Defining Types of Context in Mobile Design

We spend a great deal of time talking about context, but rarely use models to define elements of it.  This particularly true when talking about mobile devices and accounts for the hit-and-miss quality of  most apps available on the market.  It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment, or an environment itself, when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating an swirl of information.  Consequently, it makes sense for us to think about how we structure context so that we can determine what exactly we can affect.

1. Physical Context

From the computational side of things, physical context refers to the notion of imbuing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” at any given moment and react to them. But this is much more difficult than it at first appears. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond demarcation of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with place (as opposed to space).  That in turns having to be “aware” on some level.

Think of a mall.  Within that mall are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices and/or nodes of information. The device now has to decode what information is most relevant to itself, what information is most relevant to the user and how it will deliver that information.  Returning to the mall example, we have to think about a host of things in order to make any app relevant.  What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer from one store, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers?  When someone else is hold your device for you (say, while trying on clothing but needing to set the iPad aside), how will the device know what incoming content is private and what is public?  How will the device communicate with a location or with other devices as it moves throughout the mall?


2. Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. There is a fundamental difference between the ability to transmit data between devices and the ability (and desire) of devices to discover each other. And this presents a series of problems that are different in nature than those of physical context. Because this deals with choices of communication.

We are on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. That means that devices are in a potentially constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall for a moment, imagine that your are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In there mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of my mobile phone communicating with my friend’s phone while blocking out the other 2000 devices, we still have several thousand potentially “identities” that may have useful information for us.  How do we select how to manage that without devoting a ridiculous amount of time to setting up the hundreds of variables that shape what we do and don’t want at any given time? And all this is couched in a neat little world defined within a single, bounded  geographical unit.  So understanding device context is as important as understanding physical context.

3. Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture, plain and simple.  But with the advent of pervasive mobile, this topic is becoming even more complex.  Specifically, data no longer resides, literally or figuratively, “in” our computers.  Our devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  And this is important because it reflects a shift in how we think about and use information because all information (and the aps that carry that information) are transitory and by and large public.

This changes the nature of what the device has to actually be. Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. All content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. This leads to the point that devices, and the people who use them, will find themselves in the 4th kind of context of social interaction, with all its peculiarities and contingencies. Just as our behavior and worldview shapes and is shaped by the moment in which we find ourselves, so too will our apps and information need to adapt to the moment.  In other words, devices will need to be more human.

4. Socio-Cultural Context

The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word.

And it is at the point of socio-cultural understanding where gain a better perspective on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe.  We need to understand the essence behind the veil of design and usage to uncover meaning.  Take the beer pouring app as an example.  Here we have a simple app that mimics the pouring of a beer when you tilt your device.  On the surface it has little relevance to our daily lives.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been tremendously successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks from the mundane, the ability to show off the newest thing, male-to-male pair bonding, etc.  It’s absurdity is precisely what makes it relevant.  But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts and meaning change to fit that particular milieu.

The nature of our successes lies in understanding the reasons behind our beliefs and actions, in the symbolic exchanges we are part of and our abilities to code and decode those symbolic exchanges.  The nature of our mistakes essentially lie in a lack of comprehension. It leads to UI and app development that speak to a minority of the population even as they try to sell to the masses. Without understand the underlying epistemological constructs of a group (or more accurately, a mix of often associated groups at different points of interaction and interpretation) then we miss opportunities.

So What?

So why does any of this matter?  It matters because good design and messaging are increasingly difficult to master.  Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, which in turn leads to a greater need to make sense of what is “going on” in the broadest sense of the term when it comes to gathering insights and translating them into design and business applications. Without a means by which to categorize context, we can’t isolate those things that matter most.  And we miss enormous opportunities.


Symbolic Representation and Constructing Brands

The intent of advertising is to associate desire with commodities and services, and to cement feelings of positive affect to brands.  It is to create a sense of meaning that ensures interest, sparks curiosity and develops bonds with the things we buy. But simply making promises about quality and cost are meaningless unless a deeper connection is established, a connection based in symbols and shared associations that require a two-way exchange.

