Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Characters in search of sensemaking, and vice versa

This post is about narrative sensemaking and play at the level of society. It will take a circuitous course, so come and stroll with me.

The grand charade

To start with, I've been watching how people are contributing to Haiti lately, for some reason. I've been amazed by the "Hope for Haiti Now" telethon (and similar previous ones). If you didn't know, the actor George Clooney gathered more than a hundred celebrities to answer telephones or perform. The effort has so far generated $57 million. What amazes me about this event is what people are saying about it. Listen to this glowing account of the "restraint" shown by the event's participants, from the New York Times TV Watch column:
More than 100 of the most famous actors and music stars in the world went on stage pretending to be nobody.... Friday night’s event, shown on dozens of networks and streamed across hundreds of Web sites, was a case study in giving it all while holding back.
This made me laugh out loud:
[The] stars wore varying shades of brown and black and studiously avoided the “I” word. Beyoncé, Madonna and Sting, sang without being identified; stars like Mr. Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio (who have each already donated $1 million) were not introduced.
The reason they "sang without being identified" and "were not introduced" is because they knew they don't have to be identified! To pretend that they modestly refused to be identified is beyond funny (and way into sad, really). Here's George W. Bush on Leonardo DiCaprio's $1 million donation, quoted in a glowing tribute at rightcelebrity.com:
"I salute Leonardo DiCaprio for his extraordinary generosity," President George W. Bush said. "This donation sends a clear message to the people of Haiti that America’s commitment to helping rebuild their country is strong. I thank Leo for setting a wonderful example for all Americans of helping a neighbor in need."
The part of this that astounds me is that people can say such superlatives as "giving it all" and "extraordinary generosity" when the opposite is so glaringly obvious. Though George Clooney gave $1 million himself, his net worth is supposedly over $80 million, and he made $25 million just in the last year. The fact is, Mr. Clooney could have donated $57 million by himself -- without having to give up a lifestyle of luxury. The same can be said for most of the people who "pretended to be nobody" during the telethon. I can't find a definite figure for Leonardo DiCaprio, but it sounds like it's over $100 million.

Is giving a million out of a hundred million "extraordinarily generous?" I'd say giving a million out of two million is extraordinarily generous. I'd say giving five thousand when you made twenty five thousand and have to turn down your heater to do it is extraordinarily generous.

My point is not to bash these people (well maybe just a bit). My point is that the disparity between reality and fiction -- what these people could really do, and what people say about what they actually choose to do -- is breathtaking. I'm tempted to call it doublethink. Attracted by this curious pattern, I've been poking around the web looking at comments on sites with glowing reviews such as the one I quoted here. Some few people do raise the point, but usually they are shouted down by the majority of people saying essentially, awwww, aren't they cute. And people are talking about George Clooney like he is Mother Teresa. I find this baffling. What could cause such a disconnect?

Villagers and dowagers

So I've been going on a little reading journey (very little) through sociology, psychology and evolutionary psychology on the subject of the celebrity phenomenon and celebrity "worship." There seem to be three main threads on this, and one of them connects to stories.

I'll get two of the threads out of the way quickly. One is that we pay a lot of attention to faces, because in almost all of human history seeing a face meant that its owner lived nearby and was important to your life. Today, a we see on a frequent basis the faces of people who don't live nearby and have nothing to do with us. That triggers an instinctual interest, as though they were actually our neighbors. Says this useful article by Erica Harrison in Cosmos magazine:
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, there was a much stronger evolutionary advantage to knowing who was an 'enemy' and who was a 'friend'.... [G]ossip in those days was a matter of life and death - it was a means of reinforcing social bonds while keeping track of who could be trusted. Anyone with a familiar face had to live nearby - so they were the ones worth keeping tabs on.
As cave painting has given way to more pervasive media, including print, television, film and the Internet, faces have been delivered, transmitted and downloaded to our living rooms from all around the globe. Familiarity is no longer a sure sign of proximity, but our neural hard-wiring has been slow to catch up. So, on some innate level we might feel as if the Neighbours we watch on television, are actually our own.
The second reason has to do with power. People are attracted to celebrities because they have money, and in today's world money means power. This is evidently such a deep instinct that the same pattern can be found in other primates. This article in the on-line newspaper The Register says:
A team from Duke University Medical Centre, led by neurobiologist Dr Michael Platt, offered 12 thirsty adult male rhesus macaque monkeys a choice between their favourite drink (Juicy Juice cherry juice, ABC News notes), and the chance to view pictures of their pack's dominant, "celebrity" monkey. Surprisingly, the monkeys eschewed the juice in favour of a bit of celeb-watching, but had to bribed with extra refreshment to look at ordinary "rhesus riffraff".
So, another instinctual trigger: being close to power. So paying attention to celebrities is no different from worming your way into the entourage of the town's wealthiest widow, a favorite pastime of snobs from time immemorial.

Societal sensemaking

Now, on to the instinct that interests me the most, because it has to do with storytelling. In reading about celebrity through the ages, two quotes stuck out. The first was in this review of the classicist Tom Payne's book Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney:
The ancient Romans made celebrities out of their gladiators, cheering when they killed and weeping when they died. Later, they made celebrities out of the Christian martyrs who were gored by them. The ancient Greeks gossiped about their gods' love affairs – and far from being wholly mythical, the gods appeared among them all the time. As Payne says: "You could invite gods to dinner. The god Serapis [or rather, somebody posing as him] would hold parties at which he was once 'host and guest'.... You could even have sex with a goddess." The tyrant Pisistratus typically found a gorgeous woman, put her in a chariot, and announced she was the goddess Athene. The crowd howled and whooped like anyone at Wembley.
The second was in this article by David Giles and John Maltby in The Psychologist:
This bizarre state of affairs – a small group of human beings idolised by a much larger number – has existed in most societies to some extent through history. Very often those idols are never seen by their admirers because they only exist as legendary figures in oral narratives, so it doesn’t matter whether they’re real or not. Or they may be known, like monarchs or great military figures, largely through their representation on money or portrait paintings. For most people, the idols are just part of the cultural fabric, some of them superhumans to emulate, perhaps with moral significance.
It doesn't matter whether they're real or not. Celebrities have inherited from heroes and gods the mantle of societal sensemaking through narrative play. People use these characters as elements in collective narrative play, to negotiate issues such as what is required, what is "hot or not," and what is taboo.

This explains the disconnect between what people say about celebrities and what they do. These unfortunate people are being used by society to play out scenarios, and what they actually do, when it is inconsistent with what they are needed to represent, is passed over. In this article, Guillermo Jiminez mentions how dopamine is released when we watch celebrities, and how that creates a quandary:
Michael Jackson's fans have to some extent been tricked by evolution. Watching the Gloved One's uncanny gyrations and masterful crooning released entire oceans of their cerebral dopamine, but that did not change the fact that their hero was a very weird man. Indeed, Michael Jackson's life represents the very opposite of wisdom, the opposite of what one should admire or seek to emulate in a role-model.
When there is too great a disconnect between role and behavior, people choose another needed slot with a better fit. My guess is that Michael Jackson may have started out as a garden-variety hero but that he transitioned into a trickster figure at some point, so that his bizarre behavior could be accommodated.

