Archive for the ‘Conceptualizing the Ordinary’ Category

Exploding roses by Benjamin Hugard

(c) Benjamin Hugard

Je cherchais un autre texte de Barthes sur mon ordinateur, et je suis tombé sur des bribes que j’ai écrites il y plusieurs années sans penser à les publier un jour. But it struck me as being dirty theory, exactly  as I have defined it here: theory mixed up with accounts of experience. So here it goes…

Barthes : Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Éditions du Seuil, Collection Tel Quel, 1977

Observation magnifiquement juste : le discours amoureux est fragmenté, manque de rationalité.
Mes sensations (présentes) :
J’ai besoin de dire d’abord mes sentiments et sensations, même si elles n’ont rien à voir avec le livre de Barthes. Me dégager de ce reflux dans mon cœur. Je prends plaisir à écrire sur un livre intelligent, même adorable, profondément sincère, semble-t-il, et qui pourtant tombe dans la facilité. Il en est de ce livre comme des Lettres à un Jeune Poète de Rilke. Lu à 15 ans, ce livre a eu une influence plus profonde sur moi que je ne le souhaiterais. Il fonctionne de la même façon: on y sent la sincérité, on y trouve sa vérité (l’auteur dit clairement des choses que nous avons pu sentir obscurément) et on est séduit. On veut croire ce qu’il dit, parce qu’on l’a déjà ressenti et on ne l’a pourtant jamais nommé aussi clairement. Mais il on court le danger d’y croire d’autant plus qu’on ne l’a jamais ressenti que de manière obscure, comme quelque chose d’enfoui en nous. Alors c’est comme si, finalement, quelqu’un mettait à jour (ce qui est vrai). Mais cela ne veut pas dire que ce qu’il met à jour est lui-même vrai. Je prends un plaisir immense d’écrire ainsi, sans objectif précis (je n’écris pas pour une publication ou évaluation future). Je pense à ce que Wittgenstein dit à propos de Freud: on le croit parce qu’on aime les choses enfouies.

Parfois, Barthes (comme Rilke) tombe dans une opposition facile, comme celle entre « complaisance mondaine », « hystérie de séduction » vs. « intimité sacrée », « vérité » (Fragments, p. 23). C’est, bien sûr, impossible. Certes, la complaisance mondaine existe, comme aussi l’intimité sacrée. Mais être dehors, dans un café n’implique pas être dans la complaisance. Il y a des rencontres fortes et importantes au dehors, des vernissages qui finissent avec une vraie rencontre, un vrai dialogue. Tout n’est pas noir et blanc, comme les sages tendent trop facilement à le peindre. Et la force de l’expression bien trouvée, comme « complaisance mondaine », risque alors de faire oublier la complexité, risque de faire oublier que d’autres cas de figure existent et que, par exemple, le mondain n’est pas toujours complaisant. Il y a toujours beaucoup de vanité dans la reconnaissance de sa propre faiblesse et vanité parce qu’on sait que beaucoup de gens se sont rarement demandés s’ils étaient complaisants dans telle ou telle situation, s’ils se laissaient trop facilement flatter, etc.
Je pense qu’il faut donc lire ces livres (Barthes, Rilke) avec l’admiration qui leur est due, mais ne pas en faire des sortes de révélations. Il faut y voir la part d’écriture et la part d’exagération (ce qui est souvent la même chose).

Belle observation : le discours amoureux brisé par une remarque commune, banale, de l’être aimé, notamment dans un environnement social, avec d’autres où il se fond parfaitement. Une facette qui apparaît qu’on n’aurait pas voulu connaître (l’exagération de la bien-aimée lorsqu’elle est avec sa meilleure amie, sa manière de parler…). Et effectivement, l’importance du registre du langage est énorme. (p.36)

« C’est l’originalité de la relation qu’il faut conquérir » (p. 44)
Belle idée encore : l’originalité de la relation mettrait à l’abri de la jalousie, parce que les autres ne seront jamais comme nous. Si j’arrive à ne plus vivre le stéréotype, je ne suis plus obligé de réagir selon les stéréotypes, être jaloux, blessé etc. comme les autres.
C’est ce qu’on aurait voulu : cette conquête. On n’a pas su s’échapper.

