Review of And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture by Bill Wasik
And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture
by Bill Wasik
The first viral marketing campaign, and the most successful to come to mind, that I remember is the Old Spice video response campaign from 2010. I first heard about it on Twitter, and in no time at all I was enthralled by the hilarious, personalized videos the Old Spice team was producing in response to commenters. True, the marketing firm behind the campaign admits they purchased a promoted trend on Twitter to get the ball rolling. But the campaign soon became truly viral, with the Internet taking it upon its collective shoulders to create new memes. (Perhaps the most memorable is the extant Old Spice Voicemail Generator crowdsourced through Reddit.)
For two short days in the summer of 2010, there was this massive phenomenon surrounding Old Spice. It didn’t make me want to buy Old Spice. To this day I don’t think I’ve bothered sampling any of their products; I’m not particularly on board with their “smell like a man!” marketing ideology. But that didn’t stop the viral campaign from being fun, memorable, eminently shareable. It was something I wanted to talk about with my friends, so of course I showed it to them.
And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture was published a year before the Old Spice campaign. So despite this campaign being my personal touchstone as I navigated Bill Wasik’s explication of viral in the Internet age, it’s necessarily absent from these pages. Instead, Wasik discusses his own participation in the subculture of viral content creation, starting with flash mobs and progressing to the 2008 Democratic primary and presidential election.
There is something paradoxical about a dead-tree book exploring a primarily online phenomenon—but it’s not the obvious paradox. It’s not that paper books become out of date so quickly—no, And Then There’s This actually holds up pretty well after five years (ignoring the focus on MySpace, of course—remember MySpace?). The paradox, rather, is that the very short attention span that contributes to the brief surge of popularity of viral memes makes the Internet a less-than-ideal place to write about culture in posterity. Yes, there are blog posts and similar essay-style sites that occasionally attempt a more fruitful discourse. Largely, though, books remain the best way to analyse a subject at length—even if they are static and prone to obsolescence.
For those who find themselves more accustomed to a shorter attention span, though, good news: this book is short and a quick read. Wasik’s writing is brief, informative, to the point. He doesn’t often digress into speculation or pop psychology explanations. (The closest he gets is when he explains the origins of the word meme as coined by Richard Dawkins as a cultural equivalent to genes.) Wasik is more interested in looking at specific examples of viral trends and recounting his own attempts to grapple with making something truly viral.
I discovered this book by listening to Wasik’s appearances on CBC Radio’s Sparkciteem>. I didn’t remember that he is the originator of the flash mob phenomenon, but he reminds us of his viral street cred in the introduction and first chapter. In each subsequent chapter he discusses another experiment he conducted to look into different facets of virality: he attempts to drum up support for a “stop Peter Bjorn and John” protest; he creates a “right-wing New York Times” for the Huffington Post’s Contagious Festival; his alter ego Bill Shiller enthusiastically participates in all of the various online communities half-heartedly created by corporations; and during the 2008 presidential election he creates OppoDepot.com, a repository of user-submitted smears about candidates. As he explains his impetus for each project and what he learned from each of them, Wasik constructs a more useful model for comprehending the way viral trends spread, flare, and die out.
One could be forgiven for regarding this book as a “look what I’ve done” greatest hits of Wasik’s side-job as a viral creator. The constant focus on his own personal involvement in viral subculture, and his namedropping of people like Jonah Peretti, can get grating at times. It would have been nice to see more discussion of other examples of viral projects (he makes some stabs in this direction, interviewing other participants in the Contagious Festival, for example). Similarly, aside from a few half-hearted questions directed towards a marketing firm that made a viral Ford commercial involving a car hitting a pigeon, Wasik tends to dodge the ethical issues around viral marketing. For someone who claims not just to be a journalist but actually participates in this subculture, this is ignoring a huge aspect of it.
The best takeaway from And Then There’s This might not be about virality at all but about story and narrative. Wasik reminds us that the media are not relayers of objective reality but instead create the stories we read. He discusses how veterans of The Washington Post go on to create The Politico, a politics-focused blog, and asks them about how they decide whether to cover a story. Much earlier in the book he explains how when The New York Times finally covers his flash mobs, they talk about a backlash before the backlash had actually begun, because that was the only place new they could take the story. If media outlets want the page hits or ad buys, they need good stories—so they consciously shape the narrative and discussion. And though viral culture offers an opportunity for individuals to influence, at least briefly, the cultural discussion in a way never before realized, it is also prone to hijacking by clever corporate interests.
In the end, then, viral culture is a combination of conscious effort on the part of someone (the creator, who could be independent or a corporate partner of some kind) and buy-in from a larger community who can’t resist sharing whatever is on offer. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about viral culture. And Then There’s This does an adequate job looking at specific examples of viral memes and how they rose and fell. It isn’t all that inspiring and doesn’t really propose anything groundbreaking in its analysis of viral culture.