How to go viral

The man who created flash mobs explains why crazes like Susan Boyle ruin our ability to focus on the big picture.

Published June 10, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

Bill Wasik is an Internet instigator. Though he works as an editor at Harper's, Wasik is best known as the creator of flash mobs, that early 21st-century trend in which, directed by chain e-mails, people formed mobs in public places for no other reason than to form mobs. That's hardly his only act of Internet impishness, though: Over the course of his career, Wasik has adopted numerous online personas in order to test the boundaries of our ever-expanding viral culture. He tried to derail the burgeoning career of indie rock darlings Peter Bjorn and John, started a fake version of the New York Times for conservatives, and ran a site focused exclusively on negative attacks against political candidates. In the process, he's analyzed how and why some stories became cultural phenomenons and others languish in the nursing home of online oblivion.

Now, in his new book "And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture", Wasik sets out to explain what he's learned from all his Web mischievousness and also  what our increasing addiction to the Internet indicates about us as a society.  We now have more information at our fingertips than ever before, but Wasik suggests we find it hard to focus on issues that really matter because we're so consumed with myopic, ephemeral things.

Recently, Salon spoke with Wasik via phone about nanostories, self-marketing, flash mobbing in front of Claire's Accessories and the fleeting fame of Susan Boyle.

Your book is mainly about viral culture. We hear that term bandied about a lot, but what does it actually mean?

I use the term "viral culture" to talk about a whole new model for how we find out about things, whether it's a new band or some new celebrity or a political argument. When I use the phrase, I am thinking about a mode of culture that finds its purest expression on the Internet. But I also think that the shifts that I'm talking in the book deal with the speed with which we find out about new things. That obviously isn't just happening online, it's happening everywhere. When I talk about viral culture, I'm talking about a culture that's reinventing itself on an Internet model.

Part of that involves nanostories, which you also write about extensively. So how do nanostories flare up and then burn out?

I define nanostory as the basic unit of this kind of churning viral culture. Susan Boyle is a classic example of a nanostory. She burst onto the scene. Not just in Britain but here in the U.S. with a few YouTube videos. And immediately what she becomes is not just a little celebrity but this giant symbol of all this stuff about the culture that people want to hang on her. Her age or her appearance becomes symbolic of cutting against this youth- and beauty-obsessed media culture. The sort of style of music she likes, these throwback Broadway songs, wind up being indicative of some kind of more transcendent approach to music.

She becomes this giant symbol and all this meaning gets heaped upon her. But then of course, there's nothing to sustain it. She became this giant micro-star at a point when she wasn't going to be on television again for many weeks. If you can't feed the machine, then it shuts down. We'll just be distracted onto the next thing if it doesn't give us more to keep us going. That, to me, is a classic example of a nanostory. It is a short-lived media phenomenon that is driven by the sheer quantity and speed of the contemporary conversation. So many hours of cable news to fill, there are so many blogs that need refreshing. Now there's Twitter and more. And so we seize upon these tiny little things and try to elevate them into sensations, but of course they can't bear up under the weight of it.

With so many different mediums, why do they all seem to follow these same stories? At the end of the day, why does anyone care so much about this random singer that none of us have ever met?

That relates to the "Long-Tail" -- the idea that the Internet will allow us to splinter off into a lot of smaller niches. The Internet does allow for smaller and smaller communities of interest that have more and more intense likes for shared things. But I also think one great value of culture for us is that we like to have something to talk about with each other. And so, you might have a great love for some very, very obscure form of heavy metal and on the Internet you can find all the other 5,000 different people around the world who like this very particular heavy metal music. But it's also true that if you go to high school or if you work in an office or if you have sort of friends out in the real world, you're going to want to engage with them in the shared stuff of mass culture. Mass culture continues to exist precisely because it's the stuff of cultural exchange among ourselves. And so, that to me is the reason why you have 10 million people becoming obsessed with Susan Boyle instead of 10,000 people. Precisely because she becomes grist for this bigger conversation.