Le rapport assumé entre être aimé et mère. Le rapport à l’être aimé serait comme l’a été le rapport à la mère. Au lieu d’essayer de se révolter, Barthes le prend pour acquis. C’est comme ça. Comme Jocaste qui dit à Œdipe : « Qui n’a pas encore rêvé de faire l’amour avec sa mère. Qui prend pour chimères telles, etc. vit mieux la vie. » Mais, bien sûr, elle finit par se suicider quand elle découvre que ce n’est pas seulement un rêve, un présage doublement mauvais (en teneur et aussi en degré de vérité).
Observation : lorsque l’amour a cessé on attend encore l’autre, comme une douleur dans une jambe amputée, l’attente. C’est comme avec les êtres chers qui sont morts ou avec les vêtements qu’on a perdus ou qu’on nous a volés. Et la douleur pique à chaque fois que l’on se rend compte que pourtant on ne l’a plus…. (p. 49)

We can at least distinguish four species, and several sub-species of buyers. I’ll focus on the four main species: the common buyer, the nostalgic buyer, the expert buyer and the creative buyer. Although there are some individuals that exemplify all and only traits of their species, most of them display traits of different species and can shift from one to the other, even on the same visit. Different types of buyers can like the same item for different reasons, which implies that there are some objects that appeal to all categories. These should turn out to be the top-sellers at flea markets if my little theory is correct. A seller at a flea market will be much more successful if (s)he knows these categories of buyers and adapts his or her sales pitch.

Different species of buyers are naturally attracted to items of different kinds. As for characterizing items, there seem to be three main characteristics: age, originality, usefulness. We could ad beauty here, but this would get us right away into hell’s kitchen. But let’s say that the beauty (or aesthetic value) is mainly a value for the creative buyer and that for a decorative item, beauty will be part of what makes it useful.

Usefulness and originality are both relative (as is age, but to a much lesser degree). As for now, originality of an item can be defined in terms of the probability of finding a similar or identical object at the same or another flee-market. Originality is thus gradual.

To keep it simple, I define usefulness in terms of frequency of use once acquired. This definition has the virtue of relying on facts rather than value. But it cannot account for some objects that we would call tremendously useful in common speech, like a suction cup used in cleaning sinks, but that we don’t use frequently. Frequency of use is relative (to other objects) and objective, even though the decision for buying an item or not really depends on expected usefulness, which is subjective. This concept is tightly linked to the common buyer.

The common buyer just looks for a simple object to be used like another object of the same kind which (s)he could buy in a store, and the main value of getting it at a flea market will be that it’s cheaper than at the store. The common buyer will likely prefer an item that seems better suited to execute the task (s)he buys it for. Everything else being equal, (s)he will usually prefer a newer item.

There are some sellers who specialize on this species or aspect of buyer personalities. They sell cheap, out-of-the-factory items for everyday use, like toothbrushes, spoons, nails, clothing, etc.

The nostalgic as well as the creative buyers tend to ignore these sellers or even despise them (they usually also tend to display a very different habitus). The behavior of the nostalgic and the creative buyers are similar and they are often interested in the same items, but, again, for different reasons.

The nostalgic buyer can be either a collector or else a romantic. This definition is sketchy, because the nostalgic buyer is just as complex as nostalgia. (S)he finds those items most interesting which remind him or her of a preferred period of time. (S)he will thus be buy those (old) items which represent her favored period.

The expert buyer isn’t emotionally implicated in buying. (S)he buys the items whose price doesn’t reflect their market value. (S)he will either keep them and wait that their price further raises or resell them soon at another place, where (s)he gets the market value for it. (S)he is really a trader at the flea market who buys an object because (s)he thinks that it’s a good deal.

