Saturday, October 4, 2014

Introducing the Participatory Narrative Inquiry Institute

Well, folks, I've gone and got myself mixed up in another crazy scheme to save the world.

The PNI Institute is a new membership organization for people who are enthusiastic about growing and improving participatory narrative inquiry. It has been created as a collaborative effort by Aiden Choles, Ron Donaldson, Harold van Garderen, and myself.

Our group is in its early days, but we agree on a few important things:
  • Our focus is on quality and constant improvement;
  • we want to form a self-organized, fluid network of equals;
  • our diversity is our strength;
  • we want to share our knowledge with each other and with the world; and
  • we want to keep doing PNI, so we will collaborate on getting funding for PNI projects.
You can read more about these founding ideals on our about page.

Right now the pni2.org site hosts a group blog, to which I will be posting monthly (don't worry, I will keep this blog up as well). I've already written my first post, in which I recount my history with PNI and list my hopes for the institute. (The other first posts are also worth reading. The diversity of the group is already exciting!)

We plan to expand our membership, though exactly how we go about doing that is still in discussion. An online forum, a collaborative wiki, an online peer-reviewed journal, and some sort of unconference are all being discussed as well. Expect to see more details on the pni2.org web site as time goes by.

If you have any ideas about what sort of organization you would like to see grow around PNI, or if you want to get involved in the PNI Institute, please let me know, either in the comments or in email. I'm all ears.

One more thing: I will be in Washington, D.C. from the evening of October 15 to the morning of October 20, to attend the NCDD conference. If you live nearby and would like to meet me in person, send me an email and we'll see if we can connect.

Monday, September 22, 2014

From the archives

I have some top secret projects going on right now, but I have nothing ready to show you just yet (mwahahaha). However, the other day I was poking around in some old files (can't remember why), and I thought, gee, I wonder if some of my blog readers might like to see this old musty stuff. So if you have been following this blog for a while, maybe you'd like to see what some of these ideas looked like when they were getting started. I don't pretend to have been doing this work long enough to retrospect seriously, but as I approach 15 years in story work I can't help looking back and thinking about how things have changed (and how they haven't).

Story-colored glasses: These are slides from a talk I gave in mid-1999 about several issues related to stories: representation and visualization; indexing and deconstruction; virtual communities; and a "story circle" idea (which later became rakontu). The talk was called "Story Colored Glasses," and I liked the joke so much I used it again for this blog. (I actually posted this talk on the rakontu web site months ago, at the request of a correspondent, but I doubt anybody noticed it there.)


Observations: These are slides from a talk I gave at the end of 2000 on the things I had learned while researching stories in organizations for two years. This was the original "eight observations" talk, which turned into the first posts on this blog. If you've read (or glanced at) my book you will find that almost all of these slides look familiar.

StoryML: These are slides from a 2000 project in which I collected 400 questions people ask (have asked) about stories. That project led to the story dimensions of form, function, and phenomenon. (I am embarrassed to admit that in this talk I was still referring to the third dimension as story "trace." I didn't think of the alliterative term "phenomenon" until years later.)


Mass Narrative Representation: This is a report from a 2004 research project I did (for a US defense subcontractor) whose goal was to explore representations and visualizations that could help people consider lots of stories at the same time. The "MNR" project (as I called it) was only a four-month project, and half-time at that, but it had a big impact on my work in the years that followed.

I learned a few things by looking back at these old files. First, my embarrassment rule is in fine working order. There are a lot of things in these old files that I find just plain silly a decade or more later.

It's also true that I'm still working on a lot of the same ideas as I see in these pages. I could be embarrassed about that, but I don't think I am. People sometimes criticize novelists for writing the same story over and over. But what is life for, if not to find ourselves coming round again to the same places? And aren't we lucky when we can do that? And isn't society better off when we can? I'm glad to look into the faded mirror of the past, and to think about reading this blog post again (with some embarrassment, I hope) another 15 years into the future.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dialogue, deliberation and stories

Now that the (first) book is finally done, I've been starting to pick up my head and look around me at what the rest of the world has been up to. One of my book-finishing cheerleaders (thank goodness for these people) brought my attention to the US-based National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and to their upcoming conference in Washington, D.C.

Here's what the NCDD says about itself:
The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) is a network of nearly 2,000 innovators who bring people together across divides to discuss, decide, and take action together effectively on today’s toughest issues.  NCDD serves as a gathering place, a resource center, a news source, and a facilitative leader for this vital community of practice.
Sounds exciting, right? So I joined the network and signed up to attend the conference in October.

I think I should explain what the NCDD means by "Dialogue and Deliberation," or "D&D." This is from their web site:
Dialogue and deliberation are innovative processes that help people come together across differences to tackle our most challenging problems.  In a time of extreme political partisanship and increased conflict between religious and ethnic groups, teaching, spreading, and supporting the skills of dialogue and deliberation are vital.
D&D is a lot like sensemaking, but with a stronger focus on bringing people together. You can see why I think this is such a good fit to the work I've been doing with stories. Bringing groups together is not the only use of participatory narrative inquiry, but it is one I am particularly interested in.

One of the first steps when you join a network like this is to introduce yourself on the forum. So I started to write an introductory post. However, this was a difficult task. How could I sum up fourteen years of research within a socially acceptable span of words? First, that's a lot to summarize, and second ... I'm ... me.

While wrestling with this problem, I realized that you, my blog readers, held the answer, as you so often do. Not only could I move most of my introduction to the blog, but you might find it interesting as well. In this way I can introduce myself to the NCDD, introduce the NCDD to you, and feed the blog. What could be better?

A listening tour

I could have written pages summarizing the ideas and experiences behind participatory narrative inquiry, but that seemed an inappropriate introduction to a group with as much combined experience as the NCDD. In this context it seemed more important to listen than to explain. So I began by reading through some of the abundant information on the NCDD web site. I particularly wanted to know what people would be talking about at the upcoming conference.

