4 Ways To Know If You’re Making Content Or “Culturematics”

Grant McCracken is an anthropologist, author, and research affiliate at MIT. His upcoming book, Culturematic, talks about the rise of a new kind of culture-making machine. In an excerpt, he describes culturematics and what we can learn from them about creating breakthrough ideas.

4 Ways To Know If You’re Making Content Or “Culturematics”

A Culturematic is a small machine for making culture. We use them to create new messages, new memes, new products, new services. We fire our Culturematic into the deep space of an inscrutable future and wait to see. Most will keep going. But some will phone home. Ah, we say, there’s something out there.


Culturematics have created some of the most vigorous innovations. They have helped invent Fantasy Football, reality TV, community in Greensboro, Alabama, Burning Man, ROFLCon, the rebirth of SNL, Wordle, the Ford Fiesta Movement, Gatorade’s “Replay” and Twitter. They mark the rebirth of ingenuity and a new chapter of innovation. All of this from tiny experiments which in the first place look a bit odd, a little strange.

Here are (four) properties that define something as a Culturematic. Not every Culturematic has all properties, but most of them have most of them.

1. Culturematics start playing in our heads immediately

Culturematics capture our attention. They leap to the mind’s eye. Most of all, they engage us with a problem we begin to solve the moment we hear of it. This means, among other things, that they make good titles for books. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. “Hmm,” we say, “How would that work?” Alisa Smith, the author, could have called her book Eat Where You Live, as Lou Bendrick did. Or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life as Barbara Kingsolver did. But neither of these works quite as well as The 100-Mile Diet. It’s “catchy” and we’re caught. The title inducts us into a problem.

Culturematics can also prove catchy because they have an inherent drama. This is what makes the Gatorade “Replay” event so compelling. Replaying a game that ended in a tie? Fifteen years after the fact? In a community obsessed with football? With athletes beyond their prime? This is instantaneously interesting.


2. Culturematics make the world manageable

Is there anything vaster than the vastness of the heavens? Probably not. So when it came time to ask people to help search those heavens, the SETI community had its work cut out for it. The “baby step” principle tells us that humans are sensitive to moments when the scale of a problem threatens to render their action insignificant. In fact even trace elements of futility will cause most humans to give up and go home. Searching the vastness of space? Oh, please.

Someone on the SETI team (and I wish I knew who) had the good idea of making the world’s biggest problem tidy and bite sized. As if to say, “We don’t want you to search all the world. We just want you to search this tiny part of it.” To which we reply, “Ah, that we can do.”

When Julie Powell tired of life in Queens, she resolved to do the recipes of Julia Child. This is a gigantic undertaking, to do and to read about. Julie decided to do one recipe a day for a year. Not so gigantic. When Morgan Spurlock resolved to test the nutritional powers of a McDonald’s diet, he could have eaten there for an indefinite period. He could have eaten there for one year. He chose instead to eat at McDonald’s for a month. There is something about this duration that makes the thing plausible, somehow more thinkable.

United Way takes our philanthropic dollar and spends it on something for someone. We have no way of telling who the recipient is and what good our dollar creates for them. DonorsChoose invites us to help buy a projector for the Mrs. Miller’s third grade classroom in P.S. 293 in Rochester, New York. One act of philanthropy is abstract. The other is about as particular as, well, the kids in Mrs. Miller’s third grade class in P.S. 293. And that’s very particular, not to mention noisy and rambunctious.


In 2005 Kyle MacDonald was 28 and living in Montreal where he worked as a fridge deliveryman. For reasons of his own, he placed a notice on Craigslist saying that he wished to trade a single red paper clip for a house. And then he started to barter. The clip became a pen, which Kyle traded for a doorknob which eventually became a stove. By 2006, MacDonald had traded all the way up to a role alongside movie actor Corbin Bernsen. And that’s what he traded for a house in Saskatchewan. It’s a little like a serial Rube Goldberg, isn’t it? A child’s vision of the economy, with the abstractions called “work” and “value” made literal and visual.

The poet Frank O’Hara wrote a series called Lunch Poems. Each day, he walked out of his Manhattan mid-town office to the Olivetti show room, and composed a poem.

This inspired the photographer Gus Powell.

For the past few years I have worked behind a desk not far from where O’Hara once sat. After I was given O’Hara’s book, my lunch breaks started to get longer. Sliding out of the revolving door I found myself transformed into a hungry sailor with one hour of liberty from his ship. Some days the sidewalk offered a dramatic or romantic one-act play; a pedestrian might fall, a couple might kiss…but most of the time I was looking at people who walked towards and away from me. The quiet gestures of strangers in daylight became significant, and these photographs became my lunch pictures.

