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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
"Farewell to the And Then There’s This Reading Room."
06/23/09 at 18:38

This conversation was so big and deep and multidimensional that it’s hard to know exactly how to end it. Our core insights, I think, were:

• Wasik is smart but kind of irritating.
• “Viral” is probably the wrong metaphor.
• Memes exist to make us ass-shakingly happy.
• We could use a canon of viral culture.
• And (most important for generating future Google traffic) Billy Joel is the worst singer of all time and (for good measure) Kobe Bryant is horrendously overrated and (this one’s just true) Obama has no birth certificate.

Maybe it’s fitting to end with Iran. Per David’s recommendation, I went over to Andrew Sullivan’s blog to check out the situation, and what I found instead was this video of an American kid “freaking out” because his mom allegedly canceled his World of Warcraft subscription. It strikes me as a little parable of 21st-century American consciousness that I immediately (1) put Iran out of my mind and watched the video, then (2) got worked up because it triggered the authenticity/irony alarms nestled deep (Virginia!) in my testosterone glands and made all of the Y chromosomes in my chest hair scream BAD BAD MISUSE OF INTERNET CULTURE THIS INJUSTICE MUST BE STOPPED!!! (Seriously, the fakeness of that video cannot be allowed to stand.)

But Iran. I think there probably is a bit of American self-satisfaction in the news coverage of Twitter and YouTube and Google Maps as tools of the revolution—a sense of pride that all of our cute little narcissistic First World playtoys, about which so many of us have complicated self-loathing feelings, have now proven to be indisputably useful on a world-historical stage. Iran is the opposite of Flash Mobs: It’s actual mobs using technology to gather for an actual reason. And the self-satisfied patriot deep in my heart does find it kind of inspiring that our bs meme-making tools are enabling people in real danger to do real political work. I feel almost authentic by proxy. I agree, David, that cell-phone video doesn’t allow us to parse exactly what’s going on on the proverbial ground, but then again it’s not supposed to: It’s just supposed to show us total chaos to refute the official government line that everything’s fine.

By the way, does the horrifying video of Neda getting shot on the street in Tehran qualify as viral? If so, that’s a pretty powerful example of viral culture that doesn’t make people happy.

I’m going to stop there and thank you all, very much, for your devoted service to the Reading Room. I hereby release you to go read Persian tweets and wait breathlessly for “Auto-Tune the News 6,” to which I feel confident we will all shake our asses with previously unimaginable levels of uncritical joy.