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The Couch Surfer: 'A nanostory is a talking point which, online, has become a shouting match'

Tim Walker: These stories are disseminated on the web then thrust into the mainstream where they soon die

I find myself thinking about Susan Boyle this week. Remember her? Cat-loving Scottish lady, highly newsworthy for a week or two in May? Sang a song about dreams, came second in a TV talent contest, flirted with Piers Morgan (at which point we should all have guessed that she was under great emotional strain)?

I'm thinking about Susan because her tale is an example of what Bill Wasik – author of a new tome about viral culture, And Then There's This – would call a "nanostory": a talking point in an (inter)national conversation that has, thanks to the internet, become a shouting match. Nanostories like Susan's are disseminated online, then quickly thrust into the harsh mainstream, where they soon wither and die as another takes their place.

Others might define these fleeting trends as "fads", says Wasik, but this dated term doesn't take into account the self-awareness of today's consumers, the savviness of the collective "media mind". We are so familiar, he argues, with the workings of modern media narratives, that our "awareness feeds back almost immediately into [our] consumption itself."

Wasik, a senior editor at Harper's magazine in New York, is well placed to analyse the way viral trends work. In 2003, he created "flash mobbing", whereby a large group of people, drawn by a much-forwarded email, would descend on a single location at an appointed time for no discernible reason. The trend rapidly grew and changed; nowadays Wasik's meaningless mobs have become an advertiser's crutch, leaned on to flog phone contracts for T-mobile.

The author's further viral adventures – as recounted in the book – included an attempt to kill the blog buzz circling a "hot" new indie band, and the establishment of a website, OppoDepot.com, to collate every extant negative rumour (true or false) about the candidates for the US presidency.

You could argue that Susan Boyle was mainstream from the start, at least here in the UK; her nanostory began, after all, on one of the country's most popular light entertainment shows. But this doesn't explain her massive viral impact in America, courtesy of that YouTube clip.

If Wasik's thesis is correct, then Susan's Stateside success wasn't so much her 15 minutes of fame as her 15 minutes of "meaning" – even if none of us could decide what that meaning was. Did she show us that plain people could be talented, too, or that we were despicable for even thinking this came as a shock?

"We allow ourselves to believe that a narrative is larger than itself," Wasik writes, "that it holds some portent for the long-term future; but soon enough we come to our senses, and the story, which cannot bear the weight of what we have heaped upon it, dies almost as suddenly as it was born."

Susan's star is falling now, and on a steep trajectory. The "SuBo effect" was expected to get the new series of America's Got Talent off to a flying start last week, when Simon Cowell and co returned to US screens. Instead, the season premiere's viewer numbers were down 12 per cent on the same time last year, its worst ever audience.

Who's manning the Twitter feed for Habitat? Last week, the chain was caught trying to turn the Twittersphere's goodwill towards Iranian pro-democracy protesters into profits. Let me explain. If I wish to join a particular conversation on Twitter, without following all of the users who are part of that conversation, it's convention to append what's known as a topical "hashtag" to each post and, when searching for other relevant posts, to do so using the same hashtag. For example: "#Susan Boyle" or "#RIP MJ". The most popular current hashtags are listed as "trending topics" on each Twitterer's homepage.

Habitat isn't the first to use this convention for spamming purposes, but it might be the first brand shameless enough to turn life-and-death political upheaval into a marketing opportunity. One of @HabitatUK's posts last week read: "#Mousavi Join the database for free to win a £1,000 gift card". "#Mousavi" being the name of Iran's main opposition leader.

So, whose brainwave was that? As if, when people found the post while searching for fresh news from Tehran, they'd think 'Gosh, you know, I do need a new coffee table'. Hasn't Habitat heard of the wisdom of crowds? Soon Habitat's foolish mistake was, itself, a trending topic, a nanostory, and a PR disaster.