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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.
Anil Dash
"Memes are like pop music, not indie rock: It's good if lots of people like them."
06/17/09 at 02:26

Hey, wait: Isn't this shit supposed to be fun?

Wasik is a good writer. Some turns of phrase, and many of the infographics in the book, are delightfully clever. But there's a sheer dreadful weightiness to his discussion of meme-making, and a complete detachment from the joy of making something truly viral when reading And Then There's This. I suspect it's no small coincidence that the center of the book dwells so long on the minutiae and machinations of the indie-rock scene, because that "screw dancing, let's overthink this!" ethos seems to pervade his look at the Media Mind.

Me? I like music that makes me shake my ass. I like my memes to be fun, created by people who are enjoying what they do. That's pretty much what the web likes, too. Take Charlie's work—he is obviously, and visibly, as delighted and amused by what takes place in an Improv Everywhere event as any participant or observer. I've made a couple of memes like Wasik has, the sort of thing where you think, "Oh yeah, I kinda remember being sent that link a few years ago." But perhaps because I also have a day job, I haven't been burdened with trying to assign too much meaning to it. I don't want to be a Viral Media Expert—I just want to have fun. "It has a nice beat, and you can dance to it" is all that pop music aspires to be, and web memes are like pop music, not indie rock: It's a good thing if lots of people like them.

I suspect the need to claim or demonstrate expertise comes from having to face the fact that the thing you've created is completely disposable, and that its success was largely arbitrary. Worse, it's explicitly not meritocratic, and in fact is often sickeningly nepotistic. Would that first (let's be honest) unsuccessful attempt at "mobbing" a Claire's boutique have gotten any press or attention if Wasik wasn't a writer for a "serious" magazine? If it were a Claire's in Des Moines? If he weren't one degree away from the folks who create culture?

The only path that doesn't lead to overseriousness on this stuff is to embrace its disposability. When I wore a goatse T-shirt in the New York Times, I figured I was just making a silly (and somewhat coarse) joke for my friends. But because I'm loosely part of the same privileged media circles that Wasik is, it got taken seriously enough to be written up in The Long Tail. That doesn't mean I did something profound or that I'm a Viral Media Expert — it means that Chris Anderson is an exceptionally kind friend to mildly offensive jokes.

And that brings me to the worst feature of And Then There’s This: that goddamn spiked graph. I can't tell if it wants to evoke the Power Law graph that Clay Shirky popularized and Chris immortalized as The Long Tail, or if Wasik was a few thousand words short and decided to fill in every chapter with the same illustration. But the inclusion and re-inclusion of a simple chart showing that memes spike in popularity and then fade away is complete non-information, despite its insistent appearance throughout the book. It detracts from what would otherwise be a simply enjoyable and even insightful read and puts a condescending edge on an agreeable work.

I've already read the Gladwells and Orwells, the Black Swans with Long Tails, and I want Wasik to be comfortable that he's one of us, not one of them. Because they report on memes, but we live with the damn things, and it's a lot more fun out here on the dance floor.