NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Even if you are not among the millions who went to YouTube to watch Susan Boyle sing "I Dreamed A Dream," chances are you've participated in some bit of online viral culture. Maybe you saw George Allen use the word macaca and torpedo in his own senatorial campaign. Maybe you entered the 25 Things About Me on Facebook or found yourself inexplicably humming "Chocolate Rain". Whatever your particular bit of viral ephemera you have almost certainly encountered a phenomenon of our times.
A story, a band, a candidate, a video, something that proliferates so fast that half the world is bored with it by the time the other half finds out. Author Bill Wasik calls these accelerated bits of culture nanostories. He should know the Harper's Magazine senior editor is the father of the social experiment known as the flash mob, an impromptu mass gathering in the rug department of a New York Macy's that was reported, repeated, hyped, backlashed and abruptly gone in the space about three months.
After that first foray into the nanostory, Wasik has attempted several experiments, and in the process he's learned the ins and outs of the viral culture. How all that excitement builds, spreads, and where it goes, when it's gone. Later in the hour former special envoy Jack Prichard takes us to the options on North Korea, but first how stories live and die in viral culture. If you've played a role in something that went viral, tell us your nanostory. Our phone number 800-989-8255, email us firstname.lastname@example.org and you can join the conversation at our Web site npr.org click on TALK OF THE NATION and Bill Wasik joins us today from member station KXOT in Tacoma, Washington. His book is called is called "And Then There's This" and nice to have you on the TALK OF THE NATION today.
Mr. BILL WASIK (Author, "And Then There's This"): Great to be here.
CONAN: And explain to us how the Susan Boyle story fit into the nanostory archetype?
Mr. WASIK: I think it's a classic example. You know, here in the U.S., where we don't, you know, get to watch "Britain's Got Talent" on TV, she comes completely from out of nowhere. Videos of her performance circulate on YouTube and very quickly they get, you know, more than two million hits. And it isn't just that she becomes an overnight celebrity, although she is that, but it's that she becomes a symbol, you know, newspapers and blogs start running pieces about, you know, how she represents the excesses of our, you know, beauty and youth-obsessed culture, and she speaks to certain people's, you know, visions about music or different kinds of music. But then, there's no way to sustain the frenzied level of interest that exists around her and so inevitably, you know, even before what wound up happening with her, which is that she went up losing in the later round of the competition, but even before that it was like the oxygen which just all sucked up out of this kind of this feverish fire that burned about her - and so then it died.
CONAN: And tell us the difference, if there is one, between that and what's going on in Iran today - the protests of the presidential election. And this is demonstrations in the streets that are controlled or arranged through Twitter and - I guess the Internet is down and then cell phones are down too. But nevertheless, do we - is that a nanostory, is the oxygen going to go out of that too?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WASIK: No, no, I mean, you know, my feeling is that here in the U.S. and in most of the developed world we have such an information saturated life, that what's happening with all these online technologies - and not just online but the profusion of cable TV channels and radio shows, and there are so many information streams - that its starts to create this sort of faster and faster chatter. And it becomes chatter about chatter. It's this sort of inward looking news universe. Now obviously in developing countries and countries that don't have a tradition of freedom of assembly or freedom of expression, you know, these tools are complete Godsends. They're completely, you know, they're bringing food to people who are starving. You know, whereas here, you might say, we're sort of information obese.
CONAN: And there's an element of knowingness about the nanostory of people being inside, not because they're necessarily well-connected but because they're fast.
Mr. WASIK: Yeah. I mean the - you know, one of the things that happened with the Internet as everyone has said, is it's allowed amateurs to come in and to get their - to make their voices heard outside of the channels of the traditional media. But what I think is very interesting is that, you know, they are - when they find a voice, when they find an audience online, they tend to replicate a lot of the same patterns that you see happen in the mass media. And so, you know, the same kinds of conversations that the, you know, cable news segment obsess over.
Well, the bloggers are gonna obsess over them too, because, you know, they're looking to find an audience. They're looking to find some new twist or some new turn of each story. They're looking to create novelty in the same way that the professional media looks to create novelty. And so the result of this explosion of many different voices is that you have an explosion of more and more novelty.
