And Then There's This Original publication and copyright date: 2009. Full description
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EXPERIMENT: STOP PETER BJORN AND JOHN
SUBCULTURES OF NARCISSISM
In June 2004, a twenty-nine-year-old prosecutor named David Lat, who spent his days working at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, New Jersey, began a hobby that eventually cost him his job but also elevated him as an icon of both his profession and his time. Adopting a persona called "Article III Groupie," a drink-addled female devotee of constitutional law, he began writing a legal blog—"Underneath Their Robes"—which promised, in its first post and de facto manifesto, to apply the methodology of celebrity magazines (Lat listed as his models People, Us Weekly, Page Six, The National Enquirer, and Tiger Beat) to the rarefied culture of appeals-court juristry. In an early series of posts, Lat selected the "Superhotties of the Federal Judiciary," male and female; of Supreme Court justice David Souter he wrote, "Certiorari is GRANTED to that hot, lean body!" Lat encouraged readers to send in anonymously sourced "blind items" on high-ranking judges, whose identities would be left to the reader's best guess, e.g.:
This southeastern district judge had her clerks pack her belongings so she could move out after she and her husband filed for divorce.
This well-known circuit court judge . . . has issues concerning the appropriate treatment of female clerks in his chambers.
The dark joke underlying Lat's antics was obvious: take the lowest form of cultural analysis (celebrity gossip), apply it to one of the more intellectual and obscure reaches of American culture (appellate law), and what you get is comedy gold. Except it didn't play as comedy, or at least not just as comedy. Appellate judges really were a sort of celebrity to a certain—if small—segment of the population, namely those lawyers who, like Lat, worked in that corner of the profession. These lawyers all avidly read Lat's blog. Few of them had previously thought of their profession as a hotbed of salacious gossip, but once a site had bothered to collect it all and present it in a jaundiced tone, the evidence was indisputable. During the two years that Lat kept up his blog (before he was exposed and stepped down from his day job), Underneath Their Robes not only tweaked its profession but on some level transformed it. The lofty reaches of constitutional law had become infected with the media mind.
So it has gone with other subcultures in our viral age, when the Internet—with its worldwide accessibility and infinite capacity for segmentation—has allowed us to connect with farther-flung people who are more and more like ourselves. Much of the emergent Internet culture is in fact a collection of a wide array of niche cultures, in keeping with the "Long Tail" argument put forward by Wired editor Chris Anderson in his book of that name: "People are re-forming," he writes, "into thousands of cultural tribes of interest, connected less by geographic proximity and workplace chatter than by shared interests." But what the Internet has done is arguably less to form such tribes than to change how they see themselves. Think about the offline publications that have traditionally catered to subcultures: many of them can still be found lining the magazine racks of one's local Barnes & Noble, those rows of sleepy titles devoted to individual professions, sports teams, musical genres, political preferences, ethnic communities, and so on. The very way we find these publications, each tucked among a slew of unrelated others, makes us keenly aware of their narrow purview, and one can sense in their pages that they realize this too. The difference online, where subcultures converse incessantly among themselves in an intense, always-on, inwardly directed banter, is that every crowd comes to talk and think about itself as if it were the center of the entire universe.
The most obvious symptom of this shift has been the online democratization of fame—what the technology writer Clive Thompson has dubbed "microcelebrity." Just as David Lat treated the 877 members of the appellate judiciary (and sometimes even their clerks!) as celebrities, and just as some flash-mobbers wanted to make "Bill" into a movement luminary, so does each subculture online tend to coronate its own small claque of mini-stars. On the Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag, readers follow the exploits of the young founders of Google and Facebook (and of far lesser business figures such as Jakob Lodwick, a marginally successful young web entrepreneur whose chief occupation seems to be seeking microcelebrity) in the same manner that Us Weekly stalks Tom Cruise. Even within user-run communities, fame finds a way of attaching itself to the most provocative members. The New York Times reported that when "DaShiv"—a photographer and popular commenter on the group blog MetaFilter—came to visit New York, three different parties were given in his honor by online associates.
