Amherst Magazine

Ripples Through the Pond

And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, by Bill Wasik ’96 (Viking)

Review by Rand Richards Cooper ’80

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In 2002 I wrote a magazine piece about the practice of filming a movie and sequel together, à la Lord of the Rings, and in the process coined a term, “simul­sequeling.” Days later I idly Googled “simulsequeling” and… bingo, a dozen hits! Soon the count rose to more than a hundred. I was surprised by how thrilling this was. I’d been publishing fiction for years, yet never felt quite the rush I did when watching “my” word wriggle into common usage.

That rush lies at the heart of Bill Wasik’s playfully provocative trip through new media and its peculiar mindset. By day an editor at Harper’s, at night Wasik sheds his old-journalism respectability and sleuths forth into cyberspace to study—and join—bloggers, “hacktivists” and sundry other online provocateurs. Anatomizing the “media mind” and its preoccupation with “contagious” ideas, And Then There’s This argues that the Internet revolution has shifted us forcefully from “culture-making” to “culture-monitoring.” The most significant thing about blogging isn’t what anyone has to say, but how many hits they get. Can you engineer an idea that goes viral?

Wasik can—and has. Turns out he was the wicked genius behind the “flash mob” fad of 2003, when cryptic e-messages urged people to gather en masse in public places in Manhattan—culminating in the spectacle of 500 mobbers besieging the Times Square Toys R Us, bowing down to pray to the store’s animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex (“It is like a terrible god to you,” the directive read). Wasik chronicles this quixotic campaign, plus further forays into what, adapting a term from Richard Dawkins, he calls “memetic engineering.” He starts an online movement to squelch a rising indie-rock band. He creates a political-smears Web site, OppoDepot.com. He invents an “ideal viral consumer,” Bill Shiller, whose raison d’être is “to cultivate proactive relationships with brands,” and who frequents such product social-network sites as Kleenex’s LetItOut.com, where users “contribute tear-jerking videos, photos and aphorisms.”

These hijinks allow Wasik to hang out with “memetic engineers” like Jonah Peretti, tech director for The Huffington Post and the motive force behind the Contagion Festival, a competition to create the most viral Web site. Through it Wasik meets Kurt Strahm, an accomplished painter who has abandoned art for a life online. Strahm prompts in Wasik a vicarious revelation. Why spend months laboring over an art project that may be briefly displayed in a gallery when “a stripped-down, imperfectly realized project, or even just an idea for the project, can be disseminated, spread, appreciated in an instant” on the Internet—where “one can watch it spread online from mind to mind”? The rush lies in the watching, in seeing whether your stone can send ripples through the pond of our collective mind. “Does any pleasure more define our age,” Wasik muses, “than the thrill of unleashing an Internet meme?”

There’s much here to make the Luddite mutter. Wasik admits he invented flash mobs to explore “how much buzz one could create about an event whose only point was buzz.” Indeed, from a media-mind point of view, content is a distraction. Reading Malcolm Gladwell, Wasik concludes that “our meta-analyses of culture (tipping points, long tails, crossing chasms, ideaviruses) have come to seem more relevant and vital than the content of culture.” The “real vigorish” lies in the action with the medium itself, he argues, and in manipulating its power to corral instant audiences.

Yet what does all this action amount to as a way of living one’s life? The hyperawareness of audience that Wasik ascribes to the media mind (“stirring up controversy, watching their stats to see what works and what doesn’t”) doesn’t sound like much fun to me. And what about the hope of authenticity? One can trace a nexus of values that are anathema to the culture this book explores. Slowness, depth, contemplation; the thing-in-itself; staying power and the perspective of the eternal: what place will such qualities—the ones that gird traditional understandings of artistic creation—have in the lives of people hooked on “microtrends” and “nanostories” and accustomed to blitzing through their days on the “transient bursts of attention” that characterize participation in virtual culture?

And Then There’s This is mordantly witty and learned in its own sly way, with citations ranging from Dickens to Dawkins. It is also crucially ambivalent. Wasik’s PowerPoint lesson in how to be a 21st-century culturemaster, tracking and manipulating the herd, comes with a qualified dissent on the worth of doing so. His concluding pages lament virtual culture’s relentless demand for the new and confess to “a species of anger” at the “dilemma of disposability” that assails us. More metaphysically, Wasik discloses “a desperate desire to stop Internet time, or at least to let the cycles last longer.” Not quite Proustian, this 21st-century search for lost time, but perhaps as close as an engaged and talented contemporary can get.

A loneliness haunts this book. It doesn’t belong to Bill Wasik, who seems upbeat. It is the loneliness of us all, im­mured in our portable fortresses of distraction, checking in, checking up, staying busy. Wasik embraces various proposals, from “informational environmentalism” to an “internet Ramadan,” designed to help people unplug. But will the man behind the flashmob (Google references: 1,683,000 ) ultimately resist “the temptation toward making memes for profit?” I’m not so sure. I’m betting he’ll prove too good at it for his own good.

A fiction writer, essayist and critic, Cooper reviewed The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown ’86, in the Fall 2009 Amherst magazine.