I’ve been reading Chuck Klosterman’s “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs- A Low Culture Manifesto”. It’s basically a collection of essays-each one different, but each one (so far) displaying Chuck’s great sense of humor, connecting what you would think are wildly disparate things together in a way that gives you pause. I first heard about Chuck Klosterman through Ira Glass and This American Life, in particular, the great show that’s entitled New Kings of Non Fiction, which is just amazing and easily worth the price and a donation to WBEZ.
In an essay talking about how MTV’s “Real World” helped to define reality TV and how everyone becomes a one-dimensional archetype because it’s easier to cast and tell stories than dealing with the real world complexity of ordinary humans, he says near the end, “Being interesting has been replaced by being identifiable.” And this struck a real chord with me.
There seems to be a real tension in life between being genuinely interesting, and being identifiable. You find this in everything from food, to stores to social media. In food, there’s a group of people who are always looking for the different and inventive (just watch Top Chef) but most Americans seem to eat more frequently at chain restaurants, serving up familiar and predictable fare, even when they are visiting new cities. This is a clear case of going for Identifiable over Interesting. Identifiable is predictable and known- you don’t have to think too hard. Interesting can have upsides, but it’s risky and you don’t know what you’re getting in advance, and that can be pretty scary.
Even in retail, I see a confluence of both stores and merchandise that plays into choosing an archetype over choosing your own style. Department stores have gone under major consolidation, so you are basically left with the ultra-high end Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom’s, then Bloomingdales and Macy’s, then Sears and JC Penney, who are basically on the same fashion wavelength as Kohl’s and not far behind are Target and Walmart. The lack of variation leads to a lack of choice, so we see more and more stores popping up with similar pair structures like the Gap/Old Navy and Ambercrombie/Aeropostale. When I shop for clothes for my 14 and 11 year old sons, I find wherever I go, my choices come down to Preppy, Sports Kid, Skater Dude, Rockstar/punk, and My Mother Dresses Me. My choice in clothing for my kids seems loaded with buying into a stereotype, and I feel like I have to guess the right one to avoid too much scrutiny from either teachers or other students. Getting the line right between “cool” and “I still respect my elders and won’t cause trouble” is not easy at all, but I have to admit, occasional social media conference t-shirts work well to blur this line between cool and geek.
In social media, it can seem like everyone wants to have an “elevator pitch” of who they are and what they do, classifying themselves into archetypes for others. For those that seem much more complicated than a simple label, it becomes harder to market your business and ideas because they aren’t easily labeled or defined. And in an attention-deficit world, anything that’s too complicated gets left at the curb.
Life is easier if we pigeon-hole everyone we know. They can be classified and re-categorized, but it saves you time and effort and actual thought if you play the archetype game. It’s easier to identify people, to tag them, to label them, than get to know them.
But in reality, people and friends are more than trading cards. We may have lots of friends on social networks, but how many of them are friends that would buy you a cup of coffee or let you crash on their couch? In a quest for new media popularity, are we going for identifiable over interesting because it’s simply easier? People are more complicated than the simple archetypal mold we try to fit them into. But it takes time, effort and actually listening to people consistently over time to see past the label and delve into the interesting.
I’m not sure if we can easily walk the line between interesting and identifiable, because interesting simply takes more time and engagement than a simple identification and label system of interfacing with the world does. But I know I extract more value out of interesting than I ever have from identifiable relationships with others. So I’ll continue in my quest to be interesting, even though it often seems the vast majority of people value identifiable, because it’s quicker and easier. What’s your choice?