Bill Wasik considers himself primarily a writer of satire, and there is plenty to satirize every day in contemporary Internet culture. There, stories, often no more than unverified rumors, take hold, reach the sensational level, then disappear pretty much overnight.
Often, however, Internet culture yields serious consequences, many of them adverse to an informed republic. That means the satirist inside Wasik frequently must deal straightforwardly with harsh reality.
For example, it is no secret that the Internet has become a big deal in political campaigns. Among other uses, candidates or their surrogates post untrue messages that can reach millions of potential voters, messages that smear the opposition. In his cerebral book And Then There's This, Wasik relates anecdotes about some of those digital smears.
But while studying the harm that can come from such smears, Wasik, an editor at Harper's magazine, reached two less predictable realizations.
One is the "forgettability" of a smear, "how indistinguishable it seems in retrospect from the idiot's parade of meaningless stories that came to define the campaign." The other is the consequence of the messy democracy characterizing the viral culture.
"Everyone, paid and amateur alike, can be his or her own pundit," Wasik explains. "As the mass conversation has begun to move onto the Internet, where amateurs are allowed to shape it, we are beginning to learn just what happens when the narrators exponentially multiply. When the pundits are numbered not in the hundreds but in the hundreds of thousands, all of them looking not merely to parrot stories as they hear them but rather to herald new twists and turns themselves, then by necessity there are more twists, more turns, more stories told in ever shorter form."
Wasik himself is more than just another commentator about digital culture. He distinguishes himself in two ways in his book: as a big thinker using language that less brilliant thinkers can easily grasp, and as a provocateur running experiments to test his hypotheses.
The accessibility of Wasik's big-idea book is reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell's bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink. Comparing Wasik and Gladwell seems logical to me. But for readers who find Gladwell's theories fascinating yet facile, it seems important to note that Wasik's experiments give And Then There's This a heft missing from The Tipping Point and Blink.
One of the experiments received widespread attention when Wasik published the results in Harper's. His use of the Internet to create what came to be known as "flash mobs" proved — at least to me — that the digital culture can manipulate the innate herd instinct of humans in ways both beneficial and destructive.
The other online experiments, revealed chapter by chapter in Wasik's book, involve trying to diminish the popularity of a music group; creating a Web site meant to draw as many visitors as possible, despite its false content; posing as a consumer of material goods to see how far corporations producing those material goods would go to seduce buyers online; and devising a Web site spreading untrue information about political candidates.
Fortunately for readers mostly unfamiliar with viral culture, Wasik patiently explains how it is derivative of what came before. Three of viral culture's key attributes are simply extreme versions of television culture: speed (conferring success, or at least fame, rapidly), shamelessness (success defined entirely by attention, whether positive or negative) and duration (the ephemeral nature of success, until the next big thing comes along).
It is the fourth attribute that forms the backbone of Wasik's book, an attribute he labels "sophistication." Wasik notes that "where TV success was a passive thing, success in viral culture is interactive, born of mass participation, defined by an awareness of the conditions of its creation. Viral culture is built, that is, upon what one might call the media mind."
What remains to be seen is whether individuals creating and consuming information dizzyingly available online will become better informed — or informed primarily by rumor meant to inflame instead of enlighten.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.