Jeremy Lin's social media fast break

An Asian-American point guard goes from nowhere to world domination in just two NBA games. Get used to it

Published February 8, 2012 3:30PM (EST)

Jeremy Lin drives the ball past Earl Watson during the second half of Monday nights game.
    (AP/Kathy Kmonicek)
Jeremy Lin drives the ball past Earl Watson during the second half of Monday nights game. (AP/Kathy Kmonicek)

We live in fickle times, but this is ridiculous. New York, suddenly, has gone nuts over Jeremy Lin, an Asian-American, Harvard-educated point guard who has played only two good games for the NBA's hapless Knicks. And that's just the beginning: In China, Lin's name was among the top-10 search terms on Monday on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter. Last Friday, most of the world hadn't heard of him. Today, you could make a case he's the most famous Asian-American athlete since Tiger Woods. Which is just kooky. No question, Lin played really, really well against the New Jersey Nets and Utah Jazz over the weekend, but that hardly makes him the second coming of Oscar Robertson.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against Jeremy Lin. He was a high school phenom in Palo Alto, Calif., and I know some Asian American kids out here in Berkeley who worship the ground he walks on. Lin didn't make the NBA because he's freakishly tall, like the 7-foot-4 Yao Ming (Lin is "only" 6"3'). He's there because he can play ball, because he has a wicked fast first step when he drives to the basket, and he knows how to deliver the rock to the big guys (a skill a surprising number of "legitimate" NBA guards show little interest in mastering). He's a triumph of will over genetic endowment, a fact that makes him inspiring to an entire generation of Californian kids restless with their model minority shackles.

But you can like Lin, and you can root for him, and yet still find his instantaneous, Tim Tebow-like ascent (in more ways than one!) to pop-cultural phenom -- LINSANITY! -- to be more than a little disorienting. Jeremy Lin is the latest example of how our socially-mediated, always-on world can churn any data point, any outrage, any act of heroism or moment of despair into a full-scale world-wide frenzy in less time than it took me to write this sentence.

We've seen this before. The same forces -- social media, digital publishing tools, smartphone ubiquity -- that are giving us Linsanity just blitzkrieged the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Foundation. They torpedoed Hollywood's attempt to force SOPA and PIPA through Congress and blew up Bank of America's plan to charge a $5 fee for debit card use. They fueled the Occupy Wall Street movement, magnified every Tebow prostration before God into a worldwide religious orgy and are ever-more ready to pounce on any misstep by a Mitt Romney or a Newt Gingrich and explode it into an instant political crisis.

And the crazy thing is, we're figuring this out as it goes along -- and giving the phenomenon more power. As we understand this new world, and submerge ourselves in it, we are beginning to take our cues from it.

The mainstream media now seems to be adapting its coverage of events on the basis of whether something blows up in social media as much as it does from the perceived newsworthiness of the event itself. It's startling, but also natural: When you see a fire start to blaze, you run to cover to it. And so Linsanity breeds more Linsanity.

You want highlights? Here's a distilled package of nine minutes of Lin's exploits from his 28-point explosion on Monday night. You want a tribute video with an original rap soundtrack on top of some T.I. beats?  Someone is recommending it to you on Facebook or Twitter right now. You want analysis, pro or con? Plug "Jeremy Lin" into Google News and say goodbye to the rest of your day.

You want vaguely disconcerting racially tinged jokes playing on Asian, black, and white stereotypes? Twitter's going crazy:

Lots of sterile white folks offer to adopt Jeremy Lin, concerned with the all black family he is currently with.

On Monday, the social media world was also getting worked up about Michigan Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra's racist Super Bowl ad, featuring a Chinese woman (labeled "yellowgirl" in the HTML code for the Web version) gloating over all the jobs her country was taking from the U.S. Once thrown into the 24/7 crazy cultural mashup perpetual motion machine, it didn't take long before anger about that ad ran head on into Jeremy Lin pride. I have seen tweets urging Jeremy Lin to run for the Republican nomination for the Michigan senate seat, tweets warning that the only American jobs in danger from Asians are those belonging to New York Knick starting point guards, and even a tweet riffing off Kobe Bryant's self-identification as "black mamba" -- Jeremy Lin is suddenly  the "yellow mamba."

It's a tricky, tricky world. We get pissed off when we learn that an HTML jockey has labeled a Chinese woman "yellowgirl" but we grin when see Lin dubbed "yellow mamba." Or maybe not; maybe we get mad at both. The tweet-stream moves too fast too tell for sure. It's just one non-stop improv jazz riff frenzy.

The craziest thing is, from his record so far we know absolutely nothing about Lin's staying power as a potential long-term starting NBA point guard. Lin won a state championship as a senior high school and broke all kinds of Ivy League records at Harvard, but he wasn't drafted by a single NBA team, sat on the bench last year as a rookie for the Golden State Warriors, was cut by both Golden State and Houston before this season, and was playing in the NBA's developmental league just two months ago. He's had two great games against two bad teams, and once the league figures him out, he could easily become old news as quickly as he became the news. Or he might tear his ACL next week, be out for the season, and never manage a full comeback. His incredible domination of the basketball world right now tells us nothing about his future.

But one thing we do know for sure: There will be something to replace him, sooner rather than later. We're strapped to a new kind of rollercoaster -- the only thing we can be certain of is that our passions will be constantly roiled by whatever new outrage or delight seethes our way via our new information channels. You know that the Susan G. Komen foundation is reeling from their contact with this world. And you've got to guess Jeremy Lin is having a strange week.

Who's next?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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