There are now specific high-brow flea markets, like Les Puces du Design in Paris, where expert buyers resell items they got at standard flea markets, often for triple the price they bought them for. People who buy there usually have more money and are willing to pay the premium for someone else having done the sorting at a more standard flea market, where most objects are without interest, and only few actually have high market and aesthetic values.

In many cases, the nostalgic buyer will be ashamed of his or her nostalgia and will pretend to buy for the same reason the expert buyer buys, especially when questioned about a specific item which appealed to him or her because of personal fancy. However, (s)he will only rarely resell an item and the people in his or her environment will end up understanding that (s)he really buys for emotional rather than commercial reasons. If they are nice, they’ll let them go on pretending that they are actually expert buyers.

The creative buyer is probably the most intriguing and complex species. A creative buyer can buy things that nearly nobody else even finds worth looking at. And (s)he’ll be all the happier if they don’t. What makes him or her feel good is that they see something nobody else does. The creative buyer will pull a half hidden item from below a heap of stuff and shout out: “This is fantastic!” or scroll through hundreds of pictures because there might be one (s)he likes.

There are at least two subspecies: the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and the artist.

The DIY likes to restore items, (s)he like the smell of glue, the sound of drilling, and the feeling of polished wood. (S)he will be happy to acquire an item, simply because (s)he likes to restore it, erasing the traces of its use, and making it look fresh. If (s)he is on the internet, (s)he’ll probably love etsy. (S)he doesn’t necessarily like the old to have the patina of the old. (S)he buys an object because of the potential (s)he sees in it.

The artist likes to feel that (s)he sees something in the item that most other people don’t see. (S)he might for example buy an old projector in cheap plastic that runs with old batteries or a host of family photos. It might neither be cheap, nor useful nor remind him or her of a favorite moment in history. It’s just that “(s)he somehow likes it”, finds it “weird” or original or that (s)he thinks: I might use this for a project some day (either as a ready-made or else to integrate it into a work). For him or her, buying an object is like for an artist to make a ready-made in the most basic sense: she or he declares it to have value – even if their museum is just their apartment.  To make things clear: (S)he doesn’t actually have to make a living on being an artist. (S)he may “only” be an artist in his or her way of looking at the world of things. (S)he will take things made for one purpose and assign them another.(S)he buys an object because of what she (s)he sees into it.

Here are a couple of things I bought at the flea market. I let you figure out for yourself who in me bought each of these items. Would be happy if you shared some thoughts (and pictures) of your favourite flea market acquisitions.

 

What I like about Spotify Premium is the fact that you have a mobile version, you can get instant access to basically any song you think of. It was terribly cold in Paris today and suddenly there was this line of a song popping up in my head. This often happens to me, and in many cases the line is such an ironic comment on my current situation that I burst out in laughter. Anyway, so while I took my bike, I heard « All the leaves are brown… » in my head. And searched for it on Spotify.


When I found an album by this name, I remembered the real name of the song I was looking for: « California Dreaming ». The perfect song for a cold winter day, it started playing while – my headphones under my warm Peruvian bonnet – I pushed my bike off to ride home. The song starts « All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray. I go for a walk on a winter’s day. » and it goes on « I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A. ». After the first version of the song had ended, another one started and while I sit and write, I’m still playing versions of the same song. There are many of them, a David Hasselrock version, latin versions, chorus versions, ones with predominantly female or male voices, instrumental ones, versions that start like medieval motets, new age versions, a techno/rap version by Beverly Hills, a slow and soulful piano version by Pat Dinizio, fast running rock versions… . I guess I can now be considered an expert in California Dreaming, but that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.