The flip side is that people talk as much about celebrity "trashing" as worship. That explains all the "they have cellulite too" pictures in the supermarket tabloids. When a celebrity falls (sometimes through a series of accidents) into a needed negative role, every good thing they do is similarly ignored. Choosing a web site at random, popscribe.com, where "gossip is an artform!" mixes positive elements ("Celebrity Award Shows") with the newsworthy ("Celebrity Update") and the downright nasty ("Celebrity Scandals," "Celebrity Stupidity").

For the most part, celebrities have little control over how they are portrayed and used by the public. They take on a role and assume a positional identity according to what society needs, though it is probably more appropriate to say that the roles choose them. They try to exert what control they can, but it sounds like it is a constant and often losing battle.

The difficulty today is not that people use characters in societal sensemaking. That is part of the normal societal immune system. It keeps us healthy. The difficulty today is that the required characters used to be wholly fabricated (as with gods), conveniently dead (as with folk heroes) or conveniently far away and unavailable (as with folk figures like Napoleon). These characters could be easily manipulated to meet the demands of societal sensemaking. Real celebrities cannot be so easily managed. It reminds me of the old saw, here in John Ploughman's pictures (an 1896 collection of proverbs and stories):
A bachelor's wife is always well managed, and old maids always bring up their children in prime style.
The whole thing also reminds me of 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." Connecting people to a larger story used to be the role of religion, and it still is for many people. In fact, it's unlikely celebrity "worship" would have developed before religion lost its firm grip on society. There has even been research done, most notably by the psychologist John Maltby, that shows the more religious a person the less likely they are to "worship" celebrities. But telling everyone to become more religious tends not to have any affect, and besides, religion -- organized religion, at least -- was never the whole story.

Growing new celebrities

The prevailing wisdom in the articles I've seen about this has been that a little celebrity worship/trashing is harmless, as long as we keep it under control and don't all turn into stalkers. But that answer makes me uncomfortable. I don't think it is harmless entertainment.

What I see is that, as is spectacularly displayed in this Haiti telethon issue, when we push real people into the roles of characters in our great plays, we run the risk of changing the plays themselves. Recasting rich people giving trivial amounts of money (to them) as "extraordinarily" generous has to have an effect on the characters they are playing, eventually. The strain has to have some effect, on something, somewhere, and I fear the effect may be on our own behavior. If celebrities can give a trivial amount and still be extraordinarily generous, we can keep buying useless things while giving trivial amounts to people in desparate need. Doublethink can't be far away.

I can't help but wonder if there might be some way to bring back the more fictional, or at least more easily shaped, characters we used to have, and remove the stress (on all sides) of trying to fit real people into the narrative. We need a a way to redirect societal sensemaking into more fitting characters.

I don't have any giant answers for humanity, but I do have an interesting personal perspective on this. I stopped watching television on September 11, 2001. At the time we lived near New York City, and our house was one of the many that got most of its TV signals from the top of the twin towers. After what happened we went from four or five good channels to one or two shaky ones. We had the option of paying for cable or going without. I'd love to say I was enlightened and noble and chose the better way, but the fact is that I whined and complained, and my nasty miserly husband dragged me kicking and screaming out of the television world (that wonderful man).

But after I gave up TV a few amazing things happened. First, I noticed that when I went out to stores to shop, I started buying exactly what I wanted and then leaving. The urge to buy more stuff for no reason at all disappeared, and shopping started to seem more like the chore it is and less like wish fulfillment.

Secondly, I stopped caring about celebrities. I stopped being interested in seeing the movies they were in; instead I read reviews and found out if the story was any good. I stopped finding out what celebrities were doing and what they thought. Even Sting, who had previously been my hero, now seemed just like a nice guy who was going bald. Nine years on, when I poke around on the web I have no idea who most of the beautiful people are, and what's more, I don't care. It's enormously freeing, both in time and in the ability to have my own thoughts. It's like that episode in Star Trek where the empath is overpowered by the colliding thoughts of all the people on the ship, and then he goes to live with the giant living space thing, and he is enthralled by the peace of communing with only one mind. It feels better. Once in a while I go on hulu.com to find out if I'm missing anything, and guess what, I'm not.

The third amazing thing that has happened is that I've grown new celebrities, even without trying. I'm not going to tell you who they are, but suffice it to say that they are very cool and powerful, as well as entirely mutable to suit my purposes. They are all either dead, fictional, mythical or non-human, and so perfectly fitting. I share some of them with like-minded people (both living and long dead), and some with family members and friends; but others are mine alone.

So, if you are tired of the contradictions of the world of mainstream celebrities, or you just want to try a new way of letting your instincts flow towards narrative play, my advice is to try your hand at choosing (and designing) your own characters. Some might claim this is not a societal, or even social, response, and that I advocate hiding from society. But again that's an illusion of mass media. There has never been only one society, one theatre. Making sense of the world together is much too important of an activity to leave it at that.

[EDIT: The next morning I realized that I made a point about not watching television by referring to a television show. This might strike some as odd, but it isn't. When I was a kid, we got channels 2 (okay), 4 (usually snowy) and 6 (nearly always visible), and every once in a while a vague channel 11 would suddenly become visible for a few hours. The little black-and-white TV we had was broken half the time, and nobody bothered to fix it. That's the way I saw most of the Star Trek franchise, because even after leaving home I rarely could afford the firehose of cable. I don't think people realize how much TV has changed. If it was a Mus musculus before, it is a Tyrannosaurus rex now. It doesn't make sense to use the same word to describe it. The commercials have changed from "We make this product and we think you'll like it" to "If you buy this, beautiful people will magically prefer you, and your life will be full of meaning." Even the way people arrange chairs in the social spaces of their houses has changed. Instead of the chairs facing each other for conversation, now they all face the altar, oops, I mean entertainment center, that enshrines the TV. So yes, I referred to a tv show, but not to a TV show.]

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Eight observations - 8th

The eighth observation of eight is about how computers and narrative connect. At the time I made the original eight observations I was working at IBM, so "how computing can help" was an important issue. Designing and writing software related to narrative is something I've done a lot of in the past several years, so I find I have a lot to say about these issues. (That is code for "this is going to be a long post, so stay with me.")

Grails and graffitis

My original observation was that there are two categories of goals related to computers and narrative: grails and graffitis. By "grail" I meant the holy kind, as in things we'd like to do someday but probably won't be able to do (at least not well) any time soon. The grails I named then were automatic story creation and automatic story understanding. At the time there were a few dozen people working on artificial intelligence systems to create and understand stories, and there still are. Erik Mueller at IBM Research has an excellent list of nearly 75 attempts to either create or dissect stories using computer algorithms. I haven't kept up with that part of the field, but as far as I know, for the most part these attempts are still in the theoretical realm and are not used (much?) in everyday life.

By naming the other class of computer-narrative connections "graffitis" I was referring to a story about the Graffiti handwriting recognition system for the Palm pilot, which was en vogue when I gave the talk. At that time Graffiti was a code word for a new idea in computing. The story was that after many partially successful attempts to recognize the insane variety of handwriting real people actually use, the creator of Graffiti had a brainstorm: ask people to learn a simplified shorthand-like system. This improved the accuracy of handwriting recognition tremendously. I myself used a Palm pilot at that time for taking notes during talks, and I found the Graffiti "gestures" easy to learn and even quite elegant. I could write nearly as fast with Graffiti as I could type (which is saying a lot).

