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July 7, 2009, 9:22 a.m.

Bill Wasik’s new book: The view from atop the spike of viral culture

Three pages into his new book, Bill Wasik presents the first of several charts illustrating the “telltale spike” of viral culture on the Internet — that is, a dramatic burst of attention around one piece of content followed by interest that doesn’t so much taper as tumble. You know this spike well, even if you’ve never seen it: in visits to Michael Jackson’s Wikipedia page or Google searches for “swine flu.”

The intent of these charts — “Fig. 1.3 — Media References to Flash Mobs, by Week,” “Fig. 3.8 — The Spike (Again)” — isn’t just to describe the fickle nature of popularity on the web. Wasik argues that our very understanding of the spike is integral to how online content is produced and consumed: “They” — he means we — “are so acutely aware of how media narratives themselves operate, and of how their own behavior fits into these narratives, that their awareness feeds back almost immediately into their consumption itself.” Has anyone ever shared a “viral video” with you by describing it as such? Sure, right? All the time. I’ll click on anything if you tell me it’s popular.

The self-consciousness of viral culture is Wasik’s strongest point in And Then There’s This. He finds meta-awareness, for instance, in the most-emailed lists on news websites, which have become not just measures of popularity but grist for reporters to craft the ultimate viral article. In the video above, Wasik tells me, “I think there’s a way that the Internet lays bare the process of things becoming popular in a way that people kind of see and they analyze and they think about and they cotton to it.” On the Internet, everyone knows if your content is a dog.

In his book, Wasik visits creators of viral content — part of a “subculture of meme-makers,” he says — who seem ripped from a Don DeLillo novel. He observes that political news sites have increasingly adopted “insidery” names: Talking Points Memo, Politico, The Note. Their reporting, too, often focuses on the mechanics of politics, and Wasik would trace that back to the telltale spike: an attempt to climb aboard a “nanostory” — his coinage — on its way up. (It’s instructive to read the essay that Salon published upon the arrival of Slate in 1996, criticizing the site’s “meta-commentary, game-oriented, inside-baseball” approach to news. That was once a novelty.)

For news organizations, the implications of viral culture are fraught with moral questions of duty, purpose, and whether it’s OK to be (god forbid) popular. We talk more about those issues in subsequent videos, but my general perspective is this: Knowing what makes content popular online, having that meta-awareness, latching onto narratives developed by the crowd, attempting to manufacture virulence — those are essential duties of a news site, not something to be shied away from, as Wasik ends up arguing. But we’ll get to that. Today is just an introduction to his ideas. A transcript of the video is below.

Zach Seward: I guess should start by asking whether there’s anything we could do to this video to make it more viral.

Bill Wasik: [Laughter] Do you have any cute animals around?

Seward: [Laughter] Nudity? Would that also help?

Wasik: Well, sure there’s nudity. But, I mean, if you don’t want to go there, then there’s always really adorable animals.

Seward: Sure. But to that end, I guess then, there’s a — the theme running through your book is that it is, in fact, possible to create the quality of being viral, or at least to attempt to manufacture it. That it’s not necessarily a completely organic process. First, whether you agree with that notion or my reading of your book that way, but — well, is that a fair reading?

Wasik: I do agree with that. I mean, but in part it’s because making stuff that’s viral is really just about making stuff that causes conversations and that sort of hooks into social processes and why people talk to one another. So, on some level, it’s possible to engineer it — but on another level, the way you engineer it is just by doing the things that those of us who — on some level — that those of us who sort of, like, express ourselves for a living have always done, which is try to make stuff that people are interested in.

It’s somewhat more complicated than that. The technology does lead to certain aesthetic values or certain things being more, you know, more popular in an Internet age than they might have been in an offline age. But nevertheless, the basic principle still applies.

Seward: I guess then a crucial question is: Are we talking about something different than popularity? Is viral a distinct concept?

Wasik: From popular? Well, to me, what — when I think about viral, I think about not just the quantity of attention but the speed of it. You know, the sense that — it’s not that you accrue, you know, 10,000 fans or 2 million views over the course of two years. It’s that you do it more, like, over the course of two weeks or maybe two months.  

You know, that, to me, is — well, you know, it’s the thing about the Internet that’s got everybody kind of scratching their head and saying that this has changed the culture. It’s the fact that you can have these things come out of nowhere with no institutional backing and become incredibly ubiquitous within a very, very short period of time.

Seward: When — so you identify a few different elements: speed, you already mentioned. But you also talk about shamelessness, duration, sophistication. Talk about a few of those.

Wasik: Yeah, sure. Well, shamelessness — somewhat tongue in check, but I really think its true that, you know — the Internet values controversy, and you can go viral for being a complete jerk as well or perhaps even better than you can for being the kind of person who somebody would actually want to hang out with.

And similarly with your content. I mean, obviously you can make something so outrageous and that’s so — that people hate so much that it winds up becoming incredibly viral. Now, that, of course, that’s been true in an earlier era, too, you know. To me, the thing that’s really new about viral success is the speed, and, then, as you said, sophistication.  

And sophistication in a particular sort of way. You know, people are really aware of how popularity operates these days. You know, there’s this kind of meta quality to the way we think about success, to the way we think about popularity. I think the Internet encourages that in a lot of ways because of all of the data that it gives us, and also all of the ways we can see things spread through social networks. You know, so just the act of receiving an email from a friend and then — take Susan Boyle, this woman who became, who became this sort of overnight viral sensation. And, you know, when you received it from your friend and you looked at it and maybe it had 10,000 views. But then you see it two days later on the news, where it has 2,000,000 views. You have a sense that you saw the process in action. You get a sense for how it is that it happened.  

I think there’s a way that the Internet lays bare the process of things becoming popular in a way that people kind of see and they analyze and they think about and they cotton to it. And then, I also just think it’s true because we’ve been forced into a kind of sophistication by advertising and by, you know, 25 years or 50 years or 100 years, arguably, of mass media, where we’ve been played upon systematically by ads for so long that we develop a certain kind of consciousness of the way that things get sold, the way that things get popular. So I do think that there’s a sort of sophistication today that’s different.

POSTED     July 7, 2009, 9:22 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Lab Book Club: Viral culture
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