Tag Archives: Leora Kornfeld

This is what we do to dreamers

memobottle+manLet’s say you are starting a startup and today you are standing in front of a venture capitalist.

With impatience in his voice, the VC says,

“Tell me again exactly what your enterprise is for. How are you going to create value?”

This is what we do to dreamers.

Because the answer to this question almost always comes to you in a mad conceptual scramble for the simplest, most obvious, most literal statement of what your enterprise is “for.”

You stand, you deliver:

“Our product will help people solve problem x for consumer y cheaper than competitor z.”

Whew!

But not so fast. Because now you are wedded to it. Every time someone asks, you are obliged to repeat your simplest, least interesting statement of what your company is for.

It’s the opposite of poetry. Every time you repeat your “value proposition” it gets more obvious, practical, functional, literal, uninteresting and unbeautiful. Your dream is withering.

In the summer of 2015, Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, insisted, against all measures and most opinion, that U.S. productivity was actually up.

The trouble, he suggested, is that we can’t see these gains because we are using old measures. When the GDP measure was developed in the 1930s, Hal observed, it focused on things like steel and grain. The improvements that come from Silicon Valley are harder to see.

Radical Hal. No, call him Heretical Hal. This was the beginning of the end of capitalism as a blunt object, as a search for mere utility. This was an opportunity to free ourselves from those people who see the world as a solutions to problems, and the more pragmatic and practical the better.

But we can’t complete this heresy until we begin to make certain value visible. We need to show how our enterprise will create value of a social, cultural, human kind. We will have to show that Uber is not merely cheaper than a taxi cab, but a richer, more human way to discover a city. (I set aside the labor issues for another time.) We will have to show the Airbnb is not merely a cheaper hotel room, but that it is a richer, more human way to discover a city. As it stands, and as far as capitalism (and Uber and Airbnb themselves) are concerned, this remains “dark value.”

Sometimes dark value is revealed, but typically this revelation comes late in the process. Ideas happen, capital is made added, enterprise springs into the world, innovations are rolled out. And then someone says, “Er, what about marketing?”  Planners, strategists, creatives, designers, ethnographers are summoned to contemplate this poor, beaten creature.

With any luck the post mortem goes pre mortem. The innovation springs to life, it’s coat glossy with new meaning. But often even this creative genius can’t do anything for the “innovation.” It is beyond all hope. It is designed to solve a problem that no one cares about because it adds virtually nothing to the world. “Whiter whites” are a death mask.

But sometimes these creatives discover, invent, conceptualize dark value. And the consumer will say, “Oh, that’s what it is. You kept telling me what it’s for. No, that I like. I can live that.”

By this time of course it’s all up stream. The creatives are working with something that’s mostly formed and they are working with people who really in their heart of hearts think “all the creativity stuff is really just icing for the cake. It’s the sizzle that sells the steak.  It’s the stuff you have to say to persuade the consumer to buy a product that frankly should have sold itself on the strength of it’s functionality. I mean, really, what is the matter with these people.”

What if we started looking for and working with dark value from the very beginning?

And if this sounds like a good idea, please consider buying my new book Dark Value here. It’s a bargain at $2.99.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for engaging me this morning with a useful email. And thanks to many people on many media who have offered encouragement for the Dark Value project.

The image is from this website.

Vocal fry, and what we can do about it

maxresdefaultMany people have remarked on the inclination of some young women in the US to use “up-talk” in everyday speech.

You’ve heard this, I know. It’s that rising tone at the end of a sentence that turns an assertion into a question. So “I stand by what I said” becomes “I stand by what I said?” I have written about it here.

More recently, people are talking about the “vocal fry,” so called because the last word of an utterance is made to sound like bacon frying. The Kardashian sisters use the vocal fry a lot. Indeed, they’re seen to be largely responsible for its popularity. “I stand by what I saaaaid.”  See this treatment by Faith Salie on CBS Sunday Morning.

Here’s Lake Bell (pictured) on both up-talk and the vocal fry. See the 1:34 mark of this Youtube clip. (Also, please, see Bell’s recent film In A World which is, among other things, an examination of how Americans talk. Very funny.  Highly recommended.)

I assumed that both up-talking and the vocal fry were artifacts of a sexist culture that continues to diminish women by encouraging women to diminish themselves. Up-talking is clearly an act of self diminishment.  But when I thought about the vocal fry a little more, I began to wonder whether if it  couldn’t be seen as an effort to correct up-talking.

After all, up-talking makes us sound eager for other people’s approval.  But the vocal fry makes it sound like we couldn’t care less. We believe what we’re saying.  If people agree with us, fine.  If they don’t, that’s fine too. The vocal fry could be read as an expression of self possession, a certain detachment, a confidence that banishes fear of disagreement or disapproval.

