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Viral Narrative

Earlier this year, prankster group Improv Everywhere staged an event called "Frozen Grand Central," in which the participants synchronized their watches, and at a prearranged moment they all froze in place in the middle of Grand Central's Main Concourse, mystifying observers. Exactly five minutes later, everyone resumed normal motion. In an April 30 sweeps-week episode, the television show Law & Order: SVU made Robin Williams the leader of a similar public action group, and restaged the event for use in their own murder story. This convergence of on-the-edge viral action and popular TV crime fiction provokes some thoughts on how natural it is for humans to construct a narrative.


Stories are how we understand the world — even if we don't really know what's going on, we'll make something up. The original event presented a mystery to its audience – "Why are so many people frozen? Has something dangerous happened? What will happen next?" And each frozen individual acted as an invitation to travelers close by to construct a story around them – "Who is this girl with a banana? If I poke her, will she react? Where are those frozen people looking at the map trying to get to? Do these three guys near the dropped papers know each other?" Even though the event appeared to be nonsensical, the audience recognized a story, so much so that when motion resumed, everyone applauded.


The SVU episode, on the other hand, presents a fully-formed story to its audience, with characters and plot clearly laid out. There's a mystery, but we find out all the answers by the time the show's over. However, despite having its own story to tell, the episode duplicated several of the individuals from Improv Everywhere's event: a woman eating yogurt, a guy tying his shoe, a man holding a train schedule. These tiny random moments had enough narrative resonance that the show's writers thought it worthwhile to keep them in.


The purposes behind the presentations of these two groups are widely divergent. Improv Everywhere says its only mission is "the goal of spreading chaos and joy throughout the world," though they do carry advertising on their website. SVU exists primarily to make money for its network by drawing attention to its advertisers, though I'm sure many of those working on the show care about creating a quality dramatic product. But both groups use the same tool to accomplish their goals: telling a good story. The stories they construct attract a loyal following who look for the next event or episode, which in turn makes it worthwhile to continue producing stories. Most interesting of all, the original event inspired a TV writer or producer to recreate it in the television show, and now people who will probably never find themselves walking across Grand Central Station are familiar with the frozen girl eating yogurt. Narrative itself is viral, whatever the medium.