and Then There’s This: Audio Book Review

February 13, 2012

In the opening of his audio book And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in a Viral Culture, Bill Wasik states that we are currently in the midst of a viral culture, and that the sudden success so many people dream of is based on four key criteria: speed, shamelessness, duration, and sophistication. The first three are pretty self-explanatory. The internet provides a vehicle for rapid information dissemination. And in order to grab the collective attention, one must shamelessly seek attention, positive or negative. Of course, any “nanostory”, as Wasik calls these viral internet sensations, is by definition short-lived. But what truly differentiates this form of success from others (say, reality TV) is the sophistication it demands, from those who perpetuate it and those that participate and interact. According to Wasik, all of these factors contribute to what he calls the “media mind”. And it is the study of this concept that provides the impetus for his audio book.

The question inherent in this study of the growth of internet culture and the media mind is where it will ultimately lead. And to that end, Wasik devised several social media experiments, which he details for the listener’s pleasure. He starts off innocently enough by forwarding an email to several friends (which he originally sent to himself from an anonymous email address) urging them to join an “inexplicable mob” in New York City’s Times Square, on a certain date and time, and for a certain duration, at which time they would disband as quickly and inexplicably as they had arrived. Why would the author do such a thing? Simply because he could, as it turns out. He just wanted to prove how easy it would be to form, with little thought or effort, a flash-in-the-pan internet sensation.

His effort here really seems to be an exploration of the viral culture, including how quickly fads (nanostories) come and go, the way in which people participate (willingly or not), and how businesses and other forms of media are spending millions to understand something that much of the population has already figured out for free; that overnight success can be had without half trying if you can simply tap into the quickly-changing pulse of pop culture in the online arena. He focuses on six experiments that he conducts with varying results, sometimes proving his instincts correct, but more often surprising himself and his listeners. He reports from music festival South by Southwest, following the bands that perform there and their efforts to promote themselves. He creates a blog that collects and regurgitates political smear campaigns from other blogs. He enters a web contest that his is reporting on it. And these are just a few of his interesting exploits.

The argument Wasik makes, which few others have ventured to voice, is that this culture in which literally anyone can engage inĀ personal web hosting, blogging, or viral videos (for example) to promote oneself, creating a following of massive proportions based not on fame or professional merit of any kind, is valid. In many cases people even get sucked into this whirlwind unintentionally and against their will. But the point is that our culture is no longer informed solely by those media conglomerates that once held the reins on the public attention. Now we can all participate and even contribute to “the conversation” in relevant (if not exactly critical) ways. In short, we are all part of the viral culture, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

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