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Book Review: And Then There's This...

And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture is a study of contemporary Internet memes and our rapidly shifting attention span. Bill Wasik is an editor at Harper's magazine, and he has direct experience with creating and cultivating Internet "nanostories," including the phenomenon of Flash Mobs. {See Wikipedia's definition if this is new to you.)

In fact a large portion of the book describes how Wasik came up with the idea of flash mobbing, as well as other experiments, and presents data regarding how "memetic engineers" can attempt to create buzz and Internet activity around a piece of content. A definite pattern emerges, and it's a fascinating peek at group behavior online. One of my favorite anecodtes is from a study of the interconnectedness of political blogs. In brief, although the web clearly provides a home for many viewpoints, there is surprisingly little cross-pollination between viewpoint ghettos.

As an ethnologist, I applaud Wasik's practice of "submersion journalism" as a way to understand the culture from an inside view. As an academic, I'd like to have a more referenced and nuanced work, but since this is a mainstream book I understand that the emphasis is on readability and simple ideas easily spread. That's no accident given the subject at hand.

The final chapters of the book provide a great wrap-up and a surprisingly humane message. In them, Wasik asks serious questions about the value and ramifications of our flitting attention spans and recommends strategies for better dealing with rapid information consumption and dissemination. Until I reached these final chapters, I was planning to discard this book when I finished it--much like the viral messages it discusses--but now it will become a useful reminder about how to discern what truly matters online. And for this reason, it's worth reading for anyone interesting in a better understanding of online culture.

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