Big Think Interview With Bill Wasik

A conversation with the author and Senior Editor of Harper’s Magazine.
  • Transcript


Question: What are flash mobs?

Bill Wasik: Okay. Well, flash mobs are gatherings of people somewhere in physical space that last for 10 minutes or less and they are brought together on the fly via text message or email and then everyone disperses and leaves no trace.

Question: Can flash mobs make political statements?

Bill Wasik: I think that flash mobs are a demonstration of what technology can do, they’re demonstrations of how you can use fun and the kind of a sense of being a secret agent on a mission to get people together in really large numbers. I think that because the idea of flash mobs as being absurd and being ten minutes or less sort of means that they are not very great vehicles for expression or for actual, you know, creating political change, but I do think that they are an incredibly powerful demonstration of what these kinds of gatherings can do and I think that a lot of people are using flash mob type ideas to try to affect change or try to express themselves in interesting ways. For me, the flash mob is sort of more showing what could be done but that the more serious stuff is a step beyond

To me, flash mobs were a kind of performance art and, you know, they weren’t protests, they certainly weren’t a substitute for protest. They were a social experiment, they were a demonstration of what the technology of internet chain emails could do and text messaging can do and a demonstration of social networks in the way in which people can just through you know one person forwards it to ten people and they forward it to 10 people and before you know it you can gather really tremendous crowds. And I also think that they were an important demonstration to the people who took part in them where, you know, especially in this kind of era of Facebook where we have these large communities of “friends” but our relationship with them are so virtual and they’re so bound up in this very ephemeral or kind of just purely digital transactions where you see a face on the screen and you send a message or you see a post on the wall. There’s something about flash mobs where those connections are suddenly made really explicit or really virtual and they remind us that we are still people who have bodies and still people who have the ability to create change in the real physical world.

Question: What was your most memorable flash mob?

Bill Wasik: Probably our biggest flash mob here in New York was at the Toys R Us in Times Square. I don’t know if you’ve been to that Toys R Us but it’s this incredible spectacle, you know, there’s a working ferris wheel inside the store that is sort of like three stories tall and there’s a giant animatronic T-rex dinosaur up on the top floor where you know it has this lifelike dinosaur movements and it roars and so we have a flash mob up there in the second floor where everybody filtered in secretly and they were just hanging out around, you know, in the Barbie Place or with the G.I. Joes, that sort of thing and then at the appointed moment they all rushed this dinosaur and they got down to their knees and they coward behind their hands like this dinosaur was a terrible god and this was really just a phenomenal thing to see. You know, this is one of the biggest, most kind of impressive stores in the whole city and we basically just shut down the whole second floor with this impromptu kind of enacting of fealty to this dinosaur and it was really a kind of magical moment of crystallizing personhood. We had sort of disruptive the flow of this store in a way that was just, that was just really remarkable to see.

Question: Do flash mobs trespass on private property? 

Bill Wasik: A lot of flash mobs happen in public space or they happen in sort of semi-public space where you are allowed to come in as someone who’s just going to shop for example but when you try to express yourself in any way, when you try to do anything that’s outside of the so called prescribed things that you do in that space then suddenly you’re considered to be a trespasser, suddenly you’re considered to be an interloper, you know, and I think one of the reasons why flash mobs were so powerful for people especially here in the United States is that we’ve lost so much of our tradition of public space in this country, you know, that today in the sorts of suburbs where most people grow up or even here in New York City or in cities around the country, what passes for public space might be a shopping mall, well that shopping mall is technically private space but you sort of think well that’s where you go and meet your friends and that’s where you go and, you know, walk the supposed streets of the mall in order to do your shopping. Of course, try to express yourself in that kind if space and you’ll quickly find out just how nonpublic that space is and so, you know, a lot of the fun of the flash mobs is that because they were 10 minutes or less usually the police would show up just as the point that everyone is leaving. Usually they wouldn’t be so mad about it, you know, the police.  They would have just gotten the call, you know, there were some weird occurrence going on by the time they got there, you know, they would see that everybody was just having a good time and they were all leaving and there wasn’t any threat. But, I do think it managed to be a sort of an intrinsic political statement that way, you know, that it was very much a meditation on public space and what you can and what you can’t do in a lot of spaces today.

Question: How can someone join a flash mob? 