CONAN: In fact, you say, for the most part, those amateurs who're on the Web doing this - their blog or their Facebook page, or your Aunt Tilly, for example, well, she's only going to be read by the eight people in your family. Those who are trying to get an audience are doing the same kinds of things -the professional kinds of things the rest of the media does.
Mr. WASIK: That's right. I'm not talking - I mean, you know, the vast majority of people who have quote unquote "blogs," you know, they've live journal diaries or they're doing something that's not really intended to find an audience. What I'm interested in and what I write about in this book, you could call more the community of active culture makers. You know, whether they're professional or amateur, they're out there trying to find an audience aggressively. Obviously some people find an audience, you know, without intending to, but for the most part, the people who find an audience online are very canny about it.
CONAN: Now let see if we get some listeners in on the conversation, we're talking today Bill Wasik author of "And Then There's This" also a senior editor at Harper's magazine, and he studies what goes viral, why and where it goes when there's no oxygen left, 800-989-8255 email us email@example.com. What piece of viral meme have you participated in? Let's talk with Joel. Joel with us from Sacramento.
JOEL (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi Joel.
JOEL: I don't know if either of you're familiar with the - I hesitate to call it a sport, but geocaching. I wanted to touch upon when you said what happens when these things go away. Well, the flash mob, geocaching involves posting location that are cache and these are accessible in the Internet.
CONAN: A deposit of stuff, not money.
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JOEL: Right, right not cash, but C-A-C-H-E cache I guess.
CONAN: So they put out to be same but its different stuff, yeah.
JOEL: Right, unfortunately its not music cache but anyway the cache now they've gone to flash mob caches where the location is posted and if you don't get there at that time within an hour, whatever the set time limit is, you don't get the reward or the cache. And this has been going on. I've been to a few of them, they're a blast, but hopefully they're around to stay. I don't want to agree with you and say that they're going to be gone soon, but the nature of the flashes is gone. These might have staying power.
CONAN: Bill Wasik are you familiar with geocaching?
Mr. WASIK: I am. And I don't mean to imply that everyone online phenomenon, or every online phenomenon that uses flash mob type characteristics, is going to disappear. You know, when I write about the flash mobs - about my own project and about sort of how the rose and fall, rose and fell as a kind of worldwide fad - I was much more interested in the kind of, you know, them as both a news story and as incredibly intense fad. But of course, you know, people will use the Internet for all kinds of different things and find their own, you know, little niche like geocaching, and they'll keep doing it and they'll keep being happy doing it. You know, I was talking more about the flash mob as a media phenomenon and comparing it to things like Susan Boyle. But of course, the Internet's being used all the time for all kinds of great pursuits, and like you I hope they continue.
CONAN: Joel thanks very much for the call and keep geocaching.
JOEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciated it. And one of the things you're talking about in terms of the media use of this, fascinating that when the flash mob started you started to get coverage in all kinds of media. The New York Time late on the story, but when it finally decided to do the story, it did it in a very particular way.
Mr. WASIK: Yeah. They did the backlash story, which is, you know, a classic journalistic genre where, you know, if you feel like you're behind and you feel like that a trend has already passed you by, well then you can write about the backlash to the trend. In the case of flash mobs, I actually didn't think the backlash had happened yet, but you know, maybe that's just my pride talking. But the - you know, that is again a phenomenon of the way the professional media works, but it's also the way that amateurs operate, too.
You know, if you're too slow to something, and you want to come up with something new to say, well one very predictable new thing to say or one very, you know, easy new thing to say is that, well, you know, the tide has turned on this, and there's been a backlash, and it's on to something else.
CONAN: You use the word fad, and that's an interesting word, but what's the difference? You do see a difference between, say, the hula hoop and the flash mob.
Mr. WASIK: Well, I do - I do somewhat. I mean, I do think that the flash mobs were a fad. I used the word nanostory because I think it's useful to consider, you know, fads and so-called trends and you know, political ideas, the way that they spread through the Internet and the way that certain music and bands spread. I feel like that all of these things are - it's useful to consider them together, and that's what I try to do in this book.