So what does it mean to have a two-way exchange? Simply this: ads, and indeed all marketing tools, must produce narratives, be they texts, visual representations or any other means of conveying a message,  that are sufficiently compelling that viewers are motivated to decipher them. They can’t simply impart information, they need elements that require the viewer to decode meaning and interpret meaning. Ads and marketing tools require viewers to complete their meaning and to make the necessary turns of meaning that give value to the brand. In other words, we encode ads with symbolic information that requires viewers to decode and interpret.

It’s worth noting here that no matter how much they strive to make the decoding process an identical replica (inverse though it may be) of the encoding process, advertisers and marketers can never achieve an absolute equivalence between the encoding and the decoding processes. The process is simply too messy and loaded with baggage from the development process. The encoding side establishes the interpretive parameters for making sense of the campaign by the viewer. Both advertisers and the viewers apply a socio-cultural grammar, or a shared set of propositions about how marketing materials and ads are structured and how the narrative of these media will unfold. Recognizing and making sense of ad messages usually takes place at a non-reflexive level for most Americans and Europeans.  Increasingly this is true for the rest of the developed world. Like any language, the grammar of the ad remains unspoken.  It is simply part of the subconscious background that makes intelligibility and communication possible.

Commercials employ a shorthand of signification. Advertising agencies look to referent systems for vocal, textual, visual and musical signifiers, compressing and sequencing them together in a recognizable structure. Referent systems designate widely shared systems of knowledge and clusters of meaning. For the ad to work the viewer most validate the sign.  In other words, they must attach a signified to the signifier. Supported by the various elements we all recognize as part of an ad (narration, music, background sound, the relationship of each image to others in the commercial) and the viewer’s knowledge of the referent system from which the signifier is drawn, the viewer is guided through this validation process.  The intent is not to co-create meaning, but to direct it.  Certain clusters of signifiers recur again and again, of course, because it makes the process of decoding that much simpler. There are commercials in our thought-scape that are composed of disparate shorts that flow at a staccato pace. And yet viewers are able to easily decipher and interpret the intent of these commercials and associate both affect and a signified to a brand. Whether or not they accept the ad’s intended conclusion is another matter, of course. But they do interpret the underlying meanings with relative ease.

At its most elementary level branding is about equivalence. Brand building works to create an association in the consumer’s mind between a recognizable commodity or service and imagery of a desirable quality. First, the brand itself is given a recognizable, but differentiated, representation: the logo. Then, that representation is attached to a series of layered signifiers that point to a specific set of meanings: the signified. The goal is to blend layers of signifiers to support the branding message. Vectors are created across elements (visual, auditory, textual) so that when we experience a trigger we think of the slogan. Or a shared color in the commercial might create a visual equivalence between a global scape and a corporation. Elements both signify and serve as conduits for these vectors of equivalence. A sound signature (think of the Intel song) might cement a narrative to a logo as well as signifying something in its own right.

The signifiers that share the same space must indeed appear to have a natural connection. To create this sense of unquestioned objectivity, advertising draws on a range of devices to establish a sense of equivalence between commodity/brand and a meaning plus affect. These devices include composition, size, color, music, narrative, spokesperson, images, text, logo design, or anything that suggests this and that are one and the same. If the viewer valorized this process, the formula (brand equals signifier equals signified) is completed.

Rebranding in a Recession: It begins within

When the economy turns sketchy, the inclination of most company  heads is to cut back on marketing, branding, and advertising. After the last few years of elevated unemployment and decreased consumer spending it still holds true.  With a drop in expenditures on awareness campaigns, maintaining or revitalizing a brand often falls to the responsibility of a company’s greatest potential marketing tool, the employee, though this is rarely a conscious decision on the part of management.  When it is a conscious effort, it is typically a huge success or a dramatic failure, with little room for anything in between.

Re-branding during an economic downturn is nothing  new.  As concerns over an unstable economy grow, companies often feel compelled to reinvent themselves and build new interest in the hopes of generating revenue.  They also turn to employees to get out  the message.  This is particularly true of internal projects meant to garner greater productivity, commitment and support from employees  as a company deals with the ramifications of declining profits, lay offs, and employee ambivalence that matches or exceeds that of the  general public. It is frequently something of a catch 22 scenario, where employees are losing or have lost faith in a company and its leaders, even as the need for them to embrace a brand, to truly live it, is at a high point.  But, there are strategies to mitigate dismissal by the employees of an internal branding or a re-branding project during  economic uncertainty and looming lay offs.  Without embracing these  strategies, these projects will ultimately lead to failure, no matter how  creative it may be.

