Andy Warhol once said that, “In the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame.” But is that enough these days?

Here one second,      gone the next (Real Change)

From the June 26, edition of Street Roots

Remember Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher? Chances are, that name doesn’t set off bells of recognition. But if someone said “Joe the Plumber,” you might recall that shaved-headed man who questioned Barack Obama on the campaign trail, about small business tax. For a while, his face, his nickname, they were everywhere, as TV shows and newspapers and blogs and the Republican Party became obsessed with the guy. And then — — he seemed to fall away into oblivion.

Or how about Thomas Beatie? He’s the transgender man who announced he was pregnant. That picture of him — with his military haircut and chin stubble — touching his swelled, there’s-a-baby-inside belly was an internet hit. He even appeared on Oprah, to the delight and confusion of millions of viewers: A pregnant man? But wait: Is he really a man? The blogosphere was a-twitter. Then… he disappeared, resurfacing just long enough to announce he’d had a girl, before falling below the waves of obscurity yet again.

There are more people like Joe and Thomas out there: Short-lived media sensations who, for a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, appear to be everywhere. Until, at some point, they’re not. Gone. Bye-bye. Forgotten. Which begs the question: Why? Why does it keep happening? And what does it mean, that our attention gets drawn to ephemeral distractions?

Maybe Bill Wasik knows. What’s that? Ain’t heard of him? Well, not yet, you haven’t. But chances are you might be familiar with something Wasik did: He created “flash mobs,” those seemingly impromptu actions where dozens, maybe hundreds, of people, brought together by the Internet, would converge on a department store, bar, train station and do something — then leave. His experiences with an idea that led to a social phenomenon caused him to consider, on a deeper level, how our interconnected, hyper, hyped-up media culture influences our lives. And how we, in turn, influence the media.

These observation are gathered in “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture,” (Viking, $25.95), a rollicking ride through some of the sensations of the past few years, their stories presented in bits, bytes, graphs and charts that take a longer look at the impact of the transitory. Speaking from New York, Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s, let loose on social science, YouTube fame and the concept of the “nanostory.”

Rosette Royale: You start off your book with Blair Hornstine. What was Blair’s story?

Bill Wasik: Blair Hornstine was a high school student in New Jersey and there was a dispute over whether she would be named valedictorian of her high school or whether it would be declared a tie with another boy. When the principal declared a tie, Blair sued the school to become valedictorian. And of course this became a big media circus where, “Oh, this litigious society. This girl is suing to become valedictorian!” and it became fodder for all the cable news shows and all the Internet sites. It was this classic media tempest in a teapot.
I could have picked almost any similar story to begin with, to set this up an example of what I call a “nanostory:” A word I coined to describe the basic unit of the media culture that we live in where these tiny little stories flit through the public consciousness, and they bounce around on cable TV and bounce around on blogs — and then, within the space of a week or a month, they’re gone, and we never think about them again.

I picked her in particular because I thought her story was funny and memorable — but not memorable — and because her story was on around the same time I was carrying on with my flash mob experiment. So, I felt that just like flash mobs — which we’ll talk about in a minute — became a little media story, the two stories were in the same field of little media phenomena.

R.R.: Well, our minute is up, so we’re gonna go right to the flash mob. You started it. What exactly is it? And how did it come into being?

Flash mobs were gatherings of people that would come together, via e-mail or text message, for no reason, in a public place. Maybe they would do something absurd, but people who would come together for 10 minutes or less and then disperse. The idea was they would be completely ephemeral, they would be essentially leaderless, and then they would be completely apolitical and absurd, and then people would melt away into the distance.
This grew out of a little e-mail experiment that I did in New York in the summer of 2003, and the obvious question I asked myself was: How many people would come out for something like that? So I put together an e-mail and I sent it to 50 or 60 of my friends and acquaintances, and they forward it to people who forward it to people, and just two or three mobs in, we had 300 people coming out for these little absurd gatherings.

The crazier thing was, within just a few weeks of the first one, they had spread to cities all across the country and then soon after that, to cities all around the world. And then by September — maybe three or four months after that — everybody just completely stopped talking about them. It was again one of these phenomena that became a little fad and then it became overexposed and then suddenly nobody was interested in them anymore.

R.R.: When your flash mob started, did you think it would work?

Y’know, I did have an idea that it would be somewhat successful, because it was a fun idea. It was silly, but it was easily understood. It was a contagious idea. And there was a sort of thrill to it, a secret-agenty feeling where you’re passing around this e-mail, then you’re going out and doing something that no one suspects.
At a certain point, it succeeded beyond my wildest expectations, at which point I was on the outside of it like everybody else, looking at this phenomena thinking, “Why the heck are people so excited about this idea?” Even though I was the guy who started it.

I also think that there’s something very fun and provocative about the way flash mobs disrupt urban space. Y’know, this was not so long after September 11, and there was definitely a sense in New York that public gatherings were somehow risky, that there was potential danger involved in crowds and unplanned activities, and flash mobs were kind of a light-hearted defusing of that idea.

And I think people liked it because flash mobs make physical the virtual connections that exist between people — in terms of your friends and acquaintances that you maybe don’t see very often but you know them via email. And this was before Facebook. So you would suddenly see, made manifest in this very present, physical way, this kind of email network that goes from person to person to person.