But doesn't that suggest that what human relationships are founded upon is incredibly shallow or meaningless?

I don't know if I would go so far that it all has to be meaningless. You sometimes have these great sensations stirred up by news stories or by pieces of investigative journalism or great art. There's this section of the book where I talk about the Politico, the online politics site. Their audience really is interested in a lot of interesting picayune policy details. But of course it's also true that that audience cares about meaningless scandal.

Right, the Politico also broke the John Edwards haircut story. So does our fixation with nanostories make us less able to focus on the mega-stories, the long-term problems such as global warming or the economic crisis?

Absolutely. One of things that I find so depressing about the climate change conversation is the fact that we actually have succeeded in implanting climate change in a lot of people's minds as an important long-term challenge. But more often than not, the way that that happens in public discourse is seizing on these tiny, little, grabby ideas that are really, really short-term. So, Al Gore has a movie. That was the seminal moment in coming to an understanding about climate change in this country, where we could turn it into a little entertainment business piece. And I think your point about the economic crisis is right on too. We sat there and talked about the AIG bonuses for four days. It was very telling that we can only know the big problem these days by way of some tiny little piece of outrage or delight, through these little nanostories.

I also want to talk about what you call your experiments in viral culture. You are the originator of flash mobs. What was your goal in sending out an e-mail to your friends to tell them to meet you in front of a Claire's accessories store?

I had become really interested in chain e-mails and in the ways you'd get something forwarded from a friend or from your uncle or wherever. It did sort of seem like chain e-mails were a medium and if you could somehow tap into that, then you could potentially do something creatively interesting with that. And I had been thinking about how I might be able to use a chain e-mail to get people to come to a show of some kind. But after thinking about it for a while: What if there was no show? What if the idea with the e-mail was I just laid it on the line, forward this to everyone you know, we're going to get together, and the whole point of us getting together will be for us to all be together in some place that nobody expected us to be?

What were some of your other experiments and what have they shown you about viral culture?

One other experiment was in the indie rock world, where it's hard to stop the buzz of an indie rock band. So I created a site called StopPeterBjornandJohn  that attempted to stop the rise of this band. I entered the Huffington Post Contagious Festival, which was this thing they ran for a year, where you would enter and create a site that got as many hits as possible, and whichever site got the most hits won. I also created this politics site called Oppodepot  with the idea of it being a sort of collaborative site, a repository of smears, negative political information.


I had some very interesting conversations with Jonah Peretti, who was the mastermind behind the Contagious Festival and is now the head of this site called Buzzfeed, and Jonah made the  valuable point that successful viral sites need to speak to some kind of social relationship. If you're going to forward it along to someone you know, you're only going to forward it to someone that something about your preexisting relationship with that person makes you think they'll like it. He gives the example of this New York Times article, "What Shamu Taught Me About Having a Happy Marriage."  It was an animal trainer writing about how the wisdom of animal training helped her understand her relationship with her husband.

It was the number one story forever, seemingly.

Right. But think of all the different social relationships that it spoke to. If you were married, you might jokingly send it to your spouse. If your friend was having relationship troubles, you might send it to them. Or your parents. And also, you can have a viral thing that's designed to be appreciated ironically and you can have one that's designed to be appreciated earnestly, but man, if you have something that can be appreciated either way or both ways at the same time, then you're cooking with gas.

Another lesson I'd say I learned from the mob project is the idea of secrecy and being a secret agent. Being part of a small, elect group of people that are going to carry out some mission. That idea has a lot of appeal just because it gives you a thrill of belonging and being special in an Internet culture where everything is usually accessible to everyone all the time.

I think that's an interesting point -- what is it that we all get personally out of these  nanostories?

There's a way in which having the novelty before somebody else has it, so you can give it to them, becomes a kind of exchange. People like to be the friend who knows about the new band or the new movie or the new Internet meme that their friends don't know about.