The most interesting thing I found was a conference planning document from March of this year listing 95 ideas submitted by NCDD members for discussion during the October conference. This seemed a good place to look for connections. I read through the 95 ideas, looking for areas of good fit between issues PNI focuses on and issues NCDD members want to talk about. I whittled down the possible connections to three sets of three:
  1. three operational issues (things NCDD members want to do in their practices) 
  2. three three meta-level issues (things NCDD members want to do together)  
  3. three growth-of-PNI issues (things I would like to get for PNI from the NCDD)
 Then I wrote a bit about how PNI connects to each of the issues.

1. Operational issues 

These are issues NCDD members expressed an interest in talking about with respect to their work in dialogue and deliberation.

a. How can D&D practitioners invite everyone to participate, across ranges of motivation and interest, and across ranges of power and ability? 

First let's tackle the power issue as a barrier to participation. Typically in participatory narrative inquiry (PNI) projects, everyone in the community is invited to tell stories, and the storytelling is almost always anonymous. As a result, everyone has an equal voice in what is collected. When the stories are all mixed together, power distinctions become hard to see (and are often deliberately hidden). In fact, quite a few of the PNI projects I've worked on have been called "Voice of the ____" (citizen or customer or patient or somebody).

But what if telling people that their voices will be heard doesn't work? What if people don't trust the people who are collecting information? This is where it makes a difference to be collecting stories rather than opinions. To quote myself (in WWS):
A story is a socially accepted package in which people have learned from a young age to wrap up their feelings, beliefs, and opinions. ... People know that they can metaphorically place a story on a table and invite others to view and internalize it without exposing themselves to the same degree as they would if they stated those feelings, beliefs, and opinions directly.
Being invited to share one's experiences, rather than being grilled about one's opinions, communicates respect, inclusion, and safety. In fact, I have found it to be a common experience in PNI projects to find people -- even those who consider themselves uninvolved or oppressed -- expressing gratitude for the chance to be heard during the project. "I can't believe anybody wants to know what has happened to me" is a common response. Additional measures, like proof of anonymity and the ability to remove or change one's contributions on reflection, can also help people feel safe enough to speak out.

Another barrier to participation is motivation. People can't be bothered to participate, say project planners. One of the strengths of PNI is that it doesn't try to find participation where it can't be found. (I call this "the power of giving up.") PNI works well in situations where trust is low, apathy is high, and consensus is impossible. PNI can scale up in terms of participation energy, but it can also scale down to work in situations where energy to participate is minimal.

PNI projects involve three phases during which the amount of energy required to participate varies.
  1. During story collection, participants need only tell a story and answer some interpretive questions about it (like, "Who do you think needs to hear this story?"). 
  2. During sensemaking, people work with the collected stories in a more energetic way (usually with group exercises).
  3. Finally, the stories (those originally collected and those that came from sensemaking) are returned to the community. In this stage, minimal participation is again supported through (usually anonymous) comments and continued story exchange. 
This low-high-low participation structure helps people find their preferred level of participation in the project. Even when few people are willing or able to participate in the higher-intensity sensemaking sessions, similar sensemaking activities can be spread out over weeks or months. For example, people might be asked to answer a few questions about stories told by others (like, "If this story were told in the council board room, what would happen?" or, "What would happen in our community if everybody acted the way this person did?"). Such a project design can cope with a uniformly low participation threshold, but can still include narrative sensemaking that leads to useful insights.

b. How can D&D build bridges among groups? What if those groups cannot come together due to conflict and distrust? How can the beginnings of trust be established?

Asking people about things that have happened to them (with strong anonymity in place), and then making those stories available to people in all groups, can help to begin the process of mutual understanding. I've worked on many PNI projects in this area, including in the areas of mergers and acquisitions, relations between management and staff, exploring public reactions to large community development projects, and helping law enforcement officials understand the mindsets behind criminal actions.

If you don't mind, I'll quote myself again on this point:
Unique among our forms of communication, stories do not force unity but preserve conflict and contrast at all scales. This is why many folk tales have other stories nested within them, sometimes several levels deep. The Arab story-of-stories One Thousand and One Nights is the most famous example of narrative nesting. Likewise, a story project can contain other story projects. It is because a community’s story project can contain -- without controlling -- the projects of its sub-communities and families that the community may discover valuable insights about its conflicts and agreements.
What does this mean in practice? When you can collect stories from people and show them to other people, views can change. But to make this sort of exchange work, it is critical to allow stories to flow unimpeded. Stories cannot be censored (for example by collecting only "success stories") or improved (for example by prettying them up with technology) or ranked (for example by having people "vote" on the best stories) or categorized (for example by having experts choose which stories others will see). It is the rawness and immediacy of the experience -- my story to you, your story to me -- that matters. This is why one of the goals of PNI is to "get stories to where they need to go."

However, sometimes where stories need to go eventually is not where they need to go right away. Nesting of stories and story projects means that sometimes stories should be collected and kept close to home, then only slowly, carefully, and gradually -- under the control of the people involved -- spread to other groups. When we exchange stories in everyday conversation, we participate in complex rituals of negotiation over things like where a story came from, who can tell it, who can hear it, and so on. The same negotiations must take place when stories are shared in the aggregate. Simply rushing in and grabbing stories, then scattering them around in new places, is likely to backfire (if not at first, in the long term, through the erosion of trust). Giving groups of people the power to negotiate how their stories will be shared with others can help to build trust in the process.

c. How can D&D efforts scale up to the state and national levels?

Parallel story work run in different regions can create "sister" projects where people can learn from each other without being forced to share too much too soon. I've been part of several projects in which we used parallel story collection and sensemaking to help people in different groups (industrial plants, schools, government agencies) learn from each other by comparing experiences -- again, in a controlled, negotiated way.

I don't think it works to scale story methods up to huge uniform scales without some degree of parallelism and nesting. What can be shared at global levels becomes too bland and safe to be useful at the local level. What tends to happen when story projects are too large and widespread is that the people who told the stories in the first place lose out on the depth of exploration they should be achieving. Having both depth and breadth is possible, but it requires multiple levels of negotiation.  I have seen success when projects are replicated across areas and knowledge is shared through negotiated, facilitated pipelines between projects.