R.R.: You wrote that the flash mob started because you were bored.

Well, yeah! [Laughs.] I’m not going to be apologetic about that. I think a lot of great creative energies come out of boredom. You disagree?

R.R.: No, I don’t. You wrote about having all kinds of ideas and waiting for that one that ignites your passion. So I agree that boredom can lead to a great creative concept. What I was trying to get at was, do you think boredom is involved in all nanostories?

B.W: No, no. One of the ideas I’m trying to get across with nanostories is that they just come up very naturally as a byproduct of our media environment, coming up somewhat organically out of the culture. We get nanostories out of news or public affairs, or a band might suddenly become popular and they’re what I’d call a nanostory. I don’t think there’s a grand unified theory as to how all of these things start.

I do think that boredom, or the perception of boredom, does play a role in why people shift their attention away from one thing to the next big thing. As a culture we have an orientation towards novelty. The media essentially exists — and I would now say the new media exists as well — to continually feed us new and exciting and supposedly revolutionary things. You pick up [a] newspaper and every day there’s somebody with some new trend story about some hot, new exciting thing that you didn’t know about before. I think it’s become true online, where various blogs and even amateur media that’s dedicated to trying to hold up something new and say, “Hey, aren’t you sick of all this tired old stuff? Here’s something new!”

R.R.: I think a great example of a nanostory is Susan Boyle (the YouTube sensation, known for her voice and her non-glossy appearance).

B.W: Absolutely right. And I think it’s funny: So many people in the non-media universe were forwarding that video around and talking about her and she became this brief national obsession. And now you look back on that and sort of say, “Well, where can it possibly go from here?” The cultural industry isn’t structured in such a way that Susan Boyle is going to become some Britney Spears — And that’s part of the reason people loved her so much and why they were so intrigued by her. But even as everybody was getting so excited about her, you could almost sense that of course this can’t last, of course we can’t stay focused on Susan Boyle for much longer.

In your book, you wrote about Malcolm Gladwell and “The Tipping Point.” What do you think stands behind the success of that book?

B.W: I feel like there has been a phenomenon — and someone might lump my book into this category — of social science porn — [Laughs.] — By which I mean that journalists and popularizers will go to the world of social science for some sort of new or interesting result, and then they’ll package them to the general reader in such a way where all of the world’s problems are going to be magically solved through some new and exciting and unexpected social science insight.

I have a lot of respect for social science and advances in social science and what they can tell us about the way the world works. But I do also feel like some of these problems that we’re trying to solve through social science — like happiness, or why some things become successful and some things don’t — these are age-old questions that have animated literature and religion for millennia.

I think that Gladwell’s book was a very well written, innovative example of that. I really admire a lot of his work. In my book I mention “The Tipping Point” and “Freakonomics” [by Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner] as examples of this type of book where a certain kind of insight about success is being sold to the general reader. And in general, I guess I find those kinds of books a little bit distasteful, where essentially what’s being sold is a very numbers-based and manipulative way of thinking about other people.

When I read Malcolm Gladwell, I almost always feel good at the end of it. He makes me think, “Oh wow, I make it.”

B.W: Yeah, well I’m here to tell you you can’t. [Laughs.]

R.R.: But people, they making it. For 15 seconds.

B.W: That’s right. The Internet has made it very seductive. There’s a new kind of viral fame that’s very real. There’s a sense that the best thing to aspire to right now is to become a short-lived Internet sensation.

R.R.: You used the word viral. So is there an anti-viral for this culture?

B.W:[Laughs.] Well, I don’t think that there’s an anti-viral in the sense that we can shut down the kind of nanostory machine, that we can shut down the frenetic nature of our digital culture. Nor do I think we’d want to do that, because I do think that we get lots of great benefits from the new ways that we are able to communicate with each other. It is great to be able to connect with so many people and to find other people who share the same interests. But for a lot of reasons, I think that we should be wary of giving ourselves over entirely to surfing the latest wave of internet hysteria.

I think that one really important thing is to carve out time in the day for longer-term thoughts, for bigger pursuits, for not being interrupted by e-mail and constantly refreshing the blogs. I think it’s important to live in such a way that we cordon off space away from information and informational distraction, in order to work on the projects that are bigger and more important to us, and even just to sit and think about nothing for a while.

R.R.: Do you have any fears that your book will be a blip?  I’m not saying that your book is going to be one.

B.W: I would say that, sadly, my book would be lucky to be a blip. These days, even when a book or a band or a movie is really successful, usually it means that they’re going to have a brief little moment in the sun, where people talk about you and take you seriously and then you’re forgotten. So that’s the sort of best-case scenario. [Chuckles.] I’m being somewhat facetious.

By Rosette Royale, Reprinted from Real Change News, Seattle © Street News Service:

One response to “Andy Warhol once said that, “In the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame.” But is that enough these days?

  1. Comparing Joe the Plumber and the pregnant man to Susan Boyle is absurd.
    They were briefly famous for one particular thing that they said or did, not for having a talent.
    Susan Boyle is a singer that has millions of fans anxiously awaiting the release of her CE.

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