And this would make the vocal-fry an improvement on up-talking. This is not to say that the vocal fry doesn’t have problems of it’s own.  The fry might be read as evidence of confidence but it doesn’t make us sound like a rocket scientist.  It’s like we have over-corrected, going from over-eager to too blasé.

So how about this?  We need a conference, organized by and for powerful women, who gather to define the problem, discover strategies to address the problem, and muster the resources necessary to launch a solution.

I am acting here in my capacity as someone who likes to think about how anthropology can make itself useful (aka “service anthropology”).  So with this post my work is done. I’m happy to participate in the conference, but, really, organization should fall to someone else.  Forgive my presumption, but Lake Bell has taken the leadership position, so I wondered if she isn’t the natural leader.

Presuming even further, I sat down with my wife Pam and  friends Cheryl and Craig (Swanson) and we came up with this list of the kind of people who might be appointed to the organizing committee.

Joan Allen, actress
Paola Antonelli, Museum of Modern Art
Ric Beinstock, documentary filmmaker
Lake Bell, film maker
Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia
Wendy Clark, The Coca-Cola Company
Emma Cookson, BBH NY
Nancy F. Koehn, Harvard Business School
Leora Kornfeld, Schulich Business School
Nicole Maronian, M.D.
Indra Nooyi, The Pepsi-Cola Company
Shonda Rhimes, Scandal
Gillian Sankoff, linguist
Amy Schumer, comic
Marta Tellado, Ford Foundation

[None of these names is used by permission.  I wanted merely to suggest the kind of people who might serve on the committee.]

A new name for this blog

grant mccracken II

My blog subtitle used to be “This blog sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.”  This was both too grand and untrue.  Fine for politicians but not websites.

So now it’s “How to make culture.”  For the moment.  Also thinking of “New Rules for Making Culture.”  Is that better?  I can’t tell.  Please let me know.

Yesterday, I was blogging about the new rules of TV.  And in the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about advertising, education, late night TV, game shows, culture accelerators.  Less recently, I’ve been talking about marketing, comedy, language, branding, culturematics, story telling, hip hop, publishing, and design thinking.

All of this is culture made by someone.  And all of it is culture made in new ways, often, and according to new rules, increasingly.  Surely an anthropologist can make himself useful on something like this.  Anyhow, I’m going to try.

I have four convictions.  Open to discussion and disproof.

1) that our culture is changing.  Popular culture is becoming more like culture plain and simple.  Our culture is getting better.

I have believed in this contention for many years.  Certainly, since the 90s when I still lived in Toronto.  (It was my dear friend Hargurchet Bhabra who, over drinks and a long conversation, put his finger on it.  “It’s not popular culture anymore.  Forget the adjective.  It’s just culture.”)

This was not a popular position to take especially when so many academics and intellectuals insisted that popular culture was a debased and manipulative culture, and therefore not culture at all.  Celebrity culture, Reality TV, there were lots of ways to refurbish and renew the “popular culture is bad culture” argument.  And the voices were many.  (One of these days I am going to post a manuscript I banged out when living in Montreal.  I called it So Logo and took issue with all the intellectuals who were then pouring scorn of popular culture one way or another.)

My confidence in the “popular culture is now culture” notion grew substantially this fall when I did research for Netflix on the “binge viewing” phenomenon.  To sit down with a range of people and listen to them talk about what they were watching and how they were watching, this said very plainly that TV, once ridiculed as a “wasteland,” was maturing into story telling that was deeper, richer and more nuanced.  The wasteland was flowering.  The intellectuals were wrong.

2) This will change many of the rules by which we make culture.  So what are the new rules?

I mean to investigate these changes and see if I can come up with a new set of rules.  See yesterday’s post on how we have to rethink complexity and casting in TV if we hope to make narratives that have any hope of speaking to audiences and contributing to culture.  Think of me as a medieval theologian struggling to codify new varieties of religious experience.

3) The number of people who can now participate in the making of culture has expanded extraordinarily.  

This argument is I think much discussed and well understood.  We even know the etiology, chiefly the democratization (or simple diffusion) of the new skills and new technology.  What happens to culture and the rules and conventions of making culture when so many other people are included, active, inspired and productive?  We are beginning to see.  Watch for codification here too.   (As always, I will take my lead for Leora Kornfeld who is doing such great work in the field of music.)

4)  We must build an economy that ensures that work is rewarded with value.

