Rob Walker Explores Narrative And The Future Of Significant Objects

What do a tiny jar of mayonnaise, a monkey hand puppet and an old pencil case have in common? Rob Walker speaks on the value-added of object storytelling.

What do a tiny jar of mayonnaise, a monkey hand puppet and an old pencil case have in common? They’re all physical objects that have the potential to create emotional, economic or utilitarian value to somebody. But how is that value synthesized through storytelling and the tools of narrative?

Rob Walker, one of the speakers at our upcoming PSFK Conference in New York, aimed to test just that as a major instigator behind Significant Objects.

As we’ve mentioned in the past, the experiment uncovers new insights on the nature of value, giving fictional history to mundane thrift store items through invented narratives about each object’s story. The items are sold on eBay, with full disclosure of their made-up stories, often at a final selling price of many times the original value.

One of the project’s unknown variables has been expanded press, and whether or not that extended visibility has affected the project’s original hypothesis. Now in its third round, and with all of the experimental data analyzed, Walker sat down with AdFreak to answer some questions on how well-known narrators gave greater significance to objects and how the project’s original hypothesis has faired.

On the reasoning behind pairing writers with random objects rather than having them use their own:

“We actually had one or two writers suggest they write about their own junk instead of ours. But it seemed like that would throw the whole experiment off—it becomes about memorabilia. We wanted to be as explicit as possible that this stuff has no actual significance; all significance purely made up.”

On how increased attention and press for Significant Objects has affected its intended narrative:

“The question about what role “the famous Significant Objects project” plays in all this is a really fascinating one, something I’ve pondered but never quite figured out. My hunch is that it’s a factor, but more along the lines of people liking the concept as opposed to, I don’t know, buying into the hype…To people who like the concept, I think the concept becomes a kind of second story for the object. So, when someone sees the absurd doodad on your shelf and asks about it, the answer is a pretty good double-narrative: the narrative of Significant Objects as this weird online experiment, and then the narrative the writer invented.”

On considering true stories of objects by non-fiction writers in the future:

“By deciding to use objects from thrift stores and yard sales, we were intentionally using things whose “real” story was basically lost…All I can say is that I do think that if we continue to do this project, we probably need to get more and more expansive about the nature of the “narrative”—but somehow do that without getting gimmicky.”

AdFreak:”Q&A: Rob Walker on the value of a narrative”

Rob will be speaking at the PSFK Conference 2010 – a Gathering for our Future. Come listen to likeminds as they share their ideas to make things better on stage and off. Find out more about the full line of of speakers at the PSFK Conference 2010 here.

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