I've been thinking about how we consume media in part because of two recent buzzed-about bits of media. The first is "My Crowd," a long essay by Bill Wasik in the March Harper's.
Wasik, as he reveals for the first time, was the creator of the "flash mob." In May 2003 he forwarded an e-mail he'd composed using an anonymous Web-mail account (to cloak his identity) to friends and acquaintances inviting them (and their forwardees) to briefly descend, all at once, on a specific Manhattan location at a specific time -- then disperse just as suddenly, mere minutes later. In an early flash mob, 200 people suddenly flooded the Macy's rug department, setting off a media storm and copycat flash-mobbing around the world.
The piece (which is currently being serialized at harpers.org) is essential reading for anybody interested in media and marketing, because Wasik's dark take on consumer behavior is, I think, completely in sync with how a lot of marketers and media people think we all consume culture these days.
"Not only was the flash mob a vacuous fad," he writes, but it was "intended as a metaphor for the hollow hipster culture that spawned it." Wasik's quasi-art project was born of his contempt for "mercurial" hipsters who, pack-like, made media darlings of Franz Ferdinand, McSweeney's and the like.
Before I comment on Wasik's piece, I'll point you (pack-like) to a second bit of essential reading: Clive Thompson's recent New York Magazine "Blogs to Riches" story (available in full at nymag.com).
(FYI: I'm a contributing editor at New York, but had nothing do with this piece.) Thompson writes about how an infinitesimally small fraction of bloggers actually have sizable readerships, then mentions a scientific concept called "power-law distribution" that makes this inevitable. It boils down to "popularity breeds popularity."
The thing is, Wasik and Thompson are both very right and very wrong.
The missing element in both of their analyses is that there are still enduring, very human traits -- like passion and idiosyncratic preference -- among even monolithic, seemingly predictable groups like "hipsters" and blog readers.
Here's what I believe: that I, and millions of others, read Gawker and lots of other popular blogs not only because they're popular, but because they're consistently provocative and hugely entertaining. That many hipsters (and total dorks) love, say, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah not just because they are succumbing to what Wasik calls the "joining urge," but because they heard a CYHSY song on the radio or on a MySpace page and thought (all by themselves!), "Wow, cool." That it is human nature to cheerfully seek diversions -- to be optimistic in seeking out "content" that might provide a transcendent experience -- and that it's also human nature to become bored and move on.
And that, most of all, people want to get laid. Therein lies the real problem with Wasik's and Thompson's analyses: They're very smart but rather sexless.
The mobs that showed up in 1958 for the opening of Yves Klein's notorious "Void" show -- an empty Parisian gallery painted white -- weren't just lemmings doing Klein's bidding; lots of them, like Wasik's subjects, were probably excited by the prospect of engaging in something thrillingly surreal. Participants in the absurdist "Happenings" in New York in the late '50s surely had the same impulses, and I'd venture that some probably ended up exchanging phone numbers and maybe even sleeping together after the events. (In fact, they probably had more time for sex because they didn't have MySpace pages to maintain.)
Ultimately, I think flash-mobbing died because of Wasik's insistence on rapid dispersal, which curtailed hooking-up opportunities.
That said, at least the hipsters who flash-mobbed scored a talking point. Having the experience and the story to tell afterward briefly made them conversationally more interesting, more attractive. Which, come to think of it, is why people read the best, most popular blogs.
There, I said it: Reading Gawker makes you more f***able. And who knows? Maybe Romenesko makes you a better lover.
OK, probably not.
The Media Guy's column appears weekly on AdAge.com and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at email@example.com