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Weekend Gems 009

July 5, 2020

What is real anymore.

On Viral Marketing and the Death of Satire

On Saturday, KW announced on Twitter that he was running for president.

My first initial thought to the news was probably the same as everybody else’s:

2020 is a gift that keeps on giving.

I decided to try and rationalize the surreality of it all by doing a bit of research, only to realize that this whole thing is probably a PR stunt for the promotion of KW’s upcoming album. Relieved by the idea that this online party was to be a short lived one, seemingly amusing people on the 4th of July but not really making them see KW’s potentials as the actual 46th President of the United States, I went to bed.

But then I woke up on Sunday and the ambiguity of it all made me feel even worse.

In an article titled “Viral Marketing Hits New Low”, published on Wired in 1999, Leander Kayney introduces to the world the concept of “viral marketing”, back then manifested as spammy content aggressively circulating the Usenet. Remember: 1999 is the year when Yahoo is the No.1 search engine, banner ads could earn you about $25 daily and “warez” was a term people actually used.

The article describes the viral marketing tactics of Peter Katz and Glenn Rosenblatt, owners of PZCommunications who used Prilissa - an allegedly strong virus set to go off on Christmas Day of that year - only to spam and direct people to their page that was full of banner ads (most notably from McAfee antivirus). These tactics mainly included aggressively posting links to their website in all possible corners of the Usenet, regardless of the context, while heavily capitalizing on the shared concern that a virus was threatening to sneak through everyone’s Word ’97 and destroy all of their local files.

As the years went by, it became quite apparent that viral marketing was a highly adaptable and inventive practice, constantly coming up with new tactics and ways to lure people into specific online spaces and purposefully navigate them to pages with strategically placed content. Of course this changed radically with the advent of social media because the digital affect space had completely transformed and the power-trajectories it allowed for were radically re-mapped. For one, the primary goal of a marketing campaign was, for the first time, not to find a way to draw the user to its own territory of control but instead enter the user’s own space. The second parameter, a significantly more crucial one, was that ‘becoming viral’ did not depend on active spammy strategies, all coming from a single source. Suddenly, it was about creating a self-populating piece of information within an already established network with robust connections in between its nodes. And what is more robust than the human relationships organically built on mutual trust and acknowledgment?

We have now entered 2009 - a decade after Prilissa - and Curtis Silver is writing about an extraordinary idea: viral marketing is just entering a new age; the age of social media. Titled “Organized Chaos: Viral Marketing, Meet Social Media”, Silver explores the modern age of viral marketing, the power of influence and how the crowd mentality within a social-media community is working in favor of marketing strategies. There are some moments of harsh clarity within the article such as when Jamie Schutz, then VP of Marketing and Distribution for Chaos Squared, compares a successful film promotional campaign to The Burger King approach (in hindsight and looking at the production company’s performance, this strategy might not have worked as it should for Chaos Squared but it has definitely done some sweet, sweet magic for other players that appeared later in the field). The article continues by scouting other spaces of online life like the blogosphere only to close with this phrase:

“(Viral Marketing) started out as a cheap and viable way to spread the word about a product or idea, and it continues to do the same. The method has been altered to accept new tools and processes and we've adapted along with it to use those tools and respond to them. Viral social media is what it's become. Twitter, at first a place to tell everyone what you ate for breakfast is now a place to promote yourself, your company or your product.”

Before fast-forwarding to the glorious year of 2020 where this last phrase is clearly alluding to, I would like us to make a pit stop in 2013 - the year when S02E03 of Charlie Brooker’s famous series “Black Mirror” aired. Titled “The Waldo Moment”, the episode follows the story of Jamie Salter, a failed comedian who becomes the voice and puppeteer of Waldo, an irreverent digital bear who interviews authority figures. Long story short and in an attempt to not spoil anything for anyone, Waldo goes viral pretty fast and decides to run for office - a decision massively influenced by the hordes of people who are eager to accept a figure as a legit political candidate merely because of its viral publicity and the easiness with which it disregards protocols and institutions.

When asked to comment on the specific episode in a later interview, Brooker expanded on this last part: saying “bollocks” to stuff is easy for a person like Jamie or any other public figure who engages in satire (and) comedy. As the latest debate between Ricky Gervais and Kumail Nanjiani showcases, the idea that “saying stuff that one does not mean” went from being the given pillar of performing, to slowly being addressed and distorted by audiences that find it hard to distinguish between what is real and what is not.

On an broader level, we have started questioning whether “performing ideologies” is a practice that can be restrained from entering the domain of the literal.

Should someone be absurd in a performative way or will the audience take everything face value leading to an unwanted normalization of everything said in the context of comedy?

Saying “bollocks” to stuff, people and institutions, as Charlie Brooker says, is still one of the rights that an artist retains. Provocative art that builds upon absurd personas with the intention of poking and stretching the limits of the political status quo has proved intriguing if not completely eye opening in the past. It is not a coincidence that Ali G, Sasha Baron Cohen’s persona, comes up in Charlie Brooker’s interview quite often.

