And Then There’s This
by Bill Wasik
Published by Viking
208 pages, 2009
The Secret of the Scam
Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
Bill Wasik may be the smartest guy in the room, but that doesn't mean he’s bright. A senior editor at Harper’s magazine, Wasik is the latest to shove his way into the crowded room of brave-new-media-world soothsayers, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Internet pundits Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody) and Chris Anderson (The Long Tail) as well as such here’s-how-the-world-really-works types as Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) and the Freakonomics guys (Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt).
What these authors -- all male, mostly white, and generally middle-aged -- share is the Secret of the Scam: I will reveal the hidden mysteries of the universe to you, but only if you buy my book first.
Well, plenty of folks have already tried this routine, from the authors of The Bible through Dan Brown and his ridiculous romps through pseudo-history. The secret, of course, isn't that the emperor has no clothes, but that the emperor is so entertaining you're willing to pay to see him, in all his nudie glory.
In his new book, And Then There's This, Bill Wasik depicts himself as an edgy New York City hipster responsible for, among other Internet shenanigans, the flash-mob trend of a few years back, as well as a self-described sociological "experimenter" on the Web, via pseudonymous Web sites created to document "viral culture." His point? To show that our modern media culture, with its ever-shorter life cycles, spikes quickly and repeatedly -- and to complain that this is a bad thing.
Well, sure, on both counts. But Wasik's bewailing echoes St. Augustine's famous lament: "Lord, make me virtuous, but not yet." Wasik declares himself addicted to the Internet and its many distractions, and calls for a general unplugging from the Web. But of course, he's still blogging and maintaining his Web site while tweeting on Twitter and Facebooking. Lord, unplug me. But please, not yet.
Readers looking for clues about how to put viral marketing to work for themselves will be left unenlightened. Wasik enters a Web site contest, for example, in which the winner gets $2,500 for putting up the most popular site. Quality has nothing to do with success, just traffic. Wasik's site, an admittedly hilarious endeavor called "The Right-Wing New York Times," trundles along in the popularity doldrums until a random viewer in Chile happens across it and brings it, circuitously, to the attention of a blogger at Gawker, the influential New York City Web site. Once on Gawker, Wasik's site goes viral, and he wins the contest.
Nowhere in his book, however, does Wasik ponder the essential randomness of his success. Nor does he discuss the fact that, in an age when futurist pundits like to claim that established media are no longer relevant, getting your site mentioned on a high traffic site like Gawker is, indeed, very highly relevant.
Wasik also tries to distance himself from his fellow travelers in millennial wisdom, especially Gladwell and the Stephen/Stevens. He attacks these books as "bestsellers on the promise of revealing hidden patterns and systems undergirding everyday life." But what is his own book if not this? Its subtitle, after all, is "How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture," and the dust jacket declares, "As media amateurs grow their audience, they learn to think like the pros, using the abundant data that the Internet offers to hone their own experiments in viral blowup."
Every example of supposed Internet expert in Wasik's book, however -- from the teenage web designer to the professional viral marketer -- is revealed as, on some level, a failure.
The teenage designer, who specializes in "mournful slideshows of dead Iraqis set to music," tells Wasik that new media are replacing the old, and that this is unequivocally a good thing: "'It's by real people! It's not made by people who are getting paid to do what they do.'" Wasik doesn't mention that the content of this earnest girl's site -- those photos of dead Iraqis -- is, presumably, produced by real journalists. You know, those fake people who are "getting paid to do what they do." Or not paid, in the case of having their photos reprinted by a kid in Alabama who thinks that her work is more "real" than theirs.
Meanwhile, the professional viral marketer -- from Viral Factory, a company paid to come up with edgy ads that demonstrate, for example, a Ford car's hood flipping open to bludgeon a bird -- claims his company's work is the next wave of marketing. But as Wasik points out, it's unlikely that the supposed chatter generated by the company's outrageous video spots actually generated customers. You might be stunned by the ads into talking about them, but you might not want to buy a Ford afterwards.
The biggest con, of course, is that of Internet oracles pretending to know the wisdom of the Web but not how to sell it except via traditional publishing. Wasik has held a day job for a decade -- a decade! -- at Harper's, an ancient bastion of print publishing. Chris Anderson works at Wired magazine. Malcolm Gladwell writes for The New Yorker, while the Freakonomics authors are an economist and a journalist. And Clay Shirky is a professor at New York University -- but he is also, in fine new-media form, a "consultant" who is paid to tell others what they hope to hear about how to make money on the Web.
As Gladwell pointed out in a New Yorker review (of Anderson's latest book, Free,) "The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws."
Facebook and YouTube, Gladwell notes, are widely considered Internet success stories, in part because they're free to users everywhere -- and, in part because they're free to users everywhere, they haven't made a dime. This is what everybody so desperately paging through these new-media books really wants to know: How can I make a living off the Web?
Well, you can sell a product, such as Amazon, and after a dozen-odd years and millions of dollars, you might start turning a profit. Or you can encourage the advertising industry to shift from traditional media to new media, in the hopes that you will be able to drive both enough traffic and ad revenue to your Web sites to earn an income.
Or you can ponder the new media age from the security of the old one, hoping its salaries and benefits will last long enough to tide you over into the Internet future that no one, yet, has really figured out. | November 2009