How to Have a Good Idea

A unified theory of fantasy football; Eat, Pray, Love; and Burning Man.


Culturematics are little ideas, manageable, vivid, thought-provoking, and actual. They are cheap, cheerful, and multiple. We fire them into the universe to see what phones home. A Culturematic is a probe of the possible. It's a way to investigate the future. Culturematics are what happens when creativity escapes the R&D lab, university management, elite scrutiny, and government control. Culturematics are the forge on which a distributed, decentralized culture will make its own culture. One of them, anyhow.

Fantasy Football

Fantasy football now entertains 27 million people. They play this game an average of nine hours a week. The fantasy football industry is valued at around $800 million a year.

The game was invented by Wilfred Winkenbach, Bill Tunnel, and Scotty Starling in a Manhattan hotel room in the early 1960s, before the Internet existed. The idea was simple. Take the numbers generated by a professional sport, and use them to create outcomes in a fantasy league.

Professional football was throwing off a lot of numbers. At the end of any given Sunday, it was possible to determine not just the points scored by every team, but the yards gained by every running back, the number of interceptions made by every cornerback, the number of sacks recorded by every defensive end.

In American sports, almost everything gets counted. For most of us, these numbers are a record of events past; they tell us what happened as National Football League teams battle their way through a season. But for Winkenbach, Tunnel, and Starling, these numbers were not backward-looking. Potentially, they generated new events taking place in a new league. You could actually make this data the stuff of a new reality. Last week's exertions and heroics on the field were creating the foundation of an alternate world in the ether.

It's like the "discovery" of pineapple juice. There was a time when juice was treated as an extraneous accident of the canning process. Once the meat of the pineapple was in the can, the juice was thrown away. It was left to an outsider to say, "Could I have that, please?" Mixed cocktails and the International House of Pancakes would never be the same. The NFL was producing numbers with extraordinary but hidden value. Until Winkenbach and company came along, these numbers were being thrown away.

The economics are astounding. Winkenbach found a way to fund a new universe of professional sports for pennies on the dollar. The McCaskey family spends a couple hundred million dollars to put its team, the Chicago Bears, on Soldier Field every year. Winkenbach created his universe for whatever it cost to gather, store, program, and deliver the data. Compared to the physical world, the economic ratio was extraordinary, perhaps one fantasy dollar to $1 million in NFL currency. Or put it this way: The whole of a fantasy football league costs less to operate than the minimum salary of a single NFL player ($375,000).

Of course, Winkenbach was "exploiting" someone else's resources for his own purposes and profit. But that's the point of a Culturematic. He had found a way to extract new value from the existing world.

Like any Culturematic, fantasy football had no guarantee of success. If it was going to work, it would have to speak to the American sports fan. All Culturematics must satisfy this condition. They must speak to something in our culture. Fantasy football proved to be an excellent way of engaging the new breed of sports consumer.

Fans were getting smarter. Many of them had played the game at some level. Still more had been raised in a family that took the game seriously. Millions were listening to learned commentary on ESPN. This knowledge went deep. Many fans could describe the defensive formations that would work against Peyton Manning versus the ones that would work (God willing) against Michael Vick. Fans with this much knowledge were no longer satisfied with just sitting in the stands or arguing at barbecues. (Even painting their faces purple and putting on Viking horns wasn't enough.) People with this much knowledge wanted more involvement. Fantasy football let them into the game.

Beneath the smarter fan was a still deeper trend. Americans as a group were moving from a passive, lean-back posture—couch potatoes waiting to be entertained—to something more active and engaged. In football, in sports, in popular culture, and in just about every other domain, Americans wanted more traction.

But for the three guys sitting in a New York hotel room, fantasy sport was merely a probe of the possible. At that moment, fantasy football was a will-o'-the-wisp, one of the millions of stray fancies that flow through American heads on any given day. Most of these ideas keep moving, passing back out to the sea marked as "Here Lie Wild Beasts" and, in some circles, "Don't even think about it."