Making these poems and photographs hour-bound performs two simplifications. It says to the artist, “here, you don’t have to address everything. Just do what you can in a lunch hour.” And it says to us, “look, this is not art about everything. It’s about a lunch hour in New York City.” And then gave themselves to a certain Culturematic openness. They turned New York City into an editing machine.


3. Culturematics are something we want to try

Poetry and photography are difficult for most of us. But putting them in a lunch hour make them manageable and something we can imagine doing. Culturematics have a you-could-do-this-too quality. They make us wonder, almost involuntarily, “What would that be like?”

But of course we still follow the exploits of our heroes, astronauts, quarterbacks and winners of the Tour de France. We admire these people precisely because they do what we cannot. But increasingly we are interested in expanding the things we can do. Call it our vanity. In a post-modern world the measure is “me.” Could I do this? What would it be like if I did this?

Often this ends up as a kind of surrogate experience seeking, to be sure. We are not really going to eat all our meals for a month at McDonald’s. We are not going to drive our cars until they run out of gas. But we are pleased to imagine doing this, if only for a moment. And even more pleased to have someone do it for us. So we don’t have to. We get the pleasure of seeing what it would be like, without having to eat all those fries.

This is one of the reasons reality TV has done so well. We are now in a position to see what it would be like to be a) an ice road trucker, b) young designer, c) a crazy kid on the Jersey Shore, d) a sous chef in a high powered restaurant, and e) an explorer lost in the wilderness. Sometimes all on the same evening. Culturematics honor this new condition of our culture: that no one is excluded, anyone can participate at least by an act of the imagination.

Culturematics are riding a clear cultural trend. We have a new appetite for experience. We are no longer a culture that prizes conformity. We cultivate a multitude of selves. We take this as our due.


4. Culturematics like order out of accident

One of the things about Culturematics is their affection for a disorderly order. The Rube Goldberg contraptions, for instance, are “wonky.” There’s no rhyme or reason to what goes into them. It can be a cue ball, bowling ball or a hatbox. As long as it rolls, it doesn’t matter. Heterogeneity is the order of the day.

Reality TV is quite deliberately about emergent order. We don’t know the outcome of 7 kids in a household, who is going to win the Amazing Race, or who the next American Idol will be. That’s the advantage of reality TV over scripted TV. The outcome is not predestined. Burning Man is about setting a start point and then seeing what happens, and the diversity of what happens is breathtaking.

Culturematics sometimes look like the “emergent order” contemplated by the physicists at the Santa Fe Institute. Emergent order is messy, multiple, noisy and complex. Culturematics, too. They are generative grammars that create lots of surface speech. They are designed to be prolific, to take up as much of the world as possible, and, sometimes, to take over as much as the world as possible.

Why? Surely, it’s because Culturematics are exploratory. They go looking for something, anything in our noisy future.

Summing up

Culturematics start small. The Blair Witch Project cost $20,000 to shoot, and around $500,000 to complete. In a Hollywood where the average blockbuster is now $100 million, these are ludicrous numbers. Culturematics are often puny, typically funded out of someone’s spare time and modest resources. Happily, at this stage, Culturematics often take only tiny investments to initiate and sustain.


Culturematics can be counter-intuitive and even downright puzzling. Burning a wooden man on a beach. It looks very like a mere literary device (or stunt). But the oddity of the Culturematic is deliberate. It’s this oddity that makes it a useful test for atmosphere, to see what the world will sustain. Culturematics are odd to a purpose.

Culturematics are an excellent way to respond to an inscrutable world. They allow us to produce small and inexpensive outcomes. We may not know exactly what we want, but with Culturematics, we don’t have to. Culturematics will generate a range of options and we can choose. We will “know it when we see it.” And if we can’t see it, never mind. Culturematics put a range of outcomes before the consumer, user, reader, or fan, and they will “know it when they see it.”

But we don’t love Culturematics merely because they are adaptive. We love them because they are charming. They engage us. At a time when so many things look predictable and even jejune, Culturematics are interesting and fun. When someone announces that he intends to eat all his meals at McDonald’s, we say, “Really?” and rock forward. We want to hear what happens next. Spurlock could have given us a laborious treatment of the fast food industry and the American diet. Instead, he created a Culturematic.

Culturematics may look like stunts, but this accusation will appeal only to those wedded to old models of creativity. Culture may once have come from tortured artists living in unheated garrets, from the deep well, that is to say, of individual inspiration. And by this convention anything that is not from the artist’s well is inauthentic, a cheat, perhaps even a con. But the Culturematic is “stunt-like” to a purpose. It allows us to turn an idea loose in the world and to see where it takes us.

Culturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, A Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football, Burning Man, The Ford Fiesta Movement, Rube Goldberg, NFL Films, Wordle, Two And A Half Men, A 10,000-Year Symphony and ROFLCon Memes Will Help You Create And Execute Breakthrough Ideas will be published in May by Harvard Business Review Press. This is a condensed excerpt.