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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.
David Rees
"If Twitter had saturated Iraq by March 2003, would anything have changed?"
06/22/09 at 17:02

Guys, we have achieved real-world relevance! Our book-club debate has leaped off the screen and into the meatspace! (Hackers' term for "non-cyberspace.") One of my friends grabbed video (bad quality) of Bill Wasik at a reading in Santa Cruz this weekend, where someone asked him about our discussion of And Then There's This, and Anil's criticisms in particular. I have to say, the expression on Wasik's face at 1:05 made me LOL. The video is here; thanks to my buddy R.A.

WHICH SEX AND THE CITY GIRL ARE YOU? I think I'm the redheaded one, because she seems like the type of person who would want to chart all the different types of viral phenomena—but isn't above getting all misty-eyed with pleasure when things like this come along. I AM STUPEFIED BY HOW MUCH ASS THIS KICKS. (And, for what it's worth, I think Wasik is also a fan of these guys' work.)

To add to Anil's response to Virginia's question, "Why do guys always need to put everything in boxes and feel guilty about liking Billy Joel?" I would say that the premise of the question is flawed, because no guy likes Billy Joel, because Billy Joel's brand of Long Island divorce-rock is fundamentally incapable of being enjoyed. (NOTE: The only point of this paragraph is to start a flame war with Billy Joel fans to drive up the traffic so the Viral Factory will pay us to mention Axe Body Spray, now available in ten marvelous odors.)

Seriously, though, IANAL but I think this discussion has assumed the existence of two opposing ways of experiencing viral culture:

1. THE WASIK WAY, where you're too cynical to admit to (or even feel?) goose bumps and/or mad LOLZ and you're just interested in the mechanics of memes;

2. THE ANIL DASH ASS-SHAKING MODE, where you stare wide-eyed at YouTube and wait for the next thing that makes you shout from the rooftop or take off your pants on the subway.

But of course this is reductive and straw-mannish, right? I don't think analyzing viral videos in terms of "authenticity versus artifice" or "deliberately versus accidentally viral" or whatever means you can't also enjoy them—any more than analyzing a Bach cello suite in terms of its melodic structure or historical context or cello-osity means you can't also have an emotional response to it. Heck, I bet the people who get the most out of a Bach cello piece are precisely the people who know the most about it, right? Because they're like, "Goddamn, it's so awesome how he shifts from F-minor to A-sharp-major right there, when the cello's going dee-do-do-dee-do." They hear things we don't; they appreciate some hidden architecture that the rest of us stumble happily through. Basically, I'm saying, I've seen things in "Auto-Tune the News" you people wouldn't believe.

WHICH CRITICALLY REVILED ART FORM ARE YOU? Maybe the issue is that viral culture has no tradition of close readings and aesthetic analyses. Meanwhile, the sense that most viral junk is ephemeral and fleeting and that's exactly why it's so awesome leans heavily against investing too much time in cracking it open.

I guess I'm wondering if viral videos are where comic books were, before the international cabal of graphic novelists began their 30-year plan to hector and harp on everyone about how Aquaman is as deep and profound as The Great Gatsby, or how a graphic novel can be as plodding and "serious" as any other kind of book.

Basically, I wish And Then There's This had been the first-ever attempt to seriously curate a viral cultural canon. (Or has someone already published that book?) Because do you know what would be awesome about that canon? It would be, like, twenty times more diverse and insane than any other cultural canon on the block.

You know what? Maybe I'll write that book. And I will exclude certain videos just because I don't like them. "Numa Numa," hello? WTF is up with that? That's not going in the canon. And someday Oberlin College will have an upstart radical viral-culture department that will reclaim "Numa Numa" and try to situate it in the canon and then they'll sponsor a debate on campus and I'll show up in my ascot and my walker and I'll have dribble coming off my mouth, saying, "There was nothing special about 'Numa Numa,' what's wrong with you hippies? If we let in 'Numa Numa,' you have to let in every goofy lip-synch, where are your standards?" Like what's-his-name at Yale, Allan Bloom? The one who's always like, "We're doomed, we're doomed, nobody's reading Greek plays from 20,000 years ago!"

WHICH IRANIAN MARTYR ARE YOU? I just realized: We haven't really talked about the biggest Internet phenomenon of the summer: the revolution/uprising/protests in Iran, either as a viral phenomenon (e.g. the meme) OR just an example of how the tools that give us “Chocolate Rain” also give us immediate connection to students getting beat up.

I'm increasingly skeptical of how much benefit Twitter and other social networking sites are to the protesters—or (especially) to us. How many of us who sit around saying, "Yeah, Twitter's amazing, it's really helping me get a feel for the situation on the ground in Iran" could actually de-clutter our minds and give an accurate assessment of the situation on the ground in Iran? Because I've been reading Andrew Sullivan's blog for a week and I have no clue. (Although it has renewed my faith in his fathomless self-regard.) Are we holding up Twitter as this essential element of the Iran "revolution" because it's American-made? (Cold comfort to those who would have us bomb Iran, but perhaps born of the same impulse? Something about "America must be essential to anything good that happens in Iran.") Or maybe we're loving Twitter vis-à-vis Iran because it's great at whipping us into a frenzy and enabling one of the Internet's guilty pleasures: debilitating rage that we can seek or avoid on our own terms. How much are we LEARNING versus how much are we FEELING? And if we're feeling more than we're learning (which is typical of most viral hits, and is often appropriate) ... to what end?

I can't help but wonder: If Twitter had saturated Iraq by March 2003, would anything have changed? If the Rwandan genocide had started playing itself out on YouTube, would there have been more pressure to end it? Or are we engaging in techno-utopianism, because building amazing technological systems happens to be what we're good at these days?

Now I'm afraid I'm so far away from the topic at hand that the light from the reading room will take ten years to reach me, so I'd better stop.

Thanks for the discussion! "See you on the meme-scape ... ROTFLMAO for life."

P.S. Does anyone know of a viral smash that worked because it made people SAD or MELANCHOLY rather than HAPPY?