A few of these ideas survive long enough to get a hearing. But not much of a hearing. Friends can be relied upon to offer discouragement, as in "Winkenbach, you are such a loser. You can't win betting on real football, so you make up fantasy sports. In your dreams!" But some ideas survive the first cut. If they resonate with the culture, they can hope for wider adoption, and if they really speak to something in our culture, they scale up until they attract one in 12 Americans. That's how many now play fantasy football. Culturematics are not expected to take the world by storm. But sometimes they do.

Reality TV

In 1991, a Culturematic transformed television. Specifically, Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray asked, "What if we put a bunch of amateurs in a house and filmed what happens?" The result was The Real World.

The original idea was to launch a new soap opera, but this was too expensive. (MTV was looking for something to supplant the music video, which had been free.) At this point, it wasn't clear what would work. You could put any number of things in front of the camera: grape harvests, boat races, kids playing soccer. Cheap, certainly. But entertaining?

Seven people in a house, with no training, script, makeup, or direction. It could have become an ugly, chaotic mess, difficult to look at, let alone shape into a TV show.

At this point, Bunim and Murray were in effect playing the Late Show game called "Is This Anything?" in which David Letterman and Paul Schaffer decide whether an act is "something or nothing." Seven people stuck in a house could well be nothing. The only way was to try it and see. So Bunim and Murray set up a house in Brooklyn and turned on the cameras.

The pilot for a prime-time TV show requires celebrity actors, a union crew, many months of development, and as much as $2 million. The Real World pilot was shot with amateurs over three days on cheap Hi-8 cameras without the benefit of studio lighting or sound. Compared with prime-time TV, this was free.

When Bunim and Murray looked at the early results, they were pleased. The Real World looked like something. The early numbers were gratifying. What no one anticipated was that this little show would change the very landscape of American television. The Real World wasn't merely something. It was revolutionary—the birth of a new genre.

In just one season, reality TV went from being a sideshow that the broadcasters considered filler to becoming one of the main events, a scheduled highlight. Within a decade, nearly 52 million people tuned in to the last night of Survivor.

Over the last two decades, reality TV has proven to be the most productive idea in the history of television, turning out hundreds of experiments, many of which survived to maturity: the Real Housewives series, Project Runway, Wipeout, Ice Road Truckers, Jon & Kate Plus 8, Jersey Shore, American Idol, Deadliest Catch, Hell's Kitchen, Big Brother, Mob Wives, The Amazing Race, Man vs. Wild, and the latest experiment from Bunim-Murray Productions, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Viewership numbers can be astronomical. The first episode of the fifth season of American Idol drew 35.5 million viewers. (These days, most prime-time TV shows are happy to get 12 million viewers.) Now in its 24th season, The Real World has proven a miracle of resilience. Reality TV began as a shot-in-the-dark experiment, but now it dominates cable channels and broadcast networks alike.

Some people like to sneer at reality TV. It's not artful or crafted. Some shows have the subtlety of a peep show or a train wreck. But Culturematics don't care. They are evolutionary experiments, brute trials, happy to discover anything that works, something that survives. 

Web 2.0

Web 2.0 is a concept created by Tim O'Reilly and Dale Dougherty. It was designed to change the way an industry thought about itself. The aftermath of the dot-com collapse was all doom and gloom, pain and skepticism. Companies had disappeared, share value had imploded, personal wealth had taken a header, venture capital was in retreat, and Silicon Valley was in withdrawal. An entire industry was wondering what the future held.

O'Reilly and Dougherty shared that pessimism. But they could also hear something stirring. Surely, it hadn't all been a dream. Surely, this industry had bones, structural properties that would endure. Surely, this world would right itself. O'Reilly and Dougherty believed the crash might be a sorting-out, a chance for the wheat of real enterprise to separate from the chaff of dubious start-ups.

The first question was, Was there something out there, or not? And if it was something, was it a coherent something or a dispersed something? If it was a coherent something, O'Reilly and Dougherty were going to have to give it more shape and form. First, they would have to find a name. "Web 2.0" felt right, a term robust enough to start and sustain discussion. Next, they would have to develop the concept, finding something that would make some part of the world make more sense. Their next step was a conference where they could solicit comment, provoke debate, build a consensus, and publicly launch Web 2.0, now without its training wheels. O'Reilly and Dougherty had a Culturematic mission: fire their little idea into the world, and see what happened.

