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.