You know, so yes there are fads and there are trends and there are all of these different phenomena that spread online and not just online but in the major media, as well, and the kind of feedback loop that exists there. But to me it's interesting to look at them all together. So you know, the flash mob was a nanostory in the sense that there was a narrative about it. And that narrative had a beginning, which is the sudden, you know, rush of excitement, a middle of, you know, delirious peaking, and then the sort of sudden decline. And that to me is the pattern of the nanostory.
CONAN: And let's get a caller in. This is Diane(ph), Diane from Iowa City.
DIANE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking the call, Neal. By the way, Allen(ph) derailed his presidential campaign, not just his senatorial campaign.
CONAN: You're right.
DIANE: But my two points that I wanted to do, I see some of this as a 21st-century phenomena, as a surrogate for a desire to have a kind of community. And so instead of having necessarily community which was geographically defined before, maybe by a five-mile radius or a five-block radius, you can have an idea community.
And then secondly, I was thinking just last night, as you mentioned, with the Iranian story compared to Tiananmen Square. There we had the fax machine, which was the technology that made the world aware of what was going on. With Twitter, et cetera now, we have a real opportunity to see if part of what was the initial intent for the Internet, a real democratizing of ideas and information, we'll see that ultimately maybe a government or suppressive forces cannot, in fact, keep people from rising up when they have a way to communicate with each other.
CONAN: Well, we'll see how that plays out. But getting back to your local community things, one of the things you write about, Bill Wasik, is not just local communities but mini-celebrities within those communities.
Mr. WASIK: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think the caller's absolutely right that, you know, we are developing new notions of community online that have nothing to do with geography. You know, especially through Facebook, you know, everybody wants to get together with all their old friends.
CONAN: Diane, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it, and we're going to continue talking with Bill Wasik about his book "And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture." If you'd like to get in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Bill Wasik studies and writes about viral culture. He also helps create it. As we mentioned in his introduction, he's the father of the flash mob, and we didn't plan it this way, but today marks the sixth anniversary of mob number two.
At 7:27 p.m. on June 17th, a couple of hundred people wandered into the carpet section at a New York Macy's and, as directed, told the clerk they all lived together in a commune and needed a love rug. He writes about that and his other experiments in his book titled "And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture." You can read an excerpt from the book at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
If you've played a role in something that went viral, tell us about it. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Let's go next to Philip, Philip with us from Boise.
PHILIP (Caller): Hi, Neal. I just wanted to talk a little bit about viral news stories which don't get covered in the mainstream press but kind of bring their own energy into the Internet. And the example I wanted to give is the $136 billion in bonds that they found being trafficked into Switzerland last week from Italy. It's being covered on a number of different blogs, but as far as I know, NPR and the Times and the rest of the major resources just kind of want to stay away from it.
CONAN: Well, it's news to me. But anyway, does he have a point, Bill Wasik?
Mr. WASIK: Well, absolutely. I mean, you know, the great thing about this kind of, you know, new, churning, kind of multi-faceted, amateur-driven or not always professional-driven online culture is that you're able to get access to all of these stories that even just for space constraints couldn't fit into mainstream news products or, as you might be implying, you know, for reasons of politics or for reasons of who knows what.
Of course, the flip side of that is because there are so many stories and because there are so many news sources, we tend to gravitate towards the ones that in many cases towards the ones that satisfy our pre-existing political persuasions or whatever persuasions we might have. And so, you know, there's so much news out there and so many different ways of getting it that we can sometimes fall into self-selected fantasy worlds where the information has all been pre-screened to match our existing predilections.
CONAN: And you also write about a phenomenon where, within each of these niche communities that are able to organize themselves online, well, there are any number of stories in one of those communities per week. One of them is going to be the biggest one and they consider it earth-shaking.
Mr. WASIK: Well right. You know, the more that, you know, news organizations fragment into - or I should say, not news organizations but the more that blogs and the online conversation fragments into subcultures, the more that those subcultures themselves have media conversations that get more and more intense. And inevitably, there will be all of these earth-shaking controversies within small sub-communities that, you know, might not have been the subject of so much agony if they were, you know, only in the larger conversation.
