allison got an idea when she saw Tom Wolfe on a book tour that year. Everywhere he went, he appeared in his iconic white suit. “He’s a brand,” she realized. “I’ve got to be known and become a name.” Wolfe built his brand in another era, but he wasn’t the only archetype for Allison to follow.
Allison started writing under her first and middle name, Allison, instead of her real last name, Baugher. She hustled, hard. She wrote her column for AM New York. She auditioned for and was even cast in reality-TV pilots. She appeared on TV to give dating advice on air. And in 2005, she started a blog.
The blog didn’t come with any huge aspirations. Initially it began as a clearinghouse for what she couldn’t put into her AM New York column. She wrote about things like her dating life and where she went to eat. Soon, she began posting pictures of her (quite affordable) outfits, something she dubbed “head to toes.” Tumblr users would call these types of photos #gpoy, which stood for “gratuitous picture of yourself.” Allison’s posts were deeply relatable and spoke to Millennial women in ways that traditional women’s magazines didn’t. Like many bloggers, she found that the medium allowed her to develop a rapport with a small but growing audience.
Allison soon concluded that the print-media gigs she’d been chasing were a dead end. She leaned into her blog and by 2006, people started to pay attention.
At the time, Gawker was the most influential site for (and about) online media in New York. Allison flooded the blog’s tip line with links to her own articles, and when she commented on Gawker stories, she would often include links to her own work.
Commenting relentlessly on someone’s post to try to get attention for yourself is commonplace now, but it was galling back then. Gawker staff writers promptly chastised her for “gratuitous self-promotion.”
Allison was undeterred. When she showed up to Gawker founder Nick Denton’s 2006 Halloween party as a “condom fairy,” in a dress she made out of prophylactic packages, he realized that she was no longer a figure the website could ignore. The next day, at Denton’s request, Gawker writer Chris Mohney ran an 800-word article called “Field Guide: Julia Allison.” The post was vicious, accusing her of attention-seeking in cruel language. (In true 2006 New York style, it even had a little barb thrown in about Allison being unknown to Patrick McMullan.) The subtext of the article was clear: Who does this woman think she is? Who decided she was influential? And yet, the article acknowledged, “she’s everywhere, it seems.”
The piece went viral. The hate-read attracted hateful comments. Allison was distraught, crying for three days and begging the editors to take it down. When they refused, she decided to respond. On her blog, she posted a photo of herself, derriere to the camera, sporting her condom-covered dress. “Dearest Gawker,” she captioned it. “Kiss my ass.”
It was the start of a long-running online rivalry between Allison and Gawker that brought more attention to both. One Gawker editor described Allison as “our Paris Hilton,” a recurring figure whom everyone had an opinion about. To Allison’s detractors, she was an undeserving “narcissist.” To her fans, she was a savvy, self-deprecating woman trying to forge a new path for herself. To everyone, she was a new, enigmatic type of celebrity.
On her blog, she posted a photo of herself, sporting her condom-covered dress. “Dearest Gawker,” she captioned it. “Kiss my ass.”
“There’s a particular kind of fame that’s very normal now,” Allison told me. “But no one was prepared in that era. They used to call it micro fame, and it’s this experience of blowing up when you don’t expect to. You’re not blowing up the way Taylor Swift blew up. Instead, you get a lot of attention and become a big celebrity — but only in a select niche. It creates a bizarre juxtaposition of being both super famous and unknown, all at once. The way people got well-known online, on the internet, was very new to everyone, including me.”
In February 2007, David Karp and Marco Arment founded the micro-blogging site Tumblr in New York. Tumblr allowed anyone with no coding experience to set up a beautiful, clean, and simple blog.
The idea for the site came from Karp’s desire to start a blog that was sleek and visual. When he looked around, however, he couldn’t find a platform to post “all these cool videos, links and projects that I wanted to put out there,” he later told net magazine. Part of his preference may have come from the fact that he was not a writer. The 20-year-old high school dropout was a programmer and designer, so he decided to solve the problem himself along with Arment, a fellow developer.
They named their platform Tumblr. Within minutes, you could register any name you wanted @tumblr.com, pick one of many beautifully designed templates, and customize it. Then you could post text, images, GIFs, quotes, and videos.