1. Deal with financial realities

As uncomfortable as transparent, open communication may be, leaders, particularly those at the upper-most levels, must relay information about the company’s financial position and forecast to the survivors, establishing priorities and expectations for future decision  making.  Employees must be made to feel that they are part of a  team, not expendable parties.  They must feel that the success of the  company rests partly in their hands, that they have a stake in the  game. Human beings have a remarkable capacity for embracing challenges.  We also have a remarkable capacity for getting involved when we believe we actually have something to lose beyond monetary gain.  Couching in terms that bring the financial realities to life draws employees in and helps develop intense loyalty even if things look gloomy.

If lay-offs have happened the remaining employees may feel that they will be next to lose their jobs.  Whether they believe it is a month away or two years away, the fear becomes ever-present.  The result is abandonment of commitment to the company and lowered productivity.  Additionally, some will feel guilty (sometimes angry) when colleagues have lost their jobs.  They will also view any attempt to get them excited about the company as being based on lies and deception.

2. Reposition the effort as the beginning of better days to come

Understand that people have lost friends and will no doubt have their own anxieties about the future. Get people refocused quickly on any brand message, internal restructuring, job/function changes and any other changes underway, or looming on the horizon.  Focus on the positives by acknowledging what has just happened – that it was necessary evil, but the new branding effort is an extension of brighter days ahead.  The key is that the problems that have existed, and in the eyes of those being hit they are problems to say the least, cannot be overlooked.  Acknowledging these means acknowledging the humanity, involvement, and importance of the employees.  It also makes the idea of better days ahead significantly more realistic and believable.

3. Make sure it is a bottom-up approach

No matter how good a job management does in making employees feel heard and included, they’re still suspect because it is management who pulled the trigger if cuts occurred (especially if those cuts were due to downward sales).  No one cares if they support it. Furthermore, if a company already tends to be structured in highly defined silo, these tend to become more “tribal” as conditions worsen.  This means that only managers with direct, frequent contact with mid and lower level employees have rational and emotional credibility. While an individual VP or Director may be believable, management as an institution is suspect – you may have a good manager in your department, but all the rest are heartless, opportunistic, and looking out only for themselves.  What matters is that the people who have a stake in the company on a day to day, put-bread-on-my-table kind of way are supportive.

4. Get top-down support 

While the re-branding effort needs to get the bulk of its drive from the base of the company, it is helpful to have a CEO or Chairman that champions the cause, particularly it he or she can tie it directly back any major changes in management and policy.  This, however is a tricky business and is dependent on the top brass being seen as taking a populist, no nonsense approach to the business.  If the head of the company is seen as simply carrying on a tradition of undirected change and business as usual, little real change occurs.  If the head of the company is seen as a having a dynamic, uncompromising, innovative approach to dealing with company woes, employees believe that change for the better is an attainable possibility and they will embrace a new  internal branding effort.  

5. Remember that logic and reason may take a back seat

The bulk of employees understand and can articulate the ramifications of lost revenue and brand disintegration, but that hardly eases the tension.  There is a tipping point at which reason and logic take a back seat as worry, fear, and cynicism assert themselves.  This means that any brand initiative needs to account for this heightened sense of emotional distress and recognize that employees will not be thinking about the well-being of the corporation if they do not see it tied to  themselves on a very personal level.  Making a financial case is irrelevant when people are in survival mode.  Consequently, while being transparent about the economic realities of the business is essential to a successful campaign, it is equally important to acknowledge emotional distress and react to it openly and honestly.



Excerpt from Quirk’s Article: Recruiting

From an article I just published in Quirk’s on recruiting by the researchers:

The gist is fundamentally simple — recruiting isn’t something you hand off, it’s part of the process.

Define the contexts 

Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. We frequently recruit based on demographics and occasionally psychographics that are derived from segmentation studies provided by the client. There is nothing wrong with segmentation studies or using them as a basis for grounding your participant base but it is important to recognize that individuals do not work as solo performers. Their actions, beliefs, practices, etc., are all shaped by the settings and situations in which they interact with others.

Theoretical sampling often seeks maximum variation rather than a representative slice of reality. In other words, anthropologists are interested in the systematic study of the contexts surrounding a particular consumer product or business practice. If researchers find meaning in the contexts that surround what people do, then why would the individual person be the unit of measurement around which to build a sampling design?

