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Addictive, Ephemeral Stories in a Digital Age

Bill Wasik, And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture (Viking, 2009)

 Susan Boyle was introduced to the world on Saturday, April 11. You may have already forgotten her, but most likely she’s still kicking around somewhere in your head. She was the frumpy Scot with the angelic voice who sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables on the show Britain’s Got Talent. Within hours she had her own Wikipedia page. By midweek she had appeared on all the American morning shows. By Friday, more than one hundred million people had watched her performance on YouTube. But by that time the anti-Boyle backlash had begun. Commentators quibbled that her bedraggled appearance had been a ploy by the show’s producers. She wasn’t quite as “undiscovered” as they claimed.

The Boyle phenomenon is what Bill Wasik dubs a “nanostory” in his new book And Then There’s This. The nanostory bursts onto the media scene, garnering a massive spike in interest, only to suffer an equally precipitous fall when we realize it “cannot bear the weight of what we have heaped upon it [and it] dies almost as suddenly as it emerged.” A nanostory is usually frivolous; it would not have been bothered with before the Internet. Dozens of these stories appear every week, ranging from politicians caught acting foolishly on tape (think of George Allen’s “macaca moment”) to birds that dance to the Backstreet Boys. A new international audience has both unparalleled access to any number of these stories and a drastically truncated attention span. Like patrons of fast food, we gobble up stories of little consequence. But like greasy burgers and fries, these modern tales don’t seem to sit well, and so are, um, passed just as quickly as they were consumed.

Wasik argues that the rapid digestion cycle of information is a natural acceleration of a process started with television; the Internet simply makes the process go a little faster. What sets this moment apart is the role of the audience. We don’t only want to hear a story, but be a part of it. Even the most anonymous web surfer sees himself as part of the action: “You become aware of yourself as a character on a stage, as a public figure with a meaning. You develop, this is, the media mind. You know exactly what you are doing.” When we make our own Susan Boyle response videos, when we blog about her clothes or hair, even when we send the original link to friends—we are consciously taking part in a phenomenon, hoping a little of that Internet gold dust rubs off on us.

Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s, knows firsthand about the allure of new media fame. He caused a stir in 2006 when he outed himself in Harper’s as the until then-anonymous architect of “flash mobbing,” a social spectacle which hit New York in 2003 before spreading around the globe and even seeping into the world of corporate advertising. Born out of what Wasik describes as a sort of existential boredom, the flash mob was a supposedly spontaneous assembly of people in a public place—a Claire’s accessory shop, the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel—orchestrated beforehand by a series of e-mail instructions. Wasik recalls watching with a mix of delight and horror as he becomes the shrouded cult-figure “Bill,” venerated by the hoards newly at his disposal. The crowds grew as emails were forwarded on and on, and soon the conventional media began to take notice. Wasik did interviews with hundreds of media outlets, themselves eager to be seen reporting on the cutting edge of culture.

Wasik’s descriptions of these new media capers make for great reading—flash mob attendees wander through the rug department of Macy’s looking for the perfect “love rug,” or form a line blocks long ending at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, waiting for Strokes tickets that will never materialize. While another writer may have smugly observed the nonsense he had created, the strength of these tales comes from Wasik’s obvious bewilderment and dismay. How had he done this?

It turns out the flash mob was just one of Wasik’s social experiments. The book details his lesser-known exploits in areas of music criticism, corporate culture, and political discourse. Some are rousing successes—as when his parody site The Right-Wing New York Times gets picked up on Gawker—while others fail to generate much interest. Yet all of Wasik’s clever forays illustrate the power and appeal of modern cultural notoriety, no matter how fleeting. We are all, somehow, desperate to join the viral vanguard, and for the first time that seems a genuine possibility. All we need is a good “meme.”

What’s a meme? The flash mob was a meme, what Wasik describes as an “independent agent loosed into the world, where it travels from mind to mind, burrowing into each, colonizing all as widely and ruthlessly as it can.” The word was coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene to describe how facts or stories replicate themselves in a way similar to the gene. Wasik points out how the meme is also like a virus—hence “viral culture”—burrowing and colonizing into minds around the world. It is active, and in Wasik’s mind, particularly insidious.

Wasik’s experiments—complete with cutely ironic charts and graphs that belong in a Wes Anderson movie—pile onto one another and Wasik seems on the verge of becoming a digital-media Mad Hatter, lost in his own off-kilter glee. But then the narrative gives way to more weighty concerns. He boldly declares that though we love our nanostories, they are nonetheless “destroying us.” Wasik offers a rousing call to arms: “We want reason in our politics, greatness in our art, and we see that these are incompatible with our feckless, churning conversation. We must learn how to neuter our nanostories, or at least cut off their food supply.” Though his recommendations for curbing our nanostory addiction are slightly vague, Wasik’s slim book (perhaps itself a nod to the limits of our attention) is at once amusing and deadly serious.


Ian Crouch

Crouch is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker's Book Bench blog and lives in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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