Of course, O'Reilly and Dougherty could have simply announced Web 2.0 from their own publishing house. The trouble is, many things get launched this way, and most of them fail. (We only see the successes, so it's easy to suppose that new ideas take root easily. In fact, the world is ruled by a dandelion ratio: thousands of parachutes are necessary for one to take.) Wishing will not make it so. Pronouncements usually fail.

"Web 2.0" was a strategic term. It said, "Listen. Calm yourselves. Here's the future. It's what you know…in a new iteration." This same-but-different technique is reassuring in times of crisis. Here, it comforted people about the dot-com crash. "That? Oh, that was just Silicon Valley 1.0. Bound to happen." People were accustomed to things being rocky in beta. Web 2.0 obeyed the convention that gave us Windows 5, Netscape 6, Word 7, and OS X. Naming by numbering is the way this industry reassures.

Web 2.0 worked. It won a toehold in the world. People started rallying around. It might have been the triumph of concept over reality, but it created value immediately. The concept said, "Our industry is not a hopeless heterogeneity of practices and approaches. It is some thing. Google AdSense, Flickr, BitTorrent, Napster, Wikipedia, blogging, search engine optimization, Web services, wikis, tagging, and syndication—all of this is not an experiment in free fall, but an industry charging forward." Web 2.0 bundled nicely, and as it bundled, it clarified and galvanized.

Within a couple of years, Web 2.0 was coin of the realm, the term you could use in a meeting to a chorus of nodding heads. Eighteen months into its launch, Web 2.0 had 9.5 million citations in Google. The Web 2.0 Conference, first held in 2004 in San Francisco, drew 700 people and an array of distinguished speakers. 

Of course, there were real differences of opinion about what the term meant. But at least people were now conducting the discussion under one umbrella instead of all over the place. In fact, a world of faint signals, tremendous confusion, ceaseless experiments, and widespread skepticism was beginning to cohere. Now we could be more like hedgehogs (who, as Isaiah Berlin told us, think about one big thing) instead of foxes (who are obliged to think about many things). Our culture was a little more organized.

As a Culturematic, Web 2.0 delivered that most extraordinary thing: a category in our heads that would help us see the world. And from this could come a conference, a consensus, and a community. An industry pulled itself back from chaos and began again, now more confident and more purposeful. It helped coax nervous investors back into the market. It helped reignite the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley. Not bad for a word, two numbers, and a dot.

Burning Man

Larry Harvey and Jerry James took an eight-foot wooden man to San Francisco's Baker Beach on June 21, 1986, and set him on fire. People came sprinting up the beach to have a look. As the winds drove the flames to one side, a woman rushed in to hold the Burning Man's hand. A stranger with a guitar improvised a song. Sparks flew into the night air, and the Burning Man burned.

Harvey and James resolved to burn another man the following year. Volunteers assembled to help. Friends brought friends. These friends brought friends. More songs were written. And after a couple of years, Burning Man was an annual fixture of Baker Beach. Eventually the city said no to a fire on the beach, and Burning Man moved to the desert. This meant creating Black Rock City, an economy and culture that now exists for a week each year, in a wasteland about 90 miles from Reno. Some 48,000 people come to participate. Burning Man makes the desert bloom and then vanishes without a trace.

Some 25 years after it was founded, Burning Man has a credo: "Burning Man is about coming together in a beautiful yet unforgiving environment to celebrate radical self-expression." But at the moment of the first event, he was just a guy on fire. No back story. No story at all. The Burning Man website explains: "During the early years of growth on Baker Beach…organizers or workers [never] asked what it meant…no self-conscious meaning or symbolism seemed necessary."

Harvey and James didn't need meaning or symbolism. They had started with a simple what-if, as in "What if we build a man out of wood, take him down to the beach, and set him on fire?" It was a little Culturematic, an event with a very clear start and no clear outcome. The two men didn't know what the Burning Man was for. They just wanted to see.

