Culturematics: breaking rules and making meaning

What do Breaking Bad, Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life and Fantasy Football have in common?


Grant McCracken’s book Culturematic has been on my ‘to read’ list for some time. I finally added it to my audiobook library recently and have been enjoying learning more about these quirky innovations.

McCracken defines a culturematic in an excerpt as:

A small machine for making culture. We use them to create new messages, new memes, new products, new services. We fire our Culturematic into the deep space of an inscrutable future and wait to see. Most will keep going. But some will phone home. Ah, we say, there’s something out there.

And also in Harvard Business Review as:

A little experiment that in a playful counter-intuitive way, broaches a kind of what if. And people try a little experiment, really just as a way of seeing what’s out there in the world… These culturematics are little engagements with culture that end up discovering cultural meaning that we didn’t know existed. And creating economic value that we hadn’t glimpsed.

Culturematic experiments break the rules and create new meaning, but they’re only able to do so because they’re sincere – and yes, playful. Have you ever seen someone deliberately try to create a meme that catches on? It doesn’t work. People can sense when someone is trying too hard to make something popular, to make their meme ‘a thing’.


Culturematics innovate because they’re not forced and genuinely strike a chord in contemporary culture. As McCracken points out, they ask “What if I…?”

For example:

  • What if I combine a broadway musical song with hip hop? (Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z)
  • What if I eat only McDonald’s food for a month? (Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock)
  • What if I took a gothic character and made her a lab technician? (Abby Sciuto, NCIS)

They pull different aspects of the cultural space together. The further apart those aspects are, the more dramatic and intriguing the resulting culturematic is. Culturematics are new and unexpected when we encounter them, but they feel familiar in some way. They make us smile, capture our attention and draw us in. It’s the song or the product or the TV show we didn’t know we needed. We “know it when we see it”.

So what does a culturematic look like?

Here are four properties that many (but not all)  culturematics have:

  1. They’re catchy: “They engage us with a problem we begin to solve the moment we hear of it”.
  2. They’re plausible in scope: Presenting a problem in a digestible way. For example, the story of Kyle MacDonald, who began a series of trades starting with a red paperclip and ended up owning a house. Or Julie Powell, who cooked all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by completing one recipe per day.
  3. They spark imagination: “They make us wonder, almost involuntarily, ‘What would that be like?'”
  4. The outcome is unknown: We don’t know what will happen but the exploration is a large part of what makes a culturematic fun and intriguing.

McCracken gives some great examples of culturematics in his book:

How about a high school teacher with cancer who enters the local drug trade to provide for his family? From a casual chat between two unemployed writers to the most critically acclaimed TV show of all time (entered into the Guinness Book of Records).

Imaginary football management created by three sports journalists? From a quirky hotel room game to a $3.5 billion fantasy sports industry.

A low-budget horror film made entirely on handheld cameras? From a small eight day filming project to one of the most successful independent films of all time.

There are many more examples in McCracken’s book. Culturematics can crop up just about anywhere in contemporary culture. You might even have a few come to mind as you read this post or the book itself.

One of my recent favourites has been the Museum of English Rural Life’s Twitter account, which has combined internet humour and archive material to create viral posts like absolute unit, chicken in trousers, Merlin the Bat and Elon Musk photo swap. It took the conversation around making museum collections more relevant to present day audiences and created a whole new picture of what that might look like.

When can a culturematic happen?

It’s not always possible to predict which culturematic projects will be most valuable, both culturally and financially. Mostly it’s a ‘try it and see’, building on creativity and a level of understanding of the direction contemporary culture is moving.

McCracken explains the social change needed for a culturematic to take flight:

First, there has to be a cultural change in play. Second there has to be a careful strategic and tactical undertaking to find out what is now culturally possible, what has momentum. Third, the innovation has to be made and presented with that same deft hand.

If it can catch the winds of cultural change at the right time, a culturematic has the ability to change how we think about that category. Take reality TV as one example. Since MTV’s The Real World, TV schedules now look very different, and many people stream their everyday activities live on the internet (Youtube, Twitch, Facebook Live etc.)

Does this mean that the concept of a culturematic is new? Perhaps not entirely, but McCracken explains that society’s acceptance of them has changed. Previously, contemporary cultural experiments were “seen as an error”, he writes, whereas “now it is precisely these code violations that make our culture live”.

This challenge is open to anyone willing to take part in creating a culturematic of their own. McCracken encourages all of us to break the rules and make new meaning by  understanding changes in contemporary culture.

Can you think of other examples of culturematics? If you created one yourself, what would it be?

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