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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.
Charlie Todd
"I was horrified when I got forwarded the first mob project e-mail."
06/16/09 at 09:39

I obviously have a pretty personal connection to the source material here. I started Improv Everywhere in the summer of 2001 as a 22-year-old fresh out of college in need of a creative outlet. It started small, just a couple of college buddies playing good-natured pranks in bars, parks, and subway cars, but by the spring of 2003 it had grown quite a bit. I was just starting to stage larger-scale pranks (or "missions," as they are referred to on my website) that involved dozens of people. I maintained an ever-growing e-mail list that was the sole means of organizing our projects. I was horrified when I got forwarded the first mob project e-mail. All of my New York friends sent it to me, asking, "Hey, isn't this like that thing you do?" There were definitely huge similarities. As it started to get more attention and become a media craze, I remember worrying that Improv Everywhere would get lumped together with the Flash Mob fad.

I wasn't able to attend the first five mobs, because they were always scheduled in the early evenings when I had improv practice with my team at Upright Citizens Brigade. Mob No. 6 fell on an evening I had free, so I went with a buddy to Toys "R" Us and bowed before the animatronic dinosaur with hundreds of others. I remember liking the idea of that one more than some of the others because it was site-specific. It wasn't just doing something random in a random location (appearing at Claire's for no reason, for example). Wasik mentions that many thought the idea was "cute," but I thought it was clever. My only qualm with the event was the fact that there were probably more people documenting the mob than there were people participating. This includes mainstream media with huge TV cameras as well as photo bloggers. Very few people were actually participating in the moment without documenting their participation. As our culture gets more and more obsessed with life-casting every thing we do, I try to encourage participants in Improv Everywhere missions to leave their cameras at home and trust that my two or three official photographers will do a good job at documenting for us all.

The Mob Project came and went that summer, and I kept things going with IE. Over the years our projects have gotten larger and larger, though that has largely been a function of our popularity and not design. In 2002, I begged everyone I knew to come take their pants off on the subway with me. Six guys came out. This year, 1,200 people participated in New York and hundreds more rode pantsless in 21 other cities around the world. The prank was probably funnier with 6, but if 1,200 people want to come and experience the pantsless fun, then that's fun in a different way. To answer your question, Sam, yes it is a fun, positive experience for those who participate in the No Pants Subway Ride. People come back every year because it's fun to do, not because the ensuing video is going to get millions of views. It doesn't have anything to do with being a scenester. We often get the cynical "fucking hipster nonsense" Internet comment, but participants this year ranged in age from 5 to 70. High-school kids from the Bronx rode pantsless alongside 50-year-old lawyers. Were there some hip Williamsburg residents in the crowd? Sure, they like to have fun, too.

I would argue that many of the participants in the Mob Project had similar motivations. It's fun to get together with a large group of people and try something you've never done before. It was fun to walk into that Toys "R" Us knowing that in just a few minutes you'd be worshipping the dinosaur with hundreds of others. It was fun to silently disperse while watching the reactions of confused employees and customers. When "My Crowd" was published by Harper's three years later, I was surprised to see that Wasik didn't have the same point of view. He portrayed the whole project as a joke on those foolish enough to show up and play along. The "My Crowd" chapter in the book didn’t seem to be quite as critical of the participants as the original essay did. Either Wasik edited it a bit, or I'm not remembering it correctly (and it's only available with a paid subscription on the Harper's site). At any rate, I think Wasik is underselling the cleverness of his ideas and the sincerity of many of his participants. Creating a giant line around St. Patrick's Cathedral and pretending to be waiting for Strokes tickets is fucking hilarious. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that gag?

I must confess that I'm a little late to the party and am only through chapter one, but so far I'm enjoying it. While I may disagree with Wasik's assessment of Flash Mobs themselves, I think his analysis of the media is dead-on, and his charts documenting the rise and fall of any viral story are illuminating. That, to me, is what is most interesting about that summer. A simple idea became something the media obsessively had to cover. A bit of non-news was hugely important news, and when the story was getting stale, the media artificially changed the story. A craze became a backlash because a Times writer needed a new angle. Look at Susan Boyle's constantly changing narrative in the media just last month to see the same cycle. She's ugly! She's a star! She's angry! She's in the hospital! She's whatever we need her to be so we can keep talking about it!

See New York's feature on Improv Everywhere.