2. Meta-level issues

These are issues NCDD members wanted to talk about, but that have to do with dialogue and deliberation among practitioners, not among those they help.

a. How can D&D practitioners bridge gaps among approaches? How can we identify and work with common principles despite our different sets of jargon and our overlapping but distinct worldviews?

This is actually a fairly typical PNI project: to find out where people are coming from in their experiences of a topic, to discover similarities and differences, and to find opportunities for connection and dangers of miscommunication. A "My D&D" experience base -- what D&D means to me, as illustrated by some of my experiences with it -- could be a useful addition to the D&D discussion space. Similar PNI projects have been in the areas of bringing scientists and policy makers together, looking at how teachers and students view the same events, and looking at how patients and doctors see disease.

This aspect of possibility is the one I am the most excited about for the future development of PNI. My colleagues and I developed the ideas and methods of PNI in a particular set of contexts. Other people have developed similar ideas and methods in other contexts. I believe that there is a potential for PNI and several other related bodies of work to grow as a result of sharing ideas more completely. (See point 3a for more on this topic.)

b. What means can be found to demonstrate the value of D&D as an approach?

As I have helped people collect and work with stories over the years, I have noticed three types of story that usually become important in projects.
  • Pivot stories sit at the intersections of interweaving threads in the tapestry of the topic under consideration, getting to the heart of what is going on in the community.
  • Voice stories cry out to be heard. They bring little-known perspectives to the people who most need to hear them.
  • Discovery stories create "aha" moments in which people understand something better about themselves and about the topic they are exploring.
I would say that one way to demonstrate the value of D&D is to find each of these types of story.
  • Pivot stories can help people peer into the heart of what is valuable about D&D and see how it all works together.
  • Voice stories can help people "see through the eyes" of D&D practitioners to experience what D&D can be like first-hand.
  • Discovery stories can explain what exactly it is about D&D that makes sense.
These stories are never constructed or fictional; they are real stories told by real people. The PNI process involves collecting stories, then making sense of them to discover the pivot, voice, and discovery stories that can communicate to those outside the process what needs to be said.

c. How can newcomers and outsiders to D&D be helped to understand its principles and methods?

My answer to the question above (about pivot stories, voice stories, and discovery stories) also pertains to this question, because the same sorts of stories also help people to come to grips with complicated topics. I have worked on projects in which collected stories were interwoven into learning resources, giving learners the opportunity to place the information they were receiving into the context of meaningful (and real) experiences.

However, for this sort of learning resource to work well, you can't just collect "success stories." You need to be ready to hear about the good, the bad, and the ugly in D&D practice, and you need to be ready to collect stories of mistakes and failures as well as what people are proud of. That's why anonymity is so important in a project like this. It's also important to do more than just interview experts. I've found that the best way to draw out learning stories is to create a space where experts and novices can interact, put some rules in place, then watch and listen.

3. Growth-of-PNI issues

These are issues that I myself want to talk about with NCDD members, as part of my goal to continually improve my own work on participatory narrative inquiry.

a. How can any approach to dialogue and deliberation (such as PNI) connect to similar approaches in such a way that it continues to improve, but does not risk losing its unique values and benefits?

When you develop an approach to doing anything, you spend a lot of time focusing on internal tasks. This has to be true, because otherwise you would not be able to develop the approach at all. Much of the development of PNI has been "heads down" in particular projects, solving particular problems for particular organizations and communities. When people are internally focused like this, they develop a language for speaking about what they are doing, and some of that language is going to be unique.

But an approach that never looks around itself to see what other people are doing is not going to last very long, because it will never be able to compare and learn from similar approaches. During the development of PNI, I've read a lot about similar fields -- participatory action research, narrative inquiry, oral history, mixed-methods research, participatory theatre, narrative therapy, decision support, and so on. I've also read about other approaches to narrative work in dialogue and deliberation -- Circle methods, Appreciative Inquiry, The Art of Hosting, and so on. To be honest, I've had a hard time keeping up with all the similar-but-not-identical methods and approaches. Each has its own special jargon: words that are deep with meaning to those inside the approach but that only have simple meanings to those on the outside. Those simple meanings sometimes cause us to look away, thinking we know what something is about, but in fact only understanding a caricature of reality. I must admit to a certain amount of jargon fatigue in looking outside my own experience.

One idea I've had along these lines is to get together a group that can build a translation dictionary for jargon terms, like babelfish or universal translators we could wear in our ears when we meet. I would particularly like to build concept bridges -- explanations of how foundational ideas in different approaches are nearer to each other than people think, once you understand their meanings in both places. (For example, the concept of generativity in Appreciative Inquiry is similar to my elements of contact, churning, convergence, and change in narrative sensemaking.) If anyone is interested, I would be happy to work on such a project. 

b. How can we change the US culture to be more welcoming to dialogue and deliberation? 

I've been trying to get people to give PNI methods a chance around the world for more than a decade. This has always been a "harder sell" in the US than elsewhere. People seem to understand the purpose and opportunity of PNI right away in Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa, South America, and Canada. But in my own country, people are more likely to listen politely for a time, then get very busy with something else. I would like to change this.

The only explanation I can come up for this pattern is that the prevailing culture in this country is not comfortable with hearing all voices. But this is not a pattern in the popular culture; it's a pattern of insecurity in authority. The resistance I find to doing PNI work is almost never from the people who will be telling the stories. It's from the people who need to sign off to allow the projects to take place. I've seen regular people get very excited about the possibility of a participatory narrative project, only to have the project shot down by people "higher up" who suddenly become defensive about what "those people" might have to say. I have developed some ways to communicate the value of PNI to those in authority (summarized in this blog post), but still, when the potential project is in the US, I prepare extra explanations.