Its slightly distorted version however, the one that takes advantage of the foundational oscillation between the literal and the metaphorical, has proven to be one of the emerging strategies of early 21st century’s viral marketing strategies. The offsprings of such practice, sensationalism and absurdism, alongside manufactured feuds and passionate doom-mongering have probably been at the top of the contemporary viral marketing toolkit with words such as disastertisingand X Æ A-12 exiting the sphere of pure irony and landing on trend pages.

And now we have finally reached peak surrealism: at this point it is an understatement to say that 2020 has been a glorious shitshow with occasional moments of civic clarity. While we are all collectively going through a massive pandemic, the blossoming of the largest movement in the history of the US and skyrocketing unemployment rates, we are also called to mentally process all sorts of business entities aggressively entering our private space in an attempt to convince us that they deeply care about our well being, that they are BLM friendly and just restocked on face masks. Completely cut-off from what we formerly knew as ‘reality’ and instead confined into a tiny room—house, if you do not live in a city like SF—people are currently processing inputs from within echo chambers, consuming content from a position of fear, anxiety and FOMO.

You do not need to live in California — or any other US state really — to understand that the country is going through a mild paranoia where identities, morals and practices are being constantly re-negotiated. However, in times when a relative political stability would probably provide citizens with some piece of mind —if not actually help by offering a sober reaction to a global pandemic once in a while—, the US is now heading towards its Election Day in November, 2020. It is no news that the current political landscape is a somewhat polarized one, the larger narrative sees both candidates as borderline incompetent and the voter turnout of the past is not exactly promising (in 2016, only 138 million Americans vote, a rough 58.1% of the total VAP). In short, it is crucial right now for people to start caring more, soberly weigh in on the two political parties, pay attention to their respective agendas, do their own research, cross-check facts, steer clear of targeted advertising and brush off any sensationalist marketing tactics.

So let me repeat it once more: amidst all of this, KW announced on Twitter that he was running for president.

I hope it is clear by now that, whether KW is actually being dead serious or is instead performing a publicity stunt is way beyond the point. I would even like to argue that this is not an unprecedented phenomenon either; the US has long been accepting and oftentimes embracing the mergence of the performative and the political as the 2003 California Government Elections, the 1998 Minnesota ones and the 2017 Kid Rock Senate Compaign Stunt reveal.

This is also not a US-exclusive phenomenon either: in Europe, on the other hand, this logic has been manifesting itself in different ways but still manifesting so—usually obscuring the political identity behind absurd performativity. For example, occasional political personas such as Boris Johnson or Beppe Grillo used to be publicly mocked on the basis of their political identity, despite their apparent performative stance. This is largely why creators like Brooker used to review politics as if it was another entertainment show, a grotesque soap opera on the basis of which satire could blossom and prosper.

But this is not the case with what is happening now. Because what is significantly different in the case of KW is that it is just not clear whether he is using his persona to promote his political agenda or instead employing the political space to promote his persona.

In times like ours, when the concept of reality is being radically restructured, it is almost impossible (if not completely pointless) to try and distinguish the real from the fabricated. We are entering an era when what is fabricated is very much real and vice versa so paying attention to what kind of lines we choose to blur is crucial to our collective political well being. It is also a wake up call to the ways we can engage in satirical discourse: circling back to Charlie Brooker’s thoughts on satire — a word that Brooker avoids using — it is difficult to employ literal tools like irony or even metaphors in such a slippery slope as the contemporary political landscape has ended up being.

So here are my final questions:

  1. Are we being deprived of our right to weave narratives on performing ideologies?

  2. When mixing the spectacle with the political, is satire considered a sober political critique?

  3. And if so, is this the end of satire as we knew it?

  4. Is blurring the spaces of showbiz and the political life decisively turning politics into spectacle or the spectacle into a highly political act?

  5. Is there anything to gain from this radical hybridization?

  6. How can one build a logical argument, enriched with layers of parallel meaning and delivered through rhetorical devices, when ‘reality’ is no longer a reference point?

  7. And last but definitely not least, how can we effectively reach a political census when we cannot even collectively agree on what is real anymore?

One thing is for sure: following Scott Barnett’s sentiment , we do indeed live in a world where President Camacho can thrive.

Fun fact

Brooker’s Waldo is named after the “Waldo Rig” which is the technology that helps live animation happen: it is a right that goes around your head, picks up on all your emotions and facial movements and then replicates them live in a 3D character.

Bonus Round

At this point I think it is very obvious that this one precious little weekend gem occupied a bit more of my time than expected. However, there are some extra things that I would like to add here and will be coming back to next week:1. How much does your privacy cost? Or how can you value your right to objective, unfiltered information? Neeva, Ramaswamy’s new startup company, seeks to sidestep some of Google’s problem by avoiding the ads altogether in exchange for a subscription fee.

2. During my research on viral marketing, I stumbled upon this very recent article on a Viral Marketing Firm that was ostensibly made to pirate Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video & HBO Go. If you do not have time to go through the article itself, I suggest you watch this episode of my favorite film channel on Youtube, RedLetterMedia. For context and for those of you who are not familiar with RedLetterMedia’s style, ‘The Nerd Crew’ is a series where they very nicely mock the overall forced and fabricated nerd culture that capitalizes on commercial film making and act as mouthpieces of large production houses. 10/10 must watch.