I'm not sure what happened to Graffiti, but I found the idea inspiring. If you try to create a tool that meets people exactly where they are, you can get close, but making those last few steps to your goal may consume vast amounts of energy. However, if you can get people to just take a few steps to meet you, the tool can do much more to help them than it could otherwise. Call it satisficing for computers, or, computers help those who help themselves. Pretty much the same idea is what catapulted Google to fame.

So, my "graffiti" categories in that talk were two: tools that help people work with stories, and storytelling environments.

Updating the categories, or pitiful attempts at

I started working on this post by describing all of the computer-narrative interface projects I've worked on in the past ten years (it comes to around fifteen, depending on what constitutes a project). I had intended to summarize what I learned in each of the projects about what works for computers and narrative. However, the task turned out to be much more difficult than I expected, for two reasons.

First, all but one of the projects were done as a consultant. Consulting is a neither-here-nor-there kind of life: I can't speak for a client about its products, but neither have I the right to talk much about them on my own. Also, I haven't always given clients finished products: often I have contributed only designs or proof-of-concept prototypes. And even when I have completed software, clients have sometimes taken it and done who-knows-what with it afterward. So the list, as I tried to write it, was pockmarked in places where I couldn't quite say what I wanted to say about things I was not sure I could talk about.

The other difficulty in describing these projects was that the ideas I loved but could never interest clients in fully funding started to clamor for mention. In those parts of the post, unlike the pockmarked bits, the writing got too excited and went on too long. The whole thing was getting to be a mess, so I finally gave up the attempt.

However, the happy conclusion is that going through the exercise of describing these projects to myself did help me come to conclusions that I can talk about, hopefully in a way that is useful to you. (To make the clamoring ideas happy I plan to start another series of blog posts called "The Island of Misfit Story Ideas" and talk about them one by one.)

So in summary, as I look back on this observation nine years later, the grails are pretty much unchanged. That fact may reflect more of my not working in those areas than anything else, though I will have more to say about one of the grails later. The graffiti categories are also unchanged, but they have expanded into two sub-categories each. I'll go through those four categories one at a time and talk about generalities across software I've worked on. For each I say what I think is "best," meaning what I've seen work best.

Storytelling environments as narrative play arenas

By "narrative play arenas" I mean software environments in which people are supported as they grapple with issues by experiencing and manipulating stories and narrative elements. This can include looking at patterns in collected stories, comparing viewpoints, asking what-if questions by building models and other constructs, and building new stories.

This is serious play, because play is one of the most serious methods people have for making big decisions. It's a shame the word has such a dominant connotation of being for entertainment only, because it has the same serious importance for children too. That may be shifting: at this site consultants affiliated with the LEGO company actually offer workshops in serious play (yes, with Lego) for corporate groups. If the serious-play concept has gotten this far, perhaps I don't need to even say anything more about its validity.


Like the best toys, the best software for serious narrative play is expansive and generative. When people use it, new ideas should come flooding out. The ideas will not all be good ideas, but that stage comes later. And like the best toys, such software should be fluid, flexible and open-ended. An ineffective tool for narrative play is like one of those children's toys on which the child can do nothing but push buttons and listen (I admit buying a few of these when my son was an infant, when the insecurities were running high and I fell for the "genius" gambits). I've seen software that purports to support decision making that resembles such button-pushing toys. People go through the rigid processes as prescribed, but at the end their minds haven't grown a bit, and the ideas they have coming out are not much different than the ones they had going in.

The point of narrative play is not to come to a solution, but to change your brain. Coming into the use of good narrative play software should be like coming into a room with miles and miles of paper and millions of crayons of all colors, and thousands of sticks and blocks and balls and wheels and construction sets, all of them ready to combine and recombine, and plenty of room to build towers, destroy them, and build them all over again. As a perfectionist by nature, one of my mantras when drawing is, "There's always more paper." There should always be more paper in the world of narrative play.


Another essential quality of software for narrative play is discomfort. Again this is like the play of children, which to be effective has to include some non-parent-alleviated disappointment and cognitive dissonance. Good narrative play software should disrupt as much as it engages. Surprising and even upsetting juxtapositions should arise. Assumptions should be challenged. Mirrors, sometimes even distorting ones, should be encountered. This can be hard to pull off in software, because software has a hard time begging people to come back. The best way to enable disruption is to let the data do the talking and keep the software clear of any sermonizing. Instead of saying "You're looking at this all wrong" it is far better to simply throw up two graphs side-by-side (what they said, what you said) and step aside.


Finally, good narrative play includes synergistic collaborations. This is probably the hardest part of the experience to get right. An expert practitioner can help a roomful of people achieve breathtaking improvements in collective sensemaking. Capturing that magic in software is a much harder task, and I'm not sure if anyone has really done it yet. My experience has been that it's better to give people flexible tools that support synergism, but to recognize the limits of software to affect behavior and step aside and let people work our their own approaches to collaboration.

Of the narrative play environments I have worked on, the one that got closest to completion supported groups of government analysts whose task was to scan periodically collected stories and other data for upcoming problems in many spheres of national interest: security, transportation, disease, crime, and so on. The part of the system I worked on involved narrative play in that analysts would use collected "open source" items such as news stories to build constructed artifacts that represented current understandings or hypotheses, and look both for surprising differences in perspective and for outlying items that needed closer attention. This is play at its most serious.

Storytelling environments as narrative substrates

Narrative substrates are places where people share raw, spontaneous stories of personal experience as they happen or come to mind. For most of human history the only available narrative substrate has been face to face communication. In most of the world that is still true. Even when we routinely take "let's find out" to mean "let's type it into a search engine," sharing stories still happens more in person and over the phone than it does through software. However, people do tell stories using software, either unadorned in email or in discussion groups, or with "digital storytelling" software or through story sharing web sites.

The best metaphor for a software-based narrative substrate is a fertile soil, because supporting the optimum natural growth and reproduction of stories is similar to supporting the optimum natural growth and reproduction of plant life.


One requirement for a fertile narrative soil is a diversity of experience. Ranking, popularity, and performance destroy diversity through filtering stories so that only the best get told. These measures of social comparison are useful when people are making selections among products, services, groups, and sources of information. They are inimical to story sharing.

To illustrate this, please follow me as I construct an extended metaphor. It will be worth it, I promise! This metaphor follows the same line as the "stories are seeds" analogy in Working with Stories. Quoting from here:
In the soil, tiny charged particles called micelles usually have many areas of negative charge (called sites) on their surfaces. Positively charged ions (cations) are drawn to these negative charge sites and stick to the clay particles (are adsorbed).
Any community has many sites of attention through the minds of the people in it. Stories are drawn to these sites and are remembered.
In most soils, 99% of soil cations can be found attached to micelles (clay particles and organic matter) and 1% can be found in solution. Mineral cations in the soil (mainly Ca2+, Mg2+, K+ and Na+) maintain an equilibrium between adsorption to the negative sites and solution in the soil water. This equilibrium produces exchanges -- when one cation detaches from a site (leaving it free), another cation attaches to it. Therefore the negatively charged sites are called cation exchange sites.
The great bulk of stories are remembered, while only a small percentage are actively being told at any time. Communities maintain an equilibrium between remembering and telling stories. This equilibrium produces exchanges -- when one story is told, another can be remembered.
Because any cations loose in the soil solution are vulnerable to leaching as water flows out of the soil, a high cation exchange capacity is always desirable. Cation exchange sites act as a mineral buffer for the soil, storing minerals important to plant and animal growth for long periods of time.
Because stories in circulation are vulnerable to being forgotten, a high narrative exchange capacity is always desirable. Such a capacity acts as a narrative buffer for the society, keeping stories important to human life for long periods of time.
When ammonium nitrate fertilizers are added to the soil, the ammonium ions (NH4+) are strongly attracted to cation exchange sites because of their high valence (4). The ammonium ions displace many other cations which are then leached out of the soil and lost to plants.
Purposeful stories are strongly attracted to attention sites in the community because of their strong emotional impact, compelling structure and memorability. The purposeful stories displace many other stories which are then leached out of the community and lost to the people in it.

