Because of my interest in viral videos and political discourse, I was incredibly curious to read Bill Wasik’s And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, a book that promises to diagnose the transformation of narrative in the age of viral media and to address the implications of those changes for public culture. Wasik, who was responsible for the creation of flash mobs, a briefly popular phenomenon in which urban hipsters would briefly show up in a designated public space, perform a mundane activity, and quickly disperse, proves to be an effective observer of a number of viral phenomena and even offers–in a number of places–a useful vocabulary for talking about these transformations. Wasik reads these changes as having the potential to damage political discourse, as journalists (and audiences) clamour to find the next big thing. In this context, I am less convinced by Wasik’s arguments about the implications of these new media; however, for those of us concerned about the effect of social media on political and entertainment culture, Wasik’s arguments (which stand, in part, as a useful corrective to Malcolm Gladwell’s bengin celebrations of viral “tipping points“) are worth addressing.
Wasik’s most useful contribution is by creating the concept of the “nanostory,” in which a story, whether a political narrative, a rock band, or a funny video, briefly becomes immensely popular (as measured through page views, blog mentions, etc) before fading quickly into obscurity. These “transient bursts of attention” (7), Wasik argues, become enticing, even addictive, in a new media climate (here Wasik draws on his own experience of trying to create viral content for The Huffington Post’s Contagious Festival, a monthly competition organized by Jonah Peretti (93). And although I’d imagine that creating a successful meme or viral video could be enticing, Wasik is a little less clear when it comes to the pleasure of consuming such material, of explaining why people watch (and share) viral content.
Related to this desire for notoriety, Wasik identifies four traits common to viral culture: speed, shamelessness, duration, and sophistication. It’s worth noting that two of these definitional terms have to do with time. Throughout the book, Wasik expresses his “desperate desire to stop Internet time” (71), worries about “the dilemma of disposability” (183), or describes his concern about what Linda Stone calls the “continuous partial attention” (cited in Wasik, 41) that characterizes our multitasking, distracted, viral culture. As I read these passages, I found myself thinking about Walter Benjamin’s arguments about the fragmentation of attention in early 20th century culture and wondered whether this characterization of internet culture as distracting is significantly different than past forms of entertainment and communication (or how one would measure such a thing). Whether it’s true or not that we have access to more “inputs” isn’t quite clear to me (186), though it’s probably fair to say that the nature of that information has changed.
However, Wasik is much more persuasive when he traces the sophistication of many of the people who produce and consume viral media. In some of my own work (forthcoming here and cited above), I have discussed how skilled producers of viral videos use intertetual cues, references to films, TV shows, and music, to introduce compelling commentary on political culture. As Wasik observes, the Internet has become a site for countless forms of “cultural experimentation,” and savvy users are attentive to the ways in which viral media spreads. In addition, in the best cases, meme-makers such as Lee Stranahan and Andy Cobb (my examples) illustrate the ways in which the internet democratizes “cultural monitoring” (14).
More often than not, however, Wasik emphasizes the ways in which viral media, enabled not only by blogs but also by a voracious 24-hour news cycle (and, on cable news, a blurring of the line between news and entertainment), often deal with “irrelevant foibles” (146) or “narratives that the facts cannot support” (151). Wasik is right to be concerned about these issues, as only a quick glance at the health care debate indicates. Days that could have been used to focus on creating meaningful reform were instead spent engaging rumors about death panels, ratined care, and other non sequitirs (not to mention BS rumors about Obama’s citizenship). Although the “deathers” may no longer distract us, they dominated the news cycle, and the (manufactured) controversy derailed the legislative process and gave cover to those who were opposed to the public option. And yet it’s impossible for me to see these nanostories as entirely frivolous or meaningless. At the very least, it becomes crucial to “fight the smears” (182), if only to avoid the fate suffered by John Kerry uring the 2004 election. But, in other circumstances, the “self-awareness” of viral media can produce the positive effect that we become more sophisticated viewers of the media we consume (and produce). And, in the best cases, viral texts can provide sincere dialogue about important issues (I’d argue that the circulation of the George Allen “macaca” video did this, if only because it reminded us of how the political game has changed) or at least entertain us. And yet, despite these reservations, I am generally persuaded by most of Wasik’s claims: short-lived, briefly popular, generally disposable videos have become a newly dominant genre and that, no matter what, these videos constitute a new way of talking about or narrating our daily lives.
Finally, although I have emphasized Wasik’s treatment of how nanostories affect politics, it’s worth noting that he also examines the role of nanostories in shaping indie rock culture, specifically focusing on how the desire to discover the Next Great Band can result in a kind of churn that pushes other more established bands to the side. Here, Wasik offers an insightful reading of the role of KEXP (still my favorite radio station on the planet) in serving as tastemakers for any number of indie bands. I think there may be some useful points here in thinking about how movie tastes are constucted online as well, especially as online reiewers become more prominent and as DIY filmmakers seek out reviews for their films. Wasik’s book is an especially valuable contribution to the literature on viral media, in part because he treats it with some skepticism, especially when it comes to the ways in which viral media and nanostories are (often) implicated in the logic of the market and the transoformation of social relationships into marketing opportunities. Wasik, more than most popular cultural critics, recognizes that the internet is not only a “meme-making machine” (81); it’s also a machine for organizing social, political, and economic relationships and that we need to engage with these new narrative modes in responsible and sustainable ways.