Wasik, Bill. 2009. And then there’s this: How stories live and die in viral cultures. London: Viking Penguin.
Wasik’s website (http://billwasik.com/, accessed March 28, 2011) states that he is an editor of WIRED magazine and has also edited the anthology Submersion Journalism. His main interest, one might say obsession, is with the way the Internet is being used to transmit information, particularly causes, whether bogus or real.
Wasik introduces his key concepts with a story about a top academic high school student, slated to go to Harvard, who is caught in serial plagiarism. Wasik points out that the story went online and quickly spiked to almost 60 mentions in the media and millions of on-line readers before its quick demise. He refers to this sudden birth and death of a story as a nanostory and decides to create one of his own. His main observation is that “A marginal genre only a few years ago, the intentional viral has become central as this decade malingers on” (p. 7).
The context for Wasik’s nanostory is the “viral culture” that he exploits. He sends out an e-mail inviting 63 friends and acquaintances to take part in a MOB at a particular location in NYC. The mob was an “inexplicable” group of people who were instructed to meet for ten minutes or less at a predetermined site for a fake scene that would attract an audience. There would be no purpose to the mob project except creating something out of nothing. The first Mob Project participants met in Manhattan to examine rugs in Macy’s department store and informed clerks that they were looking for a “love rug.” The story was taken up by blogs and was soon circulating on the Internet.
The logic behind the Mob Project was that at any given time in any city where culture is actively made (by all sorts of events) the media would quickly respond. Readers would want to know more about the sudden popularity of the event and would identify with future Mob scenes. The popularity would bear no relationship to merit and, according to Waskik, “it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene—meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work” (p. 23, emphasis in the original).
Other Mob Projects followed and “flash mobs” began to spread—each with a “meme”, defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” (p. 25 in Wasik, from Merriman-Webster dictionary). To make a mob scene matter, Wasik says that “it must be confined enough to make the mob seem grand, unassuming enough to make the mob seem absurd, well-trafficked enough to provide an audience for the mob’s visual shock…” (p. 115).
Wasik created eight primary MOB scenes and, in each, he points out that Internet and the viral culture represent a kind of invisible bandwagon effect, impressive for its speed and the “breeding ground” for nanostories. He also promoted a “sort of” Mob # 9, but it was due to his boredom—a theme repeated throughout the book.
Wasik moves from his own experiments to those of others. In Chapter three and four he presents examples of how blog gossip can be used to criticize, defame and publicize judges, rock bands, American fiction, festivals, politicians, and eventually even his own experiment with the New York Times.
Memes are ranked according to “collaboratively filtered” information sites, like Reddit, del.cio.us and Digg, each with engineering designed to drive viral seekers (and viral junkies) to a particular top-ranking Google site (a “Google bomb”). Wasik tells how it is done and how he has done it. He uses the drug metaphor and poses gambling addiction as a cousin to “Internet addiction disorder”, a condition that is said to affect some 2 percent of users worldwide (p. 91).
Wasik is irreverent (I hope he is not irrelevant, but am not sure) throughout the book. He finds himself “drawn to all online sensations, regardless of content, fascinated by how culture spreads, looking for rules and tricks to use ourselves” (p. 111). So any ethical concerns that can be found in the book are part of a meme.
It is no surprise that meme-making was (and is) excitedly adapted by marketing and political agencies. Wasik documents the former in Chapter 4 (Agent Zero) and the latter in Chapter 5 (Nanopoltics). The mysteries of the meme are outlined in a book written in 2000 called The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. Waskik says that “The extent to which this book has captivated the American audience can hardly be overstated” (p. 133).
What followed Gladwell’s contribution was word-of-mouth marketing, relying on a host of “friends” buzzing and making contacts on MySpace and other social networks. Wasik believes this kind of inside “secrecy” is similar to the membership in older and now almost extinct fraternal organizations, like the Odd Fellows, Elks, Moose and Masons.
In Chapter 5, Wasik points out that “The more we collect data, the more stories—micro and macro—we can tell about it, and the less we can expect those stories to remain valid in six months, let alone a year or decade.” In other words, too much data will lead to claiming trends where there are none because randomness is mistaken for order (p. 151). To demonstrate this point Waski constructed a political website called OppoDepot that provided dirt on political candidates. Again, there was a short and high spike of interest in each nanostory at the beginning, but followed almost immediately by a falloff. Readers tended to disregard data that ran against their opinions (called confirmation bias). Nanostories conspire “to erode what remains of reasonable political discourse in this country” (p. 165).
Wasik concludes his book with a number of observations: (1) a proliferation of nanostories tends to make them all seem unconvincing and neuter; (2) the curse of the nanostory is that the spike, followed by an abandonment results in a “viral blowup”; (3) the destructiveness of the Internet is that it manufactures nanostories with “little regard for their ultimate truth”; (4) we should cordon “off spaces in our lives away from information” so that we are less likely to fall prey to the stories; (5) we should rely on “time-shifting” that is delaying our reaction to a cultural product long enough that the hype surrounding it is less effective; (6) we should control our own contexts so that we can make careful and self-reflective choices on what we watch and consume.
Wasik’s book is a helpful summary about what is going on behind the scenes in the world of the Internet today: its pitfalls, exploitive information managers, You Tube mini-dramas, and the digital gossip that prevails. Wasik provides the results from a number of experiments to make the reader wary of info questionnaires, political ads, consumer marketing, and so on. But at the same time, he knows the Internet has positive potential, so he gives examples of them as well.
The book can be helpful reading for organizations that are bandwagon prone, following the lead of their culture. It therefore gave me pause as I thought of the incessant promotion of V2025, the reinvention buzz, all dramatized on our own SIL Insight network. On it we find warm party-line responses to administrative blogs, but rarely an opposing argument. There are, however, not millions of people who respond to the nanostories, but the kind hearted that invariably promote V2025. Subsidiaries of SIL, such as JAARS and The Seed Company, have their own nanostories that readers are expected to embrace. WBTUS, in particular, follows the same suit. If a bold soul questions one of them (as I have), there are several possible results: (1) someone may trump us with a “spiritual card,” like, “How can you question our leaders and how God is directing them?” (2) we can be stonewalled—no answer, no acknowledgement, probably just a sigh and a groan at the other end; (3) we can be brought into the loop, the inner circle, where we are then expected to adjust and revise our views.
Nevertheless, and as Wasik demonstrates, nanostories (even if illustrated with beautifully crafted Power Points) have features that often render them suspect. Perhaps a Mob #10 scene would draw together some of the inquisitors.
 For a review see http://www.wikisummaries.org/The_Tipping_Point (accessed March 30, 2011), which offers “readers a groundbreaking analysis of how trends are sparked and take hold.” Gladwell (quoted by Wasik, P. 135) says “The Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is—contrary to all our expectations—a certainty.”