CONAN: Philip, thanks very much for the tip, and…
PHILIP: That may be true, but we're talking about a story in particular that has huge ramifications no matter what your political persuasions are. And especially given the economic climate, you'd think it would be front-page news on every reputable newspaper.
CONAN: Philip, thanks very much.
PHILIP: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Dan in Elko, Minnesota. I'm Dan Lacey, the creator of the Sarah Palin-with-a-pancake-on-her-head painting, which went viral last year. This year, I'm busy painting portraits of Susan Boyle, which proves that just as one viral dies, another is waiting to take its place. And he's got his point about that, too, Bill Wasik.
Mr. WASIK: Well yeah, and that actually, that confirms another sort of phenomenon that I write about in the book, which is that, you know, the Internet is this unprecedented medium for cultural experimentation in the sense that we get so much data about what we create and, you know, what of it is going viral, and what of it isn't? And then that in turn gives us more information about how we create more stuff in the future.
You know, I mean, I don't want to speak for Dan, but I imagine that if Sarah Palin with a pancake hadn't taken off and gone viral, well, he might not be doing something with Susan Boyle right now. But, you know, he looks at, you know, all the other paintings that he made and then he looks at Sarah Palin with a pancake, and he can see the numbers about, you know, well this one got, you know, X number of hits. And therefore, you know, gosh, maybe I should think a little bit about why this one went viral and the other ones didn't. Maybe I should start making more stuff like that. That's a feedback loop.
CONAN: And that's exactly one of the points you make in the book. It's not simply that the Internet makes everything faster, that it's an accelerator, but it gives you a way to count everybody who sees it.
Mr. WASIK: Right. And when you have that information, it's both incredibly enlightening and also, though, a little bit of a Pandora's box. You know, sort of back to this earlier conversation we had about news stories. You know, this is something you see in the professional media.
You know, 10 or 20 years ago, the editor of the Washington Post or the L.A. Times wouldn't have any idea which of the stories in his or her newspaper were causing people to pick up the paper, were causing - which they were reading, which they weren't.
CONAN: Were causing the water-cooler conversation, we used to call it.
Mr. WASIK: Exactly, but today, everyone knows. And now I'm sure that if you ask, you know, the august men and women who run these major media institutions, they'll assure that, you know, they don't put too much weight on those numbers. But I'm not really sure you can ignore them because at the end of the day, those are your readers, and those are the conversations that people are having. And so, you know, you inevitably use that information to think about what you should be writing about in the future.
CONAN: I guarantee reporters understand which were the top 10 emailed stories.
Mr. WASIK: Oh yeah. Yeah, people check their stats obsessively, and they want to be on those lists. And so those feedback loops, you know, on some level they're helping news organizations and everybody to sort of give the audience what it wants.
You know, are there potential downsides to that? Yeah, I sort of think there are. And I think that we need to be wary of these feedback loops where we get all this data and we use it to make more stuff. Because, you know, sometimes the stories that people need to be writing, the things that people need to be making, are precisely the things that, you know, maybe a ton of people don't want at a particular time, but you know, it might be what they need.
CONAN: Let's go next to Amanda(ph), Amanda with us from Minneapolis.
AMANDA (Caller): Hi there. Thanks for taking my call.
AMANDA: I was just wondering if you could comment on any elements of self-awareness that might be present in viral-cultural phenomenon. For instance, if perhaps a difference between a fad, say, and a viral-cultural phenomenon on the Internet would be that we're sort of aware of it as a disposal information and so that lends itself to the frenzy that surrounds it. And we feel like, oh, it's just another one of those things and it'll be gone tomorrow. And I'm just curious if you have anything to say about that from your own viewpoint. And I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks.
CONAN: Okay, Amanda, thank you.
Mr. WASIK: Absolutely, and that's actually something I talk about in just the first few pages of my book is that, you know, people are so aware of how media narratives operate. You know, they're not just passive consumers of them. They are always on some level aware of where things are in a sort of hype cycle.
