Significant Objects: Assessing the early results

[The below cross-posted at Significant Objects]

s.o.Significant Objects launched one week ago — which means the auctions for our five opening-day items have ended.

Let’s take stock, shall we?

For all the items we’re listing, the opening price is the amount we paid for the object at a thrift store, yard sale, or whatever. The Sanka ashtray with story by Luc Sante was priced at $1, ultimately sold for $17.79. Matthew Battles wrote about a Candyland labyrinth game that cost a mere 29 cents. It sold for $11.50. The cow-shaped creamer with story by Lucinda Rosenfeld was $1, and sold for $26; The JFK bust that Annie Nocenti wrote a story about cost $2.99, and also went for $26. The 50-cent “Chili cat” for which Lydia Millet invented significance was purchased for $22.72.

Now, I would certainly agree with the comments to the Freakonomics blog’s item about this project that this not a new way for writers to make a living. But of course we never had any idea that someone would suggest such an interpretation: This is a creative project, not a business plan!

That said, let’s face it: People are finding new value in these Significant Objects. There are a lot of other things you can buy for $26, but bidders found enough significance in some of these things-with-stories to spend it here. Just for fun, consider the results in percentage terms. The Sanka ashtray was worth 1,679% more with Luc Sante-added significance. And Matthew Battles’ invented backstory to the Candlyand game boosted its value by more than 3,800%!

Of course that’s just one way to measure such things. And it’s even harder to pick apart the exact nature of this new value. The story is a factor, and so, perhaps, is the devotion of a given storyteller’s fan base. The object itself comes into play: Some must be more pleasing on their own merits than others. And of course there’s secondary attention: Last week this project was written up in The New Yorker’s books blog, BoingBoing, and so on. How much impact does that have? Eyecube raised some interesting related questions about all this. (Others have, too, check the sidebar on for more links to what others have said.)

What do you think? Please share your comments and theories at (Or post on your own blog/etc. and let us know.)

Meanwhile, we’re very excited that people are in fact buying — the writers involved in this project contributed stories in a spirit of fun and adventure without knowing what would happen, and we of course want the amazing work they did to be appreciated. Two more auctions will end tomorrow, both pieces I like quite a bit: Mark Frauenfelder’s story about a miniature bottle, and Ben Greenman’s on a smiling mug. Also, if the prices I mentioned above sound intimidating, check out some of the other stories, because in my opinion there are still a number of surprising bargains.

And after all this talk about bidding and monetary value, it’s important to close with a different thought: This project is not about the profit motive. The contributors to Significant Objects are coming up with a startling array of great stories, and we’re publishing a new one every day. In fact James Parker’s story will be posted momentarily. So keep coming back to read and enjoy them, and even comment on them, whether you intend to bid or not.

Get stories daily by email by signing up here, or follow Significant Objects on Twitter at @SignificObs.


  • Zoning Out Is a Crucial Mental State: The interesting part comes on the second page: “The fact that both of these important brain networks become active together suggests that mind wandering is not useless mental static. Instead, Schooler proposes, mind wandering allows us to work through some important thinking. Our brains process information to reach goals, but some of those goals are immediate while others are distant. Somehow we have evolved a way to switch between handling the here and now and contemplating long-term objectives. It may be no coincidence that most of the thoughts that people have during mind wandering have to do with the future.”
  • Skin Whitening A Global Practice: Fascinating NPR segment: “Commercials and advertisements for skin lightening products are often not shy about suggesting the lighter the skin, the more likely the chances of meeting a beautiful girl or landing a dream job. One ad for Active White shows a woman with glowing white skin after using the product and then asks, “What man could resist her?” And another controversial ad for Emami’s Fair and Handsome that ran in India in 2007 showed the most famous Bollywood actor trying to wipe away the skin of a dark brown man’s face.”
  • How The Average U.S. Consumer Spends Their Paycheck: Graphic form.
  • These links compiled via delicious, and repurposed here with plug-in Postalicious. Not enough stuff? Not the stuff you wanted? Try visiting,, and/or the Consumed Facebook page.

In The New York Times Magazine: The Uniform Project

Wearing one dress for 365 days sounds austere — but not in this case.

12consumed-190Rules stifle creativity and enforce conformity. Rules can do something else too: inspire creativity that thwarts conformity. Anyone who has observed a pack of kids in school uniforms will note the individualistic tweaks: rolled cuffs here, an accessory there; whatever loopholes in the sartorial rule book can be found are promptly exploited. Sheena Matheiken certainly noticed such things when she was just such a child, attending schools in Kerala, India, where uniforms were the rule.

In May, Matheiken, who these days is the creative director for a Web-design company in New York, started the Uniform Project, which involves wearing the same dress every day for a year, and seeing just how aesthetically creative she could be despite that limitation….

Read the column in the July 12, 2009, New York Times Magazine, or here.