Like every Culturematic, Burning Man is both a cause and an effect. It's a cause, because it pushes parts of American culture to new intensity, especially the democratization of art and the notion of "random kindness, senseless beauty." It's an effect, because it is riding what Daniel Bell called America's "expressive individualism," our need to explore our own and the community's creativity.

Culturematics can't flourish unless they catch something in our culture. But when they do, they have an accelerating effect. This makes Burning Man a little like Chez Panisse, the Bay Area restaurant that Alice Waters created in 1971 and that helped express and intensify the local-food movement. Culturematics begin as innovations tiny and obscure. But when they speak to Americans, they end up speaking for Americans.

Culturematics and the World of Innovation

The British researcher John Kearon recently looked at the innovation record of Unilever, a massive Dutch-British consumer-goods corporation. The results were surprising. Unilever has a great track record, creating not just new brands and products but entire categories: laundry powder, fabric softener, margarine, and moisturizing soap. Kearon discovered that none of these discoveries came from the innovation centers Unilever set up in the 1990s to produce such results.

Everything about the innovation centers had looked right. They hired the best people. They spent real money. They centralized Unilever's creative efforts. And as Kearon explains, by and large they failed.

The innovation center model is good at creatively farming existing brands, and has added significant value to the likes of Dove, Lynx, and Flora. But as a model of innovation it is too centralized, too evidence-based, too "marketing science"–orientated to have the freedom and contrariness to originate new categories that can create even greater value.

Kearon recommends another approach. If you want to innovate as Google, Apple, and Red Bull have, he says, you should follow a couple of rules:

1. Don't look for big ideas. Seek small ideas that can grow. 

2. Fail fast. Fail often. Keep learning and never give up. 

Three Steps to Culturematics

So what's the way to create a Culturematic? Try these three easy steps:

Test the World. Think of a way to provoke the world. Ask questions like: What if I invented a professional sports league? What if I put seven people in a house in Brooklyn and turned on the cameras?

Good what-ifs are easy to spot. They make us tilt our heads and go "hmm." They speak to us because they go against the grain of expectation. They flirt with paradox. They provoke our curiosity. That moment when we tilt our heads—that's the moment we can climb out of culture and into innovation. We are on the verge of making something new.

And no, we can't quite say what. That's what it is to be on the verge of the new. We are not really sure. This may be a false positive, a bum lead. We have to launch lots of Culturematics to find the few that work. It is impossible to say ahead of time. (If we could tell ahead of time, then we would not be on the verge of the new.) The only thing we can do is keep at it. Play out the what-if and see where it goes.

Discover Culture. The successful Culturematics will phone home. They will play out. They will discover meaning. They will produce culture. When Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, went searching for herself in Italy, India, and Indonesia, she found something that appealed to millions of women, a way of seeing themselves. When Morgan Spurlock ate all his meals at McDonald's for a month, he helped millions of people rethink fast food. None of these people were working alone. They were taking advantage of deeper cultural changes. But each Culturematic these people invented was so apt, so endearing, so engaging, they pushed these cultural changes, giving perhaps as much as they got.

Elizabeth Gilbert turned her Culturematic into a memoir that sold four million copies. The subsequent movie, starring Julia Roberts, took in more than $200 million worldwide. Morgan Spurlock's Culturematic became a documentary called Super Size Me. The film generated nearly $30 million on an investment of $65,000. 

Unleash Value. Many Culturematics return nothing. This is not to say they fail. They tell us that this is a tree up which we no longer wish to bark. They satisfy our curiosity. And they tell us that the thing that captivated our curiosity doesn't actually captivate anyone else's. We have private enthusiasms. But if we want to hit a gusher, we have to look elsewhere. To find the innovation that returns significant value, we will have to try many things that return next to nothing. It's the nature of the hunt.

Culturematics let us test the world, discover meaning, and unleash value. And this makes them an excellent way to innovate in a turbulent, inscrutable, confusing world. Think of them as the little ingenuity machines that make the planet a more interesting and fulfilling place.