Bill Wasik: Well, you know I think the best way to do it is to start one of your own. It’s just a matter of sending an email out to the people that you know and telling them to send it along. I was anonymous as the organizer of the flash rooms in New York, in part because I felt like that the mob would make itself based on people forwarding the message around and even though I would sort of arbitrarily give it a place to go and give it something fun to do that really the mobs were leaderless in the sense that I couldn’t make a mob out of just the people that I knew. I had to rely on the networks of the people I forwarded to and then the networks of the people forwarded to and so on in order to get the group together. So, I think anonymity is a great way to do it because it makes it clear that, you know, you’re not just organizing a flash mob for your own personal aggrandizement. It’s instead, you’re doing an experiment to see, you know, how many people you can get to come together in the physical space and when other people pass it along they are essentially taking on the project, they’re essentially taking on the project for themselves and saying, you know, by forwarding the message along they are in the same position that you’re in. They’re taking on the experiment as their own.

Question: What is a hipster?

Bill Wasik: I use the word hipster in my book and used it just in conversation sort of reluctantly because it sounds like an insult and I don’t mean it as an insult, and when I’m talking about hipsters I’m not talking about some extreme group of ultra trendy people holed up somewhere in Williamsburg or Redhook—I’m not talking about some really small or weak group of people.

To me, I use the word to describe this kind of national or even international consensus that exists among city dwellers of a certain age and of a certain kind of cultural disposition; people who listen to Indie rock and people who dress in sort of somewhat similar ways.

And to me, as you say, what’s remarkable is how steady that kind of cultural cohort has been in their taste in the kind of uniformity of their taste and also just how undifferentiated it is from place to place to place. I mean, you talk about going to Williamsburg after four years and feeling like everything’s the same. What I find remarkable is that you go and see people in San Francisco or you see them in Chicago or you see them in Boston—all around the country—if you go and see your friends who were part of the same rough demographic you’ll find that they’re all listening to the same bands and they’re reading similar books. They’re interested in the same kind of culture and, to me, this is just one of the products of the internet. You know, it’s the fact that the internet has allowed people to find culture instantaneously and simultaneously. The fact that the internet has also allowed geography not to become too much of a factor in terms of what music you’re listening to or what newspaper you’re reading.

I mean, people in San Francisco are as apt to reading New York Times online as people in New York are and so you find that people are able to access the same sort of stuff and so on. So to me, when I talk about hipster culture to me it’s this kind of fascinating national urban middle brow and that it has remained remarkably stable in terms of how people dress and what people are into and that it is, it’s the way to be a kind of upwardly mobile, urban, sort of 20 and 30 something in America today. I’ve heard other people use the expression Indie Yuppie instead of Hipster and that maybe is a more apt expression and then it gets at the kind of uniformity of this culture across the country.

Question: Why do so many hipsters look the same?

Bill Wasik: To me what’s replaced differentiators based on where you are or differentiators based on different sort of camps or schools, you know, I think that kind of young sort of intellectual culture or young sort of cultural camps use to break down in terms of, you know, in terms of camps or in terms or there will be geographical divisions.

To me today, what’s replaced all that is speed. There’s more churn. Part of the reason why there can be this uniformity and there can be this kind of sense of stasis that can last over essentially a whole decade is that there are constantly new cultural products that are being thrown to people again because of the internet, you know and this one of the main thesis of my book is that, you know, what the internet kind of culture does to us is it throws this barrage of novelty whether it’s new bands or it’s new books or it’s, you know, some new political argument or some new tiny little celebrity, you know, that will constantly being subject to these waves and waves of these new stories and that because of that we feel like we are living in this very dynamic way. We feel like we’re living in this very dynamic time and yet so much of what’s being thrown at us is forgettable, it’s disposable. A lot of it is stuff that we look back on at, you know, even just a few weeks after we find out about it and we sort of think, “Oh that’s not really very interesting anymore.”

But of course we don’t look back on it because we’re on to the next thing and so that to me is the kind of paradox in the problem of culture making today as a whole is that the speed and the churn of the internet culture, or the sort of the culture that the internet enables allows us to feel like that there is something going on when in fact a lot of times there’s not that much interesting going on at all.

Question: Is the Internet homogenizing culture?

Bill Wasik: The problem is that the internet and the internet conversation, it just can’t be ignored. I mean, it is the sort of the most vital, it is the vital locus for cultural conversation today, I mean, here I am talking to you for, you know, and to get out of the homogeneity, to get out of this kind of barrage of sort of tiny little disposable cultural bits that is our lot right now essentially requires you stepping away from this internet scrum, the giant cocktail party which is the internet and saying “That doesn’t matter.”

