Monday, June 22, 2009

Three Uses of the Blog: Viral Video as Metaphor for the Human Condition

The title of this blog is haughtier than the post is actually going to be. I mainly want to point to the series of posts in NY Mag's Reading Room on Bill Wasik's And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture.

The background summary is: Bill Wasik, basically, has some hands-on experience with viral culture; he engineered the "Flash Mobs" meme of a few years ago, where via email and text messaging throngs of people would convene at a notably random location and sing kumbaya enjoy the experience of being herded without a cattle prod. It's the seed that led to stuff like T-Mobile's karaoke session earlier this year.

There are other viruses on Mr. Wasik's resume. He's also a senior editor at Harper's Magazine, so he can write. And thus, a book is born.

NY Mag's panel of folk (Virginia Heffernan, Anil Dash, David Rees, Charlie Todd, Sam Anderson) don't issue a wholehearted recommendation for the book, but I'm probably going to cop it sometime soon anyways. It seems the biggest problem is Wasik comes off as a pretentious d-bag. Which seems to fall in line with his Flash Mobs narrative (he engineered the gatherings, and then later positioned/revealed himself as Mad Social Scientist manipulating people/rats to his bidding). But I don't have a problem with that as long as *good ideas* are present.

In any case, I haven't read any of these "I Will Explain the Internet and Internet Culture to You for $21.99" books since The Long Tail -- that's not intended as a slight; it's mostly because I've embedded myself deeply enough in the culture that I didn't feel the need for an instruction manual -- but given the evolution of the landscape even in just the last 2-3 years, it's a good time to catch up. If only to see how the new trends, memes etc are being packaged.

There were a couple really interesting takeaways from the discussion though. The first is Virginia Heffernan's suggestion that "viral" is a misnomer when we talk about the culture of people passing along videos. Mainly because as the internet has developed, it's not so much about person-to-person sharing, and more sending e-mailed traffic signals directing everyone to Youtube or whatever huge content hub is hosting the *virus*. As she says, "the word 'viral' is used to pretend that culture is so idiosyncratic and personal now, where it may actually be more fascinatingly uniform than ever."

No one came up with a better term, but everyone seemed to agree with the semantics of "viral" being no longer appropriate. Specifically, I think everyone is turned off by the corporate exploitation element, i.e. every company issues a "viral video" that hasn't even been seen with their new product line.

This all made me flashback to The Matrix, when Agent Smith uses "virus" as a metaphor for humans:

"The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague, and we are the cure."

It also made me think of David Mamet's three-essay collection, Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, where in the context of a discussion on dramatic structure he explains how drama is a metaphor for the human condition. Drama is life. Or at least, what we live for.

I left a comment on NY Mag's post. Here's a snippet with another takeaway:

the other... was about "purity". How everyone, it seems, hates being manipulated. This is a theme through a few of the posts: Don't overthink it. Don't oversell it. Don't overschtick it (a personal TAN *cough* gripe that resonates). I guess we want internet hippiedom or something? Just be chill and watch pure-viral videos and people doing what they want to do but not too hard..."

This speaks to everyone being turned off by Wasik's pretensiousness. It also speaks to the nebulous don't-try-to-make-this-into-a-formula-because-you-can't nature of viral videos. Everyone thinks they have a viral video in them, and that's because they do. If you ignore the pernicious angle of Agent Smith's quote (don't worry Obama and Al Gore will fix all of that), then in the context of these quotes and book discussion, the striking conclusion is that the "viral video" is you. *cue Tony Robbins* Or, at least, it's your pure essence repurposed into a funny clip.

You can also think of the sharing element as someone identifying some crystallized portion of themselves in a clip, and sharing it. Like you would a list of favorite movies or whathaveyou.

Now this is where I don't want the post to ramble out of control; just go check the book discussion. But i think in this era of information age paralysis, what is in us, the intangible transient *thing*, is what creates the kinetic energy (kinergy?) of viral phenomena. This is true with athletes, and art, and blogs, and twitter, and just about anything that people gravitate towards. Now, sure, corporations and market research groups, and smarty-pretentious editors will thinkthinkthink it through until they come up with some Cool Ranch facsimile, and that facsimile might even create some ripples (I'm an absolute sucker for the same ol cereal being put in a newly redesigned box).

But I think Mr. Dash nailed it when he talked about pop music being what it is because people just like a good beat to dance to, as opposed to indie-rock (or indie-music) being about overwrought thinking over an instrumental. Good memes, good people, good viruses, are self-evident. It resonates not only with our rational side, but also our emotional intelligence.

Another brilliant pull is from David Rees who identified "moms" as the ideal spreaders of real viral ideas. Most "moms" don't know the current tech-pop-culture-hipster fad-trend, but they will absolutely share anything that is need-to-know or cool in an obvious self-evidently good way.

Which I guess means all the tech/culture commentary circles back and boils down to life's one simple truism: Moms rule the universe. Hallelujah!

Vulture Reading Room, Diagnosis: The Spread of Viral Culture [NY Mag]

image via Mike Arauz, moms

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