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Diagnosis: The Spread of Viral Culture

  • And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in a Viral Culture
  • By Bill Wasik, June 11, 2009
  1. 1.Sam Anderson:The dubious hypnotizing power of exploding whales, ‘Chocolate Rain,’ and ‘Lazy Sunday.’
  2. 2.Sam Anderson:Let me start with a knowing, discourse-exploding meta-statement.
  3. 3.Virginia Heffernan:Is the virus metaphor misleading, and ripe for retirement?
  4. 4.Charlie Todd:I was horrified when I got forwarded the first mob project e-mail.
  5. 5.Anil Dash:Memes are like pop music, not indie rock: It's good if lots of people like them.
  6. 6.David Rees:A PowerPoint Analysis by an Internet Has-Been
  7. 7.Charlie Todd:A big misconception with the term 'viral video' is that you can go 'make one.'
  8. 8.Sam Anderson:The Viral-Video Graph (Beta)
  9. 9.Virginia Heffernan:The movement of ideas is actually a supremely odd subject for this writer, who evidently chose it because he’s a cynic.
  10. 10.Anil Dash:Ideas and memes that go viral do so because they make us happy.
  11. 11.David Rees:If Twitter had saturated Iraq by March 2003, would anything have changed?
  12. 12.Sam Anderson:Farewell to the And Then There’s This Reading Room.
Sam Anderson
"Let me start with a knowing, discourse-exploding meta-statement."
06/15/09 at 15:37

Let me start with the kind of knowing, discourse-exploding meta-statement that Wasik seems to both abhor and be addicted to.

I think New York Magazine is the perfect venue for this discussion: It embodies an attitude that Wasik says defines 21st-century viral culture—what he calls the media mind: i.e., not just your basic pre-web understanding of what happens to be, at any given moment, cool and culturally relevant, but a self-conscious meta-understanding of the inner workings of the very structures of “cool” and “cultural relevance.” The media mind is like pop culture pumped up on grad school: We don’t just watch Lost these days, we very carefully watch ourselves watching Lost—we do close readings of every episode, structuralist breakdowns of its narrative arcs, and anxiety-of-influence checks against predecessors like Twin Peaks and The Prisoner. We plot our responses on charticles: the Approval Matrix and the Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations. Then web readers watch us watching ourselves watching, close-read our close readings, chart our charticles, etc., etc. (It seems fitting that New York Magazine was, according to Wasik, the first media outlet to request an interview when he started doing Flash Mobs.)

I think I speak on behalf of the entire media mind, then, when I say that I mostly really enjoyed Wasik’s book. He’s an indisputably intelligent guy, a good writer, often very funny, and he’s done more original thinking on this subject than anyone else I’ve read. Also, he makes excellent charts and graphs, like that one where he compares Malcolm Gladwell’s view of the world to Orwell’s 1984 dystopia.

One thing, though, and in retrospect kind of a large thing, kept bothering me as I read: Wasik’s persona, and in particular its vexed relationship to viral culture. On the one hand, he comes across as your typical high-culture magazine analyst: ironic, amused, detached, knowing, occasionally condescending. On the other hand, he goes to incredible lengths, many times, to establish himself as a dominant player in the viral game. He clearly put a ton of work into his Flash Mobs, which were all ingeniously planned down to the smallest detail, as well as into his funny “Right-Wing New York Times,” which went on to win a hotly contested viral-media contest at the Huffington Post. And yet, he talks about both as if they were experiments that he just slapped together one day out of boredom and pure intellectual curiosity. He’s never willing to admit or explore whatever real human pleasure he gets from being part of the mob. It feels like he’s trying to earn two incompatible kinds of hip credit at the same time: the cred of being a world-class viral-meme engineer and the cred of being totally above it all.

I kept waiting for him to say, “Why does this viral stuff get under my skin so deeply? And yet why am I also apparently addicted to it?” I wanted his book to be more like one of my favorite books from the last couple of years, Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, in which Wilson tackles not only the cultural problem of Céline Dion but also, very personally and honestly, his own complex relationship to that problem—the ethics of his musical taste, and whether his knee-jerk hatred of Céline comes down, in the end, to snobbery and revulsion at “the stink of democracy.” I wanted Wasik to get into that territory, too, but he never really did. (I’ll be curious to know if you guys read Wasik’s persona like I did, or if I’m just making all of this up in a media-mind–fueled attempt to sound clever and impressive and counterintuitive.)

I guess it’s so easy to be against viral culture—the word itself always makes me think of pandemics and STDs. (“Virus” comes from the Latin for “poisonous slime.”) But what about its legitimate human pleasures? Charlie, when you convince hundreds of people to ride the subway without pants, does this lead to some kind of actual, non-shameful, positive emotion like social joy or empowerment, or is it all about buzz and scene and cynical post-humanist ennui?

Virginia, does your obsessive watching of YouTube videos leave you feeling empty and manipulated, or does it all eventually congeal into something meaningful?