“Nanostories: Overrunning Our Culture”
A Review of
And Then There’s This:
How Stories Live and Die In Viral Culture.
by Bill Wasik.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
In 2003, Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s Magazine, was bored, and in his boredom, he came up with the idea of using the internet to gather a crowd of people in a certain place for a brief period of time. This social experiment, the “flash mob” as it became known, was implemented by Wasik eight times in New York City and replicated in other cities around the world. Wasik, has now chronicled his Internet-age social experiments and reflected on their insight into internet culture in a new book entitled And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. In telling his own stories, Wasik also narrates the story of viral internet culture.
The success of this viral internet culture is based, in Wasik’s estimation on four defining attributes: speed, shamelessness, brief duration and interactivity. Wasik has created term for the ephemeral stories that define viral culture: nanostories. It is intriguing to me that Wasik (and others) use the adjective “viral” to describe present day internet culture. The adjective was likely chosen in reference to its contagion, the vast speed at which its stories spread. However, it could just as easily refer to the power of its inherent deadliness, killing off stories as fast as they rise and spread, as the stories told in And Now There’s This remind us. It is rather unfortunate that Wasik does not offer us here a little more reflection on the context around how the viral Internet culture arose: e.g., why have people become so bored that they are at all interested in the fleeting nanostories of viral culture?
Wasik’s first social experiment, of course, was the flash mobs. In addition to Wasik’s boredom, the experiment was born out of curiosity about “the intersection of the virtual and the physical,” but as time progressed, Wasik became more interested in the narration of the mob stories than in the mobs themselves. The mob experiment was thus Wasik’s immersion into the world of the nanostory. The second social experiment that Wasik describes here explores both the world of internet sub-cultures (in this case indie rock) and the power of negative attention in viral culture. In the weeks before the 2007 South By Southwest Music Festival (SXSW), Wasik observed a swelling of “buzz” around a Swedish band by the name of Peter Bjorn and John (PB&J). Driven again by curiosity, he anonymously launched the blog “Stop Peter Bjorn and John” on the pretense that these musicians were merely riding along on the wave of “buzz” and were not “a significant band.” As word of this blog spread, he found that it generated a negative buzz, some directed at PB&J, but mostly directed at him, the anonymous creator of the site. Wasik summarizes his learning from the PB&J experiment:
Stop Peter Bjorn and John had succeeded, if somewhat modestly, as an Internet meme of its own. It had emerged ex nihilo and found a sizeable audience within a single week. Antibuzz had not worked to stop buzz, but it had built buzz of its own, selling a peculiar brand of bitterness to adherents and detractors as well, all of whom had paid repeated visits. If creating memes is a craft, then false controversy is a key ratchet in its chest of tools (78).
“The Right Wing NY Times” is the third social experiment that Wasik narrates here, a spoof of the NYT which, when a reader would mouseover a story, it would transform into a “paranoid right wing reading” of the same story. Wasik created this site as an entry in the “Contagious Festival,” a contest whose goal was the creation of Internet buzz. Ultimately, Wasik’s site would win the $2500 prize for generating the greatest amount of traffic. Wasik learned through this experiment that there a new “subculture of mememakers” is arising, which is becoming a populist form of media, bent on launching memes and dependent on the buzz of the Internet masses. Wasik observes that this new sort of media creates challenges for corporations in marketing their products.
Wasik’s fourth social experiment was designed to explore such corporate ventures into the realm of viral marketing. In order to anonymously explore this world, Wasik created an alter-ego, Bill Shiller, which he then enrolled in a number of different buzz-marketing campaigns. In one of the book’s most poignant passages, Wasik summarizes what he found through this experiment:
Does word-of-mouth marketing have a future? The question is difficult to answer, because the very shift in consumer consciousness that companies are hoping to harness—our understanding of ourselves as embedded in social networks—opens us to marketing but inoculates us against it too. Just as the “meme” concept makes us think like economists, reducing ideas to free-market-style constructs, the very notion of a “social network” makes us think like marketers, stripping down our sense of community, segmenting ourselves self-consciously into niches, reducing the unknowable richness of group relationships down to barren trees of links and nodes. This is not to say that real human relationships don’t flourish online: of course they do, just as real ideas can flourish there too (142).
The final social experiment that Wasik describes here was one designed to explore “how a populace in the thrall of the media mind can hope to govern itself.” To explore this question, Wasik created the non-partisan website OppoDepot.com during the 2008 presidential campaign in order to dish the “dirt” on candidates of both parties. The first phase of this experiment failed to generate much interest, so Wasik schemed a second phase, in which he did two more weeks of non-partisan smearing, followed by two weeks of smearing exclusively Republicans and then two weeks of smearing exclusively Democrats. None of these three trial periods generated a significant amount of interest, so he eventually turned his attention toward the viral political videos that were steadily flowing from advocates of both parties. In one video, a pro-Obama segment by Derrick Ashong, which features a genuine and patient conversation about Obama’s platform, Wasik stumbled upon a metaphor for the real-world hollowness of viral culture.
After working his way through the stories of his social experiments with a minimal amount of bias toward viral culture, Wasik – in a stealthy turn not unlike these he pulled in conjunction with some of his experiements – proclaims his intentions in writing the book: “To consider political smears, and meaningless fads, and perishable bands, and momentary celebrities, and disposable narratives in general, as all objects in the same class, as species in the same low family of inverebrates. When herded together, the extent to which they have overrun our culture becomes clear. We love our nanostories, their birth and death thrill us, and yet we know that they are devouring us. We want reason in our politics, greatness in our art, and we see that these are incompatible with our feckless, churning [online] conversation” (182).
Wasik doesn’t use this term himself, but vanity is a good, solid, theological term that describes viral culture – both in the sense of its ultimate futility, and in the sense that it thrives on drawing attention to itself. Wasik encourages us to take a sabbath-like break from online activities: “The hope is that by cordoning off spaces in our lives away from information, we will less often fall prey to our obsession with short-term thinking and the ephemeral narratives that accompany it” (184). Wasik’s message is one that churches and Christians need to hear as we use the technologies of the Internet age to carry on conversations. These technologies, I believe are only valuable insofar as they promote real-world culture and connections between real, live embodied humans. Thus, viral culture and its emphemeral nanostories has little to offer the people of God, but perhaps careful and contemplative uses of the same technologies might occasionally prove advantageous to us.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com