Unlike its predecessors like WordPress and Blogger, Tumblr contained early social mechanics such as the ability to “reblog” posts. The reblog technology was developed by Michael Frumin and Jonah Peretti at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York. Peretti’s former roommate Tim Shey, whose company Next New Networks shared an office with Tumblr, compared reblogging to DJing. “You could mix in a little of your own voice here and there while still keeping the crowd happy,” he wrote on his blog.
Tumblr soon became as much a social networking site as it was a blogging platform, allowing users to like, comment, and reshare content. Their timing was excellent, since MySpace had petered out; Twitter, founded less than a year earlier, was a niche, techy service; and Facebook, while dominant, still centered on offline friendships, not strangers with shared passions. Tumblr was messy, creative, full of pseudonymous users interacting with people they often didn’t know IRL. It attracted creatives of all types and within two weeks of its launch, it gained 75,000 users. Julia Allison was among them and would post as often as 10 times a day.
Before Los Angeles became the capital of the online creator industry, New York’s “Silicon Alley” was where people building audiences on the internet congregated. By the late 2000s, more and more events cropped up seeking to manifest internet culture in “meatspace.” In 2008, mayor Mike Bloomberg established “Internet Week” in New York City with the goal of “celebrating New York’s internet industry.” The city’s growing Flatiron District was home to the nexus of Tumblr and blogger culture. Allison became a regular at Tumblr parties and a fixture of the NYC tech scene.
When Richard Blakeley, then head of video at Gawker, looked at the schedule for Internet Week in 2009, he saw a lot of panels but no after-parties. So, he decided to organize an event on the rooftop of the Empire Hotel on the Upper West Side.
With that, the “Webutante” Ball was born, an annual prom for the internet set. “Anybody who’s anybody is at this party right this second,” photographer Nick McGlynn, who cataloged the scene on his website RandomNightOut, told the Daily Beast in 2010. Allison, a “FameBall Hall of Fame” honoree, was on the “prom committee.”
She was a journalist who [invited] users into her world. She talked about dating and sex in one breath and the tech world in the next. She called it “lifecasting.”
The Webutante Ball was hardly the only IRL internet event to appear. BuzzFeed, then an upstart digital media company, hosted meet-ups for its fans. In 2008, a group of Harvard students founded ROFLCon, a biennial convention dedicated to internet memes featuring a slew of early online creators dubbed “net celebs” by legacy media. There was also Social Media Week, founded in 2009, an event that hosted talks espousing the value of building an audience online.
That same year, internet culture news site Urlesque and Know Your Meme co-hosted a party called “A Night to ReMEMEber.” The event, which attracted popular Tumblr creators, early YouTubers, bloggers, and internet enthusiasts, invited attendees to dress up as their favorite meme. The party proved to be so popular as memes emerged as a pervasive format on the internet, that Urlesque and Know Your Meme joined forces again months later to host the first “HallowMeme” party, this time encouraging attendees to dress as their favorite internet stars. The top three prizes for the best costumes that year went to a Three Wolf Moon group, a Keyboard & Cat couple, and a man dressed as a series of tubes (a dubious metaphor for the internet coined by a U.S. senator). Allison was a regular at these sorts of events. She hobnobbed with other online creators, then referred to as “ceWEBrities.” She documented the scene on Tumblr, and her posts racked up likes and reblogs. She used Tumblr the way that many people would eventually use Instagram. “I’d do my daily outfits,” she said. “If I had an article out or a TV appearance, I would post about it. Or I’d post lots of behind-the-scenes things, for instance photos from backstage at Fashion Week, things people didn’t normally get access to.”
At the time, media observers didn’t know how to react to what Allison was doing. Bloggers were a mainstream concept by the late aughts, but they had their own lane. Allison wasn’t a familiar kind of author. She was a journalist who used photos, text, video — every medium available — to invite users into her world and build her brand. She talked about dating and sex in one breath and the trajectory of the tech world in the next. She called it “lifecasting.”