So, if you have been reading my rants against purposeful stories taking over our lives and have wondered why it matters, this is why it matters: purposeful stories reduce the diversity of naturally occurring stories. That in turn reduces the diversity of experience available to people trying to make sense of the world, make decisions, and get along with each other.


Plant roots were once seen as passive receivers of water and nutrients, but this is no longer the case, says Jorge Vivanco (among many others):
The rhizosphere is a dense and complex environment, in which plant roots negotiate a shifting sea of stimuli, including pathogenic and non-pathogenic microbes, competing plant roots, various invertebrates, and a wide variety of soil conditions.
Similarly, a community is a dense and complex environment in which stories negotiate a shifting sea of stimuli, including dangerous and non-dangerous rumors, competing stories, various attempts at control, and a wide variety of community conditions.

An important determinant of root health is soil texture, or the mix of particles of different sizes in the soil. A diversity of soil particle sizes is optimal, with "loam" describing a roughly equal mix of sand, silt and clay. What loam provides to plant roots is essentially a set of tools for deriving adequate water, air and nutrients from the soil. When only one particle size is available, something critical is missing: in sandy soils, water and nutrients are lost; in clay soils, air is lost.

Software that creates loam narrative soil has a diversity of tools people can use to tell stories, look at stories, watch over stories, remember stories, make sense of stories, and deal with problems in the story substrate. When the diversity of tools is limited, functions are lost. When stories are ephemeral, memory is limited; when stories are static, the air of reorganization and reuse is missing.


In gardening, microclimate is everything. The soil facing South next to your white garage may be in a different plant hardiness zone than the soil shaded by a large allopathic walnut tree in the East corner of your garden. One of the first things a new gardener learns is the folly of treating all locations equally. Farmers and gardeners engineer microclimates by adding windbreaks, flood channels, and cold frames.

In a narrative substrate, context is everything. A group telling stories about divorce in Kentucky may be in a different story hardiness zone than a group telling stories about a street in Calcutta. One of the first things a narrative substrate needs is the capacity to adapt to many contexts of storytelling. Creators of narrative substrates may want to engineer storytelling contexts by adding boundaries, privacy, signs of respect, and other context-determining measures. Thus any software that supports narrative substrates should maximize, without confusion, the ability of groups to make storytelling work within the unique contextual meaning of their group.

Narrative feature detection

When you want to find something out, it is almost too easy to collect or discover many hundreds or thousands of stories. Dealing with what has been collected, on the other hand, can be overwhelming. One antidote to narrative overload is narrative feature detection.

Feature detection in images, or computer vision, has been a goal of much research in the field of artificial intelligence, with mixed results. Some aspects of human vision have been unexpectedly difficult to duplicate. For example, looking into a moving, changing crowd and picking out a familiar face is something infants can do but computer algorithms are only starting to approach. However, other tasks have been easier for computers than for humans and thus useful to us. Detecting objects in fog or other low-contrast situations is an example that has practical applications.

Taking this as an analogy, tools that help people detect features of meaning and emotion or narrative elements in written texts (or transcripts of spoken texts) can help people see through the fog of narrative information to find looming obstacles (or opportunities). In general quite a few language and narrative tools can be helpful in this way. For example, say some thousands of stories are collected from web discussions or customer calls. Highlighting places where people made statements about values they held, or where people told stories, or where people talked about a person in a way that signaled the person was the antagonist in a story, would highlight features relevant to the needs of the moment.

Edge detection

In image processing, edge detection means simply highlighting contrasts, which are usually input into another process that tries to figure out why certain areas have higher contrast than others. In narrative work, edge detection has to do with finding contrasts in stories and story metadata: between positive and negative values, for example.

For this work the most useful tool is juxtaposition. In image processing an edge detector is essentially a small box (or "filter") that roams across the image, marking all pixels whose neighborhood shows high contrast. This produces the glowing-edge pictures you see in Photoshop.

 In narrative processing, tools can help people look across an "image" of story "pixels" for similar contrasts. The difference, of course, is that a narrative image reconvenes with every new look at it. Good narrative feature detection software makes it easy to create a range of narrative image assemblies and highlight the edges on them for consideration.

Blob detection

In image processing, blob detection is the isolation of areas that are minimally similar to other areas, such as high plateaus or valleys. The same can be done in narrative feature detection. As with edge detection, the landscape can be rearranged based on what elements matter.

I've written about the idea and practice of narrative landscapes for feature detection in this paper (see the section called "Mapping space"). It's a promising area that I think more people might want to make use of. Essentially, the idea is that if you ask questions about stories with gradients in two dimensions you care about, and then ask a question related to stability, you can create a complexity landscape of hills and valleys. Ridges and mountains indicate where people are telling stories of change or instability, and valleys or holes indicate where people are telling stories of inertia, hopelessness, or security. Looking at a landscape so produced can provide useful insights into what people believe, fear, and care about with respect to a topic you are exploring.

Of course, this form of mapping is only one of many such. The general idea is that you can use collected stories to ask questions about a variety of conditions you care about.

Pattern recognition

Pattern recognition in machine vision is about looking for known patterns on which action can be taken. Computers might be looking for particular parts to align for assembly, or faces to match with a database, or weather patterns that indicate a gathering storm. In some ways this is the most exciting part of computer vision, because people are finding out ways to enhance human pattern matching.

One of the more interesting ways pattern matching is being applied is in detecting patterns of behavior (of people, vehicles, computer programs) that indicate a situation requiring attention. People are designing systems that analyze patterns of head movement to wake up sleepy drivers, diagnose illnesses with recognizably unusual movement patterns, point out hospital patients who require immediate attention, and of course find people behaving suspiciously in airports.

Narrative pattern recognition has to do with looking for patterns about what people are saying in the stories and in answers to questions about stories. For example, in one project I can remember, stories marked as rumors featured strong links to dangerous outcomes in the use of a product, while first-hand stories showed no such links. This denoted a false rumor that could be countered by increasing the exposure of customers to true stories of the safe use of the product. In another project we found a striking set of differences in opinions about corporate responsibility and customer service that depended entirely on whether the respondent owned a home or rented one. This was an important societal distinction that determined how people felt they related to many agents in social life, including companies whose products and services they used.

I've seen hundreds of similar patterns, many of which repeat across projects, and I've built up a sort of library of expected and unexpected narrative patterns. Another common one often comes up in relation to age and participation in organizational life. People start out their careers with great energy and idealism, but little power. In the middle years their energy wanes while their power to affect change grows too slowly, causing frustration and burnout. Older people tend to bifurcate into two groups: those in power, thus satisfied (and sometimes blind to idealism), and those out of power, jaded, and unable to muster the energy to keep trying. Whenever storytellers answer an age question, I know to look for that pattern, and for any manifestations of distortions to it.