Since the NCDD is a US organization, I would like to learn from its members how I can approach US communities and organizations, and convey the value of PNI, more effectively. I like doing projects all over, but I would like to see more use of PNI in my own back yard.

c. How can dialogue and deliberation work better in the world of social media and internet sociality?

I spent several months a few years ago exploring the topic of story exchange on the internet, when I built and tested Rakontu, a web application for story sharing. That project took a long nap while I finished the book, and I don't know exactly when it will wake up. But I  would be very interested in talking with NCDD members about how ideas like those in Rakontu could revive and find new life in the next generation of internet sociality. (If you haven't seen Rakontu yet, you can look at my quick elevator pitch for it here.)

I hope this little exercise in listening and connecting has been helpful to my blog readers and to members of the NCDD. After the conference I'll be sure to update you on what I learned.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Stories in search of characters

I thought that in returning to blogging more regularly I'd write one of my old-style blog posts, the kind where I take a handful of thought pebbles (which I've been picking up in the places where things foam and froth) out of my pocket and line them up on a table for us to look at together. If you remember those posts from a while back, you'll be ready to read (or gone by now). 

If you're new to the blog and haven't seen this yet, I'll explain how it works. I'll say, "The other day..." and then "that reminded me of" and so on, until you think I can' t possibly jam in one more somewhat-related thing. Then I'll attempt to come to a conclusion, at which point you'll realize that I don't really have a conclusion, just a handful of mental pebbles, and that your conclusion is as good as mine.

I started writing this blog post several months ago, but the part of me that was finishing the book wouldn't allow me to complete it. This was actually a good thing, because some of the later pebbles I added to the pocket took the ideas in new directions. I would not be surprised to find that you have some pebbles like these in a pocket of your own. Feel free to place them into the comments, which are conveniently pebble sized.

1. Not a winner

Here's the first pebble in my pocket, the one that got me started on picking up all the other pebbles.

Lately, sometimes, when I'm out and about, I've taken to buying myself a bottle of Diet Coke. I know it's bad for me. I call it "my little bottle of evil." There is no need to reveal to you how much soda I used to drink ages ago, and how I swore it off forever, and how I'm now able to have a soda once in a while without getting dragged back into a bad habit.

The pebble I've been turning round and round in my mind lately is what I do when I get the soda. I unscrew the cap of the soda bottle, and then my hand takes the cap and holds it in front of my eyes for a few seconds. It was several sodas before I noticed I was doing this, and it was several more sodas before I realized why I was doing it. It's because the cap used to be part of the reason I drank so much soda.

I paid my college tuition with a handful of jobs, from tutoring to waitressing to cleaning toilets. I'm glad I did this; looking back, I think I learned as much from what I did to pay for college as I learned from what I paid for. But I did fantasize, at that age, about winning a contest that would make life easy. So I was always on the hunt for contests. For example, at the McDonald's restaurant in town they often had contests. These contests always said in the fine print that you didn't actually have to buy anything to participate. So, when a contest was on, my sister and I would walk into the McDonald's every day and ask sheepishly for another little slip of paper that represented another chance to win the contest. (We won some fries once in a while, but nothing more came of it.)

During that time I also bought as many sodas as I could afford, for the same reason. Because of this I developed a habit of reflexively peering into every soda-bottle lid to see if I had won yet. Evidently, I still do this.

When I peer into the caps of soda bottles now, I see gibberish strings of letters and numbers. But soda bottle caps were different when I was in college. Back then, every cap said the same thing:
NOT A WINNER
So the other day I'm sitting in the parking lot at the grocery store peering into a cap, and I'm thinking: I wonder what impact that had on me, reading "not a winner" so many times. But I don't really need to ask the question. I remember what I thought about it. I thought: I'm not a winner. According to the internet, a lot of people in my generation thought the same thing. I wonder what impact that had on all of us.

2. I don't think I can do it

Here's the second pebble I put into my mental pocket. Some years ago a friend of mine, let's call her Helen, helped her elderly mother use an email program. A few days later Helen called to ask her mother if she had read her email. Here was the exchange, as Helen told it to me:
Have you read your email?
      I can't.
Why not?
      I failed.
What? You did what?
      I failed.
What makes you think that?
      It said so.
What? The computer said you failed?
      That's what it said.
Mom, what did the computer say exactly?
      I clicked on that thing, like you told me, and it said, "Failed to connect to internet."
Mom! It didn't mean you failed! It meant it failed. The computer failed.
      I don't know. I don't want to try it anymore. I don't think I can do it.
And she didn't try it again.

3. Because it told me to

Here's another pebble. In a favorite book called Programming as if People Mattered, there's a great story. It goes something like this.
A software development company was doing user testing on a new software product. A user came into the testing lab and sat down in front of a computer on which the new software was running. A tester sat ready to observe the user. The user looked at the screen, then promptly switched off the computer.

The tester, aghast, asked the user why they had turned off the computer. The user said, "Because it told me to." The tester then realized that what the user saw on the screen was the program's start-up screen, which prominently displayed the company's name.

The company's name was End User Computing.
I thought for a while that this third pebble didn't belong in the same pocket as the other two, because it isn't about a message to a user. But after a while I realized that it does fit, because it's about a message a user thought was being sent to them. We have become so accustomed to cryptic messages from software that we see them even when they aren't there.

4. An impossible command

Thinking about cryptic error messages led me to remember something that happened to me about fifteen years ago. I was using a computer when an error message appeared. The message was so strange and funny that I immediately took a screen shot and saved it. I still have it. I promise you that this is a real screen shot.

Cannot delete hwkM1: There is not enough free disk space. Delete one or more files to free disk space, and then try again.

(I don't remember how I fixed the problem. I probably just switched off the computer.)

What struck me about these four pebbles (stories) was that in each, someone told a story to someone else about something that happened, a failure of some sort. In each case, the sentences used to tell the story were empty. They had no people in them. Not a winner; failed to connect; end user computing; cannot delete. I wondered: why were these stories so empty?