At about the third version, I first heard the sentence that inspired this post (supposed to be a first one in a series about my favourite lines in pop songs). It says: « If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today. » I had never noticed this line before. Two versions later it came back with a variation that I haven’t heared in any of the other versions. It was a female voice, and instead of « If I didn’t tell him, I could leave today » she sang « If I didn’t have to tell him, I could leave today. » It’s the version by The River City People that you are currently listening to. It intrigued me and I thought about it over dinner. There seems to be something more guilty to her way of putting it. As if she didn’t feel comfortable with the original line. She seems to be saying to herself: « I’d have to tell him. I couldn’t probably just leave. » Strikingly, the chorus is the same as in all other versions: « If I didn’t tell him, I could leave today. ». It nearly seems like it had been a spontaneous variation by the singer. This sentence is pretty much a summary of why I ended up leaving my last girlfriend after six years. I didn’t want to have to tell her – or anyone. My friend Thomas says that my desire for freedom is romantic. And coming from someone who would probably agree with Goethe that « the Romantic is the sick. », this is not a compliment. Thomas thinks that my quest for freedom is bound to end in disappointment. Maybe he’s right. Maybe there are tradeoffs. But as for now, I’m stuck with the belief that there’s at least relative freedom and that you can be more or less free. In the end, the freedom we have in a country like France, essentially depends on how free we are mentally. In my relationship, and given the way I was, having to tell her would have meant that I don’t leave.

The original version of the sentence is actually much bolder: « If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today. » It doesn’t presuppose the obligation to tell. Not telling her becomes a way to leave, today. This version of the song has the libertarian imprint of the hippie age. But what seems like hippie lightness considered in this context, becomes very dark if you transfer the idea to a contemporary couple’s common city life. It’s only in my darkest moments that I actually told myself that going to get cigarettes and not coming back was an issue that would always be there if I wanted to leave (well, if I started smoking before).

In Schubert’s Winterreise there’s another dreamer (there’s definitely something about winter dreaming). After telling us about the flowers he sees on the window, he sings: « Ihr lacht wohl über den Träumer, der Blumen im Winter sah. » (« You are certainly laughing about the dreamer who saw flowers blossom in winter! ») This line first made me realize that there was something ridiculous about the (melancholic) dreamer. But I’m not sure if this is still the same topic…

So I’ve got 45 minutes before I need to run off to my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class. I wonder if I can make this a blogpost by then. For your notice and just appreciation: some of my earlier posts took me about 8 hours to write. With an average readership of 25, this makes 20 minutes of my time for each of you. I think that this is a very high ratio for a writer.

Anyway, time’s running, here goes my idea. Each of my posts is about two or, sometimes three to five, or maybe seven ideas – and most of them should be developed in a book rather than a blogpost. But I find it boring to write a book, while I find it fun to write a blogpost. This post exceptionally only consists of one idea, which, like most of my ideas, is based on a distinction:

Things we’ve lived have two ways to exist for us:

1. in experience mode

2. in story mode

These two modes follow each other and are never synchronously active.

While they are still in mode 1, the experiences are active, i.e. they can be modified by new events, we are emotionally affected by thinking of them. When they move to mode 2, they are closed. For many theorists of narration, one of the defining qualities of stories is their “closure”. They are “round”, not open-ended. An open-ended story is not fully a story (which is why we coined a specific term for it).

When you can say “Oh yes, I went to Mexico once, when I was still with my mexican girlfriend. You know, the engineer I told you about” and you don’t smell the Enchiladas, don’t hear the cats screaming that woke you up at night, don’t long to touch her skin any more, and if your ego doesn’t hurt any more because she left you at Christmas, then you know you’re done. The episode you lived, the experience has turned into a story.

You can even talk about the cats, the caguamas, the lonely Christmas you spent waiting for her to call you, and it still doesn’t hurt. All this is just part of a story. Something that happened, for sure. But that might just as well be fiction. It just happens to have happened to you, and you know more details about it than if it hadn’t happened to you, but it could could also have happened to someone else.

