Thursday June 11th, 2009

Diagnosing Our Viral Culture

bill-wasikAbout six years ago, I got an e-mail from my friend Bill Wasik telling me (and others who got the note, all of us asked to forward it to as many people as we could, without betraying a connection to Bill) to show up at Claire’s Accessories, a small, somewhat shabby establishment at Broadway and Astor Place offering “an assortment of products geared toward teen girls.” The purpose of crowding into Claire’s was . . . nonexistent. I got there a few minutes early, at which time I saw several police milling around and a police wagon parked outside the store. Someone had squealed. As Bill has said, “[The police] made it look as if a terrorist had threatened to wage jihad against Claire’s Accessories.” (A funny idea, and I can see the talking heads now: “They hate us for our barrettes.”)

So the first “flash mob” was dispersed before it ever gathered, but Bill, nothing if not smart and resourceful, got around the problem. Flash mobs then thrived at various locations throughout that summer. And like the UK version of “The Office” or Barry Sanders, they retired while still on top. And now there’s this: Bill’s book, And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, which includes details about the flash mob project but also takes a much broader look at how Internet culture and viral sensations (see: Susan Boyle, the “Yes, We Can” video, et al.) are changing the way we think about and react to the world around us. Throughout the book, Bill also writes about other projects he’s undertaken to better understand what goes into culture-stirring circa 2009, including a web site that showed how the New York Times might look to a rabid conservative and an online campaign to protest a trendy indie-rock band.

And Then There’s This is a smart, lively examination of the way that almost all of us are spending our time these days, for better or worse. If you’re in New York, Bill will be reading on June 23 at the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca. Additional tour dates can be found on his official site.