But such nanofame is just part of a larger move toward nanostories— toward more narratives, and more perishable narratives—that has taken place within online subcultures. The reason for this larger shift is simple: the blinding speed and vast capacity of the medium essentially requires it. If impassioned chatter keeps up for days over the question of whether the forthcoming Corvette engine was unduly copied from a BMW engine—as was the case in early January 2008 on Autoblog, the biggest blog for car enthusiasts—it is only because a community that reviews twenty or more "breaking" car news stories in any given day will naturally seize on at least one story a week as earth-shattering. Moreover, the writers, seeing how readers love squabbles, begin to bake this into their posts: one imagines that PurseBlog, a site that reviews designer handbags, would not get 200,000 visits a day (making it by one count the twentieth most popular blog in America) if it did not regularly trash high-priced bags as "fug." (In one case, about a bag that went "out on a limb," it remarked: "Your limb is hanging over a river infested with piranhas and your branch just broke.") Traditionally, niche cultures were less fickle than the mainstream, because their adherents, aware of their marginal status and prizing group loyalty, wanted nothing more than to trumpet their own stars and stories into the wider culture. But today, when each subculture gets more niche news than even its fanatics can swallow, members become starved for deeper diversions, and their hit-hungry sites are more than happy to oblige.
Not long ago, I spent six months following the niche culture of indie rock—i.e., the loose musical genre, popular among collegians and young urbanites, that is defined not by any particular sound but by an opposition to (or at least exclusion from) corporate radio and labels. This subculture predates the Internet, to be sure—its lineage stretches back to the hardcore scene of the 1980s, if not before, and as a community it has been perpetuated through the years by a network of college radio stations, rundown clubs, obscure magazines, and boutique record stores. Precisely because of its oppositional roots, indie rock (like punk before it) had an even more fierce devotion than other niches to its subcultural stars: acts like Fugazi, the Pixies, Guided by Voices. But the Internet has utterly transformed indie rock, as tracks leaked through MySpace and file-sharing have allowed unknown bands to become overnight subcultural sensations, their uptake and abandonment egged on by scores of popular blogs. After observing some of these spikes flicker through the hipster hive-mind, I wondered whether I might choose one and attempt, as best I could, to document it as it actually happened. What I found, in the story of a band called Annuals, was a parable not just of fickle indie-rock fame but of a paradoxical new cultural force: the rise of niche sensationalism.
GET READY TO GET SICK
On July 17, 2006, a man named Mike on the indie-rock blog Postcore. com made what could only be called a preemptive strike. "[W]ord on the street," he wrote, "is that Pitchfork"—the Internet's most influential music site, and arguably the independent music scene's chief tastemaker, online or off—"is getting the jump on this band tomorrow, which means we're going to throw it out there today." He went on:
[T]his band's got it all: young songwriter who begs for the "wunderkind" title . . . inventive and semi-electronic production, full support from the most influential music blog out there (not this one), songs that explode halfway through, and about a hundred music blogs who feel the pressure to write about a different band every day. I'm just saying, get ready to get sick of hearing about this band.
"Get ready to get sick of hearing about this band": it would be difficult to think of a more apt motto for indie rock—or any niche culture, for that matter—in the age of the Internet. Finding out about important new culture used to depend on whom you knew or where you were. In the indie-rock scene of the 1980s, news spread almost exclusively through word of mouth, through photocopied 'zines (often with circulations in three or even two digits), or through low-watt college radio stations. Today, indie-rock culture remains an underground culture, basically by definition, in that its fans shun mainstream music in favor of lesser-known acts. But now, MySpace, iTunes, and Internet radio make location and friends irrelevant for discovering music. Blogs and aggregators enable fans to determine in just a few minutes what everyone else is listening to that day. What you know, where you are—these matter not at all. To be an insider today one must merely be fast. Once Mike found out that Pitchfork would be posting about the new band, one cannot blame him for his haste, because aprè Pitchfork le déluge: Unknown bands become all-too-familiar bands in a month, and abandoned bands the month after that. Get ready, that is, to get sick.
As promised, half past ten on the morning of July 18 saw Ryan Schreiber, the founder and editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, place his imprimatur upon the new band, which he likened to "some fantasy hybrid of Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene." His readers would know these names—bands that ranked among the most successful indie-rock acts of the previous four years, all of which (not coincidentally) owed a debt to Pitchfork in getting there. Schreiber had essentially launched Broken Social Scene's career when he described their American debut album—which he said in his review that he had found just by "dig[ging] through the boxes upon boxes of promos that arrive at the Pitchfork mailbox each month"—as "endlessly replayable, perfect pop." More recently, a Schreiber review had conferred indierock superstardom on Brooklyn's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which did not even have a record deal (the band had self-produced its album). What makes Pitchfork so powerful is not the size of its readership, which by Web-magazine standards is small—one and a half million visitors each month, only a fraction of whom read the site regularly. Rather, it is its stature in the firmament of indie-rock blogs as a kind of North Star, a point of reference to be measured against. A glowing Pitchfork review need not be agreed with, but it must at the very least be reckoned with. In his post about the new band, Schreiber concluded with a wink to his site's clout. "Get familiar now," he wrote, "we could be writing about these dudes all year long." Predictably, by the end of August, more than thirty blogs had posted about the new band, and the album's leaked tracks became fixtures on the Hot Tracks list at Elbows, a site that monitors plays of downloaded music.
