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Lexus geeks out over viral content

Ever wonder why certain videos, memes, or photos suddenly seem to be everywhere, while most others get, like, nine views? As it turns out, social psychology is the driving force behind what dominates your newsfeed. This first entry in the Accelerated Ideas video series, sponsored by Lexus, provides an under-a-minute master class in why — and how quickly — things go viral, including one controversial white and gold garment. This post is a sponsored collaboration between Lexus and Studio@Gawker.
I was making a documentary about the filming of the movie and its effect on the city, how it, for example, locked off entire blocks of downtown Chicago from public access. […] There were three types of filmmaking happening all at once, I then realized: a multimillion-dollar global Hollywood blockbuster, my modest independent documentary, and the dozens of amateur videos all being created in an instant. […] I also realized that everyone in their own way was making their own version of Transformers, based on the small privileged glimpses they had of this massive production. I started to notice these videos popping up on YouTube, and not just from Chicago, but from Utah, Texas, Detroit, Hong Kong. After a weekend of keyword-spelunking through the caves of YouTube, I emerged with 355 videos that documented the production. In a sense, the documentary of the making of Transformers had already been made, in 355 pieces. Now it was a matter of figuring out how the pieces fit together.
Not only are the pullquotes tagged with a “SHARE THIS QUOTE” — the entire story has three “sharelines” that amount to pre-written tweets. (I assume the disclosure triangles next to the bird allow sharing on Facebook or elsewhere.)
Metafilter came from two or three internets ago, when a website's core audience—people showing up there every day or every week, directly—was its main source of visitors. Google might bless a site with new visitors or take them away. Either way, it was still possible for a site's fundamentals to be strong, independent of extremely large outside referrers. What's so disconcerting now is that the new sources of readership, the apps and sites people check every day and which lead people to new posts and stories, make up a majority of total readership, and they're utterly unpredictable (they're also bigger, always bigger, every new internet is bigger). People still visit sites directly, but less. Sites still link to one another, but with diminishing results. A site that doesn't care about Facebook will nonetheless come to depend on Facebook, and if Facebook changes how Newsfeed works, or how its app works, a large fraction of total traffic could appear or disappear very quickly. Of course a website's fortunes can change overnight. That these fortunes are tied to the whims of a very small group of very large companies, whose interests are only somewhat aligned with those of publishers, however, is sort of new. The publishing opportunity may be bigger today than it's ever been but the publisher's role is less glamorous: When did the best sites on the internet, giant and small alike, become anonymous subcontractors to tech companies that operate on entirely different scales?
These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.
Using large teams of people specially trained to watch movies, Netflix deconstructed Hollywood. They paid people to watch films and tag them with all kinds of metadata. This process is so sophisticated and precise that taggers receive a 36-page training document that teaches them how to rate movies on their sexually suggestive content, goriness, romance levels, and even narrative elements like plot conclusiveness. They capture dozens of different movie attributes. They even rate the moral status of characters.
I’ve been using to post highlights of my and other old articles to the social web. It’s attractive and like a whole new piece of content! You, reader/writer, are a web content DJ – remix!
Over the past century, the freshman composition papers had exploded in length and intellectual complexity. In 1917, a freshman paper was on average only 162 words long and the majority were simple “personal narratives.” By 1986, the length of papers more than doubled, averaging 422 words. By 2006, they were more than six times longer, clocking in at 1,038 words – and they were substantially more complex, with the majority consisting of a “researched argument or report,” with the student taking a point of view and marshalling evidence to support it.
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client's interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.
In 1969, Mr. Foley and Mr. Rabens were awarded United States Patent 3,454,279 for their invention, “Apparatus for Playing a Game Wherein the Players Constitute the Game Pieces.” Currently made by Hasbro, Twister is inextricably knotted into late-20th-century popular culture.
(BTW, if you don’t already know what #Sharknado was, I’m not going to explain. In a few weeks, the underlying event will be forgotten and #Sharknado will become the word we all use to refer to a vaporous swirl of meaningless, mass-produced meme-riffing that itself becomes so vast it collapses in on itself into a diamond-hard object of actual meaning, the perfect linguistic symbol for a socially manufactured 5k-tweet-a-minute perfect-storm of meaninglessness.)
So I've been making a concerted effort to create structure on my computer using different kinds of software and so forth, that forces me to get less of my news from social media, and more of it by reading my RSS feed, which are blogs, or going to other news sites. I really have begun to worry that it gets really easy to tilt into a Twitter centric news diet, because you feel that if you're not following it, you miss something that's gone forever, because the conversation doesn't archive in any readable way. And I think that creates a kind of obsessive quality, it leads to an over-reliance on the far side of what the signal to noise ratio of not just Tweets, but actual links on Twitter, should be.
My society, that of the media-driven entertainment/publishing/music-business-involved/obsessed mid-to-late twenty-something, is being divided into a caste system that I believe in years to come will have the power to control virtually every facet of off-line life.
As Calvino writes in Six Memos: “Any interpretation impoverishes the myth and suffocates it […]. The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside.” Which is expressed another way too, in the letters: In my view, real poetic creations represent a conception of life, but they represent it in such a way that it cannot be defined except though those images, that plot, those words. To try and define it another way is always, in some sense, to betray it, because the poetic image contains within itself a multiplicity of meaning, not contradictory meanings, but where one meaning is contained inside another like the leaves of an artichoke.
Calvino writes to the critic Giuseppe Bonura, in May 1972: “Literature — even though people usually study it author by author — is always a dialog amongst many voices which intersect and reply to each other within literature and outside it.”
What I fear is that the entire web is basically becoming a slow-motion Snapchat, where content lives for some unknowable amount of time before it dies, lost forever. Sites like can’t possibly keep up; and the moguls who own most of the content online are simply not invested in the ideals of the link economy. When even Google is giving bloggers just three days to save their sites or see their content disappeared — three days when many of them are on summer vacations, no less — it’s pretty obvious that there’s no such thing as a truly benign online organization any more.