But, that’s very, very difficult to do because, you know, the attention right now is all coming from the internet and I don’t think, it’s wise or, I wouldn’t advocate anybody just turning off their computer and say, you know, “I’m going to go completely Ludite and head for the hills not only because  I think that that’s, you know, not necessary but I also think that it’s not  really desirable. I don’t, I think that what’s going on online is too vital to completely turn it off, to completely say well this, you know, doesn’t affect me and I’m not going to take part in it but I do think that people need to step back from it a little bit, set aside time in their life away from, from the internet away from the sort of constantly always-on way that people tend to follow culture today, that people tend to consume culture today.

I think people need to carve out spaces in their lives for, for contemplation and for working on bigger projects. That to me is the solution and that I think is the solution to what you’re asking about too which is, how do you sort of step back from the homogeneity which of course is homogeneity that’s born out of constant novelty and I think that you don’t want to step away from it entirely but neither can you allow yourself to just stay completely marinated in it.

Question: What drives herd mentality?

Bill Wasik: Well, I think we are social animals and part of the reason why we like culture is precisely that we like to talk to other people about it—that we like to be sharing something with other people. I mean you could say that culture is the sort of social space between people and that we would be not very effective humans at all if we weren’t inherently interested in the things that other people are interested in. To me, a lot of these stuff about the herd mentality and the bandwagon effect, you know, we a lot of times code that as being conformity an being entirely negative and we see it, we think about the Nazis or something but of course it’s just the basic stuff of what it means to be human and, you know, to me a lot of these kind of internet culture what makes it so fascinating is that the tools that the internet allow us to see what other people are seeing, to track what other people are viewing, we have all these data that allows us to see what’s popular and what isn’t and so we have all these tools that let us see where the herd is going and so it makes that much easier to follow it.

Question: What are the pros and cons of viral media?

Bill Wasik: Well, in terms of pros, I think that it is amazing how much the internet has leveled the playing field for people who want to find a large audience and to find it very quickly. You know, all of the clichés about, you know, the sort of amateur explosion in the way in which that the little guy can compete with the big media, all of that is essentially true in the sense that somebody can throw up some YouTube video that took them 20 minutes to make using just the tools that were available to them in their basement or their garage and if it’s good enough or if it’s grabby enough then it can get millions and million of hits in the span of just a few days and so that’s just remarkable and you can’t help but be…you can’t lose sight of how revolutionary that is, you know, and also the pros are you know the way in which the internet allows us to find things that are very, very specifically relevant to us, you know, the long tail idea that Chris Anderson gets into, that having sort of infinitely accessible culture allows us to segment ourselves in ways that can be very satisfying and very useful.

You know, if you’re a particular fan of a particular band or particular actor, or a particular style of music or anything, you can very quickly through the internet find communities of people who are like you, you can find recommendations for other things that you might have not have known about that you would like because, people who have similar taste to yours like them to. The internet can be very useful in helping people feed very niche passions and thereby to create market opportunities for people in a very mass culture would have a hard time getting by, you know, if you play a particular obscure kind of music then, you know, you might have had trouble finding the 5,000 people out there in the world that would be inclined to buy your CD but over the internet, you know, you can have a growing business for anywhere in the world, you know, taking orders and mailing out CDs and that can be very useful.

In terms of the cons though, you know, I feel like the technology both on a personal level and on a cultural level encourages this relentless distraction. It encourages short-term thinking in the sense that the internet is always dangling in front of us these incredibly sort of viral, contagious, little bits of culture, you know, whether they’re videos or songs or little pieces of political news that sort of thing that we become obsessed with, you know, in any given day then that sort of drowns out any more boring kind of, but like more important than longer-term considerations that we might have. That to me is the fundamental downside and it’s to me the thing that we really need to come to terms with, you know, because right now I feel that for a lot of us the level of distraction in our own lives and the level of distraction in the sort of media ecosystem has become unsustainable

Question: How can today’s media companies make money?

Bill Wasik: I think that the Kindle is a really interesting device and a great thing to keep your eye on. One of the things I love about the kindle is the fact that it separates the act of choosing the information from the act of consuming it and that I think is more valuable than a lot of people think. I think part of the reason why people hesitate to pay for any content online is that, you know, it slows them down. They want to be, you know, surfing from this thing to this thing to this thing and just the idea of having to stop and pay for something feels like too much of an intrusion in this kind of like hyper-textual surfing through, you know, what’s going on in the world.

