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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.
Virginia Heffernan
"Is the virus metaphor misleading, and ripe for retirement?"
06/16/09 at 14:16

Hello everyone—

Sam, yes, I think there’s a persona problem in this book. Is Wasik besotted with the culture he writes about, like a Chuck Klosterman figure, or aloof from it, like a Lee Siegel? A more vital protagonist than the one Wasik creates might not have found himself betwixt and between, wrestling with the shopworn problems of irony and engagement. Our Viral Hero, in fact, could have blazed a welcome new path through popular culture. But Wasik abstains from hard-core character creation, like the bored dabbler he is at pains to show us he is. (He strenuously identifies with Dickens’s Lady Dedlock, to whom “nothing is new … under the worn-out heavens.” An intellectually comatose aristocrat who disdains culture: Is this a suicide choice in role model for a media critic?)

Off the bat Wasik, who has an off-key Harper’s style that combines weird pomp (“a plea to future historians”), hammed-up ennui (“I often find myself in sympathy [with Lady Dedlock]”), and hipster flotsam (charts), seems like a very un-disarming writer.

In response, my immune system flared. Particular style tics bring out the worst in a reader. After enough pomp and a few malapropisms (“this decade malingers on”; “ought” for “aught”), I turned flat-out defensive. I didn’t want to accept one word Wasik wrote because I feared doing so would land me in company with someone who comes off like a tool.

(Full disclosure and personal apology: I worked with Wasik years ago at Harper’s and he’s not like this in person!)

But style allergies alone are no reason for a level-headed reader seeking enlightenment to reject an argument. Katha Pollitt can be hard to love, and she’s right a lot. Carl Wilson, in the book about taste that Sam likes and I should read, was right to wonder whether his balkiness about Céline Dion was not dispassionate taste but its own kind of scary sophistry.

So maybe I flinch at And Then There’s This, which is aggravating to read, because it speaks a truth that frightens me. I will try to bear this in mind, but I’m only human.

Wasik’s genealogy of the concept of the cultural virus is genuinely enlightening. The whole short, weird book may be worth the moment where he locates the passage in Richard Dawkins’s 1976 book The Selfish Gene when Dawkins coined the word “meme.” Wasik points out that Dawkins needs—for his evolutionary-psychological sand castle, presumably—memes to work like genes. So he likens cultural transmission to genetic transmission. But like all evolutionary psychology fanatics (sooner or later), Dawkins gets into a small knot of frustration at how slowly natural selection works, so he skips out on the genetics analogy to one with some zip to it: epidemiology. Viruses! They happen fast, like in seconds, and you don’t need months of gestation and centuries of generations to get some drama. Just a split second without Purell.

Thus the idea of the virus as the dominant metaphor for the way ideas move, as opposed to the more arduous Darwin stuff, triumphed. Wasik is really, really shrewd to point this out, and now I get why not so long ago people used to wear themselves out with Darwinian just-so stories—cavemen feared reproductive ruin so we watch Susan Boyle videos—and then they started to take the Dawkins rhetorical leap and shorthand it, as they have for a few years now, and say that we watch Susan Boyle videos because other people do. The same reason we have strep.

So I see why virology is metaphorically convenient, but as a YouTube obsessive I’ve also been curious about a particular inadequacy in the analogical system. My problem with the analogy might seem trivial, but I think it bears on our understanding of Wasik’s justly celebrated Flash Mobs. Here goes.

There was a short period when playable video would actually show up in the text of an e-mail. I remember seeing a Saturday Night Live fake ad for a vibrator this way; a friend of my mother’s grabbed it from somewhere——and sent it around, chain-letter–style, to her risqué pals and their daughters. But very, very soon I started getting links in e-mail messages instead of videos. I also started following those links to a central meeting place on the web, often YouTube.

Now I understand how the chain-letter thing is vaguely viral: One person who is “infected” with certain information touches you, via e-mail, with that information and then you’re infected. But I don’t get how accepting a widely disseminated invitation to go somewhere—to a website, to YouTube, to Toys “R” Us—is like getting a virus. Viruses seem so yours, don’t they, when you have them, and you’re very much the host, even if your physiological party’s been crashed. By contrast, getting invited somewhere, willingly accepting the invitation, and joining a gathering makes you a guest and makes the whole experience, to my mind, not very viruslike.

I see how the invitations to the Flash Mobs were spread person-to-person and not delivered en masse or via loudspeaker, and that’s maybe a little like strep, but I don’t see how people can be said to have “come down with” the Flash Mob, when in fact they synched their watches and got slips of paper and went out to it, all of which seems very enterprising and game and not like virus-getting, which takes no enterprise at all. This distinction strikes me as centrally important to online culture because, to my mind, we now far too infrequently hand stuff around from person to person like a virus. Instead, over and over, we send people, even people we purport to love, to the infernal World Wide Web, to a mobbed and ad-studded commercial space—yes, I’m looking at you, Facebook, and don’t get me started, Evite—in order to so much as say what’s up.

I say this as someone who years ago got my share of “MOB#1” and “MOB#2” e-mails and thought, that seems really weird and interesting, but as with Wigstock and MoMA exhibits, I lazily never went to any Flash Mobs. Instead I probably stayed home and got the actual flu.

And, from Wasik’s accounts of his Mob days, it seems clear I missed out. But when I meet security-minded people these days who use the Internet but minimize their time on the web, I don’t think they’re missing out; I think they’re onto something. In fact, the whole non-viral concept of “I’ll meet you on the web, and only on the web” seems to me the real, profound infrastructural way—leaving aside whether an ad man made “Yes We Can” or Nike staged Ronaldinho’s “Touch of Gold”—that the word “viral” is used to pretend that culture is so idiosyncratic and personal now, where it may actually be more fascinatingly uniform than ever. Anyone with recent viral experience care to tell me I’m splitting hairs? Or is the virus metaphor misleading—and ripe for retirement?