There's something a little heartbreaking about the very existence of "And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture," by Bill Wasik. After all, it's a meditation on living, breathing virality that resides between the hard, dead covers of a book. I can point you to its Amazon page or to any number of reviews and write-ups -- including, most recently, James B. Arndorfer's "Father of Flash Mobs on the Future of Viral" in the Ad Age Bookstore -- but the actual pages of "This" are trapped, even on a Kindle, in their own separate, fixed, unlinked world.
And so, for this latest installment of Dumenco's Media People -- an ongoing series of conversations with media grandees -- I took Bill Wasik out for tea recently in New York City, near the headquarters of Harper's Magazine, where he's a senior editor, to attempt some ... interactivity with the living, breathing social-media observer and mischief-maker.
The basic back story of the book: Wasik was, he confesses, simply bored when he decided in May 2003 to try to persuade large groups of people to suddenly and briefly assemble in public places -- such as the lobby of Manhattan's Grand Hyatt Hotel -- for no apparent reason. Amazingly, his experiment worked, thanks in no small part to the clever ways in which he seeded and targeted the anonymous e-mails announcing his various flash mobs to (mostly) young New Yorkers invested in the mechanics of "buzz" and New York "scenesterism." The flash mob quickly became a global media phenomenon -- and an enduring inspiration to marketers, who keep assembling faux flash mobs to attempt to cool-ify their products and services (e.g., see the viral-video sensation The T-Mobile Dance, from this past January). "And Then There's This" tells the story not only of the flash mob but of other experiments in virality devised by the cunning Wasik -- folded into a sweeping, Big Think analysis (occasionally sardonic, occasionally earnest) of viral culture in general.
What follows is a brief mash-up of excerpts from our conversation and quotes from his book that I found to be particularly piercing. They're numbered because, well, the least I could do in writing about about virality is spit out a numbered list. Because the internet loves numbered lists, right?
1. The flash mob is a metaphor for the pile-on media culture we now live in.
Wasik, in conversation: "I could have written a whole book just about flash mobs, but that just didn't seem satisfying to me, because part of the whole sort of conceit of the original Harper's article" -- Wasik revealed the secret origins of the flash-mob phenomenon in the magazine in March 2006; that essay is adapted into a chapter in his book -- "is that I was coming forward as the inventor of this extremely forgettable fad that was hardly worth having been invented. And so to extend that joke to book length seemed impossible. But after the article came out, I began to think about extending this idea of this kind of quick-hit disposable culture, in the way that flash mobs almost became a sort of metaphor for that media phenomena. You know, the idea that everybody piles on something and then everybody disperses from it, and you repeat the process, and that's the media culture that we now live in -- and the internet has only tightened the cycles and made that more pronounced.
2. On the internet, as in life, forget the white-hot center; the margins are what matter.
Wasik, in conversation: "The other fundamental metaphor of the flash mob was the idea of, like, people are going to come together for no reason at all other than that other people are coming together there. I mean, that was sort of always how I felt about New York. The idea that, Oh, I'm in New York, and I'm gonna get as close as possible to the white-hot center of things. But then the closer you get to it, the more you realize that the white-hot center of things is, like, a bunch of middle-aged fat people in a room sipping vodkatinis, and they're not talking about anything interesting, because the actual work is being done a little further to the margins by people who are still trying to get closer to the center."
3. The human impulse to share stories is timeless, yes, but viral culture has irretrievably warped the process.
Wasik, in his book: "In keeping with the entrepreneurial wordsmithery of the times, I would like to propose a new term to encompass all these miniature spikes [in stories that briefly seize the popular consciousness], these vertiginous rises and falls: the nanostory." What kills nanostories? Wasik continues: "This need to tell ever new stories about our society and ourselves, even when there are no new new stories to be told. This impulse is far from new, of course ... What viral culture adds is, in part, just pure acceleration -- the speed born of more data sources, more frequent updates, more churn -- but far more crucially it adds interactivity, and with it a perverse kind of market democracy."
4. Nick Denton rules the world.
Seriously. One of the recurring, not-so-obvious themes of Wasik's book is that the powerful forces that catapult certain memes into hyper-virality are often not so mysterious. For instance, he writes of secretly participating in -- while also covering -- the Contagious Festival, a monthly contest sponsored by the Huffington Post in 2006-2007 with one simple rule: "Create the website that gets the most visitors, and win $2,500." Wasik, under the pseudonym Will Murphy, launched a site he wryly called The Right-Wing New York Times, which remains online in an archived state. ("The website would look just like the Times'," he writes, "but when a reader moved his mouse over a story, it would transform into a paranoid right-wing reading of the same article.")
The site muddled along, getting a minor amount of attention and traffic, until one day it suddenly took off. What pushed it over the top and into the winning No. 1 slot during the month Wasik was competing? A post on Gawker, the flagship of Nick Denton's Gawker Media blog empire. (Wasik fascinatingly traces the origins of Gawker taking notice: Rob Norris, a random HuffPo reader in Chile, happened to pass a Right-Wing Times link to his childhood friend Chet Farmer in Texas, who blogged about it, which piqued the interest of his old college friend Chris Mohney -- who was in New York working for, yes, Gawker.)
So, while on the one hand Wasik makes a compelling case for a "perverse kind of market democracy" -- the internet as one great, erratic, decentralized grass-roots phenomenon -- time and again it turns out that the levers manipulating our collective mind share are controlled by a rather small circle of usual-suspect media moguls and their minions (with the man behind the curtain these days more and more likely to be a bloggy Dentonite than, say, an inky Murdoch type).
5. The Attention Economy is (mostly) a sorry excuse for a (predictable, rational) economy.
Wasik, in conversation: "It is really interesting that the lack of a reliable business model on the internet for creating content has basically been a problem since the dot-com boom. ... When the phrase the 'Attention Economy' was coined, I think people were imagining that attention would translate into money in some way. But the funny thing is that even though that hasn't really happened for almost anybody, predictably and rationally, the fact is that you still have people rushing into creating content, and then it becomes about all of the cheesy things that people say about the internet -- that is really is about human connection and people finding more people that are like themselves. We are social animals, and the internet plays to that -- it plays to that urge to try to get attention and to try to make connections and to try to get on board with the interesting new thing as it's happening and to feel in that way like we are at the very heart of the culture."
6. The model is what matters.
Wasik, in his book: "Underlying the success of 'The Tipping Point' and its literary progeny is, I would argue, the advent of a new and enthusiastically social-scientific way of engaging the culture. Call it the age of the model: Our meta-analyses of culture (tipping points, long tails, crossing the chasms, ideaviruses) have come to seem more relevant and vital than the content of culture itself."
7. And about that T-Mobile faux flash-mob ad ...
Wasik, by e-mail, after the fact: "Re: T-Mobile, etc. To me, what they're trying to connect with is the larger sense of ecstatic, instant community that our era presents as possible. Your phone isn't just a phone but is also a magic portal to a world where all these cool people are your friends. Flash mobs (at least in my initial, characteristically sour conception of them) were about that on some level, but on another level they were about how fleeting and contentless those kinds of connections are; 10 minutes later, after all, you were by yourself again."
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.