In the book, you suggest that our predilection for propagating Internet fads is a form of self-marketing and that the Internet is teaching us to constantly sell ourselves. We're selling our discernment or hipness when we "discover" the hot new band or funny YouTube video. You write, "When one has developed the media mind -- which is, at heart, a marketing mind -- one can never stop selling, but neither can one be entirely sold." Is it dangerous that we're all becoming marketers of ourselves? If so, what does it lead us to?

I do feel that there's something intrinsic to these kind of Web 2.0 modes of self-presentation that makes us think like marketers. When you post a video on YouTube or  a link to your blog or  a song to your MySpace page, without you asking in most cases, the technology is going to give you all of this data about how many people listened to this song or that song, viewed this link as opposed to that link. Suddenly, you're like the TV executive with the Nielsen ratings. And this is exactly what's happened to newspapers. You have this information that you never had before. The editor of the Washington Post never knew before which individual stories in the paper were generating interest. He just knew the whole thing sold X number of copies. But with the Internet you have all this granular information about where your readers are coming from and which stories they pick. You can't help but use that information in how you decide to present yourself or how you decide what to write or what to create in the future. And that to me is the way that this kind of marketing mind-set unavoidably creeps into Internet culture.

But in terms of individuals presenting themselves, especially people who are aspiring culture makers and are trying to make a career for themselves, you post something that gets a bunch of hits or you record a song that suddenly gets a bunch of downloads, that could wind up being the sort of formative creative experience that you have in your life. People talk about getting their break and traditionally, you come to New York or wherever you are, somebody who has power or has experience picks out something you did or pick you out and says, hey you've got something.  Many people have those formative experiences.

I would say that for 90 percent of culture makers coming up today, your break is going to be online. And the way that you're going to know you had your break is going to be numbers. It isn't going to be a single person, like an established poet, or an established musician coming up to you after a show or responding to a piece of writing you sent them and saying, I really believe you can do it. Instead, it's like this giant hive mind will pluck out something that you've done and say, this we love, this we bestow the pleasure of 2 million hits on. From there on out, you're going to use those cues you get from this giant machine to tell you what to keep doing and to tell you what to stop doing. And that to me is potentially scary in all sorts of ways. The hive mind selects for a certain kind of thing, it selects for culture that is instantly digestible, it selects for culture that is sensational in a certain sort of way.

So what do we do about this? You write, "We must become judicious controllers of our own contexts, making careful and self-reflective choices about what we read, watch, consume." How?

There are probably people who will happily surf the Internet hive mind for as long as it keeps on going. And I wouldn't begrudge them that. I'm more trying to speak to people like me, who on the one hand are really viscerally engaged with the online culture, who understand rightly that it really is the locus of almost everything exciting that's going on in the culture. You can't ignore it. But on the other hand we feel that being constantly plugged in is taking too much of a toll on us.

I would say that if there's one thing that's causing the novels of the world from getting written right now, it's surfing the Internet. I do think that a lot of creative people want to be working on their craft, they want to be thinking big about what they should be doing and my belief is that the culture is encouraging them to think small. To me, the challenge is to try to find ways to partially unplug ourselves. To carve out spaces in our lives away from information. Away from the sort of constant buzzing of the hive mind. I think some of these constraints can just be arbitrary. Tuesdays, I'm not going to look at the Internet. I think that can often be effective. Another way of working on it is to develop more effective filters of information. Instead of just freely clicking around from site to site to site, and before you know it, you've spent four hours following your whimsy every which way, instead pick out a few sources of information that you feel like are not just crucial and well-done, but also fairly broad based and representative. To me, the most important step is recognizing that you can't possibly take in all the information that's out there. [You need to] make a wise intervention into your information consumption and try to make it manageable so that you can live a happy life and save time for the thinking of higher things.



By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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