Soon, you couldn’t go anywhere on the internet without hearing about Julia Allison. The New York Times profiled the 27-year-old in March 2008. That July, she graced the cover of Wired magazine. Her columns were regularly teased on the cover of Time Out New York, and she made frequent TV appearances on all the major networks.
She was “famous for being famous,” the media often declared, the same phrase they used for Paris Hilton. But producers kept calling, and editors saw that she got clicks — and sold magazines. Allison recognized this effect and saw an opportunity to flip her fame into a greater cultural and economic force.
“I figured out that when I posted things on my blog, I’d get emails about it the next day,” she recalled. “For instance, I’d post about a swimsuit and get an email from the swimsuit company saying, ‘Who are you? We’re tracking all this traffic from your blog.’”
Getting a free swimsuit was trivial within the scope of her ambition. “I noticed Oprah had knighted these individuals like Suze Orman and Dr. Phil to be guiding forces in different areas,” she observed. “I thought, That’s not going to work with people my age, they’re not watching Oprah, they’re looking at the internet. So I thought maybe I could create people like that, but for the internet.”
Allison raised funding from investors and launched a company called Non Society. “In retrospect, the name was awful, but we were trying to say we weren’t normal society; we were rebels,” she said. “I tried to find an apartment where we could all live that would be sponsored, where we could livestream or blog and shoot videos from.” It was an early version of a collab house, a concept that would later explode in the 2010s. When Bravo commissioned a pilot for a reality show called IT Girls based on this concept, online commenters were up in arms. She doesn’t deserve it, they argued, lobbing sexist attacks. Page Six called her an “internet fame-whore.”
Nevertheless, Allison began pitching and landing bigger brand deals. In 2009, Cisco paid her $30,000 to create two videos at the Consumer Electronics Show. That same year she was paid $14,000 for four tweets about T-Mobile. Unilever’s chief marketing officer, Simon Clift, asked Allison to speak to three hundred executives about influencer marketing, describing her work online as “a lesson for a $50-billion-plus behemoth like Unilever.” Allison also signed a big deal with Sony to promote the company’s new Vaio laptop and starred in Sony’s ad campaign along with Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake.
While her dedicated young female audience loved the campaign, Gawker trashed her in deeply misogynistic articles. One of them jeered, “Did you know Julia Allison carries a Sony Vaio Lifestyle PC in her purse? It’s not the only thing she pulls out of her purse with the word Lifestyle on it,” referring to a popular condom brand.
Nearly every article documenting Allison’s rise contained a disturbing level of misogynistic language and tropes. Tech journalists, who were overwhelmingly men, implied that Allison was promiscuous. They used highly gendered language to slut-shame her and question her credibility as an expert on media and technology. She was accused of trying to sleep with the powerful men in tech whom she interviewed or partnered with. Fast Company ran a piece titled “Sometimes Breasts Aren’t Enough, Julia Allison.” Wired and the rest of the tech press was similarly hostile.
Like all misogyny, there was fear behind the fury. In a 2010 interview with TheStreet, Allison said, “I looked to the internet as a distribution channel… to allow me to cut out the middle men — the people who were running the magazines and who also took in the ad dollars.” Media outlets had every reason to crush a pathbreaking outsider who didn’t abide by wait-your-turn conventions or traditional hierarchies — especially a pathbreaking woman.
Despite the backlash, Allison amassed a fandom online that adored her. Young women in particular looked up to her and loved her upbeat personality and self-confidence. Brands, too, recognized her talent for building an audience.
As that audience grew, Allison spoke at major business conferences around the world. She attended the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She was the star of an event at the 92nd Street Y and gave a keynote talk at South by Southwest.
By the end of 2010, Allison moved to Los Angeles. She was cast in a Bravo reality show that seemed like a big break. It was called Miss Advised, about three single relationship experts attempting to balance their lives. But the show was a wash for Allison. She participated in one “painful” season and then vowed never to do reality TV again.
Looking back, it’s astonishing that Allison kept going. People set up entire websites dedicated to smearing her. Some stalked her family members. Prominent journalists and commentators mocked her on national television and in the pages of major media outlets. Radar magazine named her the third-most-hated person on the internet, right above someone who tossed a puppy off a cliff in a YouTube video. When she met with investors, the media accused her of “canoodling,” implying that she was having affairs with the men with whom she did business. Deals fell apart because of misogynistic, gossip-inspired blacklisting.
