Social software goes to Tesco

by Paul Maharg on 27/05/2006

I wrote recently about improv as an essential but neglected element in online tutoring; and quoted Jean Lave’s research on supermarket buyers’ purchase patterns and the complex mental choices and procedures (including improvisation) that make up this activity.  I should have known that somewhere out there on the web there would be a site that took this further.  Here it is — grocerylists.org, ‘the world’s largest online collection of found grocery lists’.  Add your own lists to it — social software goes to Tesco.

It’s one of Bill Keaggy’s multivarious sites (if you’re into cycle-touring & photography the Katy Trail site is worth a look).  On the grocery site itself there’s other postings of course, random food-stuff (and Tesco ads), but the lists are the main feature. You have to read at least a dozen or so of them before you get into them and they become interesting — and once you get over the sheer inanity of the genre you begin to notice how complex they can be.  There’s the content of a list, of course, and what it tells us about diet & lifestyle, like glancing at someone else’s trolley contents at the checkout and trying to reconstruct diet, family members, lifestyle, political choices, etc.  With the lists, it’s not so much playing Checkout Sherlock as being an archaeologist faced with the merest trace of a fossil record.  But sometimes it’s the merest list on the site that’s interesting — one with two items, for instance — does that mean the author has mentally/physically checked the content of kitchen shelves, and only found two items that were required; or does it mean the author’s in a hurry, and just thought of two things that were needed that night?

Sometimes a grocery list merges with a to-do list —  #0565: ‘Rent cartoons/horror movie’  (This one headed ‘Party Stuff’). Then there’s the materials they’re written on.  One is written on a memo notepad, ‘Hall Signs Inc’ (#0709), and there’s one on University of Arizona notepaper.  There’s the writing styles — chaotic, illegible, neat, bullet pointed — the whole gamut is here.  Some are dauntingly super-organised, word-processed templated lists — this one linked to where the foodstuffs are topographically in the supermarket, thus calling up the mental map we often use (either it’s a mental map of the kitchen cupboards we use, or else a mental map of the supermarket — more of this below).  Others like this one are astonishingly linked to recipes, categories, cookbooks, page thereof, and groceries associated with.  Important items: ‘ICE’, underlined three times (this on a note, unusually, with date & place: ‘[illegible address] Tucson, 6/5/95’ (#0714).  Hang on, that’s over 10 years ago — how long has Bill been collecting these?  Some lists are part of notes to others: ‘Good morning!  Have a good visit at home!’ (#0720). 

Apparently there’s a book coming out. Trivia apart, is there any interest in this stuff?  I think there is.  The lists are ways we organise our lives, tiny fragments of our working methods.  We tell our law students when they start working in their virtual firms on the Diploma that they need to keep ‘notes to file’ on their work, just as a lawyer would on an actual file.  The initial notes they create are self-conscious, awkward affairs, until they get the hang of what they need to put down, and when and where.  We can give them transactional guides, give them to-do lists for specific weeks of the course; but this is external stuff, and doesn’t arise from the students’ own transactions.  It’s like shopping by mentally going up & down the shelves of the supermarket and making a list by reference to that alone.  But the best notes to files are not based on transactional guidelines alone: they’re based on what the work of the firm actually needs in a specific transaction, and who’s going to do it & when, etc.  Viewed in isolation apart from the file, the note to file makes little sense, like most of the grocery lists.  But in the context of the transactional documentation, it should make perfect sense.  The grocery list is in a sense a good metaphor for how we want our students to view the note to file, and with many shared characteristics — something personal, highly practical, brief but where items must be covered, an essential link between two places or axes (supermarket-kitchen; file-action), and a genre that is deeply embedded in their working practice as a grocery list is in our shopping practice. 

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