“Disparate Phenomena”: An Interview with Bill Wasik

Bill Wasik is an author, senior editor at Harper’s, and most (in)famously, creator of the flash mob. Kevin Nguyen talks to him about his new book on internet culture, Pitchfork’s authority on indie music, and the failure of viral marketing.

Bill Wasik is a guerilla social scientist. He created the flash mob phenomenon, the blog Stop Peter Bjorn and John, and a fictional character who adores viral ad campaigns named Bill Shiller (get it?). These experiments, and others like it, are amusingly catalogued and deconstructed in his new book, And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture.

The scenarios are satirical in tone, but reveal a portrait of a generation that’s obsessed with devouring viral media sensations. Wasik’s book is playfully unscientific, clever but always curious. Where else would you find a chart comparing dystopias in the Orwellian and Gladwellian sense (yes, by which he means Malcolm)?

I caught up with Wasik before his talk at Seattle’s Town Hall last Tuesday.

The Bygone Bureau: The central building block of the book is the nanostory. Is this a term you coined?

Bill Wasik: Yeah, I made it up. As I explain at the beginning of the book when I unveil the term, I believe there are a lot different terms people use to describe a lot of related ideas: There are trends and fads, there’s celebrity and fame. In the internet context, there are memes and viral sensations.

The thing I like about nanostory, as a word, is that it first of all brings all of these disparate phenomena together as instances of the same type. Second, it focuses on narrative. I really feel like narrative — and the idea of sharing stories and advancing stories — is very crucial to how these things operate.

The phrase I really like is “fifteen minutes of meaning” instead of “fifteen minutes of fame.”

Right, in the book I use the example of Blair Hornstine, and you see a similar thing more recently with Susan Boyle, where people become instant celebrities. But what’s really at work there is the way they become not just celebrities but symbols. To a certain extent, you don’t actually have to be famous — your face doesn’t have to be seen — in order for you to perform this function in the churning media conversation.

From reading the book, I get the impression that you listen to a lot of indie rock.

Yeah. (laughs)

Since you bring up the short-lived success of indie bands as their own nanostories, do you think that Pitchfork’s building bands up on their debut and knocking them down on the sophomore album is productive to the art?

No, I don’t think it is. I feel like there’s such a premium on novelty placed by anybody whose doing journalism or criticism or is involved with tastemaking in any way. Even within a relatively small subculture like indie rock, there are many different blogs and people who have this goal to find new bands and knock down bands that they think are overhyped. It’s contentious, and there’s so much at work that it’s almost mathematical that you’re going to have these bands that are built up and brought down in these incredibly short periods of time. And I don’t think it’s productive.

Talking to the bands though, I think most of them tend to take an admirably philosophical attitude about the whole experience. I never met a band that had a bunch of buzz and seemed full of themselves, riding in the back of limos with pools in them. They tend to say, “We’re happy that people are talking about us and listen our music. We’ve seen other bands go through this and know that at the end of the day it’s still a long road for anybody to make it, as a long-term proposition.” You just enjoy the fame while it lasts, and then you go don’t get too upset when it goes away.

Pitchfork is able to knock down bands, but with your Stop Peter Bjorn and John experiment, you unsuccessfully tried to create antibuzz about a band. I’m curious what the difference is between you starting a blog where you try dissuade people from liking a band and Pitchfork giving something a 5.4 and killing the buzz that way.

My blog was sort of a joke, but I think that Pitchfork, arguably and rightly, has a lot of clout built up through trust with their fans. Ironically, the bands come and go but there’s a relationship between the readers and Pitchfork that’s been going on for nearly a decade. They earn it by continuing to review lots of albums and bringing up lots of stuff people don’t see; they take eclectic tastes and, being judicious, find things you wouldn’t expect. I think there are definitely tastemakers in online subcultures, and Pitchfork is absolutely one of them.

Another one of them is KEXP, a radio station in Seattle that I talk about in the book a little bit. KEXP isn’t so much in the business of denigrating band. But there are a few places that have the ear of the listener, and their opinion really matters.

That’s interesting because you frequently mask your identity when you do your social experiments in the book. So on one hand Pitchfork succeeds because they have that clout, but for things like the flash mobs and other personas you make for yourself, anonymity is key.

It can be. To a certain extent, a lot of my experiments are just me playing around, being satirical. I think anonymity certainly helped with the flash mob project and, on a more serious note, people were more likely to forward something along if they didn’t feel like they were pawns in some particular person’s megalomaniacal project. The fact that the organizer of flash mobs was anonymous meant that if you got the email about the flash mob, you would forward it along and on some level, you would be taking it on as your own project.

Anonymity can be useful not just to cloak your identity or to try to fool people. It allows people who might pass something along to not be too caught up in the question of “who’s behind this?”. Instead, the idea exists on its own terms, which makes people a little more inclined to actually press Forward on the email.

You have a chapter about corporate brands trying to market themselves through a viral campaigns. But it hasn’t worked because, on one hand, you have to be anonymous, but on the other, you want your brand out there. In that way, do you see the same sort of anonymity hurting the advertising model?

I think it’s related to the corporate thing because it speaks to why viral marketing has proved to be this elusive dream. Some corporations have figured out how to make little videos that get a lot of views, but by and large, most viral marketing fails in part because it’s both really hard to make something go viral and because people are reluctant if they feel like an instrument in some corporate game to get more people to buy a product.

That’s what I make fun of in the Bill Shiller chapter. That kind of experiment is a gag. I act out a character, pretending to be someone who wants to forward along every viral marketing campaign he gets. Beneath that kind of joke, there’s a serious point: you’re in a bind if you want to do viral marketing because you have an audience that’s going to be very suspicious of being a corporate shill.

What you find instead are marketing campaigns where the branding is very subtle. People forward them along, but if they’re so subtle, how are they promoting your product in the first place? So it’s a tough needle to thread, in terms of creating things that go viral and yet actually create positive associations with you and your product.

The book ends with the idea of “time-shifting” and creating contexts for ourselves in which we consume media. Could you expand on that idea?

There’s a professor at the University of Washington, David Levy, who coined the concept of “information environmentalism.” The thing I really like about the term is that it’s not an anti-information pose. The idea is that we can’t stop these new tools — nor would we want to — but we also need to recognize the times in our life when we’ve allowed ourselves to become too much of a slave to our data stream.

To me, the idea of information environmentalism is about becoming really judicious controllers of what’s coming in — not allowing our bookmarks that we check everyday to wind up getting longer and longer and longer to the point we’re spending six hours a day refreshing a giant list of blogs. We need to allow ourselves to step away from all the information devices for a certain amount of time and think about other things and read a book — maybe a book that isn’t even about the internet.

I definitely don’t mean this book to be an anti-internet or anti-new media book. But I do feel like if we allow ourselves to live at the pace of the internet, then it’s bad for us not just in terms of personal psychology but it’s also bad sociologically. We have trouble connecting with each other about big picture issues, big unglamorous shifts that we need to be concerned about, because we’re constantly obsessed about some new website, some new celebrity, or some new band. So for me, information environmentalism is about making responsible choices and not getting too caught up in the daily internet chatter.

The cover of And Then There's ThisBill Wasik’s new book, And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, is out now on Viking Press. He’s on tour now supporting the book. Check his website for dates.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.