Discuss, make fun of, or praise this column to the skies at the Consumed Facebook page.

[PS: PSFK has an interesting follow-up here: “While not explicitly mentioned in the interview, Matheiken’s project is an interesting social commentary on the blight of “fast fashion” (garments with less than a one year shelf life), which is wreaking havoc on our environment, textile manufacturers, and perhaps even the fashion industry itself.”]


  • Christoph Morlinghaus’ photos of mega-churches: Very nice. Via Coudal.
  • Revenge is sweet but corrosive: Study finds “while we think revenge will make us feel better after an injustice, it seems to have the opposite effect and makes us feel more unhappy.”
  • Pinakothek: Hilobrow curates a selection from Luc Sante’s “series of imaginative, incisive readings of tintype photos, 45 RPM record labels, cigarette-paper packs, torn dustjackets, and other paper ephemera unearthed from his crazy, mixed-up files.”
  • Billy Mays pitches from beyond the grave: “Sales of Mighty products have increased about 25% since Mays’ death, McAlister said. It’s unclear whether Mays’ death inspired the jump.”
  • Rebranding Africa: By Bono. That’s right — an essay called REBRANDING AFRICA. Written by BONO. I think we can all go home now.
  • Mancession:” A “recession that hurts men much more than women.” This coinage is a stretch, to put it mildly. It does not feel necessary, and it doesn’t feel linguistically natural. (Even hecession would be slightly — but not much — better.) Rather it is the awkward mushing together of two words in a way that is dischordant, instead of harmonious. It calls attention to itself in the wrong way. Thus I say that’s a portmanteau that has failed: a portmanqué.
  • These links compiled via delicious, and repurposed here with plug-in Postalicious. Not enough stuff? Not the stuff you wanted? Try visiting,, and/or the Consumed Facebook page.

Weekend reading? Significant Objects of course!

s.o.From yesterday & today:

  • Santa Nutcracker + Story by Kurt Andersen: This one might surprise you. It surprised me.
  • Pen Stand + Story by Lizzie Skurnick. Nice.
  • Necking Team Button + Story by Susannah Breslin. This has sparked a bidding war — $36.88 at last check!
  • Toy Toaster + Story by Jonathan Goldstein. “Twenty years after the man’s death, I still can’t rightly say whether my uncle Dwayne was a benevolent old-timey Grandpa Walton type or a secret sadistic performance artist.” Keep reading here.

Stop thinking about marketing; stop thinking about Twitter. Read some great stories. And have a nice weekend.


Tweeting as play

The essential criticism of Twitter, and of much Webby expression in general, is: “What a waste of time!” The endless online blurting and clicking of online is causing a culture of distraction.

I’m sympathetic to that critique: While the more hyperbolic claims that extend this argument to the it-will-rot-our-brains extreme are hard to take seriously, I also find it hard to take seriously the counter-critique that it’s all about “connecting” and “sharing,” or that having a lot of Twitter followers somehow makes you more informed or even smarter.

All of that said, I’m also open-minded. And I found myself thinking about blurty-click “communication” while listening recently to an interview with Stuart Brown, founder of something called the National Institute for Play. Here’s how he defined “play”:

I’d say play is anything that spontaneously is done for its own sake. And then one can extend that into more and more detailed definitions, such as ‘appears purposeless,’ ‘produces pleasure and joy,’ ‘leads one to the next stage of mastery.’

The interview veered off in other directions and mostly had to do with children, and with physical play.

But it seems reasonable to me that what Twitter enthusiasts and the like are doing, on some level, is simply playing. I certainly think that’s a more reasonable description than the more high-minded arguments about connecting and learning and building new kinds of relationships that lead to greater knowledge and more productivity. But what explains the seriousness of such rationales? Well, the interviewer responded to Brown’s definition by saying:

You know, you said “appears purposeless.” And I’m thinking what difficulty some parts of our culture have with anything that appears purposeless.

Yes. Twitter freaks don’t want to say, “Look, I’m just messing around. I’m goofing off. Yes, it’s a waste of time, but that’s the whole point.” Instead you get the stuff about Twitter being more important than CNN, or about new forms of community, or truth-to-power revolution, and like that. And yeah those arguments can sort of be backed up by examples — but so can counter-arguments about banality and narcisissm.

If it is play, why not just say so? Why not just say it’s fun? After all, one of the reasons “play” is always in vogue in certain business magazines is that it really is important to creativity — taking yourself out of the routine makes your thinking less rigid, etc.

Later in this same interview the issue of competition is raised, and this is often the problem with humans and play: It morphs into competition. I think Twitter and social media in general are very susceptible to this. Partly by design: Prominent display of friend-or-follower numbers and the like. And the other part is the insistence on rationalizing. Because people don’t want to be seen as doing something that “appears purposeless,” they trump up the more rational-sounding measures of importance: Building a social network, becoming better informed, tapping into resources that make one more efficient.

