[14 June 2009]
Popular wisdom says that one should never judge a book by the cover, so I will refrain from doing so. Let’s start with the title page: It features a line graph with the Y-axis labeled “meaning” and the X-axis labeled “time”. The line jumps immediately up from zero to its highest point, then consistently drops off.
This figure will return in graphs (of actual data) throughout the book, where author Bill Wasik refers to it as “the spike”. The graph illustrates any given cultural phenomenon’s rise from obscurity to peak popularity and its placement at the very beginning of the book and subsequent recurrence reflects another bit of popular wisdom: a picture (or, in this case, a graph) is worth a thousand words.
And Then There’s This examines nanostories and how they are spread through the viral culture of the Internet. Nanostories are anecdotes that, though relatively meaningless on their own, are spread widely through the Internet. Singer Susan Boyle’s instant rise to superstardom after her performance on Britain’s Got Talent brought with it many nanostories about her background, home life, and the effects that her overnight success had on her. If Wasik’s spike trend holds true, we should expect to see her name come up less and less in the media until, after a short while, she falls back into relative obscurity.
More generally, the book looks at how the Internet has changed cultural trends. According to Wasik, the Internet doesn’t change culture as much as it accelerates it. It also creates subcultures that, due to Internet communities catering to niche interests, are made up of members who no longer feel like members of subcultures. The reader is left to decide whether or not such trends are positive for society (the implication is that they are probably not, but Wasik’s ultimate goal is to understand such trends rather than evaluate them).
The real hook is Wasik’s analysis of his direct experiences in viral culture. The book is brilliantly structured around Wasik’s social experiments. He guides readers through his creation of flash mobs: crowds that would gather at a certain time and place then disperse for no apparent reason. The mob project, he immediately reveals, started simply because he was bored.
Rather than letting it go at that, Wasik delves into the psychology of boredom and how it directly impacts individual’s interactions with popular culture. Wasik provides sharp and concise analysis of how attention, distraction, boredom, and the bandwagon effect shape our experiences with different media (particularly the Internet and television).
Wasik’s experiments show that creating “buzz” or “hype” is not all that difficult given careful planning and access to fairly modest resources. Stopping or trying to curb such buzz, however, is much more difficult (if not impossible). As an example, he dissects another of his experiments: an attempt to “stop Peter Bjorn and John”. As might be expected, the “antibuzz” and attempt to stop the band actually resulted in increasing their popularity. The band even thanked the then anonymous person behind the movement.
Wasik also looks at how corporations have tried to make use of viral marketing (usually to poorer than expected results). He discusses the differences between successful and unsuccessful campaigns and contrasts them with genuine word-of-mouth promotion (unfunded by product promotions). The way stories and ideas are spread through news sites, tabloid sites, marketing schemes, and community discussions are all carefully analyzed. Wasik varies the context of his discussions from global society to specific subcultures to the psychology of individual participants.
The book is impeccably organized, full of sharp analysis, witty, and thoroughly entertaining and informative . In other words, it is everything a cultural study ought to be. Given the quality of the writing, it is easily one of the best books of the year. Given the relevance of its subject matter and the lack of much in-depth, critical writing on the Internet’s effect on culture, And Then There’s This may be one of the most important works of non-fiction on the digital age.