Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

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
"The movement of ideas is actually a supremely odd subject for this writer, who evidently chose it because he’s a cynic."
06/19/09 at 16:38

This video, more than anything else I’ve seen or read, suggests what it takes to make a video viral. The specifics are not all right anymore, but it would be easy to update.

I’m finding it hard to put this subject to rest. I remember I never wanted the O.J. trial to end. The pathology’s gotten worse: Now I apparently don’t want any viral culture to end, and this conversation prolongs at least some of it. So thank you, Sam, Charlie, Anil, and David, for the opportunity to drag out certain phenomena—“Chocolate Rain,” “Leave Britney Alone”—that get discussed mostly in the context of how much people want them to go away.

I also need to quickly admit that I don’t understand why male writers think so passionately and complexly about whether something like a band or song is ironic or authentic or produced by the right or wrong people. I have a deal to offer someone. I will do my best to explain any single womany thing (like Sandra Tsing-Loh’s Atlantic divorce article or dealer’s choice of any female fertility/anorexia meditation) to the first man who tells me why male writers dwell on What do I do with the part of me that likes Billy Joel and what if I don’t like Godspeed Ye Black Emperor enough, etc. David Rees—not to single you out—can you help me out here?

I loved Charlie’s explanation of the Avril Lavigne video hit (music videos on YouTube = chance to hear music free). I should have known that, but didn’t. Anil’s dance-floor thing clicked, too: He wants a beat. Beats have primitive, eternal appeal. What’s all this about meme-making by gaming Digg again?

Richard Rorty mentioned memes in a lecture once, in the course of a talk about colonialism. The meme he mentioned was the shape of a bicycle in Congo. He was talking about the extinction of cultural autonomy—colonized peoples whose cultures and languages had been crushed by imperialists—in favor of cultural heterogeneity and hybridization. Unsentimentally, he asked what was so wrong about a red bicycle in Congo? Or a Coke bottle, or a McDonald’s, even? Or democracy or sluttiness or Western Meme No. 453? History works like this, he said: One army defeats another, and in march its genes and memes. He said there’s also a tautology latent in “the survival of the fittest” that has nothing to do with bad armies and good citizens. It’s that we don’t really have a good definition of “fittest.” We really just know, and it lines up irrefutably in our meager human language here: whatever survives, survives. That was probably fifteen years ago, and Rorty was talking about armies and power, so he must have opted not to bother with the day’s bugbear: the slightly less bloody economic coercions of nineties “globalization,” especially as it was depicted at various protests and in The Baffler, etc.

Nor did Rorty, in talking about meme movement, bother with the spread of religions, the ingenious streamlining of Judaism (say) pulled off by Paul, who, in histories written by John Dominic Crossan and others, decided monotheism could spread with much less friction if it didn’t have circumcision and forbidding dietary obligations attached to it. Presto, Christianity. Can’t you see old Christianity spreading like dye on a History Channel map of the world? Was that viral? A religion of memes, not of genes. Spread far and wide by letters, lectures, sermons, conversions.

Origins—of this kind of discussion, if not of Western culture—came to mind when I was looking at Rees’s pre-Internet memes, like “step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.” I thought of portable, easily memorized rhymes, and that made me think of the gospels and chunks of language that blaze through history from Paul to Pope Pius XI to Appalachian snake handlers to AA to Celebrity Rehab.

The State Department just staged the Democracy Video Challenge to see who could make the best YouTube vid that ends the sentence “Democracy is…” (The winning one is from Zambia.) All the cant and refracted doggerel about democracy that sounds in these movies, some of which are well produced, could not be less sincere if this were a competition in Thailand to finish the sentence “Our beloved King is…” Come on! How do we come by these memes about something like “democracy”? Do the democracy memes crystallize identity for anyone anymore, even one bright lady in the State Department? At least “fake it till you make it” and the AA incantations still seem to help some people through their addictions.

While I was thinking about the content of religio-ideological belief I realized or remembered that some people—salesmen, advertisers, boycotters—hear these memes and don’t think about circumcision or Jesus or getting clean, but merely about dissemination techniques. They’re wondering about the printing press and pamphleteering and Delicious while other people brood on the shapes of the bicycles themselves and think: God, this weird bike is ruining the unspoiled, wheel-free green landscape, or Hey, this is really going to be a huge help, or I love this! Maybe I should sell these!

Wasik is one of the missionary/advertiser types who has convinced me that while he cares about whether and why the Strokes were cool, he is almost entirely indifferent to the use/uselessness or beauty/ugliness of the bike. He’s got ad copy and radio spots and in his head. He’s a dissemination buff. It took me a long time to get this, because usually the people like Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard or Steve Jobs or Karl Rove who are obsessed with meme-spreading are also obsessed with a certain meme. At their most deluded but also their most relaxed, they believe their thing spread not because they circulated samples or went door-to-door but because it was good and true.

Anyway, no surprise, but Wasik doesn’t care—and he’s not evangelical—because his main affect is boredom and he probably really hates evangelists. (His bone-deep mortification at the people shouting “Peace!” at his mob is almost touching.) And because he doesn’t have a particular meme to love and to peddle, he doesn’t really get far in his investigation of dissemination, because to follow it down its pigpaths you need some beliefs to sustain you while you sleep in the desert or choke on the gum of direct-mail stamps. You need to believe that you are sending not iodine down those channels you’re pioneering, but truth.

So I looked high and low in this book to find a meme Wasik cares about, something that must have propelled him through the dry questions answered by his charts. He says he was heartbroken when George Bush was elected, and elsewhere suggests he wanted to impeach him. So that’s a pretty strong if not entirely revolutionary view. Wasik also seems to like the geometry of at least one of his flash mobs, and he likes at least one “wistful, countrified” indie band. Structurally, I’d say he has an interesting preference for stopping things—grinding business at Toys "R" Us to a halt, calling a stop to the rise of an indie band, holding up the works here and there, stopping traffic, jamming the server, pulling off classical sabotage. He even seems as obsessed with breaking up his mobs as he is with convening them. And finally he relishes ending a nanostory he’s grown bored with—placing the period. Maybe then he can safely and privately turn elegiac—wistful, countrified. Maybe this is the true north for him.

I see a character here, finally. If I want every fad to last (because as a woman I Believe That the Heart Will Go On), Wasik just says enough. The movement of ideas is actually a supremely odd subject for this writer, who evidently chose it because he’s a cynic—i.e., he doesn’t care about the content of stories, only how stories are packaged and sold—only to find that the metastory demanded a measure of enthusiasm, too. But you won’t find enthusiasm or a beat or much of a pulse here. Wasik doesn’t bother to update his Bush reference, for example, to suggest that he’s been succeeded. I refuse to keep up with anything!

Finally, Wasik exhorts readers to “partially unplug”—an awesomely weak injunction that suggests a new model of fantasy electricity that’s, come to think of it, very exciting. (I kind of think the Kindle uses it, but that’s another story.) What Wasik wants is maybe a space between on and off, alive and dead. That might not be totally illuminating as a polemic, but—as an aesthetic—it’s pretty cool.