Friday, March 5, 2010

Spam, spam, verbs and spam

Honestly, I don't know how people do this blogging thing. My thoughts are not blog thoughts. They are not many and short, they are few and long. Every time I try to write a short snappy post it turns into an extended essay. I wonder if blogging can work for all types of thinkers. While some people are moving into microblogging, there should be a place for those of us with slower-moving gears. Maybe if regular blogging (a few paragraphs) is mesoblogging, long and less frequent essay-blogging could be called macroblogging. Or sloth blogging, or elephant blogging, or owl blogging, or something.

Anyway, I'm working on what will probably be a cool blog post (but may equally well end up in the trash) and of course it's long. So here are just two tidbits from last week's post (on narrative divination for sensemaking) that I forgot to say then.

First, I forgot to say that spam is another untapped divination tool. (No, wait, come back!) Of course I agree that spammers deserve a special level of hell where they are forced to eat nothing but their own spam forever. But you have to admit, these spam people certainly have their finger on some kind of pulse. It's amazing how the spam I get tracks my current concerns so well. When I'm worried about money I get more spams about inheritances and lotteries. When I'm worried about my business I get more spams about business offers. When I'm feeling lonely I get spams that say "You haven't called me in a while." When I'm writing software I get spams about software promotion. When I was using, then leaving, Facebook I started getting spams with titles like "You didn't comment on my post." It's uncanny.

So here's a fun thing to do. If you happen to have a spam folder, before you clear it out you can use it for divination. I just tried it. I looked across the room and into the bathroom and remembered that I would someday like to put in a shower instead of that irritatingly useless double sink. (Why in the world do people need two places to wash their hands? Do they use one on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays?) I used the ancient look-away-scroll-click divination method and landed on a spam about getting an advanced degree online. Immediately I begin thinking that if I did things to improve my business acumen, I might be able someday to afford that wonderful upstairs shower. And, that if I were to learn more about plumbing, maybe I could reduce the cost. And so on.

If you think about it, spam makes a great narrative database. It's little stories about what somebody thinks you will click on. I'm going to make you rich, I can save your sex life, I'll teach you new things, I need your help disposing of my money. If you mix all those stories together you have something that can trigger sensemaking. The banality of it actually helps with the serendipitous associations. I use the books on my living room shelves in the same way. I think of a vexing situation, then run my eyes over the titles and see what thoughts spring up. It works with lots of collections, as long as they are diverse and thought-provoking. (And yes, I'm aware that book titles are not stories; but the need to be careful about whether things are fully-formed stories or just references to or fragments of stories varies with the context of use.)

This leads into the second point I forgot to make before. There are two ways to get an answer to a question: the noun way and the verb way.

The noun way of getting an answer is, well, being given an answer. A noun. A measurement, a fact, a pixel of information. The length of the Amazon river is 4,132 miles. The noun way is the best approach when dealing with the known and knowable (or simple and complicated) side of things.

Usually. Mostly. From the Wikipedia page on the world's longest rivers:
The length of a river is very hard to calculate. It depends on the identification of the source, the identification of the mouth, and the scale of measurement of the river length between source and mouth. As a result, the length measurements of many rivers are only approximations. In particular, there has long been disagreement as to whether the Amazon or the Nile is the world's longest river.
The verb way of getting an answer is not getting an answer, but going through a process that nudges your thoughts into new patterns that would not have been possible otherwise. Narrative divination, and most sensemaking, is a verb way of getting an answer. It's the harder way, but when the things you want to think about are complex, the verb way is the most valuable. The verb way relies on analogy, indirection, diversity, assumption breaking, perspective shift, serendipity, and yes, even a bit of spam-like absurdity.

The noun and verb ways are not mutually exclusive: you can do both at once. Sometimes one will lead into the other, as my grab-a-topic-at-random search for the length of the Amazon river did. (Who knew river length was a political topic?) It's probably best to maintain an open mind and try both options in all situations rather than decide on either a priori. When you are seeking an answer, try mixing up your nouns and verbs.

That's a bite-sized post, I hope.

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