Detecting abnormal human behavior similarly relies on detecting an array of subtle cues in facial expression, body language, and word choice that indicate known patterns. This article describes what is being done in airports to detect the ways people behave when they have something to conceal. In The Wizards Project, Paul Ekman and Maureen O'Sullivan examined some twenty thousand people and found only fifty who could detect a lie with at least 80% accuracy. Ekman and O'Sullivan also found that while some people have a natural talent for reading the complex nuances of human microexpression and body language, others can learn to do this through training.

I've never taken any sort of evaluation on whether I have a special ability to pick up on deception, but I did once have a boss who insisted on taking me to every meeting because she said I could tell her when people were hiding something. The idea of "wizards" scares me because it seems to set up a superclass who might exert power based on invisible skills -- always a setup for corruption. But it does make me wonder if that old story is linked to the ease with which I pick up on patterns in bodies of collected stories (though it could just as easily be simple practice). I remember one conversation where I was telling others in my group how I used grounded theory on a collection of stories, and I said, "Next I circled all the phrases that jumped out," and one person stopped me and said, "Wait, don't you realize, nothing jumps out to us." I found this hard to believe, but it sounds weirdly reminiscent of what I've read about "naturals" in human lie detection. I've also read that facility in grounded theory, which similarly relies on picking up subtle cues of meaning in spoken or written text, requires a degree of natural talent that can be approximated by training.

I didn't bring up my possible natural talent in narrative pattern recognition for self-aggrandizement, but to make a point about designing software for narrative pattern detection. Expert pattern recognizers, whether natural or trained, need a flexible set of tools that respond to their good instincts with alacrity. But for novice pattern matchers flexibility can be damaging. They don't know where to start, and they can't call up tools that respond to their instincts, because they don't have any. They look at the mass of stories and nothing jumps out at them. I'd go so far as to say that software for novice and expert pattern matchers has contradictory specifications.

One software feature that can benefit both expert and novice pattern matchers is the embodiment of expertise in stored templates. For example, a software program could support the creation of search templates which experts create and novices apply. As novices become more familiar with the process and instincts begin to emerge, they can start creating their own templates. The story-scanning system I mentioned above (for government analysts) included aspects of template creation and sharing, in the form of conceptual models and other constructed artifacts, for this purpose.

Templates also have the benefit of breaking up some of the solidification that takes place as expertise builds, by juxtaposing templates drawn from different perspectives. For example, two expert analysts, one in health care and one in transportation, might create separate search templates, then use them to examine differences in pattern recognition among collected stories from multiple perspectives. Building adversarial templates from source documents, for example speeches by terrorist leaders, can also help to shake up overly ossified assumptions about why people do what they do.

Grounded story construction

The final group of software projects I've worked on (and this may surprise some) has to do with crafting purposeful stories. I actually think what is available to people who have a need to craft purposeful stories -- to teach, to persuade, to engage -- is far poorer than what could be created (and I will visit some of these ideas on the Island of Misfit Story Ideas later). However, as with narrative pattern detection, there is so much skill and natural talent involved that it is difficult to build tools that work equally well for everyone.

The metaphor (there must be a metaphor, you know) that springs up for story construction is the suite of tools digital artists use to create works of art -- photography, visual design, and so on. As above I have chosen the three aspects of such software that I think provide the greatest benefit.


My two favorite parts of Photoshop, which I use to "mess around" with photographs, are the Filter Gallery and the Color Variations screen. (In fact, this is the main reason I usually choose Photoshop over the Gimp, though I like that for some other things, like better extensibility.) Using these interfaces, I can very quickly play with alterations to my image, thus:

Juxtaposing these variations either in space or in time creates an expansiveness that enables play with the image I am creating. You may notice that this is similar to the play I talked about way up there in the section about narrative sensemaking. There's a reason for that. The best creation involves sensemaking, and the best sensemaking involves creation. They work together.

All of the exercises I know of related to making sense of stories (not least those described in Working with Stories) can result in material that works for purposeful story creation. Because the exercises are typically used for sensemaking only, the result is typically discarded; but in most of the sessions I've seen it has been clear that the end product could have been used to create polished purposeful stories. In the case of the composite story exercise, the result is literally a story, but an unpolished one.

Emergent constructs such as personifications, situations, motivations, values, and so on could be used to build stories. People in a sensemaking exercise could derive the constructs, then combine them into stories using such a simple device as writing the constructs on cards and making up some rules for combination. You might ask people to select two personification cards, one value card, one motivation card, one situation card, and so on, and build a story out of them. What you have at the end of the sensemaking session is a set of half-formed, but grounded, meaningful, resonant stories.

What happens next hinges again on the distinction between experts and novices. A person skilled at writing stories -- a short story writer, for example -- would be able to take the outcome of any narrative sensemaking exercise and "run with it" to build persuasive, compelling purposeful stories. Such stories would be far superior to any other crafted stories in achieving their goals, because they would be grounded in what matters and makes sense to people involved in the issue. Stories with excellent narrative form without relevant grounding are like movies with excellent special effects but plodding, predictable stories -- the surface shimmers, but the depth is featureless.


The other way to support grounded storymaking is to create tools that help non-experts craft compelling, purposeful stories based on the outcome of narrative sensemaking exercises. Again templates come into play, this time in the form of folktales or fables. The structure of fables is ancient and well-known, and using fable form is the best way I know of for expert storytellers (through the ages) to help novices craft well-formed stories. (I once worked on prototype software that helped people apply folk-tale templates to collected anecdotes for the purpose of quickly presenting complex understandings. I won't say more about it here, because it lives on the Island of Misfit Story Ideas and will have its own post later.)

In the visual arts, templates come into play in the cultural language of visual expression. Certain attributes of created images convey messages of purpose and context quickly and effortlessly. Consider what these devices convey:
  • sepia coloring - old times, history
  • "torn" edges - a photo album, "you are there" reporting
  • tilted and sometimes backwards letters - for or by kids
  • psychedelic colors - alternative perspectives, nonconformity
  • black and white - artsy, authentic
  • extreme close-ups - edgy, penetrating
  • "foggy" edges - cute, romantic
... and on and on through hundreds or even thousands of variations instantly recognized by people and used by design experts. Even sites like blogger.com give you a quick way to send messages through your choice of style templates.

The universe of folk tale forms does the same thing with stories, though those styles are less well known. I'm not sure very many experts in folk tale form remain, since people have become unused to telling them. Embodying some of that knowledge in software can help people communicate in the same way that choosing "Artistic" and "Stylized" filters in Photoshop can help you embed a cultural message in an image.

Now here's something interesting. Just now, when I looked up "software for fiction writing" I found oodles of offerings: software to help you keep track of your characters, discover plot holes, record research, break writer's block, free up creativity, brainstorm, rearrange ideas, profile your story, and so on ad infinitum. But when I tried adding "folktales" or "fables" to the search text, the links I found were different: they all related to helping schoolchildren use fables in lesson plans about simple writing. I wonder if "serious" writers don't use folktale structures because they think such structures are too simple, or only for children, or not "real" storytelling. Most of the people who buy software that helps them write stories seem to be hoping to write the next great novel, which may explain the preference. That may be true, but for smaller efforts, templates based on folktale structure represent an untapped resource.