Grown up-sounding stuff. Stuff that sounds like it’s not fun or recreational at all. It’s related to productivity, self-improvement, information — in a word, work.


Today’s Significant Objects

s.o.I’ll stop repeating myself — or at least get back to more variety in the posts here — pretty soon.

But first:

  • Jenny Davidson writes about a toy hot dog. (“I blame it on the book: a pocket-sized lined notebook with a black matte cover, bound at the left-hand margin and with a band to hold it shut.”) For sale here.
  • Matthew Sharpe writes about a mule figurine. (“This is the statue of the mule that I have sculpted by my hands, but if you are the serious person about the hand-sculpted statues, also serious when you are knowing how to feel the deep meaning in Life, then you will see that is not really the statue of the mule.” For sale here.

The hot dog is an incredible bargain, still at its opening 12-cent price (that’s what it cost at the thrift store). The mule figurine has already been bid up to $11.


  • Empathy FAIL: Virtual reality experiment results: “After this brief immersive experience, White participants who’d assumed a new identity as a Black person, and seen their new identity in the mirror, showed increased implicit racial bias.”
  • And now, Michael Jackson’s final product endorsement: “The Promethian—the top-of-the-line model of Indiana’s Batesville Casket Co.—can be had by anyone willing to plunk down the $25,000 it costs to have one. When you call, just ask for model no. Z94-665-LH.”
  • Hello Kitty Taser Gun: Nuff said.
  • Trust: I thought this was a funny sentence: “Here is where the brain comes in handy.” Finally! The brain “comes in handy.” Anyway, the actual writeup here about trust and the brain is interesting.
  • Eco-friendly Picnic Pack: “The plates, cups and bowls are made from 100% sugar cane fiber (bagasse), the utensils are produced with potato starch and the napkins are from recycled paper.”
  • Empowering, um, people who can afford iPhones.: “City officials will soon debut Boston’s first official iPhone application, which will allow residents to snap photos of neighborhood nuisances – nasty potholes, graffiti-stained walls, blown street lights – and e-mail them to City Hall to be fixed. City officials say the application, dubbed Citizen Connect, is the first of its kind in the nation.” Yay?
  • These links compiled via delicious, and repurposed here with plug-in Postalicious. Not enough stuff? Not the stuff you wanted? Try visiting,, and/or the Consumed Facebook page.

Significant Objects: The first stories (and bids)

s.o.We added two new stories today.

  • Ben Greenman writes about a smiling mug. (“This object is best known from its appearance in the 1939 film No News From The Navy, a comedy starring James Wilton as a hapless midshipman who cannot set aside his seafaring ways, even when he is confined to dry land as a result of an injury….”). For sale here.
  • Mark Frauenfelder writes about a miniature brandy bottle. (“Matt saw the tiny blue bottle on the third step of the main entrance to the Los Angeles Central Library. It was next to a sleeping man, obviously homeless. … “). For sale here.

These join yesterday’s first-round entries:

Read a story or two, they’re really great. And leave a comment on the Significant Objects blog. And bid on something! Even with the bids so far, these Objects are a Significant steal! (Remember, the money goes to the writer.)

The project’s Twitter feed is here; early Twitter reactions here.

Thanks for the help & support…


Short stories about thrift-store objects (that you can buy)

What makes an object meaningful? One answer is that it’s the object’s narrative, its story. I’ve written about that before on this site (and I guess I talked about it in Objectified).

But today I’m announcing another response to the question: Joshua Glenn and I are launching what I think is a pretty great experiment/art project that’s all about narratives and objects.

The project is called Significant Objects. We have rounded up a rather astonishing group of creative writers as participants. Each writer has been assigned an object — an almost-meaningless object purchased for a few dollars (tops) at a thrift store.

Each writer then invents a story about that object.

We’re putting the results on

And even better: We’re selling the objects on eBay, with the invented narrative as the product description. (It’s not a hoax, we make it very clear what’s going on.)

Today is the launch day: The first five writers are Luc Sante, Lucinda Rosenfeld, Annie Nocenti, Matthew Battles, and Linda Millet.

You can not only read the stories they have invented, you can buy the actual objects.

We’ll be publishing two more stories a day for the rest of the week, and then a story a day after that, throughout July and probably longer. This week alone there will be stories by Ben Greenman, Matthew Sharpe, Mark Fraunfelder, Susannah Breslin, Jonathan Goldstein, and Kurt Andersen, among others.

A full list of currently participating writers (we’re still signing up new contributors) is on the Significant Objects site.

I hope you’ll check it out. And I hope you’ll tell people. And I hope some of you will bid — in addition to the Significatn Object, you’ll get a copy of the story. (All proceeds go to the writer.)

[PS: You can keep up news of new releases as they become available via Twitter: @SignificObs.]