In experience mode, things are different. It’s essential that it’s your experience. Any thought or evokation of the time, the person or even smelling something or hearing cats scream will bring you right back to the experience. You are then still part of the events, it’s still happening in you. The story isn’t written.

In some cases, if we don’t understand some of the elements of our experience, we won’t be able to move into story mode. As long as we don’t know why she really left us at Christmas, as long as it just doesn’t make sense that she left us, we can’t move into story mode. We are like those lost souls that need justice, before they can rest in peace. We are still in experience mode – and we’ll try to get the answers we want.

It’s only when we have the answers, when the ending is written, that the story exists. I think that in many cases where people suffer because of something they’ve experienced, it’s because they can’t make sense of it. Because they don’t understand why this or that happened to them. Stories make sense, experiences simply are.

I think that we developed the capacity to tell ourselves stories about ourselves and what we lived, because it’s the only way to not get lost. With too many things in experience mode, we are heavily affected by all sorts of things, everything brings us back to that thing we lived and continue to live within. The fact that we can make it a story and thus close it, allows us to remember without being paralyzed by our memories.

In some cases, we run the risk of being pulled back into experience mode: for example because we see the girl again, after 8 years. If we are lucky, we still have some choices:

1.open up the story again and move back into experience mode

2. write a sequal

3. write a post scriptum

4. pretend nothing happened

I’m sure my list isn’t complete (nothing that isn’t based on logics is).

But, well, what would you choose?

There’s more to telling a story than the story.

According to some theorists of narrative or story-telling, tellability is one of the criteria of narrativity. To be narrative, they hold, the content of a discourse has to be tellable. Tellability is what makes a story worth the telling, usually the extraordinariness of the events being told.

I don’t agree on the idea that tellability is a criteria for narrativity, or else there wouldn’t be boring stories. If a story is boring because the events being told are not of an extraordinary kind, this doesn’t imply that it’s not a story at all. But rather than getting deeper into this issue, I’d like to use the concept of tellability in a different sense to better understand the social phenomenon of story-telling.

Theorists of narrative tend to treat tellability as an absolute – if not objective – criteria on the level of the story. Either a story is tellable. Fullstop. Or a story isn’t tellable. Fullstop. I’m not quite sure if there really is something like universal tellability. I tend to think that tellability depends on context (audience+situation). And for each and every story, boring as it may seem, there’s an appropriate context. (N.B. I must admit that I only just discovered that Seymour Chatman in his fantastic classic of narratology Story and Discourse also holds the view that tellability is relative)

Relative tellability is far more important in our everyday experience than some supposed absolute tellability. What matters most in our lives is not a story per se, but a story in context – and so we often wonder

Should I tell this story here?

What’s tellable within the context of a bull session with my buddies isn’t usually tellable at Sunday lunch with my grand-parents – and vice-versa. A story is usually a good fit for the bull session for the features that make it a bad fit for Sunday lunch. So tellability is relative to situation and – I would like to add – the teller. More precisely we have to ask ourselves:

Is it appropriate for me and interesting to tell this story to this audience in this context?

Being appropriate is so-to-speak the upper limit of tellability in everyday life. The lower limit is to be interesting. The ideal story is both appropriate for the teller in the context and interesting for the given audience in the context.

So even if we supposed that it was clear what it means for a story to be tellable per se, the narrativists’ tellability would not be sufficient – or essential – for our decisions to tell a story or not.

I hope that these few remarks make it clear that there is more to tellability than the story itself. When we think about telling a story, we quite naturally evaluate its tellabilityin-context.

However, the idea of tellability per se (as a story) may stay if we subjectivize it. There might be stories that I just don’t find tellable at all, maybe because I find them gross, or because they oppose my ethics.

Think of a story that glorifies Nazism. This is a story that I won’t find tellable even if I happen to be stuck with a bunch of Neo-Nazis, where both the situation and the audience would be convenient. But this means that tellability of a story comes down to tellability as seen by the teller, which is far less than tellability of the story per se.