5. The people we talk about

Because of this I started looking around on the internet for research about the way people speak to each other, specifically in their use (or lack of use) of words that refer to people.

I soon found The Secret Life of Pronouns, which summarizes research by James Pennebaker and others into the use of "function words" such as pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions. These words are not usually necessary to provide meaning, but serve instead to convey social messages.

Here's a quote from a TED talk given by James Pennebaker:
Function words are social. They tell us about the author; they tell us about the relationship between the author and the recipient; and they tell us about the relationship between the author and the topic itself.  ... By analyzing function words, we started to get a sense of who people are, what their relationships are, what they think about themselves, and how they connect with others.
According to Pennebaker, people who consider themselves of low status, and people who have little confidence or are depressed, tend to use more personal pronouns such as "I" because they are more focused on themselves than on others. People who consider themselves to be in power, or who feel more confident, tend to use fewer pronouns. In particular, they use "I" less often.

Pennebaker says that everyone does this every day without being aware of it. Here he is in his TED talk again:
So I go in and I analyze my own emails. I'm the same as everybody else. I go in and I look at the email that I get from an undergraduate student. "Dear Dr. Pennebaker, I would like to know if I could possibly meet with you because I need to change my grade." And I write back, "Dear student, thank you so much for your email. Unfortunately, the way the grade systems work, blah blah blah." I look at my email to the dean. "Dear Dean, I'm Jamie Pennebaker, and I would like to ask you if I could do this and I could do that and I could do this." And the dean writes back, "Dear Jamie, thank you so much for your email..." and so forth.
You can even tell if someone is lying by what pronouns they use. Says Pennebaker in a 2011 interview in the Harvard Business Review:
A person who’s lying tends to use “we” more or use sentences without a first-person pronoun at all. Instead of saying “I didn’t take your book,” a liar might say “That’s not the kind of thing that anyone with integrity would do.”
What do Pennebaker's findings about pronouns mean about the four stories I've told you above? The people who wrote them might be very sure of themselves; they might consider themselves in a position of power in relation to their intended audiences; and they might be lying. My guess is that all of these factors apply to some extent when the creators of products speak to their users.

6. Page not found

As I was thinking about these things, I told my son about them. He said, "If you want to collect stories about failures, you should look at 404 error pages." (You can tell that he's almost eleven now.) This was an excellent idea, so I did it.

Yes, I'm now going to tell you about another of my small, mostly pointless internet research projects. I looked at the content of error messages on fifty web sites by seeking a fictitious whatever.com/test.html at each site.

My method of selecting sites was unscientific. I typed in all the major sites I could think of. They tended to run in groups: stores, pet-related sites, credit card companies, banks, television networks, charities, social media sites, newspapers, magazines, government agencies, and so on.

I had to visit more than sixty sites to get fifty I could work with. For example:
  • I threw out four web sites that had the default Apache 404 page (no point counting a site if nobody chose a message). 
  • I threw out four web sites where there was no error page at all. Typing in a non-existent URL simply brought you to the site's home page with no explanation. That's another strange phenomenon -- no story at all -- and possibly worthy of exploration at another time, but I put it aside (in a new mental pocket) for now.
  • I threw out three web sites where "test.html" led to either an entirely blank page or to an actual test page (have a look at target.com/test.html for a laugh).
When I had got up to fifty sites with bona fide 404 error pages, I started to categorize them. Right away I noticed that the words in large print at the top of the page were often different in tone from the smaller words that came after them. So I separated each page into its first sentence (or whatever was in large print at the top) and all of the text that came after it. I categorized each piece of text as having no pronouns at all,  the pronoun "you" only, or "we," with or without additional instances of "you." (None of the web sites said "I" -- but that's because big web sites are not usually run by one person. I did look at some web sites of individual people, but those had only the default Apache error message.)

Here's what I found.

Large heading: none, 37; you, 5; we or we+you, 8. Smaller text below: none, 12; you, 13; we or we+you, 25.

On 84% of the web sites, the large heading message had either no pronouns or only "you." Pennebaker would say that these statements used the language of authority and confidence. However, in the smaller texts that followed, only 50% of the web sites used authoritative language.

What does this mean? My guess is that it has something to do with the intensity of feelings people have about the products they create. Words in larger print are usually considered to be more loudly spoken. I got the feeling that people were shouting in the headings (defending their reputations loudly), then pulling the user in close and whispering (and sometimes admitting to a lack of perfection) in the small print. 

Here's an example. The error page at mozilla.org seems to get nicer and more helpful the smaller the print. The first giant sentence ("Whoops!") has no pronouns, then the second ("What are you doing here?") has only "you," then the next level down brings in "us." (The statement "unless you want us to deal you in" refers to a "dogs playing poker" picture on the page, cleverly bringing in the fact that mozilla products are open source -- again, the speaker's true self is revealed only in a whisper.)

I didn't find any patterns as to which sorts of web sites had which sorts of messages. Charities didn't have "nicer" messages than newspapers, or anything like that, as far as I could tell in such a tiny sample. I don't suppose most organizations put a lot of effort into designing their 404 error pages. It is probably a support task given to low-status employees.

I suspect that the way 404 pages read has to do more with who got stuck writing the 404 error message than with anything else. Some people are more self-assured than others, so it makes sense that some of the people who get stuck writing these error messages might be unassuming types. But the majority wrote without pronouns when they wrote loudly.

7. Fractions of apology

Looking through all those 404 page messages brought to mind my theory of fractional apology. I began theoretical work on this theory a long time ago, in college, when I was learning how to make friends, and I have elaborated on it ever since. It goes like this.

