Saturday, August 23, 2014

Reflections: Contagious: Why Things Catch On

When it comes to the digital frontier and those "thinkers" who inhabit it, they all want to know how to get their idea noticed.  To be creator of a viral video, article, meme, or whatever else, is a badge of honor in the information age.  Jonah Berger claims in his book, Contagious, to have decoded the patterns and elements of what makes something viral.  He's got them all listed out, but is it convincing?

Answer: maybe.  Contagious does do more than other books with a similar theme, like Gladwell's The Tipping Point, by going beyond how something becomes viral to why something becomes viral.  Having dabbled with social media and trying to get an idea to take off (I do run an online book club after all), I have been as befuddled as many others as to why some posts are popular and others are duds.  Furthermore, there is a general fascination with viral content online.  (Sites like The Daily Beast track and list the most viral videos each week).  Jonah Berger's attempt to give definitive reasons for why something becomes viral is very ambitious, but I'm not particularly convinced he found any secret sauce.

Berger relies a lot on social research, which is difficult to get right and burdened with innumerable variables.  The book does a nice job of setting up each of his principles with a story and then provides evidence to support Berger's theories.  It's interesting enough to read and ponder, after all he may be right, but there was nothing in the book which led me to any kind of "Aha!" moment.  It was all pretty standard in its approach.

One nice thing about Berger's book is that it highlights very ordinary people who were able to create something, even if it was a video about preparing corn, that found an incredibly large audience.  It's a great reminder how small our world can really be.  It also illustrates how the internet has leveled the playing field in many ways.  There are internet celebrities, even if it was temporary, who gained exposure and attention that many corporations are willing to pay millions for.  We live in a fascinating age.

Contagious is readable, even enjoyable, but I didn't find anything in it that would give someone a perfect recipe for creating viral content.  In my mind, sometimes people just get lucky.  In a way, a little mystery is fun because then you truly never know if you'll become an internet celebrity. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reflections: The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October is one of my favorite films of all time.  It seemed reasonable that I would eventually read the source material.  Having never read a Tom Clancy book, I still had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into.  Thankfully, the book was entertaining, although lacking focus at times, and well worth the read.

One thing to keep in mind while reading a Tom Clancy book is that military jargon is to his books what romance is to young adult books.  It's a vital and integral part of the story; it's what makes the book a Tom Clancy book, which, in a way, has become a genre unto itself.  Clancy wants to immerse his reader in a world of CIA and KGB spies, Admirals and Generals, and Cold War tactics.  For the most part, it works quite well.  I am fascinated by the Cold War, and the book's focus on the distrust and military baiting back and forth between the United States and Soviet Union were especially entertaining.  Clancy's theoretical situation of a defecting Soviet submarine captain and his officers plays out extremely well.  The mystery, the hunt for the Red October, is why the story is so compelling; Clancy's playing off of the general Cold War mood and tension is an added bonus.

Having said that, the book does lose some of its focus as it attempts to bite off more than it can chew.  There is a sub-plot with a Senator, his aid, and KGB infiltration, which does very little to forward the story.  It was an unnecessary sidebar and shows a little too much eagerness on Clancy’s part to immerse his readers in the Cold War environment too far above the elbows.   

Clancy uses The Hunt for Red October to introduce his audience to Jack Ryan, who will become his most well-known fictional character.  I was somewhat surprised at how little Ryan is involved during the middle of the book.  He plays a huge role at the beginning and a somewhat ancillary role at the end, but his involvement is almost totally non-existent during the story's rising action.  He's a strong enough character and acts as a good reflection for readers since he's more of a layman and fish out of water (pun unintended) than the other characters in the book.  True, he's a part of the CIA but only as an analyst.  He, like any one of us, feels appropriately terrified to be on a submarine, even navigating it, and simply wants the nightmare to end.  He's a likeable character, especially as a family man wanting to get home before Christmas, and has a sufficient introduction in Red October

I very much enjoyed The Hunt for Red October.  About half-way through the book I wasn't sure if I would ever go back to the Clancy well; however, now that I've read Red October, I could see myself returning to read another of Ryan's adventures.  There are aspects of the book which I waded through rather than enjoyed, such as the military jargon, but, at least in Red October, it was off-set enough by characters I liked and tensions I wanted to see resolved. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris
Reflections: The Rising Tide
Reflections: Gods and Generals