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Bill Wasik is a senior editor of Harper's Magazine. He has also contributed to McSweeney's and served as Editor of The Weekly Week. Mr. Wasik revealed himself in 2006 to[…]

Electronic media builds communities but also distracts us relentlessly.

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 journalismto 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.

Recorded on: June 3, 2009