The third element of purposeful storytelling on which I have worked (at the prototype stage) is in the area of providing objective inspection functions.

Software for visual artists supports image inspection in two ways. First, most image software includes diagnostic aids such as histograms, edge detection and print previews. All of these draw the artist's attention to problem spots. In addition, many artists participate in mutual image reviewing in a group or community. Sites such as deviantART are essential resources for artists bent on refining their skills.

As with images, story inspection overlaps with feature detection. Applying filters that reveal edges, zones, and patterns in stories can help writers improve the coherence and effect of their stories. Generally, the analogue of image diagnosis in story writing has to do with emotion and value, since those are the colors of story palettes. I've worked on software that inspected stories and other texts for expressions of value, emotional intensity, and other aspects of meaning.

And as with images, software that helps people gather reactions to told stories can help them refine their skills and output. Most of the so-called story sharing sites on the internet are more about mutual inspection and review than they are about narrative substrate creation. On a mutual-review site, ratings, popularity, and "hot or not" comments help people hone their skills with needed feedback.

Revisiting the story understanding grail

Finally, I will return to one of the grails of my original observation: automated story understanding. I helped with one project related to this, though only tangentially. The project involved automating classification of stories, for example marking those with extreme expressions of emotion or values. The results were surprisingly good for issues like emotional intensity and positive-negative value; but still, the accuracy didn't exceed something like eighty percent.

What I saw was that the first 80% and the last 20% of automation can have contradictory results. The first 80% may be immensely helpful, but pursuing that last 20% can destroy the utility of the first part, and then some. For example, a mostly-automated indexer that suggests classifications could reduce the time needed to complete a process (say, triaging customer complaints or sonograms); but a completely-automated indexer that classifies items without human oversight could miss the one critical case out of a million that any human would know was in need of immediate attention. Missing that case could eradicate the gains created by all of the other automation.

So, this grail is still far off, in my opinion. Besides, I think it's a moving target. I would not be at all surprised if robots fifty years from now can understand all the nuances of human communication. But I would not be at all surprised if robots fifty years from now demand equal rights ... which would leave us pretty much back where we started. Said Gregory Bateson in Mind and Nature:
There was once a man who had a computer, and he asked it, "Do you compute that you will ever be able to think like a human being?" And after assorted grindings and beepings, a slip of paper came out of the computer that said, "That reminds me of a story ... "

In practice

As fascinating as this tour through computer narrative world may be, you are saying, how does it help me in my quest to work with stories? Well, that's hard to say. Of the projects I drew from here, only two are available for use: Cognitive Edge's SenseMaker Suite (though it has moved on since I was involved with it) and Rakontu. The former is useful for narrative play and feature detection. My dream is for Rakontu to encompass all of the graffitis I mention here, but that is far off; at the moment it mainly supports a narrative substrate, with a bit of narrative play and feature detection.

However, you don't necessarily need dedicated software to achieve these benefits. One of the reasons I listed features of useful software for each category is that you can gain those benefits by using software you already use in new ways, and you may not even need software in some cases. Word processors can be used for play; search engines can be used for feature detection; books of folktales can be used for story construction. You can build your own solutions for any of these goals, if you know what you need to build. Hopefully this journey through what I've learned will give you some resources to help you.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fiction, reality and storytelling

An interesting New Yorker article this week: Daniel Mendelssohn, in "But Enough About Me," talks about the blurring between reality and fiction in memoir writing. What interested me was when he talked about personal stories.
"Reality itself is a term that is rapidly being devalued. Take reality TV: on these shows, "real" people (that is, people who aren't professional actors) are placed in artificial situations ... in order to provoke the "real" emotions that the audience tunes in to witness...."
Notice all the quotes around "real." This is not reality, and we all know that. That's what makes it funny. It's wannabe fiction, a reincarnation of the B-grade movie. Even if the people participating in reality TV are not professional actors, you can bet they want to be.

Mendelssohn goes on to say that the rise of reality TV was caused in part by talk shows that trotted out for voyeurism the couldn't-happen-to-me problems of "real" people:
"...the premium placed by these shows on the spontaneous expression of genuine and extreme emotions has justified setups that are all too obviously unreal -- in a word, fictional."
But these people are also wannabe actors, or more likely wannabe celebrities. That's clear after ten minutes of watching their antics. These stories are told with a definite purpose, as "spontaneous" as they appear to be. Actually, the fake spontenaity is just a part of the artifice.

The way I interpret the obvious thirst we have for these "reality" fictions is this. We are all parched for the naturally occuring storytelling that happens in real social connection. We are more thirsty for this experience than we have ever been, because it is less available to us than it has ever been. But we have become so convinced that only purposeful stories are real stories that we can only look for what we crave where it cannot be found.

It's like we are thirsty for water, but we've forgotten water exists because we are so used to drinking Water. So we drink more Water, and more "water-flavored" Water, and we get more and more thirsty and can't understand why. What we really need is water. We need to return to spending time with the people we know and telling each other what has been happening to us. Have you noticed that even when we do get together lately, we turn away from each other and consume packaged stories? It's almost like we are afraid of something, like we are running from life itself, like we prefer the copy to the original. I've had two experiences recently where I joined a social group hoping to share experiences, and within a few meetings somebody had invited an expert to teach us how to do things properly, meaning to tell us prepared stories. For me, it sucked all the fun out of the group. The amazing thing was that I couldn't get anyone to understand why I didn't like the groups anymore. It was all the same to them.

The most interesting part of this article, for me, is in a telling juxtaposition. First, Mendelssohn mentions how people are inundated with stories by overhearing the cell-phone conversations of those around them. Then later he criticizes those who attack published memoirists for not telling the absolute truth and says people always re-story their experiences. These statements led me to the conclusion that many of those who write about storytelling, Mendelssohn among them, must be oblivious to the distinction between packaged and naturally occurring stories, even though it underlies many of the trends they are talking about. All of the forms of narrative discussed here -- memoir, talk show, reality TV, life story, even "personal narrative" -- no matter how "reality-based," are packaged, purposeful stories, created for far-flung consumption. The one glaring exception is cell-phone conversations, which are simply added to the mix without comment. Lumping what you overhear on cell phones with what you hear on Oprah shows that we have lost the ability to distinguish between story sharing and story broadcasting.

When I lived on Long Island I used to say that the way the city had overtaken the island reminded me of the way a butter knife spreads and thins out clumps of hot butter on a slice of toast: the towns were barely recognizable amid the suburban sprawl that had filled all the spaces between. The narrative world feels that way too: every in-between space has been taken up by packaged stories, and the towns (meaning, the localized worlds of related, relevant, contextual, personally exchanged narratives) barely register anymore. And what's worse, we seem to have forgotten where the towns were. On Long Island, what used to be this town or that town has merged into one giant entity, and the younger people hardly talk about the towns anymore. I've seen this happen with narrative too, in the way people talk about what happened on some sitcom or movie as though it happened to them personally. It's all the same to them.

