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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
"Ideas and memes that go viral do so because they make us happy."
06/22/09 at 10:45

I think Virginia gets to the heart of the tension we're all facing with regard to Wasik's attitude about memes: Memes want to live! Though I am not presently a woman, I, too, hope that my Heart Will Go On, and maybe that's why I wanted to strongly advocate for the idea of memes as pop music: There are some great summer songs you just never get tired of. I know AutoTune is supposed to be dead, because both Jay-Z and hip-hop blogs told me so, but AutoTune the News demonstrates that memes will live and die on their own merits, without regard to how anyone assesses them.

That gets to the heart of the question about why male writers think so passionately and complexly about whether something like a band or a song is ironic or authentic or produced by the right or wrong people. It's because boys never saw a movie without imagining themselves in the lead role. Because meme-making is (at least ostensibly) a playground that anybody can participate in, anytime someone succeeds in making a meme, a boy's response is either "I could do that" or "Sure, that person did that, but it doesn't count, because of [X]." So parsing for the One True Explanation of a meme's success makes it possible to see which of those two conclusions is the appropriate response to choose.

Memes don't care if we overthinkers have judged them to be cool or not; they live their own lives for the sheer joy of it. That's the truth that Wasik's (or our own) cynicism won't concede: Memes are fun. The driving motivation behind the spread of most memes, and the audience-participation of remixing and recontextualizing them, is that showing up for the party is a delight in itself. And not the insufferable ironic enjoyment we're supposed to have online, but the sincere, uncomplicated appreciation of the true believer. The meme's unquestioning advocate isn't a Karl Rove or Steve Jobs type, it's your aunt who enthusiastically forwards you something without regard to its newness, novelty, provenance, or trajectory towards memehood. She just likes it.

With that in mind, I think the embedded instructions about what it takes to make a video viral are actually terrible advice. While they might succeed in getting a lot of people to watch something, what they won't achieve is making something that people love to participate in. Call me an idealist, or an evangelical, but perhaps I'm not willing to concede the art of meme-making to the soulless or the cynical because it's too good a thing, too powerful a thing, too fun a thing to be owned by those who follow the steps on a checklist. And besides, any one of us can think of a viral video that breaks some or all of the rules laid out for viral success.

And let's take it outside of the realm of videos. The web, for example, is the fastest and most fertile incubator for new language and neologisms that's ever existed. From the whimsical grammar of LOLcats to political bloggers racing to coin terminology for every action inside the Beltway. Photoshop went from noun to verb owing to the efforts of the web's meme-makers. Mash-ups wouldn't have become a mainstream musical trend without their meme-perfect mix of being irresistible and completely disposable.

If we're truly going to ponder "How Stories Live and Die in a Viral Culture," we have to think of why stories live and die in a viral culture. I submit that, for the most part, ideas and memes that go viral do so because they make us happy. And, as with most forms of happiness, if we take the thing apart to see how it works, we might never quite get the toy back together again. I'm content to just enjoy them, and sometimes make them, and appreciate others who make them, without having to know exactly how the whole magical machine works.