I mean, you know, this is to one degree or another, we're just so much more aware of that stuff today. And so that, in turn, affects how we react to those things. It means that we're going to be a lot quicker to declare, you know, to think of something as being over, as sort of behind the times. And we're going to be a lot more likely to, you know, to satirize things and to ironize about them to make derivative works. You know, we have a very aware vision of it, and that in turn causes, you know, more viral stuff to be created and more viral stuff to spread.
CONAN: And there's another part of this aspect. You write about this in the context of the music business, where there's so much pressure to be the person who discovers something new that the hot new band, well, they may - that first album, it's going to go great. The second album, nobody's going to listen to it.
Mr. WASIK: You know, it's absolutely a problem. I mean, what's worse is that sometimes that phenomenon can actually affect the people making the music. You know, in my experience, you know, I wrote about a few bands who sort of went through the hype cycle as part of the kind of indie-rock music scene. In my experience, they were great about this stuff. You know, you ask them about well, what do you think of all this online hype around you? And they sort of roll their eyes and say, well, you know, we know that it's going to be gone tomorrow, which I think is the only healthy attitude you can take to any kind of fame in this day and age. Because if you let it go to your head, then you're going to be very, very sad just a few weeks later when it's taken away from you.
CONAN: Yet the phenomenon, without - with that cycle in existence, we'd have been unhappy with The Beatles if they only did "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Mr. WASIK: Well that's right, and that to me is one thing that's worrisome, that both from the production side in the sense of, you know, will a record label or the people who helped support music stick around to watch somebody grow and also from the point of view of the artists themselves, you know, who have to deal with the demands of instant fame and then the potential letdowns of the audience going away, you know, there's a danger that people are going to be less inclined, they're going to be less incentivized to make culture that has staying power, and I think the only way that you can try to stay out of that cycle is to kind of free your mind a little bit from it, to free your hours a little bit from the churn of the online conversation, or the media conversation in general, and just try to make good work.
CONAN: Let's talk next with Dylan. Dylan calling from St. Louis.
DYLAN (Caller): Hi. Happy to be on the show. Like it a lot.
CONAN: Glad you called.
DYLAN: I was calling to talk about maybe the other side of this, where, you know, you talk a lot so far about, like, the high-end of this culture where it informs people and helps us defeat totalitarian regimes. But I feel as though on the extreme other end we have Internet memes that exist solely to be flash in the pans, like classic Internet things like Badger Badger Badger and All Your Base All Belong To Us. These things, you know, aren't supposed to do anything but amuse us. And it certainly doesn't contribute probably much of anything in the long run to society.
And I was curious what your thought on that was.
Mr. WASIK: No, I agree, and I write a fair amount about that stuff in the book. I mean, part of what I find - I think we often tend to think of those as separate things. You know, on the one hand we have the media conversation about the news and about culture and about art. And on the other hand we have these kind of deliriously disposable Internet memes that sort of come into our inboxes and entertain us every day.
Part of what I'm trying to do in the book is to show that they're very similar and that we should consider them similarly, that they have very similar properties, that, you know, to a certain extent we've entrusted a lot of the higher functions of our culture to the same, you know, trend-obsessed cycle that creates these, you know, tiny little Internet memes.
And so, you know, I personally have no beef with the little entertainments. You know, and I think it's great that there are people out there producing, you know, stuff for us for free that helps us get through the workday, you know, wasting time. But I think that it's a little bit worrisome that we can then turn and look at the more serious parts of our social conversation and see that they behave in very similar ways.
CONAN: Dylan, thanks for the call.
DYLAN: Thank you. You have a good one.
CONAN: You, too.
Here's an email we have from Stu in Minneapolis. He talks retroviral. The radio-driven be-ins in New York City in the 1960s might qualify. Bob Fass, a broadcaster on WBAI, the Pacifica station in New York, in those days - still is - would tell listeners to show up at a certain place in New York City at a certain time. The biggest and hence most successful of such targets, the international arrivals hall at Kennedy Airport. This was a long time ago. I have to confess, I was there.
But would those qualify as viral kinds of nanostories?