For the remainder of this post, I will try to explain my idea of tellability more precisely.

I identified four levels of tellability:

1. The tellability of the story (its interest as a story)), i.e. the tellability for the teller as seen from within (his or her perspective)

2. The tellability for the teller (a. appropriateness/ b. interest) as seen from without

3. The tellability for the audience (a. appropriateness/ b. interest)

4. The tellability in the situation (a. appropriateness/b. focus)

There’s potential for misjudgment of tellability at least on levels 2-4.

1. We’ll usually know if a story is tellable for us as we see us, because we know our values.

2. This level is tricky and misjudgments are easy.

a. Appropriateness will depend on our role within a given context. For example, it may be appropriate for a student or employee to tell a story about a professor or executive that it wouldn’t be appropriate for a professor or executive to tell.

b. Interest is tricky, because we move away from the story to the telling: in fact, some people are able to tell any story in such a way that it becomes interesting, and, thus, tellable.

3. It may or may not be difficult to determine tellability on the audience level.

a. In general, it is pretty easy to grasp what it means for a story to be inappropriate for a certain audience. For example, we usually won’t tell a priest a sex story. However, it may be difficult to determine in a given situation if a story is appropriate for a given audience. The main problematic issues are sex, illness and crime. And if we don’t have enough information about an audience, we will usually avoid stories that imply these elements.

b. The interest of a story for an audience is much more difficult to determine. But fortunately the consequences of telling a story that our audience doesn’t find interesting aren’t usually very serious and painful – unless, of course, we are doing an elevator pitch and have little time to grasp a person’s attention to, for example, sell or promote something. (N.B. Before you launch the first video: the videos are only very loose illustrations of the points made in the post. They mostly show story-tellings as imagined by script-writers or movie-makers. In general the points made will be good points if you can validate them based on your experience of real-world story-telling. And if not, I’d be happy to hear from you in the comments).

4. It is a bit easier to judge situation-tellability than audience-tellability, because if we’ve been there at the moment of situation-establishment, all the elements about the situation are (in principle) available to us. It’s more tricky if we enter the situation in medias res, all of a sudden, as when joining an ongoing conversation.

In such situations it’s particularly difficult to judge tellability.

Obviously, the most tricky cases are those where, for example at a conference, we don’t know the people in the group we are joining (audience) and have not been there at situation-establishment. Whether or not we will be able to participate actively in the dialogue will then depend on how risk-averse we are.

a. situation-appropriateness: in extreme cases, this is particularly easy to judge, mainly if the geo-localization of a situation is an indicator. For example, a hospital or a graveyard usually won’t be appropriate places for funny stories (which, in a sort of weird twist, can make them particularly appropriate places for funny stories being told by people working there to people working there).

Places like a bar or a bowling-place will tend to be appropriate places. But if the place is more neutral, like a street or a school, it will be more difficult to establish tellability.

b. situation-focus: in extreme cases, like formal meetings which tend to have specific topics, it’s usually clear what’s interesting given the focus of the meeting. In cases of more casual meetings it may be more difficult to determine what’s interesting given the situation. But again: being wrong about interest is not as bad as being wrong about appropriateness.

Extreme cases of tellers:

Extraordinary tellers make every story tellable by their telling

(Now, you could obviously point out to me that the main part of this is not really a story, but an argumentative discourse, that the only story being told here is a story being retold with an alternative plot in order to support the argument, while the passage ends with an analysis and a comment on Hollywood-style story-telling, all this, of course, being part of a Hollywood movie. And you would be quite right, but, hell, isn’t it a good telling?)

Food-in-mouth tellers regularly misjudge appropriateness of their story (which may, in movies where story-telling is presented, be the whole point – but rarely a good one)

Terrible tellers are able to kill story with good substance by their telling, thus making them uninteresting for their audience (which may, in exceptional cases, be the whole point of, say, a youtube video)

Terrible tellers regularly misjudge the relative interest of the story they relate

(63 views? But it shows something: self-awareness is not enough. In the bits of discourse of this video, the young protagonist actually shows good intuitive understanding of the basic functionning of real user-generated content and exemplifies the over-stated importance of self-awareness in low-quality productionn, which seems to be one of the most influential wrong post-modernist ideas. Or to be more concise: Knowing it’s bad doesn’t stop it from being bad.)

