Some fiction writers wring their hands about it, retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble celebrate it, but nobody denies it: Memoirs are hot. As a percentage of books and in absolute numbers, more memoirs than ever are being published and sold.
Beyond the lurid allure of reading about abusive clergy, transgendered parents, extreme poverty, extreme wealth, or celebrity eating disorders, I think readers flock to even quiet, non-sensational memoir for one fundamental reason: because the act of empathizing is inherently satisfying. Empathy is a muscle that stiffens up through lack of use, and when human experience is so often stripped down to a few bullet points or a 140-character tweet, written words provide precious few opportunities to stretch that muscle that so wants to be used.
But there’s another reason why people like to read memoir – one that market researchers should learn from. In “Memory and Imagination,” an essay included in her collection, I Could Tell you Stories, Patricia Hampl writes, “Memoir is the intersection of narration and reflection, of storytelling and essay writing. It can present its story and consider the meaning of the story.”
When, in a focus group or survey, qualitative researchers ask, “Have you bought a <car, energy drink, bra, etc.> in the past 30 days,” followed by, “What brand of did you buy,” then cap it with some variation of “Why did you choose that brand,” we are in essence asking consumers to present their story and to consider the meaning of the story. We’re just not doing it very well.
Why? Because there’s an essential ingredient to meaning-making, and that’s elapsed time, which creates the opportunity to connect the dots and to reflect on what it all means. It’s what writer Sven Birkerts describes as the chance to, “… discover the nonsequential connections that allow those experiences to make larger sense; they are about circumstance becoming meaningful when seen from a certain remove.”
This is not a rallying cry for recall-driven survey research. Indeed, the great benefit of technologies like mobile survey and ethnography tools is that they enable people to capture their in-the-moment, in-context perceptions and actions. In essence, they enable people to be more accurate reporters.
But meaning-making isn’t just about reporting. It’s also about reflecting, and that’s where the value of long-term insight communities like those we at Communispace run really becomes evident. In our communities we have the chance to invite people to tell us their stories at leisure. Better still, because members can read (and in some cases, hear) one another’s stories, they can empathize, elaborate, and make their own story-telling richer.
And even when those stories feature no drug addiction, indentured servitude, or wheat grass-only diets, they still make for pretty compelling reading.