The loss of distinction between local and packaged-for-travel narrative reminds me of how the locavore movement has had such difficulty getting people involved. It's a tomato, isn't it? It's a story, isn't it? Hey, maybe we need a locastory movement (or some better name). Maybe we can set up story sharing clubs and boot out all the book reading clubs. Maybe we can start the equivalent of community-supported agriculture -- show up every week to get your box of locally grown stories. Maybe I should write a personal memoir about not reading any stories that didn't originate within the 100 people most important to me. Maybe it will sell millions of copies.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Social media, Haiti, and the easy way out

I'm working on the eighth in my "observations" blog posts, but it's like pulling teeth and is taking a long time (you'll find out why soon). But here is another issue that has been grating at me lately and I find I can't keep still any longer.

Okay. If I see one more news article or blog post saying "Isn't it wonderful that two million people have texted ten dollars each to help Haiti!" I'm going to throw up. Isn't it awful that two million people have texted ten dollars each to help Haiti? This "confirms the value" of social media? I'd say it does the opposite. How many of those two million people followed up that ten dollars with more? Or did it give them an easy way out, a quick button press and you're off the hook?

Look, folks, anyone fortunate enough to have a device on which they can instantly send money halfway around the world (and who is not eight years old or unemployed) can afford to give more than ten dollars. Here's an algorithm for social media giving. What did you pay for that fancy gadget you are using to send the money? If you chose any "extras" you didn't need, like getting it in pink or adding that snazzy pleather holder, make sure to consider that. Take at least ten percent of the total. Now, if the people you are sending the money to cannot imagine owning such a device, double it. Then, if the people you are sending the money to have been waiting for three days to get their broken legs looked at, why not think of doubling it again.

Come on, people! Let's stop patting ourselves on our backs for doing nothing! What a bunch of Marie Antoinettes we are. If social media worked for social good, why did Haiti get into this mess to begin with? Geologists have been lamenting to a deaf world about this earthquake for years, but nobody listened when something could still be done. What I've heard is that people are showing up with temporary relief equipment, and the Haitians are finding it better than what they had before the quake. Essentially, our inflatable hospitals are better than their real hospitals. If this event doesn't wake people up to the horrendous double standards we live under, nothing will.

So, here is some unsolicited advice to the people setting up the donation lines. I know you are trying to reach people who don't give, but set your sights a little higher. People pay ten dollars for two slices of pizza and a Coke. Ask for at least the price of a fancy pretty movie about poor different-skin-color people being exploited. (I was planning to see Avatar, but until I hear half of it is going to Pandora, oops Haiti, I'll pass. This site shows contributions by governments to Haiti as Avatar minutes. The US government's donation of $100 million comes out to six Avatar minutes per citizen, so the sum total of the texting donations is ... well, you do the math. Not so wonderful if you look at it that way. When I looked up Avatar to get the name of the planet and people right, the first result was "The people chose Avatar." Sad but true. If you went to Avatar, good for you. Now help the real Navi.)

Some advice to the people going on and on about how social media has been validated, proven, confirmed, and all that: look at the total, not just the number of contributors. Is the total higher than it would have been? I'm not sure. I wonder if it's lower than it would have been. I'd like to see those statistics before I concur that it has been a huge success.

Some advice to people responding to these give-a-little campaigns: I was poking around reading about charity and Haiti and found the tidbit that Madonna has given $250,000. Just for fun, I looked up Madonna's net worth, and it's about $900 million; so she has given roughly 0.03 percent of her wealth to help with this crisis. Based on a generous assessment of my family's net worth, I've now given about ten times as much as that, and I feel bad enough about it that I'll probably double it soon. I'm sure Madonna gives to other charities and I don't mean to single her out, but - if you don't want to go by how much your phone cost, here's another benchmark. Why not join me in outdoing the material girl? How about one percent of your net worth? Is that more than ten dollars?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink

I got off Facebook today. I was only on it for about a month, but I learned some interesting things from the experience about the internet and social connections, some of which will help me improve my own social web application (Rakontu), and some of which may be useful to others.

Me and the gorilla

There were three essential reasons I left Facebook after only a short time. First, the privacy issue was big. To begin with, I set up separate accounts for my work and personal selves, which I've read is something many businesspeople are doing. I managed it, but it was an uneasy start, and later I found myself going back to my privacy settings often to check and recheck that I had things properly set. The kerfuffle that happened a few weeks ago where you couldn't log on without being pestered to reduce your privacy was reminiscent of the guilty-until-proven-innocent feeling of just having bought a Microsoft product.

The near-final blow came the other day when a friend said she liked the picture of me somebody in my family put up. I didn't mind it that she saw the picture. But I didn't like being surprised that she could see it. What happened was, I went to my family's (private) Christmas party, and at one point I sat down in front of my cousin's beautiful warm fireplace, and my cousin came and sat next to me. One of my sisters was roaming around taking pictures, and she came up, said "say cheese" and snapped a picture of the two of us sitting in front of the fireplace. That is what happens at family gatherings. It's what we do. It's what everyone does. But having that picture turn up in another conversation with another person in another context, without my having done anything or known about it, was unsettling. I didn't have on my acquaintances face in that picture, nor did I have on my professional consultant face. I had on my sisters face. The event was of no impact, but it showed me what easily could happen in a more serious way, eventually. And it didn't feel right.

I didn't feel I could trust Facebook to help me navigate my real social world. It felt more like I had to fight Facebook to navigate my real social world, because its privacy policy was not engineered for my benefit. Using Facebook was like sharing a bedroom with a very well behaved gorilla: no matter how much Shakespeare the gorilla read, I didn't sleep soundly.

Nobody has only one face

The second reason for quitting Facebook was that I didn't want to know everything it told me. (You know that joke, "That was more than I needed to know!") People tell different people different things. They present different faces to different people. Facebook may have started with one face (college classmates), but now it mixes faces together, or at least it does if people are not scrupulous about setting up separate lists (and most aren't). Within minutes of starting to use Facebook I was seeing things relatives and friends said to their friends and relatives, things that I would never have known they said, things I didn't like, things that made me feel sad to find out that we have so little in common and disagree about so much. You could argue that I should revel in the transparency and argue with people and learn about them and wade deep into the mayhem, but hey - this is the real social world we are talking about, not a game. Some arguments can never be won, and the stakes are high, and I have better things to do with my time.

There are generational differences too. Things that are appropriate to talk about when you are 20 can be inappropriate when you are 80. I remember when I was a teenager "dead baby" jokes were funny. They were taboo and cool and I passed them around like everybody else did. It was fun to say the wrong thing then. But eventually I learned, as I try to tell younger people (but they never listen) that all of the things you aren't supposed to do aren't actually all that fun. What is really fun is finding things you do well and doing them well, and finding people you can love and loving them well. In middle age and with a young child, I could barely bring myself to type the phrase "dead baby jokes" into Google to check that I had the term right, and once I saw it appear in the list I couldn't bear to click on the search button. What matters to people changes. What is fun changes, what makes sense changes, and what hurts changes. And here's the thing: people know better than to smash all the ages of life together. Few grandchildren walk up to their grandparents, swear a blue streak, and poke fun at cherished beliefs. But that sort of thing happens on Facebook every day.

Hey, social media, nobody wants to know everything about everybody. Read Erving Goffman, for goodness sake. If we did know everything, we wouldn't have friends or stay in touch with family. Human social relations are not that simple. I felt that Facebook clumsily and ignorantly reduced my ability to get along with all the different people I know in many different ways. I know many people, but I know them in many ways, and one size does not fit all. Telling everybody everything about everybody doesn't work for real people with real families and real neighbors and real friends and real work.