All apologies are stories about what happened, but different types of apologies tell different stories with different people in them.
  • A full apology ("I'm sorry I hurt you") tells the story of what happened with all of the people present and accounted for.
  • A half apology ("I'm sorry if I hurt you") tells the same story, but with the offender only halfway in the story. The word "if" means that the offender accepts only conditional responsibility for what happened. Of course there are ways of saying the word "if" that imply that condition to be unlikely, if not illusory.
  • A quarter apology ("I'm sorry that you think I hurt you") tells the story with only one person in it. The words "you think" remove the offender from the story completely, leaving only the offended person experiencing a fantasy of offense. As with "if," there are ways of saying "you think" that render the fantasy extreme.
  • A non-apology ("That's too bad" or "Mistakes were made") has nobody in the story at all: no offender, no offended person, just a meaningless event happening to nobody.
Most of the large-heading texts of the 404 pages I looked at, and the messages that started me on this mental perambulation (not a winner, failed to connect, etc) fit into the category of non-apologies or quarter apologies. Some of the detailed help texts under the large 404 headings could count as half apologies.

8. Stories of production and power

At this point I was reminded of an observation I've made over the years about stories I've collected from people who create products. When I've collected stories from software developers, salespeople, customer service representatives, and so on, I've noticed a peculiar feeling of disdain for, or even disgust with, the users of products. In many of the stories I've heard, users have been portrayed as stupid, slow to learn, fickle, and prone to falling into baseless superstitions. Not every product creator expresses these feelings, but I've seen the phenomenon enough times to wonder where it comes from. If the people who create products have feelings of disdain for their users, it makes sense that they would use the language of someone "speaking down," that is, removing pronouns from their speech.

I have come up with two competing hypotheses about why product creators might speak down to users. The first hypothesis is the more obvious one: people who know a lot about a product they have created can legitimately consider themselves to be more knowledgeable about the product than their users. And they are naturally more confident and powerful, because they created the product and can control it, whereas users don't have that power. Thus it makes sense for product creators to use the language of authority. Let's call this the natural authority hypothesis.

My second hypothesis is the opposite of the first. When people create products for users, they enter into a position of dependence upon them. If I create a web site and nobody comes to it, or if I design a soda bottle and nobody buys it, I will not be able to keep creating those things. Thus even though product creators might be more knowledgeable than users, they are less powerful. If I need you and you don't need me, I may take on the language of power in a bid to overcome my dependent position through posturing and bluffing (and possibly self-deception). Each of these things would lead me to use fewer pronouns. Let's call this the compensation hypothesis.

One other piece of evidence, if you can call it that, is that I have also collected some stories on the other side of this imbalance, from the users of systems. I've noticed that a lot of users see developers as powerful (they can create these amazing systems we can barely use), mysterious (we can only guess at what they might do next), and consistent (they will always act the way they do now).

This evidence could support either of my above hypotheses. If product creators use the language of authority because they legitimately have it, users rightly understand their place in the exchange. But if product creators use the language of authority to compensate for their powerlessness, maybe users have been hoodwinked into believing they are powerless when in fact they hold the power in the relationship. If users have been tricked, they will eventually discover the truth, and this could lead to disillusionment with products. I feel like I've seen some of that disillusionment myself. Have you?

9. Agency and apology

This led me to think of John Caddell's book The Mistake Bank, and of something he said about owning your mistakes. He said:
[D]eveloping a sense of agency is crucial to using mistakes more effectively. When something you're working on goes wrong, many parties may have a role. Yet focusing on all those external parties distracts you from what you can control--yourself and how you react to situations. Believing that you can manage your life requires that you take responsibility for your actions and deal with their consequences. That requires forgetting about other influences and owning the result.
Agency is the capacity of an actor to act in a world. If you don't have a sense of agency with respect to something that has happened, you don't see yourself as having acted in the world of what happened. You have removed yourself -- distanced yourself -- from the story. What John is saying is that people who habitually remove themselves from stories when they don't go well lose the ability to learn from their mistakes. This is not a good thing.

10. Stories in search of characters

This in turn reminded me of a blog post I wrote, let's see, four (four!) years ago, about celebrity worship as narrative sensemaking. I'm going to excerpt the relevant parts of that post to save you reading the whole thing.
The whole thing also reminds me of [see, I was doing the same thing back then] the excellent play Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello. In this play, six "living characters" arrive at a play's rehearsal searching for an author to finish their story. The theatre manager and actors cannot understand that the characters are not actors:
The Father. You will understand, sir, born as we are for the stage . . .
The Manager. Are you amateur actors then?
The Father. No. I say born for the stage, because . . .
The Manager. Oh, nonsense. You're an old hand, you know.
The Father. No sir, no. We act that rôle for which we have been cast, that rôle which we are given in life. And in my own case, passion itself, as usually happens, becomes a trifle theatrical when it is exalted.
The Manager. Well, well, that will do. But you see, without an author . . . I could give you the address of an author if you like . . .
The Father. No, no. Look here! You must be the author.
The Manager. I? What are you talking about?
The Father. Yes, you, you! Why not?
The Manager. Because I have never been an author: that's why.
The Father. Then why not turn author now? Everybody does it. You don't want any special qualities. Your task is made much easier by the fact that we are all here alive before you . . .
In other words, we are all the authors, collectively, of the stories we play with. Later in the play there is a nod to why people need these characters in our great sensemaking plays, and how they need to be both manipulable and long-lasting:
The Manager [determining to make fun of him]. Ah. excellent! Then you'll be saying next that you, with this comedy of yours that you brought here to act, are truer and more real than I am.
The Father [with the greatest seriousness]. But of course; without doubt!
The Manager. Ah, really?
The Father. Why, I thought you'd understand that from the beginning.
The Manager. More real than I?
The Father. If your reality can change from one day to another . . .
The Manager. But everyone knows it can change. It is always changing, the same as anyone else's.
The Father [with a cry]. No, sir, not ours! Look here! That is the very difference! Our reality doesn't change: it can't change! It can't be other than what it is, because it is already fixed for ever. It's terrible. Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder when you approach us if you are really conscious of the fact that your reality is a mere transitory and fleeting illusion, taking this form today and that tomorrow, according to the conditions, according to your will, your sentiments, which in turn are controlled by an intellect that shows them to you today in one manner and tomorrow . . . who knows how? . . . Illusions of reality represented in this fatuous comedy of life that never ends, nor can ever end! Because if tomorrow it were to end . . . then why, all would be finished.
People engage in societal sensemaking in order to connect to the larger story, the grand story of human existence. If they didn't, "all would be finished."
I hope you'll understand why I included this section. When we refuse to act as characters in our own stories, when we send away these characters in search of an author, we become nothing more than transitory and fleeting illusions, taking this form today and that tomorrow. Each error message, each 404 page, each fractional apology stands alone, unable to help us make sense of our creations and of our lives. We need to populate our own stories so that we can connect to the larger story, the grand story of human existence. The consequences of abandoning our own stories could be devastating.

