Bill Wasik on Our Viral Culture

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Bill Wasik

As Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper's Magazine, creator of the Flash Mob, and author of And Then There's This (Viking, June 2009), describes it, we are living the "hyperconnected life." In this modern culture, an article, blog, e-mail, video, promotion, what have you, can take on a life of its own and spread exponentially, going viral through the virtual world. It's a culture where anyone can place a video on and generate millions of views simply through "word-of-mouth" via click-throughs and forwards. Today, anyone on a computer has the ability to participate in and/or spread a story.

Many, however, including corporate marketers, politicians, and bloggers, have attempted to fabricate the viral. Sometimes their attempts succeed, but more often than not, they don't. It's extremely hard to fabricate viral, and the reasons are elusive. But successful viral events do share at least one feature: As Wasik notes, they can't just be about marketing -- they usually have a "social hook."

In And Then There's This, Wasik explains why he created Flash Mobs (boredom) and why they worked so well (self-consciousness). The book also details various experiments that he and others have conducted in the hopes of finding out what turns something viral. The result is an entertaining and insightful look at our viral culture and hyperconnected lives.

Wasik, the featured speaker at the ABA Day of Education session "Viral Marketing in Our Viral Culture" at BookExpo America, recently spoke to BTW via e-mail about how things go viral in the virtual world, where bookstores fit in, and more.

BTW: Bookstores have long been the traditional storehouses of information ... Where do you see the bookstore fitting into a viral culture? What will be the focus of your Day of Education presentation?

Bill Wasik: I'm actually very bullish on the long-term future of the book, even if more of them will be electronic and fewer of them printed. One consequence of the explosion of blogs and amateur media, along with the decline of traditional journalism outlets, is that consumers have a hard time knowing what sources of information to trust. In such an environment, writing a book becomes, if anything, a more important symbol of authority and trust: one of the few ways you can prove that you really know a subject is to assemble a long and compelling manuscript about that subject. So I think that bookstores, both physical and virtual, will remain important storehouses of authority and expertise in a culture where both of those qualities are increasingly hard to find.

In writing my book, I spent years researching Internet phenomena and also conducting my own viral experiments, trying to figure out how these quick-hit sensations work. During my talk, I'll share some stories from my travels online, and talk about what the book business can learn about the way ideas and culture spread today.

BTW: In And Then There's This, you say that online culture gropes toward the meme ideal: Could you explain what the meme ideal is? How do marketers use this ideal in viral marketing?

Bill Wasik: The word "meme" was invented as a cultural analogue to the biological concept of the "gene" -- i.e., a meme is a unit of culture that exists to replicate itself as widely as possible. The idea was that just as genes fight to propagate themselves over the generations through natural selection, so would these so-called memes (which could be anything from an idea, to a new slang word, to a catchy song, etc.) go out and try to spread from mind to mind. It's essentially the same concept as the word "viral," and both words have become very popular in the past decade or so for talking about contagious online phenomena.

My point in the book is that this way of thinking about culture -- as being composed of little particles of catchy information that spread -- in turn has influenced how we make culture. So there are more and more people out there trying to make fast, contagious, bite-sized bits of culture (blog posts, short videos, etc.). That's also the world that viral marketers are hoping to compete in -- they're trying to make the sorts of little, funny messages that people will forward along to their friends. I think that in a lot of cases, people are succeeding in getting their "memes" to spread but they're losing sight of what they're really trying to say in the first place.

BTW: In studying what makes something "contagious," did you find a set of rules that make it so? What turns something viral?

Bill Wasik: Well, I wouldn't say there are rules, but there are some rules of thumb. The first is that you need to give people real content -- something that entertains them, or informs them, or provokes them. It can't just be marketing. This is one way that so-called "viral marketing" falls flat, because if what you're sending out there is just marketing, then it's not likely to become viral. You're relying on people to forward a project along to the people they know, and they're not going to do so if the project isn't interesting in and of itself.

Successful projects usually also have what Jonah Peretti (a great viral expert and entrepreneur who I interview in my book) calls a "social hook" -- they speak in some way to issues that we talk about with other people. If we see projects that say something funny or provocative about romantic relationships, then we might send them to our significant others. If we have friends who we correspond with about politics, then we'll send viral content about politics to them. Successful viral projects need in some way to tap into the social connections that we already have with other people.

BTW: How has the viral culture changed how corporations and retailers market to the consumer?

Bill Wasik: They've become very eager to tap into this new Internet model, since it has such dazzling upside: every day you can see some new video or website that shows up from out of nowhere, and for almost no money, to rack up hundreds of thousands of views. So it seems like a marketing director's dream.

In reality, though, I don't think it's clear that very many companies have really succeeded with their viral marketing efforts. Even in the rare case where they score some huge success, releasing a viral ad, say, that gets huge traffic, it's hard to translate that into actual enthusiasm for the product -- unless the two are linked in a way that seems necessary and organic.

BTW: What do you see as some of the downsides to the viral culture? What is information environmentalism?

Bill Wasik: Viral culture is incredibly exciting and incredibly entertaining, but I do feel that it's worsened our addiction to novelty -- in this churning Internet news cycle, there's always some new scandal, or joke, or crisis, or celebrity, that shows up every six hours to distract us from bigger questions and issues. It's impossible to turn back the clock, of course, and this new hyperconnected life probably does offer us more advantages than drawbacks. But I do think each of us needs to make sure that electronic media don't take over our lives.

"Information environmentalism" is a phrase coined by David Levy, a professor at the University of Washington, and I think it's a nice metaphor that sums up a healthy attitude toward the Internet. We need to think carefully about how much information we're taking in, and from what sources, and try to strike a balance between getting the data we need to live our lives, on the one hand, and carving out space for thought on the other.

It's this latter need, by the way, that convinces me we'll always have books. --Interviewed by David Grogan

"Viral Marketing in Our Viral Culture" will be held from 10:45 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. in Room 1E10 of the Javits Convention Center. The session is open to all BEA badge holders.