Ethnography takes place within a natural setting where relevant events and behaviors are occurring. Regardless of the methodology being used, this basic precept of the ethnographer holds true. That means the sample is more than a fixed set of people, it is defined by a range of activities. For example, if you are interested in studying how people use beer, it makes sense to think about all the settings in which beer is consumed, purchased and used – parks, picnics, bars, restaurants, parking lots and a host of other locations. If you understand the possible ranges of context, you can recruit against a wider range of possible interactions and gather richer insights.

Define the sample

Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems. We tend to reduce people to their parts rather than thinking about them in a broader context. Endless attitudinal statements, with scales for “agree” and “disagree,” are constructed and by the very nature of the question structure have severe limits. Most conventional research consists of predetermined questions and parameters that force research subjects into narrow channels of response. And these are often as much a bias of the researcher as a reflection of the consumer’s worldview. The very nature of posing a direct question immediately primes the respondent to seek the “right” answer. Recruiters, tasked with providing bodies for a study, understandably fill the quotas derived from segmentation schemes that may have extremely limited practical validity.

Why does this matter? Because people take on different roles throughout the day and under different conditions. Furthermore, who we are is shaped by our interactions with others. In contrast, ethnographic research routinely reveals that customers are more alike than different at the source of their behavior. And where the differences lie, they are far more profound and surprising than the answers segmentation will reveal. It uncovers how the entire human experience translates into the act of being a customer for a particular brand, product or service. It moves beyond attributes. It provides a clear view of cultural and behavioral categories based on the social, cultural and psychological needs and barriers driving customer feelings and thoughts. And because it looks through the lens of a holistic system structure, it yields a more realistic understanding of the customer than traditional methods. It produces insights and understandings that can be more predictive of the possibilities of the future than demographic, attitudinal or psychographic data. That means better recruiting and better research.

Get dirty 

Be willing and able to recognize potential participants while you are actually doing the work. Take advantage of the setting and use it to recruit. We often overlook the situations we find ourselves in, missing opportunities to gather a wider range of experiences and perspectives. The plane, the party, the person in the shoe store – they are all opportunities to strike up a conversation and find participants.

But why do it? There are a several reasons. First, context shapes behavior and conversation. The nature of the interaction we initiate in one setting will produce a different kind of interaction than we may experience in another venue. That means that once the participant is recruited and the setting changes, we may uncover potential differences between what they say or do in one context to another. Contradictions are where some of the most powerful insights usually occur. Which leads to the second point: Recruiting in the field begins the data collection process and helps to develop a theory behind what you’re seeing earlier in the research. It is an opportunity to start formulating questions and ideas based on firsthand interaction rather than waiting until you meet a participant for the first time.

Third, recruiting in the field often leads to a greater rapport. Rather than being a stranger who shows up at your doorstep one afternoon, the participant already has a sense of relationship, provided you’ve taken the time to strike up a solid conversation. Participants recruited in this way have a different set of expectations and take on a role that breaks free of the researcher/participant paradigm because this sort of recruitment changes the power dynamic, moving the nature of the interaction from a transaction to one of genuine sharing.

The Sacred Passage: Liminality and Shopping as Transformation

You will not find the term “liminality” in many dictionaries. For instance, at last check it is not in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary does, however, have an entry for “liminal,” the adjectival form, which it lists as a rare usage: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.  And it is this notion of a doorway, or passage from one space to another, and the consequences of doing so, that matters to consumption and shopping, because in a world where the procurement of goods is increasingly simple the act of transforming a person from one state of being to another is more and more important.  We no longer sell just goods, we sell something much more profound – or we hope to, at least.

As a brief refresher, it was not until the second half of the 20th century, that the terms “liminal” and “liminality” gained popularity through the writings of Victor Turner. Turner borrowed and expanded upon Van Gennep’s concept of liminality, ensuring widespread usage of the concept in anthropology.

In 1967, Turner noted that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’” (1967: 95). That is, the status of liminal individuals is socially and structurally ambiguous. From this he further developed the idea.  “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97).