11. A very lonely missile

Thinking about abandoning our own stories reminded me of the famous "the missile knows" audio file, in which a man reads from a prepared script about a missile guidance system. If you've been poking around on the internet for long enough you've probably heard it already. (If you haven't heard this yet, just search for "the missile knows" and look for audios or videos.)

Nobody seems to know whether this recording was a bona fide training script or a parody of one, which makes it all the more interesting to listen to. It starts out like this:
The missile knows where it is at all times. It knows this because it knows where it isn't. By subtracting where it is from where it isn't, or where it isn't from where it is (whichever is greater), it obtains a difference, or deviation. The guidance subsystem uses deviations to generate corrective commands to drive the missile from a position where it is to a position where it isn't, and arriving at a position where it wasn't, it now is. Consequently, the position where it is, is now the position that it wasn't, and it follows that the position that it was, is now the position that it isn't.
A missile is a device created by people to kill people. But when the people who wrote this script told a story to other people about the missile, they removed all of the people from the story. Apparently this lonely little missile goes through its life without any creators, without any givers of instructions, and without any awareness of what will happen to anyone when it gets to where it is going. But we all know that the people are what matter in this story: the people who created the missile, and the people who will die because of its journey.

I think it's curious that this story has become such an urban legend on the internet, passed from one hand to another for decades. Maybe it says something to us about how we've created systems from which we have carefully removed our own presence. Maybe it says something about our societal need to make sense of this fact. Maybe it says something about our need to reduce the distance between what we have created and who we are.

12. We are all around us

Thinking of distance, and not talking about what is right in front of us, reminded me of one of my favorite Far Side cartoons of all time: the one where there are cows grazing in a field, and one cow looks up and says:
Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We've been eating grass!
(Search for those words and you'll find the cartoon itself.)

Every time I spend time in a corporate setting, this cow cartoon springs to mind, and I find myself fighting an increasing urge to say:
Hey, wait a minute! We are people! Corporations are made of people!
I'm now starting to realize why this is true. It's because corpo-speak is usually devoid of pronouns. We come up with so many elaborate ways to avoid admitting that people are involved in corporations: human resources (people), social capital (people talking to people), knowledge management (people helping people learn and share -- with people), and so on.

James Pennebaker said that function words like pronouns tell us "who people are, what their relationships are, what they think about themselves, and how they connect with others." When people avoid using pronouns, maybe they are not just trying to conceal how they connect with others. Maybe they are trying not to connect at all.

13. What's a leader to do?

I seem to be saying here that nobody should speak in the language of power. I seem to be saying that everyone should pepper their sentences with "I" and "we" to avoid losing their capacity to connect and think clearly. I seem to be saying that in order to learn and grow as people, we must have no leaders. But clearly people need leaders. Everyone leads at some time or other, and everyone needs to be able to convey authority in ways other people can understand.

Perhaps I am presenting a double bind. Pennebaker says that people signal authority and confidence by dropping people out of stories; and others say that people who drop people out of stories lose connection and sensemaking ability. But if a leader must use the language of power to convey authority, how can they avoid these consequences? Is it not the responsibility of those in power to speak in ways that show control?

Part of me would agree that in some contexts it is necessary for people who hold power and responsibility to speak in the language of power and to drop people out of stories. If a leader on whom I depended was negotiating on my behalf for something needed by my community, I would want them to use the language of authority and confidence rather than submission and fear.

However, another part of me has other ideas. First, I think it must be part of the responsibility that comes with power to recognize the impact of characterless stories on our ability to make sense and to connect. The language of power isolates ("it's lonely at the top") and reduces self-awareness ("the fog of leadership"). When we feel that we must use the language of power, we should also feel obliged to periodically renew our abilities by deliberately populating stories, perhaps in the context of speech that does not require signs of authority -- with mentors, perhaps, or trusted friends. We should not allow ourselves to fall into the habit of keeping people out of all of our stories.

Secondly, I am reminded of the philosophy of servant leadership, about which Robert Greenleaf said:
The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. ... The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
Notice how many times people are mentioned in that quote. This is certainly not a story in search of characters. Leaders who serve using this model, it seems to me, would take it as their responsibility find a way to lead without telling stories empty of people. I think I like that option best of all.

14. No more losers

There is just one more pebble left in my pocket.  I wondered what sort of "not a winner" messages my new soda-bottle cap might lead to, so I went to the Coca-Cola web site to type in the cryptic code I found inside.

I was surprised to find that bottle caps no longer result in failure stories. The old contest has been converted to a loyalty program. Now people register at the web site, and they get points for each soda they buy. Eventually the points add up to discounts and free things. People also get contest entries with their points, but that's not the central activity.

So what Coke has done is convert their "not a winner" failure story to a story of success. I wonder what my college years would have been like if all the contests I entered had been loyalty programs. I think I would have enjoyed drinking soda a lot more, to begin with. (Maybe that's why I call it "my little bottle of evil.")

But what's the language like on the Coke rewards web site? What pronouns do they use? What stories do they tell?  I didn't want to register for an account (no more barnacles please), but I did look around on the pages of the site I could see without being signed in.

