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How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture

by Bill Wasik

Pub Date: June 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-670-02084-3
Publisher: Viking

Quirky theories on the rise of viral culture.

Harper’s senior editor Wasik is fascinated by how the Internet and handheld wireless devices are changing basic social relationships, particularly the speed with which individuals become famous and forgotten in the media arena. He should know. Wasik originated the evanescent MOB trend in May 2003, inviting 63 friends and acquaintances to join an “inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less.” His motivation? “I was bored,” he writes, “by which I mean the world at that moment seemed adequate for neither my entertainment nor my sense of self.” Boredom aside, he wished to create the sort of intentionally viral “nanostory” he perceived as central to online culture, as confirmed by the roundly mocked Time selection of “You” as 2006 Person of the Year. Wasik’s “Mob Project” attracted media and online attention followed by an equal amount of backlash, which the author suggests was inevitable: “After six mobs, even conceiving of new enough crowd permutations started to feel like a challenge.” For much of the book, Wasik sets similar challenges for himself, enlisting the help of online scenesters with similar interests, like Huffington Post technology director Jonah Peretti, a “high-status” individual responsible for the website and such pranks as ordering custom “sweatshop” sneakers from Nike. Wasik won Peretti’s competition for most popular website with a parodic “right wing” New York Times, and he invented “Bill Shiller,” a phony MySpace-based identity created to “cultivate proactive relationships with brands.” These experiments support his assertion that “the Internet is revolutionary in how it has democratized not just culture-making but culture monitoring,” but the effectiveness of the author’s argument is mixed. Though Wasik is well-informed and sharply addresses his slippery subject, he also exudes a pretentious, insider-ish vibe.

Witty and of the moment, yet presumably destined for a short shelf life.