Once Pitchfork blesses an act, any mention of that act on other blogs needs to be accompanied by an acknowledgment that one has lagged terribly behind the times. On September 7, Stereogum.com not only quoted Pitchfork's review but wrote, "The hype machine"—by which they presumably meant blogs like themselves, because not a single dollar had yet gone into promoting the new band—"has been in motion for this band, so we feel sorta silly calling them a Band to Watch (we know, we know . . . you blogged about them first)." Even so, the first comment, just fifteen minutes after the post, began with one word in all caps: "DUH." By September 18, Idolator, the music blog of Gawker Media's online empire, could pull back for a world-weary dissection of the new band as phenomenon, complete with "Odds of Backlash," which it placed at 5 to 1. On October 5, when Rolling Stone magazine's "Rock and Roll Daily" blog finally weighed in, with an unctuous pronouncement of phony hipness—"Trust us on this one: you guys are gonna seriously sweat us for introducing you" to this band—commenter "nick" unloaded with justifiably righteous scorn:
yeah . . . everyone is really gonna "sweat you" for being (LITERALLY) the last blog on the Internet to write about these guys.
The band was called Annuals, and they hailed from Raleigh, North Carolina. I first heard the tracks on October 14, three days before their official release but three months too late. Their sound is difficult to describe, especially to those who have not heard Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, or Broken Social Scene, bands that plumbed the sonic expansiveness afforded by our high-tech, DIY musical age, when one can emerge from one's basement with music that is meticulously untidy, offhandedly epic. And if these other bands were epic, Annuals were more so. Within a single song, the vocal might rise from tender contemplation to a wail or even a hoarse, toneless scream; drums, hitherto absent, suddenly charge in, mammoth, driving, relentless, with two or even three kits going at once; arpeggios from various synths and strings wander in and out while electronica decorates the margins, a layered sheet of rigorous noise. What Annuals will sound like to you today I cannot say, but in the autumn of 2006, they sounded like the future.
GET A DYNASTY TOGETHER
Two weeks later I met Annuals in New York, at a vegan grocery/cafe on the Lower East Side. They had come to the city for the CMJ Music Marathon, a sort of indie-rock hajj for hundreds of bands, some of whom play to capacity crowds while others, bleeding flagellants, must play to almost no one—as I learned firsthand earlier in the week when, at the seven p.m. set of a band I had liked online (a wistful, countrified act called the Western States Motel), I found myself in an audience of perhaps a half-dozen, a situation in which one finds rock bands starting to make discomforting levels of eye contact. But already it had been guaranteed that Annuals would draw a crowd. Although the band's time slot was poor—number two on a six-band bill—their success at the festival had been essentially preor...Revue de presse :
"This is an exceptionally smart, witty, subtle, enlightening book about our daffy, discombobulating cultural moment. Bill Wasik plunges headlong into the twenty-first century media funhouse, yet manages to keep his moral compass in good working order. Bravo."
- Kurt Andersen, author of Heyday and host of NPR's Studio 360
"Bill Wasik is a guerrilla mischief-maker, a mad scientist of the meme. Irreverence is not a bad starting point for making sense of the web, and Wasik takes full advantage, pushing buttons and pulling puppet strings. The combination of his restless mind and the explosive new medium yields insights that are provocative and, often, hilarious."
-Ted Conover, author of Newjack
"I was the guy who got Bill Wasik's first flash-mob e-mail but was too lazy to put on pants and go. It was a mistake. Bill understands not just how viral culture spreads ideas and scams and energy- drink-purchasing opportunities; it's also a completely new way to tell-and experience- stories."
-John Hodgman, author of The Areas of My Expertise
"This book will last far longer than its allocated fifteen minutes of fame. It's well researched, funny, irreverent, and addictive. Useful, too. One of those rare books that dissects a cultural phenomenon in a way that resonates."
-Seth Godin, author of Tribes
"What if the revolution was what Bill Wasik calls a 'nanostory'? It would begin with a flash mob disrupting business as usual and then die the following day, at a Ford Motor Company 'flash concert' echoing through Boston's New Brutalist downtown. And Then There's This is deeply troubling, but it's also the wittiest book I've read in years-an ingenious and, in the end, hopeful response to the sound and the fury of our twittering times."
-Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and co-author of Killing the Buddha
"As to the engenderings of the new and newest media-when to YouTube and how to viral, where the microtrend begins and why the nanostory ends-I know of no more reliably informed source than Bill Wasik's And Then There's This. An epistemological wonder to behold."
-Lewis H. Lapham
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