FROM SHAKESPEARE TO HUFFPO

~ Posted by Robert Butler, April 23rd 2012

The birthday tributes to Shakespeare today range from the launch of the World Shakespeare Festival to the publication of a sonnet by Mark Ravenhill, best known as the author of the play "Shopping and Fucking". Ravenhill's sonnet quotes him twice (both times from "The Tempest") and mentions him three times ("Shagsbeer", "Shaxpeer", "Will-full"), but the distinctive Shakespearean argument—the theme, the development of theme, the counter-theme and the reversal—are missing. You wouldn't know from Ravenhill's sonnet that he had read any of Shakespeare's. 

Another birthday tribute this morning came from Arianna Huffington who tweeted, "Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare! Whoever you were, there's never been anyone like you." This brought a blunt retort from @brokenbottleboy: "You know that he was paid for his work?" (Not only paid, of course, but a shareholder too.) Nothing marks the 400-year gap between Shakespeare's world and ours more than a website that attracts 1.2 billion monthly page views and 54m comments in a year, and yet its best-known aspect is that it doesn't pay for its content. 

There's a very long article in the Columbia Journalism Review that explains the rise and rise of the Huffington Post. It turns out—to boil 10,000 words down to five—that it's all about networks. Two books are crucial here. One is "Six Degrees" by the sociologist Duncan J. Watts, which describes the science of networks from tulip mania and the exponential growth of epidemics to the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

It was one man, a former AOL executive, reading this book, and taking his well-thumbed copy to a lunch in New York with Watts, that led to Watts putting him in touch with an expert in "viral launches". The AOL man had also met Arianna. He persuaded the viral expert to get on a plane to California for a 7am breakfast meeting with Arianna (her second that day).

The other key text in this story is Arianna's address book, which contains 19,000 names. There's a modern subject for a sonnet.

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life