Mr. WASIK: Well, I wouldn't classify them as viral because they're, you know, they were very mass media-driven. I mean, you had a guy…
CONAN: In a small radio station.
Mr. WASIK: Well, sure. But I mean, you know, it was a single person in a radio, you know, station broadcasting out to all this people and they sort of did what he said, you know, versus flash mobs where part of the premise of it was that, you know, if it was just the circle of people who received my email, then I would have a very small mob indeed. Only when other people decided that they wanted to take the project on as their own and forward it to their friends, and then their friends would take it on as their own and forward it to their friends, only through all of those individual acts of acceptance and agency would you actually be able to get people together.
And that to me is what differentiates this kind of viral world that we're in, which is that, you know, you can have phenomena that have no support at all from any kind of, you know, big megaphone, like a radio station or a newspaper, and yet suddenly you'll find that they have, you know, a few million people looking at them. You know, that's incredibly powerful and I think it's very defining of the time that we're in.
CONAN: We're talking with Bill Wasik about how stories live and die in viral culture. His book is "And Then There's This." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Jonah is on the line. Jonah calling from Berkeley.
JONAH (Caller): Yes. Hi.
JONAH: So I actually organized a Google bomb a few years ago for Stephen Colbert after I was in the show. And they never mentioned it on the air, but we got a couple a hundred thousand visitors and probably about 20,000 links to the site.
CONAN: Forgive me, Jonah, what is a Google bomb?
JONAH: Well, a Google bomb is basically when you get a large number of people to link to a site with a specific anchor catch or a link description. It doesn't work quite as well as it used to, but famously George Bush would rank well for failure or miserable failure.
CONAN: Oh, because so many people had linked to it and then it would rise up. So I see, I get your point. Would Google bombs qualify, Bill Wasik?
Mr. WASIK: Yeah. No, I write about Google bombs in the book and I mentioned a few other sort of political memes that people use to try to, you know, to actually use to really burrow into the technology to figure out how to make it do your bidding. That's a very fascinating kind of viral phenomenon.
CONAN: Jonah, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
JONAH: Can I just mention, though, that a lot of these viral phenomena are actually done by people who are in the linked economy to make money, by getting these allegedly viral memes to actually get links for sites they work for.
CONAN: Indeed. That's another thing he does write about, too, Jonah. Appreciate that.
We just have a couple of minutes left. And part of your exploration and part of your experimentation, Bill Wasik, is not just to describe why these things rise and why they take off, but where it all goes when they go away.
Mr. WASIK: Right. Well, I mean, you know, it's - there's a graveyard of dead memes, you know? And…
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Mr. WASIK: You know, and I guess as the guy who did the original flash mob fad, you know, I guess I'm in that graveyard myself on some level.
You know, I think that, you know, a common thing that happens when somebody makes a meme and it takes off and then it's gone is that they look at that and they say, wow, I want to do it again, you know, just like the fellow with Sarah Palin painting - pancake painting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Say that six times fast.
Mr. WASIK: Yeah, exactly. No. But, you know, in terms of the larger question of where this all leads, you know, I think that - I write in the sort of conclusion of the book about how we deal with all of this as people, as citizens, as consumers of media, and as potential creators of media.
You know, I think, look, there are people out there who listen to all this stuff we're talking about and they say, great, you know, I love this world and I just want to keep sort of surfing this quick-hit Internet culture as long as it keeps entertaining me and keeps sort of informing me in the way that I like, to which I say, you know, go forth and enjoy it.
For me, though, and for a lot of people I know, there's a sense that you stay plugged in for too long at any given day and you stay too intensely interested in trying to follow what's happening in a really up-to-the-minute way that you become very weary of it.
You become very distracted. You start to focus really on these very disposable and ephemeral things, and you lose sight of bigger things that you want to be thinking about. And for people like that, I think it's good to unplug for a little while.
CONAN: And eventually your book will end up on the remainder shelf.
Mr. WASIK: Of course.
CONAN: Get Bill Wasik's book before it does - "And Then There's This: How Stories Live And Die In Viral Culture." Bill Wasik, thank you so much for your time today.
Mr. WASIK: Thanks for having me.