To finish, I’d like to show you a short video about a terrible teller which quotes a paradigmatic utterance of terrible tellers. The video ends by the video’s author stating the traditional view according to which it’s the situation that makes for a good story, which is a view which I hope to have proved wrong:

Sartre vs. Camus: the two big approaches in Marketing

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existence precedes essence”, according to Albert Camus “Essence precedes existence”. Sartre conceives of human-beings as “thrown into the world” without any sense so if they don’t want to get lost they have to give themselves a purpose, their essence, something to live for.

According to Camus, we are born with certain preferences. So the essence is already there when we come into being. Essence precedes Existence.

I think these are the two main ways to explain the relationship between Product-or Service-Development and Communications, Marketing, and Advertising.

The ideal Sartrian product or service already exists when you decide what you want to do with it, i.e. what you want its essence to be.

Post-it: A false Sartrian product

It could seem like the glue for the post-it stickers at 3M – where the engineers aimed at creating standard glue, but the glue was not sticky enough – was a perfect Sartrian product. But it really isn’t. The product came into being with an essence, it was glue that was sticky enough to make something stick to something else, but not so sticky that it would not go off without a trace if you pulled. It’s only that this essence was not immediately apparent and seen to be useful when the glue was created. The main creative act was not making the glue, but understanding it’s main property (it’s essence) and realizing what it could be used for. Once you understood what it did, you could attach it to paper, and then conceive the communications according to the product’s essence.

Coca-Cola: The real Sartrian product

The real Sartrian product or service doesn’t have any essence, known or unknown, when it comes into being. You randomly give it an essence. So here’s the process that yields Sartrian produts: You create something that doesn’t have any particular purpose or use. Maybe it’s just another soda that tastes ok. Then you start giving it an identity. You call it Coca-Cola or Sprite or Schweppes, you link it to Christmas and to beaches or to a certain sport and certain celebrities etc. and this gives it an identity, an essence.

Soda Pops: The real Camusian product

The ideal Camusian product has been thought through in every detail before it’s given birth. This is what happens with lifestyle-products supposed to fill a niche. You realize that there is a soda pop, a sweet highly alcoholic beverage, “based on Vodka”, with a “Russian” look and advertising, that sells pretty well,  and so you decide to create a similar drink that’s based on, say,  Rum, with a Cuban look and advertising. You determine what the product has to look, taste and “feel” like based on a precise preconceived idea about the niche it is supposed to fill. In this case the essence precedes the existence.

Webservices: Sartre and Camus combined

If a product has a certain complexity, like, say, a website offering a service, approaches are usually mixed.

Take twitter, which was created as a “micro-blogging” service, where people would tell their friends what they are doing. Like on a blog, the default was that everyone could read what everyone else wrote, it was enough to “follow” the other person. You didn’t need her explicit approval (she didn’t have to confirm you as follower like you confirm friends on facebook). But then it turned out that people used the service quite differently. It could be argued that the service’s essence was different from what it’s founders had thought it was. They had created something with a certain idea of it’s essence in mind, but they were wrong. So they changed the question and went from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”

I conceive of my work at hypios mainly as trying to understand the essence of our service and then sharing my understanding with (potential) users. If some element has not yet been specified, we try to conceive it according to what we already learned about the essence of our service to try to maximize its coherence. I might seem a bit old-fashioned if I say that I like it substantial: I find products that actually have an essence which you can discover – rather than just an identity that someone gave it for no other purpose than making it into a succesful product – more exciting.

(an earlier version of this post was published on – the now defunct? – bigstartups.com)