“The amount of hatred coming my way was distinctive and overwhelming,” Allison told me. “No therapist was even trained in internet hate back then. It was hard to get help for the emotional breakdowns I was having from people lashing out at me.”
By 2012, she decided that she couldn’t handle any more online assaults. “It had been about 10 years of my life, and I was exhausted,” she said. “I felt beaten down, I felt completely disillusioned, and I wanted a different reality. More than anything, I wanted to be off the internet. I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’ll make money, but I can’t make it this way anymore.’ And I never looked back.”
She set out to erase herself from the internet. She spent hours deleting over 14,000 tweets, one by one. She removed Tumblr posts, made other accounts private, and restricted access to her viral YouTube and Vimeo videos.
“The amount of hatred coming my way was distinctive and overwhelming. It was hard to get help for the emotional breakdowns I was having from people lashing out at me.”
Every so often she dipped her toe back in, and each time she regretted it. “I’d start to feel safe again and post a picture, then I’d get hate and delete it,” she explained. And the hatred remained. (“If you follow JA now, her life at 40 is FULLY pathetic and unrealized. It is truly a valueless existence,” wrote one user on Reddit in 2019.)
Recent years have brought a cultural reckoning with how young women of the Nineties and Aughts were treated by the media. Prominent women like Britney Spears, Monica Lewinsky, and Paris Hilton have appeared in docuseries that reexamine what they endured. Clips of misogynistic interviewers berating the women have been dredged up and posted to horrified young audiences on TikTok.
Allison, however, has not been blessed with such a reckoning. Instead, she has been ignored and passed over, unacknowledged for her pioneering role in the now $16.4 billion influencer industry. When Silicon Valley investors finally started paying attention to the online fame ecosystem, rebranding it the “creator economy,” her name was never mentioned.
What Julia Allison did better than anyone in her generation was to leverage attention on the internet and shrewdly monetize it. These two practices are commonplace today, but in the mid-2000s, they were radical. Bloggers of the time cultivated a subject-matter niche to grow passionate audiences. But to try to break in with sheer force of personality, to use the new tools of the internet to go from no-name to mainstream success? Julia Allison was one of the first to even attempt it.
“[Allison] represented a moment when the culture of the web changed dramatically,” the comedian Heather Gold tweeted. “She was the moment everything changed and that’s where her significance to us lay She was not accepted at all by web culture. But what she did became commonplace.”
“She used this medium and became unstoppable,” former Gawker managing editor Choire Sicha said of Allison in Wired. “She just made it happen in a way that seemed seamless and kind of magical.” Paris Hilton changed the nature of A-list celebrity by becoming famous for being famous. Julia Allison changed the nature of celebrity by charting the same path with far fewer resources, with an internet connection as her main tool. Today, millions of users do exactly what Allison did. That she was able to forge the path while enduring relentless cruelty and abuse makes her achievement even more remarkable.
“People used to call me an attention whore, it’s like, is that what you call authors who try to sell their book? Do you call a movie star that when they walk the red carpet? Would you ever call a man that?’ I was trying to get people to read my columns so I could pay rent on my $2,500 studio apartment. Even that word, ‘whore,’ everyone uses it so much about me. She’s an attention whore.”
Allison lives a quieter life now. She resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her fiancé and was recently accepted into a master’s program at Harvard’s Kennedy School in leadership and public policy. “I couldn’t have a more different relationship with the internet now than I did 10 years ago,” she said, “and part of that makes me sad. I do think there’s an inherent value to sharing vulnerably and authentically, and I get so much out of it when other people do that.”
During the pandemic, she posted updates about her life on Instagram and Facebook — rarely, and only privately to a small group of select friends. “I do intend and pray to come back to the internet someday,” she said, “even if it’s as a grandma on TikTok. I will come back and be like, Fuck you all! But I’m still building up to that point.”
Copyright © 2023 by Taylor Lorenz. From the forthcoming book EXTREMELY ONLINE by Taylor Lorenz to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission. Preorders of the book, which comes out Oct. 3, are available here.