Saturday, February 03, 2007

a number of things

Nathan, at Crosstalk has invited me to join a blogging chain letter of sorts, in which I offer five things about myself that others won't know. You may as well read Nathan's explanation of the project, rather than me rewrite it in my words. I'm flattered to be one of his five, but I'm going to decline the offer (sorry Nathan!) on the basis that blogging is already a mostly self-indulgent pastime and I made a promise to myself when I started this that I would try to write things that will interest other people and avoid making it about me.

Instead, I thought I would make a few observations about the culture of these 'parameter-driven memes'. The thoughts on Crosstalk about humans' desire to solve problems are interesting. Rather than 'solutions' though, I think it's more about 'goals'. A subtle but important difference.

Re: Nathan's example, if someone asks you to "talk about yourself", the task is so open you don't know where to begin. It's the equivalent of sitting in front of an empty Google search field and being asked to look for some stuff. Look for what? The minute you have a goal, the task becomes manageable. 'Oh - look for a site about fox-hunting.'

"Talk about yourself" has no apparent goal. "Talk about yourself in order to impress me" provides a general goal. "List five things that I wouldn't know about you" is extremely specific.

Goals provide structure, which our brains need in order to avoid getting lost in a sea of possibilities. Edward De Bono, psychologist and the man to coin the phrase 'lateral thinking' has described in (initially fascinating and eventually tedious) detail how the human brain works as a "pattern-defining" tool. Our thoughts are like estuaries running off a river and whenever they find themselves flowing in an uncertain direction, they will slide back into familiar channels. These channels essentially provide the structure our brains need to operate effectively.

This is simple association: You see an arabic road sign with a script that is alien to you. The script reminds you of two men in canoe. Now you can manage the information in a way that your brain can handle. (It means 'stop', not 'row' by the way) The point of all this is that the brain is designed to create order out of uncertainty.

Parameter-driven memes like 'the five things' channel myriad possibilities into a manageable format. And the goal - rather than the solution - is clear.

As well as the task being more manageable, I suggest the following conditions also follow:
1. Effort: The smaller investment of time required for the task (and for reading other people's answers) makes you more willing to partake

2. Freedom: The format gives you 'permission' to say things that might otherwise seem self-indulgent

3. Self-expression: The restrictions encourage creativity that will be appreciated by an audience that know the given rules

Here are some other parameter-driven memes:

Two Things
Two Things is my favourite. It began on the premise that for every occupation you only really need to know 'two things'. It then spiralled beyond occupations and extended to all walks of life. For example:
The Two Things about World Conquest:
1. Divide and Conquer.
2. Never invade Russia in the winter.

The Two Things about Binary Systems:
1. 0
2. 1
And one from me:
The Two Things about 'thing culture'
1. It gives us the licence to talk about ourselves
2. Brevity ensures a captive audience

43 things

(Noticing a pattern?) 43 Things is a Webby-winning social networking site in which members build profiles based on 43 things they want to do. It was launched 43 days before January 1st and is essentially a personal resolution or wish-list orientated community. In a sense it's the opposite of Post Secret: stuff I want to do vs stuff I have done - the former about connecting with others and the latter being quite the opposite.
I originally thought 43 Things must have been based on the "43 Folders" idea - a tool for organising yourself within the cult of Getting Things Done. Apparently not - the number was apparently plucked from the air.

This last idea is something I came up with. The thinking goes like this:
Hundreds of years ago, what people had and hadn't done would have been quite predictable. Their societal role and geographical location made pre-industrial man's achievements fairly certain. But today it is not so simple.
Danger/adventure is more accessible than ever: A city banker can scale Everest and a teenage girl can jump out an aeroplane or trek across the Gobi. On the flip-side, this same generation is growing up not knowing how to cook a Risotto or make a dovetail joint. (No, you don't smoke it)

The idea of Have/Haven't is to list two things:
~ One thing people will be amazed you have done
~ One thing people will be amazed you haven't done

Some true examples:
Have: Ridden motorbikes across Germany with Dennis Hopper
Haven't: eaten an apple

Have: Pulled a man from a car crash
Haven't: Ridden a bike

Have: Learned the ancient art of Katana sword making
Haven't: had a pint of Guinness

Entries are welcome.
And for those of you that like your parameters, here's some more:

Keep it clean.
Keep it short.

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