Pilgrims or Progress?

A Harper's editor's stint as a cultural virologist

And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture | By Bill Wasik | Viking Press | $25.95, 208 pages

Without a doubt, Bill Wasik’s And Then There’s This is something of a pilgrimage. But readers intent on reaching the Celestial City will be sorely disappointed. The author, a senior editor at Harper’s, skips the sort of allegorical itinerary that so fascinated John Bunyan. Instead he picks his way through the thoroughfares and back alleys of viral culture, surveying its “various precincts… from politics and literature to marketing and music, in locales throughout the virtual world (blogs, chat rooms, MySpace, YouTube) and the real one (New York, Washington, Minneapolis, Santa Monica).” His goal is to see how ideas spread—particularly those that are designed to spread. To do so, Wasik has constructed and launched a few stories of his own, then followed their trajectories through the viral ether.

Following specific stories as they spread in a culture of data glut and microscopic attention spans feels rather like tracking individual tadpoles in a crowd of the little suckers. Their progress can be hard to assess without asking the rest to slow down, or clear out. Yet Wasik performs the job well, clinging tightly to each idea he chooses to investigate and clarifying the questions that drove his experiments in the first place. His 2003 “flash mob” project, for example, leads him to wonder whether a real-world crowd can illustrate, or even mimic, how an idea behaves online. His entry for the Huffington Post-sponsored Contagious Festival, which rewards websites that garner the most page views in a month, raises the question of whether there is truly a meme-making formula.

What most interests Wasik is the shape that viral contagion takes—whether it is triggered by a music video of rapping ostriches or an indictment of the Bush administration—and what that says about the nature of culture and communication. For the successful nanostory (which is what the author calls such flash-in-the-pan narratives), the trajectory is always about the same. There is a big, rapid spike, followed by the inexorable drop-off. (There are, handily, many graphic iterations of this spike-and-collapse throughout the book.) Wasik points out several reasons for this ubiquitous pattern. There is the media parasitism that promptly kills the phenomenon it attends to; the mercurial mindset of culture-makers who simply don’t aspire to permanence; and the increasing savviness among reader and consumers, who prefer to start trends rather than merely follow them.

As you might have already guessed, Wasik stops short of converting his readers to the cause of meme-making or nanostory-engineering. He does, however, dole out nuggets of wisdom picked up on the trail: “insiderness seemed to be its own reward,” or “contagious sites play on social relationships.” He delivers these axioms rather dispassionately, and sometimes it feels as though he’s begun brooding before he’s finished his point. But once in awhile, the author lightens up and speaks in a more impassioned voice.

One of these moments comes when he meets a fairly successful painter, Kurt Strahm, who had abandoned his canvases for the greener pastures of Web site engineering. Wasik reflects on the artist’s choice:

It was a mug’s game, these days, to spend months laboring over an art project, only to have it exhibited briefly in a gallery, perhaps purchased, but almost certainly soon forgotten. By contrast, a stripped-down, imperfectly realized project, or even just an idea for the project, can be disseminated, spread, appreciated in an instant; one can watch it spread online from mind to mind, see plaudits and criticisms spin out in real time; one can watch, indeed, its very abandonment, even as another idea has taken its place. The increase in pleasure is immense, and the chance of one’s work enduring decreases only a small amount, falling down from a thousandth of a percent, perhaps merely to zero.

As the author sees it, Strahm’s career switch is ultimately driven by an elementary human impulse: the desire to share ideas with a wider, more attentive audience.

As Wasik conducts his own experiments, he meets other people like Strahm, and concludes that their motives, too, are surprisingly simple. The desire for human connection. The desire to communicate. (Both, of course, are shadowed by the perennial corporate desire to harness those desires.) But while individual motivations may be very human, Wasik warns us that our cultural fixation on the nanostory is harming our capacity to see the big picture. He lights upon former Wall Street trader Nassim Taleb’s example of a fictional dentist who, “when he reads his stock reports less often, paradoxically becomes better informed.” Perhaps we too should take a zoomed-out approach to the hodgepodge of information confronting us every day, such that we see the spikes as gentle hills or even (if we dare zoom out so far) the merest wriggles on a flat line.

“When herded together, the extent to which [these stories] have overrun our culture becomes clear,” Wasik concludes. “We must learn how to neuter our nanostories, or at least to cut off their food supply.” He doesn’t say exactly how we should do so, but notes that we might “cordon off spaces in our lives away from information” and curtail “our obsession with short-term thinking and the ephemeral narratives that accompany it.” This is all rather vague, and the author might have spent more time fleshing out the practical implications for his readers.

Wasik calls And Then There’s This “a primer and a cautionary tale.” The irony is easy to grasp. His step-by-step procedures for assembling our very own, highly infectious nanostories are ultimately the ones he urges us (and media-savvy readers the world over) not to follow.

And that’s the problem with the book. Understanding something and mastering it aren’t such different processes, and the reader may want nothing more than to beat a fifteen-year-old wunderkind meme-maker from Alabama at her own game. But ultimately, we are asked to head back in the same direction we came from. There is no Celestial City, no Holy Grail, no resting place—we just have to hope that the journey has made us wiser, as we head back down into the latter-day Slough of Despond.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.