I have had quite enough of gurus telling us how great it is that the internet represents a gift economy, a place where people give and take freely.  Two things here.  1) The argument comes from people who are very well provided for thanks to academic or managerial appointments.  2) This argument is applied to people who are often obliged to hold one or more “day jobs” to “give freely on the internet.”  Guru, please.   Let’s put aside the ideological needle work, and apply ourselves to inventing an economy that honors value through the distribution of value.

I have made this sound like a solitary quest but of course there are many thousands of people working on the problem.  Every creative professional is trying to figure out what he or she can do that clients think they want.  I am beginning to think I can identify the ones who are rising to the occasion.  They have a certain light in their eyes when you talk to them and I believe this springs from two dueling motives I know from my own professional experience, terror and excitement.

Thanks

To Russell Duncan for taking the photograph.

Hacking culture (an April Fool’s edition)

EmberAds like this are springing up in Toronto as people contemplate the prospect of another term for Mayor Rob Ford.

Ridicule is the order of the day.  A decade ago, this would have taken place in Toronto bars and pubs.  (In this once Scottish Presbyterian outpost, spirits and mockery used to meet every day after work.)  But, hey presto, nowadays people can do a pretty good replica of the campaign sign.

What changed?  Well, everything, mostly.  The technology is there.  Anyone can find a printer willing to bang out campaign signs.  But the important change was the willingness to ape the experts and make culture for ourselves.  People were once cowed.  Making a campaign sign, not just for politicians anymore.

When culture was official, we didn’t dare presume.  We didn’t dare make it or fake it or board it or hijack it, borrow it or make off with it, or “have a little fun with it.” We didn’t dare hack it.  Now we do.

Ember

Phil Jones inserted himself in someone else’s real estate ads.

Goofy realtor smile.  Matching shirt and tie.  Bad mustache.  Ill fitting wig, and all.  Phil missed nothing.

Ember

People have made their own  memorials on Brooklyn Bridge.

D-I-Y memorials. Hacking public space for private purposes? That’s something.

 

UNICEF hacked the vending machine

Ember

A Harvard student hacked the tour of the Yale campus.

Andre Levy, a Brazilian living in Germany, managed to hack the coin of the realm.   His art now goes everywhere.

Ember

See more of Andre’s work at talesyoulose.tumblr.com.   

The hacking thing begins, for near-history purposes, with the advent of Punk.  Irreverent fans watched a band on stage and said, “Oh, I could do that, only like, way, way worse!”

And remember that jewel of the digital world in the 1990s when  everyone was wowed by All Your Base Are Belong To Us?  I remember several people saying, “Oh God, anyone can make an ad!”

That’s another difference.  Our standards have gone up.  We can all  dispatch a campaign sign, a painted coin, even a rehabilitated vending machine.  This used to be the kind of thing that only MIT engineering students could pull off.  Prankster acumen, even this is being democratized.

The spirit of hacking is everywhere.  It manifests itself even in your niece who bangs out NCIS fan fic effortlessly and with no sense that she is trespassing on anyone’s creative patch. Every consumer is now a producer, or near enough.

Everyone is in possession of the skill and the gumption to hack culture.  It’s just a question of imagination.   More and more, the public world looks like an opportunity for intervention.  And for the rest of us, everyday will call for the wariness we exercise on April Fool’s Day.  Could this be what it seems?  Or is my culture being hacked.

Post script

Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for letting me know about Toronto campaign signs.

Speaking of hacking Toronto politics, there is a great experiment taking place on Twitter.  It’s the work of someone (I will name him if he lets me) who has taken the name of Bert Xanadu and the persona of the Mayor of Toronto circa 1973.  Follow him as  @moviemayor.  It’s like Groucho got a Twitter account.

For more on hacking culture, see my book Culturematic.

Minerva winner (3)

BW CreamtoneThis is winner 3 of the Minerva contest.

Congratulations, Mariu Rodriquez

The What, How and Why Behind Kim and Lena.
Mariu Rodriquez

As I grabbed my binder full of random article about the different trends, artifacts and currencies of our culture, or at least the microcosm that I am part of – one filled by people’s magazine subscribers, WSJ’s marketplace readers, movie theater frequenters, and Rottentomatoes.com customer base – I thought to myself: I got this, I know her story, I watch her show and I’m fairly perceptive. Little did I know the place where both of them where about to take me.

Let’s start with the most striking differences. Kim; girly, curvy, sexy and glittery, resembles the classic full glam Hollywood style when women lived their everyday in perfect makeup. Lena, ladylike as well, presents herself in a colorful and quirky Brooklyn style.

Kim’s tone of voice is soft, she is poised, doesn’t swear much and is neutral and almost laconic about many things, from voting (her first-time vote was in Obama’s initial run) to even her haters’ nastiest comments. On the contrary, Lena is completely outspoken, spontaneous and opinionated. She speaks her mind out in an “I’ve always found paella kind of pretentious…” kind of way.