Fundamentally, the idea is relatively simple.  When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. He then goes on to name this state of non-structure or anti-structure through such concepts as the “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. He chooses the Latin term “communitas” to express this idea of anti-structure, and refers to social structure and communitas as two major models for human interrelatedness.”

The first model is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.

Yes, yes.  All very interesting, but what does it have to do with consumption and shopping?  Shopping is, at a functional level, about getting things we need – food, clothing, shelter, etc.  But if it were as simple as that we wouldn’t have specialty stores.  We wouldn’t spend hours rummaging around a bookstore when we could simply order the product online.  As the outlets for acquisition have expanded with the growth of broadband, the nature of shopping has changed.  It is as much about fulfilling social, cultural and psychological needs and desires as it is anything else, perhaps more so. Which means it is often a transformational act of a transitory nature that takes us from one state of being to another, if only for a short while. And it is at the gateway that we find the symbols that successfully transition of from one state to another.  Retailers who do this well (Abercrombe, Anthropologie, Swatch) become points of destination and alter the nature of interaction, both with the store and with fellow shoppers, at the point of entry into their space.  They set the stage where shopping becomes akin to a rite of passage.  It signals that we have entered a special place and while we’re there, we are not the same person we were on the street.

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a new sphere of reconfigurement of who and what we are is symbolized by the gateway and harkens back to the worldwide womb image of myth.  It is the hero entering the belly of the whale and emerging transformed, carrying special knowledge or objects that can only be found by going through the passage.  This is why the approaches to temples are flanked by guardian symbols – dragons, angles, sword-wielding demon slayers.  These are the threshold guardians used to ward off those incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis.  Similarly, in a cultural construct where shopping and consumption have taken on the role of defining personal meaning, the threshold at the store signals a metamorphosis into the stylistically elite.  Those entering the space understand that they are unlike those outside the space and have entered a place that is beyond the confines of the mundane, daily life.  And like the hero, once having crossed the threshold, the postmodern shopper moves into a dream landscape of often curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.  It is here that shopping becomes something bigger than consumption.  It is here that the trial, the hunt, the act of self-becoming takes place, turning shopping into an expression of self-worth and of profound worth to the tribe (the family, the peer group, etc.).

Thinking about a shopping space and the symbolic cues to which we respond at the outset of the shopping journey means taking a more subtle view of how we promote our wares. Rather than screaming “low, low prices,” it means thinking about shopping and spatial design as promoting a change in the people to whom we would sell.  And it means putting as much though into the store front as it does the size of type on an end cap.  It means thinking of both the entry and the space as transitional, transformational structures that compel the shopper to alter his or her sense of being.  And this is where loyalty comes from.  Just as most people do not hop from one house of worship every week, let alone from faith to faith, so too should they feel compelled to return to your space again and again.

Liminality is almost always a temporary phenomenon. That is not to say that the temporal nature of liminality should be one of its defining characteristics. Rather, human nature being the way it is means that liminality cannot be permanent. Either we are absorbed into the social structure or we shun it all together—we cannot remain betwixt and between.  But liminality can be something that draws people back to a retailer time and again.  It turns shopping beyond the ordinary and signals that your space is beyond the daily grind.  It signals a place of rebirth.

Finding Nirvana

Like every other 40-something I am looking back with nostalgia over the approaching 20 year anniversary of the release of Nevermind.  And as seemingly happens to everyone as they age, we wax misty over our youth.  I have no intention of going on about the music, as it has been done be many more people, far more eloquently than I could do. No, what I’m interested in is the tremendous cultural shift it signaled, like a the shot fired at the beginning of a race.  Because while Nirvana didn’t change the world and certainly wasn’t the first band to express the worldview and symbols of the counterculture scene (with it’s shifting labels from punk, to underground, to alternative, to name-of-the-moment), it was the band that shifted the trajectory of a culture.  Not just a shift in subculture, but a fundamental change the culture at large.  Understanding the impact of the band and their second album requires a cultural context to understand Nirvana, because Nirvana were primarily about cultural context. Because without this album you wouldn’t have FaceBook, you wouldn’t have Forever 21, you wouldn’t have Mini Cooper – at least not in the forms they taken on.

