In the old days, most of the meanings of our objects came prefab.
This what brands did for us. Brands, and the advertisers, planners, researchers, and marketers who made them.
Inevitably we would add meanings to our possessions. We might finesse the ones we found there. But mostly, anyone with the same objects had the same meanings. Thus did our material culture make our culture material.
We have since seen the rise of custom-made meanings. This is one of the reasons we like antique fairs, and farmer’s markets is that these objects have been stripped of their original meanings and taken on new, historical, ones. What used to be someone’s tea cup is now our Victorian teacup.
It’s the reason we like the tourist trinkets we bring back from vacation. These were likely hand made somewhere. That textile just says Mexico. More than that, it says, "our vacation in Mexico."
It’s also the reason we like artisanal goods, the chocolates, beer and bread that is so popular now. There are no brands here. These products take their meaning mostly from the process of hand crafting and the person who made them. These objects come with stories more than meanings and we like to tell these stories. "Well, Frank, that’s the guy who made these chocolates, he’s got that little shop down on Cambie, Frank used to be a professional football player. No, I am not kidding."
Of course this sort of thing has always been true of high end restaurants. This has always been hand crafted, unbranded (at least in so far as national brands are concerned), and meanings that come with this food are all about this very particular restaurant, chef, owner, designer, etc. Here the brand is a man or a women.
The rich like to live in a relatively unbranded world. Kitchens, furniture, bespoke tailoring, all of this is completely custom made. It’s fun to go due north on Madison, I think it is. In mid town, we are looking at branded stores, but as we hit the the upper east side, the brands fall away. Now all the shops are little and very particular. This is no brand land.
Experiments like Etsy give us a glimpse of a democratized version of this world. Now, the rest of us can own customized stuff. No brands. No manufacture in the industrial sense. What we buy from Etsy.com is unique and if its to mean something, it will be because we have invested it with meanings particular to our own lives and sensibilities.
So I was interested to note the website called Significant Objects. (Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for the head’s up.) This was invented by Joshua Glenn, Matthew Battles, Rob Walker and others in the summer of 2009. Here’s how they describe what they do. (Sorry to be vague about the founders of Significant Objects but they appear to take pains to efface their identities on the SO website. I can’t but wonder whether they are waiting for authors to supply identities for them…or at least names. Excellent strategy.)
Significant Objects has three steps:
1. The experiment’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.
2. A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!
3. Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.
The first version of Significant objects can be defined still more particularly:
Significant Objects was originally intended as an experiment exploring the relationship between narrative and value. (In fact, we didn’t think many writers would want to participate — before we launched the experiment, we listed 100 writers we knew or just admired and asked ourselves, “How do we convince/cajole/trick/browbeat these talented people into helping us with no guarantee that they’ll get anything out of it whatsoever?”) Our goal, then as now, was not simply to generate content, or to provide writers with a fun creative exercise, but instead to pair our carefully curated objects with stories that we’d curated every bit as carefully. We want the site to offer a consistently great reading experience — and we put a lot of effort into that.
The relationship between narrative and value. How very interesting. Economics is not very good on this relationship. Indeed the idea that stories can create value is a little mystifying. And this would be a good time to come to terms with this, because as I say, it is the coming thing.
I fell to thinking about a variation of the SO theme. As it stands, in what remains of the old world of marketing, a watch comes charged with some standard meanings, crafted by the CMO, the brand, agency and its creatives. Take for instance the Rolex that uses the Bond movie franchise to give the watch a certain quality of romance, danger, adventure, etc.
A SO approach would craft the meaning of the objects more particularly. The brand could engage a team of writers and have them standing by to deliver stories to the owner, perhaps on a just in time basis. What I am a buying the watch then is also a stream of stories that might come to me every day or week or month. Tomorrow, I might get an email that reads
Today your watch is owned by a functionary, a man who lives in Ottawa and works for the Canadian government. You have a secret. You have embezzled $3 million from the Canadian government. Today is actually is your last day. You wouldn’t be here, but the embezzlement will finalize today. You are nervous. Actually you’re sweating bullets. Make it through today, and you can spend the rest of your life in some sunny country that laughs in the face of the Canadian extradition. But you can’t help feeling that suspicions are flourishing. You know people are looking at you. Aren’t they? Every glance, every comment today will be charged with menace. Have a nice day.
This is narrative and I believe our Rolex is more valuable for it. As these stories change, as we enter the narratives that come with the watch, the watch becomes more and more valuable. It serves as a portal on alternative realities and multiple selves.
See the Significant Objects website here.
See the Smoking Man Figurine complete with a very interesting story by Vicente Lozano here. (this image lost in the melt down, see note below)
Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009. It was reposted December 25, 2010.