In terms of social class, it seems fair to say that Kim belongs to a “lower-upper” segment, often characterized by the need to get attention and “guard” their status through material possessions. Lena belongs to an artistic elite, both her parents are artists, a couple of her writings have appeared in the sophisticated and notable “The New Yorker,” and she even appeared in the “super snob” Vogue magazine at eleven, as part of a reportage about fashionista teens.

Another radical difference between the two is their stand on feminism. Lena is an openly feminist and Kim approved the idea of posing for Playboy because “sex is powerful and I think it’s empowering.” (Brockes, 2012)

Lastly, Kim could teach us all a master class on branding; every aspect of her persona – including her businesses – is consistent with her value proposition: “the full glam experience.” Dash – her store – does not have many items, but it is strategically stocked with products that attract girly teens that collect bottled water with the sister’s pictures in them. This is by no means a marketing trick because Kim is herself the personification of the full glam experience.

In terms of branding, Lena is not there yet. Even though her show, writings, movies and even twitter account share the same honesty and soul search, I do not think she is purposely committed to make her offering a revenue generating machine.

Loaded with differences, I am now ready to pass the torch to my deeper observer and unifier. From a personal standpoint, Kim and Lena are both relatable. Yes, Kim is financially well off and her lifestyle is completely aspirational to most of us, yet the dynamics inside her family, the sometimes rivalry and more often alliances, respect and closeness between each member are aspects one can relate to, either by experience or by wishful thinking.

Her type of show, classified by Susan Murray as a “docusoap,” is scripted and filled with artificial locations but it gives us access to real people, a family that is genuinely close and whose members at some point get tired of posing. This makes Kim as a brand, human and approachable.
(Murray & Oulette, 2009)

At the same time, Lena represents that stage in life when we need to find who we are at our very core and need our friends to share the journey with us. Be it to end a relationship, to find a job or just to go down the spiral of self-discovery, this is a stage we all can relate to as well. Aware or not, we all want to be as true to ourselves as possible.

From a sociological standpoint, they both serve as social factors in the socialization process of millennials. According to Durkheim, “individuals internalize cultural models of society and after assimilating these rules, they convert them into their own personal rules of conduct and behavior in life”. In this sense, Lena and Kim are opening the path of authenticity and family closeness for millenials to follow, and in a broader sense, are helping society rethink these values. (Farzaneh, 2013)

Perhaps in the future, we might see more closely tied families, nurtured by authentic relationships, which main challenge would be finding a technological bridge between generations.

They are also modeling our vision of entrepreneurship. Murray said that a reality star is an entrepreneur trying to establish a brand. However, I would argue that only when these stars have enough reach to impact a portion of their audience’s behavior and when its proposal is innovative enough is when they jump from being an independent business owner to being an entrepreneur.

Some wonder what is Kim’s innovation? It is definitively not a product or service, but rather an ability to cut through the judgmental clutter of being famous for nothing and build her persona around the fulfillment of accumulating experiences in life. Her show, her marriages, her brands, her latest Christmas Card photo shoot are not mere eccentricities but an urge to cease every opportunity that enriches life, her proposal is about accumulating interesting experience.

Perhaps this value proposition is made out of thin air, but it is a successful representation of what many millennials stand for today, especially when the Great Recession of 2008 made them rethink about what’s important in life.

Finally, let’s revisit the infamous narcissism of millenials. In a recent article, Emily Asfahani and Jennifer Aaker pointed out how new data is shifting this perception and showing instead that “millenials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning than …happiness.” (Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker, 2013)

Meaning is about having a purpose, value, impact and connecting to a higher purpose, others, even the world. The key though is that “there are many sources of meaning…that we all experience day to day, moment to moment, in the form of these connections.” (Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker, 2013)

So yes, Kim and Lena are big time narcissists, but don’t we all need to see the light in ourselves in order to connect to the light in others, thus create meaning?

References:

1. Emma Brockes. Kim Kardashian: my life as a brand. The Guardian, Friday 7, September 2012.
2. Susan Murray and Laurie Oulette. Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. New York University Press, 2009. Pp 67
3. Arash Farzaneh. http://suite101.com/a/the-influence-of-society-on-the-individual-a70121
4. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/03/fashion/on-this-hit-show-the-clothes-make-the-girls.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1385673975-o+X83lPFl8RbTgoeTuTX9w
5. http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/girls-lena-dunham-2012-4/
6. Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker. Millenial Searchers. The New York Times, Sunday 1, December 2013.

Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham: compare, contrast, explain (a Minerva essay contest)

Flock-O-MinervasAssignment 1:

Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham.  Compare, contrast, explain.

Prize: a Minerva prize and statue

Who may enter: anyone may enter.  Just send us an essay that answers the question.  Send your answers to grant27@gmail.com.

Deadline for submissions: December 15, 2013

Fuller details:

Designers, anthropologists, strategists, ethnographers, writers, artists, activists, musicians, digitists, and other cultural creatives live or die by their knowledge of culture.  The more we know, the more adroitly we know it, the deeper our mastery of this knowledge and the forces that produce it, the more surely we will flourish.

So here’s a test of your knowledge.  Who are Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham?  As young American celebrities, they are conspicuous parts of popular culture.  They express trends already in motion “out there.”  This makes them cultural “effects.”  But they also shape and clarify things that are beginning to emerge.  This makes them cultural “causes.”

Who are these women and what do they say about our life and times?  What are the causes (trends, events, developments) of which they are effects?  And what are the effects (trends, events, developments) of which they are causes?  What shaped them, what are they shaping?

You’ve got lots to work with.  These women have made many stylistic choices, in voice, language, clothing, emotional style, music, make-up, hair, homes, bars, neighborhoods, restaurants, rituals, ceremonies, friends, boyfriends, husbands, celebrity.  They have fashioned detailed, vivid, public personae.  X-ray these, please.  These are very different public performances.  Review them, please.  At the very least we are looking at very different visions of femaleness.  Give us the what and the how.  And the why.

We are not looking for ridicule.  Kardashian and Dunham are high profile and attract lots of comment and some derision.  That’s not our job.  Nor is this a popularity contest.  We don’t care if you like one of these women more than the other.  Your job is to write a beautifully thoughtful, balanced, dispassionate, detailed, insightful piece that might help someone in the year 2113 figure out who these women were and “what they stood for.”

The differences will be readily apparent.  The similarities perhaps not so much.  But it’s worth remembering that these women come from the same culture, they live in (roughly) the same moment.  Honor the differences but see if you can spot the commonalities.  (And marvel that American culture can produce two entirely credible woman who are so dramatically different.)

Assignment 2:

Tell me what the world looks like if you are Kim Kardashian.  Tell me what it looks like if you are Lena Dunham.  Report what their experiences, and views of the world, are from the inside out.  Feel free to comment on any or all of the following; voice, language, clothing, emotional style, music, make-up, hair, homes, bars, neighborhoods, restaurants, rituals, ceremonies, friends, boyfriends, husbands, and/or celebrity.

This is the “identity” version of the question.  Some people found Assignment 1 inaccessible.  My fault.  So, if you prefer, treat this second assignment as your question.  One way to do this is to give us a 300 word diary entry for Kardashian and a 300 word entry for Dunham.  Give us 400 words (give or take) of annotation for things in the diary entry.  As in “KK prefers to shop here at [Tiffany’s?] because…”  and “we believe this hairstyle became fashionable in the south of France about 12 months ago.  It entered the US style scene and KK’s world through the dance scene and specifically Club [X] in Los Angeles.  We believe this style matters because…”

Assignment 3:

What should the question have been here?  What was the best way to invite people to compare, contrast and explain Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham.

In both cases:

We only want 1000 words.  Because if it’s good enough for a Oxbridge college, it’s good enough for us.  The winner will win a Minerva statue and a measure of immortality as a Minerva winner.  (Hey, it will look good on your c.v.)

The Minerva Judges:

Caley Cantrell, BrandCenter, Virginia Commonwealth University

Noah Cruickshank, AV Club

Janet Kestin, Swim

Leora Kornfeld, Harvard

Adrian Ho, Zeus Jones

Ruby Strong, Lord Byng

Nancy Vonk, Swim

CxC (the culture and commerce exchange)

This is a note for people who are visiting this blog as a result of the conversation I just had with Jack Conte of Pomplamoose.

Welcome!

Jack and I were noting three things:

1.  The world of commerce (specifically ad agencies and corporations) need a new kind of meaning for advertising and marketing campaigns.  What they need are hand crafted or artisanal meanings.

2.  The world of culture is filled with lots of cultural producers capable of producing these artisanal meanings.

3.  The world needs is some exchange that specializes in matchmaking, bring these two parties together. 

The question is: who is going to build this exchange?

At a minimum, it takes a team of people who canvas two groups, the advertisers on the one hand, the cultural producers on the other.

Would love to hear thoughts and comments below.

Thanks again to Jack for the chat!

Thanks also to Leora Kornfeld who invented the "CxC" formula several years ago.