Smoot metrics: new measurements for culture and commerce


Anyone who wants to read the dynamism of our culture knows that numbers are essential. But we also know that some of the most useful numbers are hard to come by.   

I would like to propose we consider a new set of metrics.  Let’s call them “smoot metrics,” after the MIT student Oliver R. Smoot, Jr.   

Oliver was a freshman at MIT in 1958.  His fraternity brothers decided to use him as a way to measure the Harvard Bridge.  Rolling Oliver head over heals the length of the bridge, they determined the bridge was 364.4 smoots plus an ear (see below).  

The likeable thing about the smoot measurement system is that it is at once deadly earnest and entirely whimsical.  This makes it perfect for our purposes.

I was walking across the Harvard Bridge (pictured with appallingly healthy undergraduates) on Friday night with Henry Jenkins and Robert Kozinets (we were not running) when our conversation moved me to say I wished we had a smoot measurement for the creativity taking place in the world.  How many people engaged in how many creative endeavors in the creation of how many cultural artifacts…what would this number look like?  More to the point, why don’t we have one?

It is commonplace in media, culture, and marketing circles to remark upon how many people are now engaged in creative activities and how good their activities often are.  We have lots of ways of explaining this development. It marks the continuing democratization of an aristocratic privilege, the growing strength of what Bell called expressive individualism, the multiplication of venues and the decline in the costs of production, gatekeeper elites, and other "barriers toSmoots entry.”

By some reckoning, it was the rise of Punk that sounds the "all clear" signal.  Now anyone could, and everyone should, pick up a guitar and “have at it.”  It doesn’t matter how bad we are, the point is to get up on the stage and let rip. Rock stardom…not just for musicians anymore. This was the DIY (do it yourself) spirit now legitimized

What I don’t think anyone appreciated was how good this DIY stuff would become.  I think the general assumption was that we would live in a two-tier world, with a great no man’s land between the professionals on high and the amateurs below. 

Boy, were we wrong.  I was at a wedding some years ago in Canada when three brothers roasted the groom with quality material.  At PopTech a couple of years ago, the resident comedian Rocket Boy complained that all the speakers were doing pretty good material. 

Every time someone holds a contest inviting people to submit their own films or make their own ads, I think the judges are a little chastened that so much of the stuff should be so good.  They know that it is only accidents of biography that puts them on the panel and not in the crowd.  An awful lot of DIY work turns out to be "performance grade."  (It is precisely this rise in quality that makes the cocreation branding process vastly less risky and much more interesting.)

We live in a period of cultural efflorescence.  For cultural purposes, this is a Cambrian era.  It would be nice to have a number that helps us track this productivity.  Does it rise steadily?  Does it change with the decades and the state of popular culture?  Does it change with each generation?  We would need to measure print, video, music for a minimum.  YouTube would be a great place to start, with the very film festivals as a follow up.  It would be great to find out from Ed Cotton at Butler Shine how many submissions for Converse "make your own ad" competition there were. 

Then of course we need a big board on which to plot this and other stuff.  I mean, how else can we hope to keep track of our exceedingly dynamic culture?


With thanks for the photo of Harvard Bridge, here.

4 thoughts on “Smoot metrics: new measurements for culture and commerce

  1. Candy Minx

    Years ago…somewhere… Coppola said the future of film making will be a little girl with a home video recorder winningat Cannes. I’m sure I murdered my paraphrase but he said something like that. How right he was.

    The only problem is…and I hate to reprise my role of representing “the coomon folk” or “regular folk” or of which I am…but we always were talented! It’s not that we suddenly got all talented one day. I’ve been to endless weddings and almost all of them had wicked funny speeches(but then thats the national identity of Canadians, self depricating humour) No the human soul and experience makes each one of us intelligent and artistic. But we have had centuries of academia and caste systems that restricted voices. Technology tweaking has helped us regular folks come into the mainstream again. The most famous “regular folk” was perhaps Shaespeare and he was memorizing Ovid at nine years old ause children CAN and that used to be considered a good education. Now with reality tv shows like Survivor and Top Chef, we see how much intelligence(and folly ok…) there is in regular folks. But we’ve seen this before the shock… of a Dolly Parton or 5oCent or Eminem coming from “nothing” and writing poetry and incredible lyrics. Web boards have exposed the myth of the “layreader” as another example. I’ve participated for ten years on what began as a forum for profs and professionals who were fans of Cormac McCarthy. Often there was heated debates and resentment because of the internet the public and so-called layreaders were beginning to particpate and how could they possibly have a “close reading”. It took awahile but a slow mutual admiration society has built up between the “experts” and the non-professionals at that book forum.

    What about the blues? And rock? Quintin Tarrantino?

    No we were always here, just now we have our own cameras and venues.

    I think maybe we’ll see more and more grass roots kind of feel in product making and in consummerism. I don’t know, I’m lousy at predicting the future but I can imagine that people will want to have a cache of something not mainstream…homespun, but not on the level of macrame or grannies knitted torture slippers…but in music and art. More and more people understand that it isn’t institutionalized education or corporate beliefs that make one talented, or an “expert’. Those things sure don’t guarantee making a living either. Anyone really can be a star.

  2. edward cotton


    We received about 1600 entries after 18 months. More interesting was the geographic diversity- we’ve gotten! films from Austria, Italy, South Africa and we thought early on it was going to be US only. This number is small compared to GM and Mastercard, but they invested heavily in promoting their efforts ATL. All our efforts were WOM and grassroots.

    While on the subject. I remember a lecture from John Seely Brown (ex PARC) where he showed the class the most moving film he had ever seen- it was a 6 min short made by an American teenager who was distressed with ow much pressure her parents were putting on her to achieve good grades.

    John’s conclusion- filmaking is a new language and should be taught in all schools.



  3. Grant

    Candy Minx, thank you, excellent points, may I read into evidence the Kitsilano Show Boat, a Vancouver feature that invited people to make a spectacle of themselves on Wednesday evenings, and may still, for all I know. It was amazingly bad. Amateurs were amateur, in the most withering sense of that term. We don’t use that term very much any more bec. it is pejorative and doesn’t apply. So I think. Is this not the lesson of all your base are belong to us, among other things. But thanks. Best, Grant

    Ed, thanks very much for those details. I remember looking at some of the Converse ads and thinking, wow, some of this is really good. I’m with you and Mr. Seeley. Except of course that we don’t need to teach this sort of thing in schools because people manage to learn it on their own. So you could say we have even learned to learn with new sophistication. What happened? Floride, possibly? Yes, that must be it. Best, Grant

  4. Candy Minx

    Oh my god, Kitsilano don’t know junt. I don’t think they still do that now though, they are too busy lining up at Starbucks. I didn’t know what this meant “the lesson of all your base belong to us” sorry…but I think what I liked most about this entry was that because of inexpensive and accessible products we are able to see how amazing folks are around the world. Um, also I am remeinded of how when it comes to astronomy and conservation these practices are good examples of how the dialogue betwee experts, academia and non-professionals but dedicated participants is so crucial. We have stars, animal patterns being observed by people who have the time and opportunity often not available to people busy writing papers, tenure seeking or teaching.

    cheers hope y’all have nice weather, its spring rain here in Chi-town

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