I recently finished an advanced reader copy of Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger (Simon & Schuster, March 2013). It’s a rather interesting book about how things spread, focusing mostly on why people talk about ideas, brands, etc, basically what people take the time to share. The concept of sharing has become inseparable from social media, but Berger is more interested in offline sharing: the stories we tell, the items we recommend, and the ideas we discuss verbally. Although it’s usually easy to look backwards and explain why something goes ‘viral’, Berger argues that there are ways to predict what will become important. I’m still debating internally whether I think he’s right. I don’t think things are just random, but I’m not convinced virality is predictable according to 6 easy steps.
In one chapter, Berger has a sentence that made me pause. He writes, “stories carry things” (156). As someone who loves literature, I appreciate this sentiment, but what I liked even more was it’s simplicity and ambiguity. Stories carry things. It’s hard to argue with that statement and yet it’s so revealing. Stories are ephemeral. They are transient and constantly changing. Stories are also found across almost every medium. They are in books, of course, but also music, dance, art, movies, radio, television. Furthermore you can find stories on pottery, toys, food packaging, billboards. Forget stories carrying things; things carry stories. Almost everything carries a story. And yet stories exist outside of things. Stories exist in intangible forms: in the space between speaker and listener, and in our memories. So are the things they carry also intangible — limited to things like humor, advice, sorrow, empathy, romance, history? Or do stories have the capacity to carry solid, material things? I like the idea that stories, in all their ambiguity, can carry some tangible thing. Finally, I like Berger’s verb : carry. The word choice is a reminder that stories are vessels and that they move. They need to be filled up in order to fulfill their function. But the word carry also implies that stories are supportive. They move things that might not be able to move on their own. I liked Berger’s sentence. It is so simple and yet it invokes so much. Even so, I’d still like to suggest an alternative, or at least a companion. Stories carry people.