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Significant Objects

We've all curated our belongings into a museum of who we are now. What doesn’t make the cut may have ended up at a thrift shop, destined to be picked up by the right person and get a new story. Writers Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn are the right people and the brains behind Significant Objects.

 Significant Objects started with a spark of curiosity: If a cheap, quirky thrift store object has a story, will it gain monetary and emotional value? The answer is yes! With ample knowledge that writers invented the objects’ stories, people bid generously on the neglected knick-knacks via eBay, and the experiment has been a success.  Since 2009, Significant Objects has donated over four thousand in proceeds to writing non-profits, they have an archive of hundreds of objects with stories and they've just published a book featuring some of the best. 

To find out more about the project, check out the exclusive SoulPancake interview with Rob Walker below. Check out the site to read some of the really cool stories and buy the book! Or you can win it. 

CHALLENGE: In 200 words or less, write a story for the significant object in the photo above. You have until 12-05-2012. The winner gets a copy of the Significant Objects book!

SP: Was there a sort of epiphany moment that sparked you to start the project? If so, what was it?

Walker: I broke a coffee mug. It was just a nothing souvenir mug, nobody would have paid any money for it, but I was really sad when this happened, and it's because I had bought the mug on a trip with the woman I later married. In other words, the value of the mug had to do with its story. This got me thinking: If the value of an object has more to do with its story than its physical properties or its potential resale value, how far can that idea be pushed? Can you just make up stories that would make a worthless object more valuable? That was the initial thought. 

SP: It's kind of surprising to think that an object with a story, that isn't your own, would still have a personal impact. Do you think when a person adopts a Significant Object the story, in a sense, becomes true to them?

Walker: That's a really fascinating question! I think it's safe to say nobody ends up truly believing the fantasies spun around our Significant Objects are somehow factual, but it's plausible to me that there is some kind of weird spiritual "truth" that people buy into — that they bought an object because a story gave it a certain life that, while fictional, still somehow seems "right." The other factor here is that I strongly believe that buying an object also created a story — the story of "I heard about this insane project, and I just had to own some piece of it." On some level that's crazy, too, but also totally rational: If you own one of the real Significant Objects, you own something really, really special! 

SP: Is there a type of object and/or story you've found people are more receptive to?

Walker: We have this big appendix to the book where we really made a concerted effort to find patterns around this sort of thing, but according to our data, it's really unpredictable. I can best answer this with an anecdote. My partner on the project, Joshua Glenn, was usually much better at finding interesting objects, but one that he came up with was a "crumb sweeper." And I just found that appalling: Who in the world wants to own a used crumb sweeper?? But Shelly Jackson (an amazing writer) chose to write about it, and came up with this fantastic story where it was used by a werewolf. Even though I loved the story I was still not sure if people would bid -- but it sold for $30.99!

SP: Did the popularity of the writer have any impact on the sale of an object?

Walker: This is something people ask about a lot, and the answer (again, based on our crunching the numbers, as described in the appendix to the book) is: Not really. I'm sure in some cases it made a difference, but the truth is if you look at the top 25 sales, you'll recognize some names, but many are much more up-and-comers. We break that down in the book, but what we are too polite to do is get into specifics on the other end of the spectrum: If you look at the bottom 25, you might also recognize some names. The point is that I think what really mattered was some kind of connection between specific stories, and specific readers — readers, in this case, who were willing to bid. 

SP: No matter how much we hear "You can't take it with you," why do you think we still give so much value to material things?

Walker: I suppose there is some relationship between our little project and the general human-thing relationship, and it's probably about story. I have in the past made the point that if you really had to gather your very most important objects in the hours before the hurricane (or whatever) strikes, you would make your choices based on your personal story — the book your grandfather gave you, the ring that belonged to your mother, the coffee cup you bought on a trip with the person you later married. 

SP: And do you think we're better for it? What do we risk by caring so much for certain objects?

Walker: Probably the core behavior here (attachment to objects, sometimes for irrational reasons) is so deeply a part of the human animal that it's impossible to oppose. On the other hand, some people clearly get carried away — and thus, "Hoarders." Possibly it's all just a matter of perspective, and I like to think that an experiment like this one, by kind of gently interrogating the whole human-object relationship, helps us keep our perspective. 

SP: Do you think our culture is moving closer or farther away from the tradition of giving significance to physical objects?

Walker: It's gotten more complicated in the digital/screen age, hasn't it? But it may be that the possibility of replacing physical things like records with digital ones has the effect of making physical stuff more unusual and compelling as the mini-revival of records might suggest. My instinct is that much of the talk of digital-everything is hype, and our feelings about physical objects aren't really changing that much. I don't think anybody would be too excited about being offered a "virtual" wedding ring, for example. What all this makes me wonder is whether it would be possible to do a version of Significant Objects about digital stuff — would people bid on some literary equivalent of a Foursquare badge? Maybe there's a (really weird) sequel in that! 

 

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