I love to go back and read my old threads. I always look at them and think, “Did I really write that?” – sometimes meaning it in a good way, and sometimes in an unfavorable way. Either way, the story I have told comes as a surprise to me.
Storytelling. Surprise. Those two go hand in hand – good stories pose questions at their beginning and follow with a series of other questions that need to be answered, ultimately reaching a conclusion with the last open question answered. Great stories surprise us in the way they answer these questions. If you think about stories that have been told to you (and I’m not talking only about those in written media), some have been boring (no surprise), some have left you wondering and/or feeling unfulfilled (don’t answer all the questions they pose). But the stories we love to hear – and note that the main verb we use to describe how we interact with stories points to the dominant media, our voice, by which we told stories for the majority of human history - have something that captures you. It could be drama, which is nothing more than posing questions and then keeping us waiting for their answer, or characters who surprise us by acting differently than we do or ideas that give us a new perspective (also surprise). The impact of the story is even more potent if the storyteller happens to be a craftsman of the language who uses words and sentence structure like a great painter uses brushstroke and color.
Think about it. You can have a great story using bland words and phrases. The story still has drama and surprise. You can have story where the writer paints complex and intense pictures in your mind’s eye, but that is boring or incomplete. But when you have drama, surprise, and lustrous language – my God, then you have a story of which you never tire, which carries you along with it and away from your daily cares to places you have never been and may never go (or never want to go, in the case of a horror story), and that teaches you something about yourself, and the human condition, in the process.
There is a wonderful quote from Eric Hoffer that speaks to this
Man is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story — a story that is basically without meaning or pattern. The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.
It is my personal and strongly held belief that the majority of human communication, but definitely not all, is in the form of stories. Questions like ”What did you do today?” “or What are they saying about Kevin?” or “What’s our vision for the next big thing in social media?” or “What is our future military program for Afghanistan?” all have the potential to be answered as stories. Those people who can make those stories memorable through clever turns of phase or image-laden language often become celebrities and get paid a great deal, whether it is only for their stories or the way they use the power of stories to bring people along towards a goal. Think Carl Sagan and Charles Kerault , Barak Obama and Ronald Reagsan, Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt.
So if we are storytellers in our DNA, then why oh why would we – to go back to the first question posed in my previous post – give up the bandwidth of storytelling for a 140-450 character limit of social networking sites? It allows us to stay in touch with and aware of a wider number of friends, family, and acquaintances, true, but what good is that if I can’t express myself in a story format?
First, a 140 character format actually does allow some amount of storytelling. For example, here is a real Facebook entry: “Audrey is not looking forward to lugging 15 bags of salt out of the car. Why doesn’t the OSH man come home to unload too?” There are story elements contained in this 129 character statement. There is a question: Why is Audrey lugging 15 bags of salt? That’s a lot of salt for this person who I know and have been tracking. Do they have a water softener? Is it snowing? Have they suddenly become a mad scientist? They are not earth shattering questions, nor do they tell us a lot about the human condition in general, but they do tell us something about a single person’s condition right now, someone we know and probably care about (in a good way). Besides that, humans are naturally curious creatures, so any question put in front of me will cause me to at least want to find out more. A 140 character message is like a Tarot card reading. It provides part of a picture, enough to make us curious, but also enough to allow our imaginations to “fill in the blanks.”
So on the surface, what social media is good for is status reporting. Here is what I am doing or care about right now. You can cover a lot of ground in 140 characters in that regard. For many people, just knowing a bit about what many individuals they care about are doing is worth the tradeoff of bandwidth and length. In our modern world, with our ability to move great distances quickly and settle far away from those we care about, the 140 character limit is an especially worthwhile tradeoff in order to “touch” them and know what is happening in their lives.
But that doesn’t explain why we follow and interact with people nearby. Admittedly in the manic, barely-managing-to-keep-up world we have created for ourselves, the only way I may be able to stay in touch, or want to stay in touch because I only have 5 seconds before I have to run off to take Johnny to school or Linda to ballet class, is through 140 characters. In this case, 140 characters is a perfect mode of communication – perhaps the only one I have time to use so I use it. But for either scenario (cared ones locally or at a distance) I could also pick up the phone, which has more bandwidth to tell a story, can be quicker, and can also occur while I’m in the car driving Linda to ballet class. So why type 140 characters instead?
The answer is also storytelling. With social media, the difference is I get to participate and help create the story. I also can focus on that part of the message, the specific question out of several that has made me curious, that I care about. I can elicit a response to my curiosity and let the “Tarot card” in front of me answer back. I can throw out my own question and see how “the story” (the storyteller) responds. I can even add my personality and my character (both me as a person and the implications of me as a person) to the story. Depending on how I answer, and how the original sender of the message responds back, I end up taking the story in a new direction. When you add in the same for every other person who may be tracking the original sender, suddenly you have a rich fertile substrate for creating a story in the moment, about the moment. In this case, the story is like a quilt where each person contributes a piece. And to go back to the prior paragraph, a phone cannot easily provide multipoint, multiperson communication.
Here’s an example from yesterday from Hal Stern, my brother in arms from my days at Sun Microsystems (btw, one of smartest guys you’ll meet in high tech).
Hal’s initial post meets the criteria I mentoned earlier – it poses all kinds of questions – and provides substrate for others to “fill in” where he leaves off. Then look at Carrie Garlick’s post – it poses it’s own set of questions but also ads a touch of Connie’s personality, i.e. “personally I scream much more nasty things….” So we have questions, and we learn something about the human condition of a small sample of sports fanatics – but not just any sports fanatics – MY friends who happen to be sport fanatics. Linda Hoffman has added a different element to the thread, so we begin to have the quilt of a story.
We’re staying in touch, and we’re telling a story. Sort of.
And that ‘sort of” is why, to answer my second question, we see parodies of this no matter how much we find social media useful. It isn’t a way of storytelling that we are used to. It is “jerky”, with no real storyline and no clear obvious resolution of a last question. It often stops after one or two comments, if there are any at all. It is a vehicle for miscommunication as much as communication – i.e., is Carrie Garlick being funny or serious about screaming more nasty things? It is noisy – meaning that even with limited bandwidth there are lots of random elements as well. I may not care about Linda Sterling’s comment about The Power of One, but I still have to wade through her comment to get to Carrie’s.
So we’ve made a Faustian bargain. On the one hand, we get to know something about what is happening with more people right now and we get to participate in building a story through conversation. On the other, social media has very serious limits to its effectiveness (e.g. the noise). The paradoists are pointing out that if we are willing to trade off time, bandwidth, and quality for 140 characters and immediacy, then why not take that knob and turn it all the way down – to a single character in a femtoblog? The answer is that the suggestion is ludicrous, because then you lose all the bandwidth and there is no tradeoff between immediacy and richness.
The question is “where do you set the dial?” Right now, nobody knows the answer to that question, which is what is making a lot of us very nervous.
Oh, and btw, if you happen to find typos, it’s because writing this blog took me far too long, I’m running to get my daughter to gymnastics. Anyway, can’t talk now. I’ll try and call you from the car.
The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.