Q&A: Rob Walker on the value of a narrative

Three Wolf Moon is an ugly T-shirt. Yet somehow it became Amazon's top-selling item of apparel for months. It all started with a single fictional review on the site, attributing magical powers of feminine attraction to the shirt. Hundreds of similarly bogus reviews soon poured in, along with the orders. Ultimately, the Three Wolf Moon factory had to work overtime to fill the orders, and New Hampshire designated it the official T-shirt of the state's economic development.
  It's an idea that writers adore: the notion that a good story can impart value to an insignificant object. Already desirable or at least useful objects—booze, coffee, everything ever written up in the J. Peterman catalog—can obviously have their value increased through a robust back story. (It's called advertising.) But what about objects that are undesirable? That are poorly made, useless or ugly? Can they ever become valuable or sellable? To those who don't believe in the transcendent power of a good story to elevate even a T-shirt with three wolves on it, behold: the Significant Objects project.
  Joshua Glenn, author of Taking Things Seriously, and Rob Walker, author of Buying In, as well as the "Consumed" column in The New York Times, created the Significant Objects project with a simple hypothesis that "narrative is a key x-factor influencing an object's exchange value." To prove their theory, they bought insignificant objects from thrift stores and garage sales, each costing no more than a few bucks, and had writers like William Gibson, Charles Baxter and Jennifer Weiner create fictional short stories about them. Then they posted the items and the stories on eBay, with a disclaimer emphasizing that the tales were fiction, and waited for the bids. They sold the first round of 100 objects, originally bought for $128.74, for $3,612.51. Not too shabby.
  Now, they're into the third round of their experiment, and all the first-round data numbers have been crunched. Rob Walker recently took a moment to answer my questions over e-mail about the experiment and the takeaway for advertisers. Check out our conversation after the jump.

—Posted by Rebecca Cullers

Q. Obviously, ownership imparts value. If something was your grandmother's, it's likely worth more to you, and if Michael Jackson wore it, it's likely worth more at auction. Is that why you paired writers with objects instead of letting the writers use their own household junk? In case some rabid fan's desire for William Gibson's actual napkin holder botched the experiment?
  A. Yes, exactly. We actually had one or two writers suggest they write about their own junk instead of ours. But it seemed like that would throw the whole experiment off—it becomes about memorabilia. We wanted to be as explicit as possible that this stuff has no actual significance; all significance purely made up. I was concerned at one point that there would be misunderstanding about that, but it never happened.
  Interestingly a number of the made-up stories did associate the objects with celebrities—including Michael Jackson in one case.

  Q. You've mentioned that as the project gets more press, the objects should go up in value. Once the objects are being bought not necessarily because of the stories but because they're part of the famous Significant Objects project, does the experiment cease to be effective as an experiment?
  A. Really once we did the original 100 objects, the experimental phase was basically over. And while it was true that in general the prices trended up over time, when you really look at the patterns, it wasn't as pronounced as I'd thought. In some ways the very first writers did get penalized, those prices tended to be lower. And of course they took the biggest risk, because at that point it was a total gamble that anybody would buy these things, or that Josh and I would even be able to keep rounding up enough writers to complete the experiment. Once we got a certain amount of momentum, and readers could see that other people had really bought stuff, and so on, it got a lot easier.
  The question about what role "the famous Significant Objects project" plays in all this is a really fascinating one, something I've pondered but never quite figured out. My hunch is that it's a factor, but more along the lines of people liking the concept as opposed to, I don't know, buying into the hype. We've gotten a pretty decent amount of attention, but not what I'd call mass attention—like the Today show or something. To people who like the concept, I think the concept becomes a kind of second story for the object. So, when someone sees the absurd doodad on your shelf and asks about it, the answer is a pretty good double-narrative: the narrative of Significant Objects as this weird online experiment, and then the narrative the writer invented.