The thing I like about the Kindle is that, you know, you either through the Amazon store you buy a book of there’s an email address through which you can send yourself say a long article or even your own word document that you want to read and then it beams down to your device and then you are able to take your device to some other place. It’s not connected to the internet, you sit there and you read, you know, in a more leisurely way to things that you picked up for your self. That I think contains the seeds of a sort of possible business model because it seems to me that the kind of content that it seems clear that short stuff is inherently going  to be free in part because there’s so many people making it, you know, in part because, you know, its going to be a part of this sort of big, sort of churny conversation but that the longer stuff even if you’re aren’t getting in the physical form I think you might still be able to convince people to pay for especially if what you’re essentially giving them is an experience away from your computer, away from your BlackBerry, away from your iPhone, you know, where it comes into a special device that’s designed to, to be a respite for all that.

So, I’m hopeful that the Kindle might represent a way for not just book publishing companies but also for…for magazines and sellers of long form journalism to potentially make money off of their work. For the shorter stuff, I don’t really know what the answer is. There is just never been…there’s just hasn’t been a successful business model where they’ve been able to get people to open up their wallets to pay for access to these, these streams of information. Maybe after somebody’s company start to fail and information becomes scarcer that then the value proposition becomes clearer for consumers, you know, that if you’re local paper shuts down, you know, then maybe you start to see value of letting…of giving New York Times some money, you know, or else it’s going to go out of business, you know. I think I agree with people also who say that the nonprofit business model looks pretty good to newspapers right now in that maybe it’s may be even the best way to think about newspapers a sort of public trust that we don’t expect them to turn a profit, we don’t expect them to be used as profitable corporations which is what, you know, the big companies that have bought them like, you know, have expected them to be over the past decade or so but then instead, you know, they can mostly make back what they…what they spend meanwhile they’re providing us some incredibly important public service. That I think is going to become a really big model in the future as well.

Question: What are your favorite media sites?

Bill Wasik: Well, you know, the New York Times is certainly number one and, they, by the way, I think have done a great job in the past few years of reinventing themselves on the internet model and integrated blogs and multimedia stuff. You know, they’ve gone big on to twitter—they haven’t figured how to make it pay yet, but certainly they’ve been nimble on the editorial content side of figuring those things out. I really like MetaFilter, which is a group blog that’s been going for I think ten years now. It’s motto is, “best of the web” and it’s essentially just a bunch of members who go out and find really interesting stuff and post them for other people and it’s to me a sort of constantly fascinating way to find new and interesting stuff online. I read a lot of different blogs,

There’s another sect called BuzzFeed, which is run by Jonah Peretti, who I profiled in part in the book, which is another great site that’s out there. They actually have sort of automated engines that call through blog statistics and everything to find interesting trends and what people are doing and talking about online. BuzzFeed definitely give me lots of great stuff. I think I’ll leave it at those three.

Question: How does Harper’s cope with new publishing models?

Bill Wasik: I think that the fact that our articles are long makes a big difference. We typically run features that go from, you know, 5,000 words up to 10,000 and beyond so, and we can only run four of them in every issue so, you know, I think that very fact, the very sort of, you know, technological fact if you will, the form in which we’re putting our content, it’s inherently focusing us on questions of what is important and what is important over the long term as opposed to the short term. The fact that we have a long turn around time, you know, that we close an issue in June, that issue wont even hit newsstands until mid July so we have to be thinking not what’s relevant now but what’s going to be relevant to our reader in, you know, four to eight weeks when the magazine is actually on the newsstand so to a certain extent we’re helped out by all of our limitations which come from being a sort of old style publishing model with the internet where you have infinite capacity you have the immediate, you have the ability to immediately publish things. You know, the challenges is putting constraints on yourself that sort of keep you thinking big picture and keep you thinking long term, you know, I think we’re able to do it because of  the constraints that we have of being a monthly print magazine.

Question: Do you think a print format is sustainable?

Bill Wasik: I do. I believe very strongly that as everything gets shorter and faster that there is a kind of inherent human instinct to want to escape from that into things that are longer, things that are more meditative. I definitely see a great future for the book because I think that the book right now is an oasis more than it’s ever been from the demands of a sort of 24/7 media environment and I also think that magazines like Harper’s and the New Yorker are similar oasis from that, that they might be about the world at large but they’re coming at the world at large from a much more focused and contemplative and far reaching perspective.  They involve reporters taking months to compile their material and, often weeks or months just to write the material in order to create a long piece of narrative journalism that will feel relevant and will feel important even months down the line. You know, I think that there will always be a space for that even if the print medium itself isn’t the way that those kinds of pieces are delivered. I’m also very hopeful about the Kindle as a possible vehicle for long form narrative journalism.

Question: Where can long-format journalists publish their work?