The large, up-front stories are all about you:
There's more to life than your mortgage. Enter now for a chance to win a $24,000 Visa gift card to put towards your mortgage. What will fit into your life when you kick your mortgage out?
But that's probably because Coke is trying to appeal to an age range for which they think self-concern will be strong. Poking around on the Coke rewards site a little more, however, finds some more promising uses of pronouns: 
Shop the My Coke Rewards catalog and use your MCR points for the things you want most. Whether you're passionate about technology or love great food, want to keep up on the latest Hollywood happenings or send flowers to someone special, with our great rewards you can do it all! Just sign in, choose your favorite item from our rewards catalog and complete the checkout process. It takes only minutes - and when you're done, you'll have a great little reward just for drinking your favorite beverage.

Support a Good Cause. It doesn't take a lot of effort, but every time you've enjoyed one of our products, you've helped Coca-Cola make donations to a wide range of great causes, including scholarships, the environment, and safe havens where kids can learn and grow. Now, you can continue to make an even bigger difference. By donating your My Coke Rewards points to a cause, you can truly help others in our communities.
This is better: the word "our" comes up multiple times. There may actually be somebody in there. It certainly is an improvement over "not a winner," even though I had to go hunting to find it. My college self holds up her bottle cap and smiles.

15. The pebbles begin to form a shape

What does this all mean if you are a creator of products? I don't exactly know. These mental perambulations usually peter out and end without any definite conclusions. I'll try and come up with some conclusions anyway, to make you happy.

When we tell stories from which we have removed ourselves, we may inadvertently place ourselves into a position of power over our audiences. This may reduce their ability to help themselves, and it may increase their dependence on us. If our reason for speaking to people in the first place is to help them learn and become more capable of doing something, we are working against our own goals by speaking in this way.

When we tell stories from which we have removed ourselves, we have reduced our own capacity to make sense of what has happened. This could lead us into complacency, into declining value in the things we create and in the work we do, and into a sense of isolation from our lives and from the lives of the people we most want to connect with.

When we catch ourselves telling stories from which we have removed ourselves, we can take the opportunity to ponder why we did this. Do we want to appear knowledgeable? Do we want control over the situation? Do we want distance from the situation? Do we want to compensate for feelings of dependence or lack of control? We should use our own words as indicators that can help us avoid problems of self-deception.

When someone tells us a story from which they have removed themselves (like "not a winner"), we should not rush to place ourselves into the story (by for example believing that "You are not a winner" is the story being told). We should instead recognize that the story has no people in it and think about what sorts of people might legitimately be in the story.

When someone tells us a story from which they have removed themselves, we can learn something about the person, or the product. The person might see themselves in a different relationship with us than we would like to have with them. We might take different actions in our relationships with them as a result.

That's it: all my pretty pebbles are lined up for you to see, and I've placed them into one shape. But this is only a handful of pebbles, and this is only one shape. You can place more pebbles, and more shapes you find, in the comments.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I'm not here right now

In my last post I promised I'd post monthly, and here it is nearly two months later. I've been thinking for weeks about what I should write here, and I keep coming up empty. Today I realized that the best thing I can do is simply explain why I have nothing to tell you. I'm not here right now.

In order to explain what that means, I need to explain my pet theory for how I work. I'm not sure this works for anyone else but me, but it describes my thought processes perfectly, and maybe it will be interesting to you. When I'm working on something, there are always four phases to the work.

During the fattening phase, I increase in intellectual bulk on some topic. I go on journeys through information and knowledge; I pursue intriguing avenues; I bounce back and forth between opposing views; and so on. Some people might call this phase "gathering" or "scanning," but I like the metaphor of puffing up to a larger size on a topic. I grow.

At some point my growth reaches a point of saturation. I find myself greeting old friends more than I do making new acquaintances. My paths grow smooth, and everything feels comfortable and familiar. When I reach this point, I know it is time for the next phase: milling.

During milling I stop working on the topic I have been researching, and I carefully refrain from learning about anything else. I clean my house; I take long walks; I cook more than usual; I knit and weave; I distract myself with non-intellectual (or at least non-complicated) pursuits. The information I fattened on is not out of mind entirely, but it is in the back of my mind, where it can swirl around and recombine in ways of which I am only dimly aware.

At some point during milling I begin to have an urge to do something related to the topic I've been pondering. I might want to write a blog post or article or book, or propose an idea to someone, or collect some data, or run an experiment, or something. But somehow a craving for action takes form. When this happens, I know I have entered the next phase: producing.

During the producing phase I do what looks like work. I write reports, run experiments, analyze data, and so on. This aspect of work will be so familiar to you that I don't need to describe it. In fact, this is the only phase of my work that I find most people are willing to pay me to do. That's a problem, because producing doesn't produce anything if it isn't preceded by fattening and milling. I usually have to ask my clients to be patient when work begins on any project, because I may seem to be doing nothing useful at first.

After some amount of producing, I reach the end of what needs to be done in the project. The proposal or experiment or report has been completed and delivered.

For a long time I thought that producing was the final phase of my thought cycle, but some years ago I realized I was missing something. I call my fourth phase the void. The void is sort of like milling, only it's deep milling, back-burner thinking that places the preceding project within the context of my life's work, my life, and life itself.

You might think of the void as "vacation" or "holidays" -- an optional rest -- but I have come to believe that the void is as much work as any work can be. After a few project cycles without sufficient attention to the void, all of the other phases begin to break down. I went through void starvation (that is, projects back to back with no voids between) when I was doing heavy project work early on in this field. I was becoming less and less effective in my work, and I only realized why this was happening because the combination of parenthood and lulls in paying work forced me to discover the benefits of the void. I've since come to anticipate and actively create the void in order to improve the quality of my work. I don't know if everyone needs the void, but I do.

This is exactly why I can't write a substantive blog post for you right now. I'm deep in the void after finishing the book. For the past six weeks I have purposely thought as little as possible about anything work related. I have answered emails and talked to people as they needed me to, but otherwise I have avoided thinking about work. I will probably soon enter a new fattening phase, and then I will have some relevant blog posts to write. But right now all I can tell you is that I'm not here. Who knows, maybe what I've written to you from the void will have some value to you as you evolve your own pet theory about about how you work.