I remember my first hearing of the album and oddly enough, so do most people over 35. We can relate stories with precise detail.  I was a lowly cook at the time, working at The Free State Brewery in Lawrence, KS, one of any number of Midwest college towns to which punks, misfits and the eclectic gravitated. My friend Grant Fitch had been talking all night about how earth-shattering the new album was.  And of course my thoughts ran along the lines of “bullshit.”  That was what people said anytime a new album came out – it would change everything.  So once the place closed and we were having a beer while cleaning up I expected to like the album but not be blown away by it.  Grant popped the CD into the restaurant’s CD player, cranked up the volume and hit play.  And activity in the place stopped.  Grant was right.  We listened to the whole album, from beginning to end, at top volume and put clean up on hold.  What’s remarkable about it is how many people have similar stories.  But why does it matter?  It matters because it was a signal, a symbol embodied in sound that changed the reactions, realities and worldview of a generation.

Nevermind marked the emergence of a generation of music fans in their twenties and younger in a climate dominated by the musical tastes of the baby boomer generation that preceded them. Nevermind came along at exactly the right time. This was music by, for, and about a whole new group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored, or condescended to.  It came along at a moment when counterculture had seemingly been permanently relegated to the outskirts of society or had become stale and the product of an earlier time, be it hippie or punk, that had little relevance.  This was something uniquely ours and it was a great big “fuck you” to the status quo.  And timing is everything.

I don’t remember when I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on mainstream radio, but I know it wasn’t long after and I know my response went something along the lines of, “What the hell?” and wondered if I’d stumbled inadvertently onto the college radio station. It brought what was being termed “alternative rock” as a whole into the mainstream, establishing its cultural viability.

What Nevermind did, for better or for worse, was to legitimized counterculture as an expression of identity that had been dismissed to that point.  Punks, alternative snot whackers, hipsters, whatever you wanted to call them, represented a class of people that were inherently and forever outside the larger society.  Oh, they influenced it to be sure, but the idea of someone with pink hair and full tattoo sleeves being the face of a major business or as a top designer for Ralph Lauren would have been unthinkable.  They, we, were the fringe.  A fringe that had grown painfully stale.  A different way of embracing and interacting with the world was something you put aside upon graduation from college or it meant accepting your fate as part of a permanent, disenfranchised minority. So the album became a tangible anthem for a generation searching for its definition of counterculture.

Like I said, the album was like a shot in the night, a signal that said control was there to be taken and it was possible to navigate multiple worlds. Rather than being the perpetual Other, the postmodern search for individual identity and expression was now at the forefront of the social narrative, which meant merit, inventiveness and non-linear thinking could become more important in how we chose to interact with each other, be it in the workplace, the street, or the retail shop.  Until this point, you rarely saw a stockbroker, an ironworker and designer sitting having a beer together – these generally represented too clearly defined groups.  The divisions and social trajectories would have been established too early on to have even allowed a friendship between such seemingly disparate groups to begin.  The changes had begun, but Nevermind came along at a point of radical change in the social dynamic, signaling a shift from liminality into a new state of being.

Bricolage had been transformed into the norm.  For those unfamiliar with the term, it is a concept meant to refer to the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process.  In anthropology bricolage is used to mean the processes by which people acquire objects from across social divisions to create new cultural identities. In particular, it is a feature of subcultures such as, for example, the punk movement out of which so many sub-groups emerged. Here, objects that possess one meaning (or no meaning) in the dominant culture are acquired and given a new, often subversive meaning. For example, the tattoo became a form of decoration in post-punk culture (until then it had been something bikers, dockworkers, and Marines had – note how few tattoos you see on musicians prior the 90s).  But being subversive no longer meant being limited in terms of work, profession or social mobility. Indeed, “Loser” had been co-opted and repurposed as a response to a society that saw those wearing the emblem as just that, losers. To be sure, the shift was underway, but the catalyst had yet to emerge until this moment. And it had yet to find a symbol to which it might cling.

That shift expressed a growing response to 12 years of conservatism and sparked innovation.  Everything from technology to science to art to advertising changed.  Without that sense of license and self-determination, many of the people who were responsible for the dotcom explosion and the technology that made it possible would have remained out the periphery.  There would be no ecommerce.  Without that expression of bricolage, there would be no guerilla marketing, no dada-esque Skittles ads, no multimillion dollar trade in skinny jeans.  The iPod would be just another gadget for techies and Pabst would never have become the beer to drink in hipster bars.  Symbols come in many forms and can change forever how the world works.