Bill Wasik: Well, I think that there are a lot of great, sort of smaller journals, a lot of them don’t pay very well or don’t pay at all, but there area a lot of places that are keeping long form writing alive. You know, some of the literary journals that get published by universities will have non-fiction stuff. There are some smaller quarterlies, you know, like N+1 magazine or The Believers  is a monthly magazine, Paris Review is now running long-form non-fiction, the Virginia Quarterly Review is a great place so there are sort of smaller places to do it. I also think that just keeping a blog, I mean, it can be very useful too.  For all the reasons that I talked about earlier there are ways in which the technology of the internet almost sort of inherently encourages you to write shorter and to write more of kind piffy sort of possibly viral stuff. But, I think it’s possible to keep your head your head out and to create a blog and do your own writing that can really impress editors at bigger magazines and make them want to give you a shot. I feel like that really the crucial thing is to find places to write that let you write with style, that let’s you write at length and that let you write with a certain kind of humanity that if you spend all of your time writing for places that force you to write very short and that force you to write with in really, really narrow stylistic constraints then it’s going to be very, very difficult for you to find your voice as a long-form narrative writer.

Question: What is the logical extension of the micro-journalism trend?

Bill Wasik: Well, I mean, we have the logical extension of it with Twitter, you know, Twitter where, you know, a hundred and forty characters is all you get and, you know, you see a whole Twitter culture developing online and it is the…it does seem like the logical endpoint of this shortening of the process in this speeding up of the process so that what you have when you log on to twitter is just this kind of constant just wash of tiny little updates from hundreds of people that you might be following that you sort of are able to digest by scheming in this one long stream, you know, and that’s the conversation of the 21stcentury. It’s my hope and my faith that people will have that kind of conversation but that they’ll reserve a part of themselves for another more old fashioned kind of conversation where people are writing at greater length and contemplating things at more remove that we will sort of have our instantaneous, you know, friend feed going on our screen but that will also still have place for essay and for argument, you know, for narrative journalism and dialogue and for books and I believe that we will. You know, at the end of the day, I’m hopeful about this stuff. I really think that we, you know, will be able to strike a balance between the turn of the internet and just the basic demands of being human and having the community which require people to take their time and to think things through.

Question: What advice do you have for prospective journalists?

Bill Wasik: I think that even if print is dead or dying—and I’m not convinced that it is—but even if it is, we’ll always have a need for journalism. Journalism will always be a vital function of what people do and I think if people decide to go into journalism, I think that they should try to not be too narrow in terms of the platforms that they imagine doing their journalism for. So you know, if your goal is to write long-form narrative journalism, take classes in long form narrative journalism, but also learn how to make a podcast, learn how to use video—you know tools—and to add videos, learn how to do other types of radio broadcasting. There’s all kinds of great radio stuff going on right now and, you know, NPR, you know in a bad media environment, NPR has been one of the great success stories of the past few years, you know, that they’ve been able to grow their audience and they’ve been able to, you know, through listeners’ support staff and able to stay very financially viable.

I think that, you know, if people decide to go to journalism school they should be thinking about spreading themselves as widely as possible on learning all of the different forms, learning all the different media and then, you know, thereby preparing themselves to whether, you know, the whatever storm is approaching or whatever storm it is that we’re in the middle of in terms of careers in journalism. Now is the question of whether to go to journalism school or not—I think that…that there’s no need to do it. I think that journalism remains one of the great professions that you can, you know, walk into town with nothing but a pad and a pen and make a name for your self and sort of learn the craft as you do it.

That having been said, you know, journalism school continues to be valuable for a lot of people as a way to get started and thinking about not only how to do journalism, but how to have a career in journalism, how to pitch stories and how to work a beat as a newspaper person, you know…I think that as the technology becomes more important for journalists, you know, in terms of knowing how to do podcast and knowing how to do the video stuff, I can see the role for journalism school expanding even further in that; getting that hands-on experience of mastering the different technological platform and stuff would be a valuable thing for journalism school to teach.

I sort of see journalism school how I think a lot of short story writers see MFA programs. The value in it isn’t what you learn from the professors per se, the value is the time of giving your self the time to sort of figure out what you want to do and find your voice and also the company, you know, the value of spending those years in the company if other students who are aspiring to the same sort of things you’re aspiring to and then the company of some really accomplished professors who can share in some of their wisdom with you. Now you know in a lot of journalism schools the price that you pay for the time in their company is pretty high and so, you know, that’s the decision that everybody has to make on their own.

Recorded on: June 3, 2009