Obligation without differentiation

The third thing about Facebook is, it sets you up for an obligatory time drain. It is so easy to "friend" somebody you barely know that you end up with social obligations that don't match the relationships. Putting my father in the same list as a guy I barely remember from high school just doesn't make sense. The obligations I feel towards those two people differ by orders of magnitude, but in Facebook it all looks the same. (No offense to that guy - See? I just felt a social obligation to say that!) I found myself feeling socially obligated to review and comment on things people I've never met have been doing, and I perused picture after picture trying to figure out if I knew any of the people in them. I only got up to 25 "friends" so I can see how this sort of thing could take up huge amounts of time. The social obligation to say something, anything, is overpowering.

And it's not the same kind of time drain you get from television or reading. If you turn off Charlie's Angels the angels won't be offended. I'm pretty sure Thomas Mann doesn't know (or at least doesn't mind) that even though I loved The Magic Mountain I couldn't make it through Doctor Faustus. But if you are rude to your old social studies teacher, you feel you have done something wrong. (And when you get "friended" by someone you last talked to at the age of fifteen, what in the world do you say?)

Using Facebook is like having everyone you ever knew in your whole life sitting in your living room and asking for cups of coffee. They say house guests are like fish because after three days they start to stink. What does a house full of Facebook "friends" smell like?

What's good for selection isn't good for commitment

People who want to read this blog regularly are just going to have to read this paper (or Harrison White's Identity and Control) so that I can stop explaining the difference between selection, mobilization and commitment - because the distinction applies to lots of things, like Facebook. (Selection interactions are those in which people make choices, like which toaster to buy or which social group to join. Mobilization interactions are those in which people gather support for causes or ideas, like recycling batteries or buying Macs. Commitment interactions are those in which people carry out tasks in teams with linked roles, like building a car or raising children.)

The original printed "face books" were selection-only devices. They helped people remember the names of people they saw around campus. But Facebook has moved far into the territories of mobilization and commitment. The damage in mobilization is not large, because there is still some degree of distance and presentation involved. However, crossing the line into commitment, specifically that related to families, neighborhoods, and close-knit groups of friends and co-workers, requires different attention, especially to context, boundaries, coherence, roles and rituals. Facebook works for finding people and for selecting new acquaintanceships, though I'm not sure it works very well given the tiny trickle of social information it affords compared to actually meeting people or even talking on the phone. It does not work well for maintaining existing relationships, especially the complex, long-standing, and deeply contextual ones people have with family and friends.

Context is key

Have you seen those funny signs that say "What happens in the garage stays in the garage"? If "unfriend" was last year's word, I think context and boundaries are going to be good candidates for next year's word. I started to do a Google-dregs collection on "what happens in the X stays in the X" - but I had to give up because the number of "X" elements went through the roof. Essentially every conceivable geographical location (Atlanta, Dubai, etc), as well as every social context (kitchen, preschool, library, camp, playgroup, accounting, etc) is listed. I wonder if this is an indicator of a backlash, because I don't remember this joke being this prevalent before. Jokes are usually good indicators of things to come in the social world, especially if they are told in regular conversation. Ironically, "What happens in Facebook stays in Facebook" does come up - but the references are to the fact that Facebook doesn't delete personal information when an account is deactivated.

Look, I loved connecting with my relatives on Facebook. I'd love to have our Christmas party last all year. But a physical gathering has something Facebook does not have: bounded context. At the Christmas party we know we are at the Christmas party. We don't say the stuff we say to our friends. We may make little probing jokes about some of our differences, but we know when to stop. We don't push the hot buttons we know are there because we want to get along. The same goes for every gathering of every group of people happening anywhere. As people go to different gatherings, they know that the hot buttons move around. Some of the things I can say to my family I can't say to my friends or neighbors. When social web applications start paying more attention to these things, they will start working for real people.

New ideas

I said at the start that I learned some things I will use in Rakontu. One thing I learned is that I should move the "quit this group" link to somewhere more prominent. I suppose it's a mark of underconfidence that leads developers to hide the quit button and surround it with a lot of confirmation. We don't want to think people might not like our shiny thing. But people need the fluidity to move in and out of groups and contexts, and they need our help doing that. Otherwise social apps are just jails with fancy icons, and people will behave in them the way people behave in jails: they will turn inward and tune out.

Another thing I learned is that I should think more about ways to make context more visible. I've already thought a lot about context because it's more important in storytelling than in regular conversation. But I should go back and rethink things like better (maybe subtler) ways to communicate the unwritten rules of the space. What is the equivalent of what happens at parties where people know how loud to talk, how to stand, what to eat and drink (and bring to eat and drink), and how much to argue? I'm guessing both the web and Rakontu need more of that sort of support. Maybe we need to go far beyond banners and mission statements.

The third thing I've learned - and this is hard to say - is that Rakontu won't have succeeded until I can invite my family to it. The reason I haven't is the same reason I bought a new outfit for the Christmas party: what I have isn't good enough for family yet. But even if I'm not ready to ask them to try it, I need to think about what would work if I was sharing stories in that context. I am sharing stories in a Rakontu with some people right now, but I have my work face on there, and that's the easiest face to support. I need to at least think about what Rakontu needs to work for my family face, and my old-school-friends face, and my newer acquaintances face, and my neighbors face. When Rakontu is good enough to work for all of those faces, it'll be good enough for the world.

In all I think it's been a successful experiment. I've learned a lot. I hope lots of other people are making the same experiment and designing a new generation of social software that works for people. I think people are thirsty for it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Eight observations - 7th

(This is the seventh in a series of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. See the first post for more information about the origin of the "eight things.")

Story behavior and story perception

Storytelling is built into all human brains; it is part of how we think. However, through upbringing, culture, personality and habits, some people tell a lot more stories than other people do. If you think about the people of your acquaintance, odds are you can think of someone who seems to think and talk in nothing other than stories, and someone from whom a story seems strange. Or, think about how many stories you tell per day, on average, then think about how many stories other people you know tell. There's probably a pretty big range.

Let's just assume for the sake of argument that you agree with me that people vary in how much they tell stories, and that some people think in stories more than others do. Here's what I've found. There is an astounding lack of correlation between whether people tell stories and whether they think they tell stories. If storytelling is innate, it is not always conscious. It seems to be one of those things people do without knowing how they do it, or that they do it at all. I myself am one of those people who tell story after story, but it was only after I discovered the field of organizational story that I had any inkling that I did this.

Taking these two scales and pretending they are simple dichotomies (which they aren't) and combining them, you end up with four states:
  1. I never tell stories (Yes you do!) - the natural storyteller
  2. I tell stories all the time (No you don't!) - the half-story teller
  3. I tell stories all the time (Wow, you sure do!) - the story performer
  4. I never tell stories (You got that right!) - the unaccustomed storyteller
Now of course these are caricatures I have created to talk about extremes, and not real representations of real people. Nobody inhabits these extremes perfectly, but most people do approach them occasionally at different times and in different contexts. The categories are not fixed for life, or even for a day. Most people act differently with respect to narrative in their personal and professional lives and among different groups of people. Also, groups can develop a sort of storytelling culture (or the reverse) over time.

Even whom you are talking to has an effect on whether you tell stories or not.  Because telling a story requires "holding the floor" of conversation for longer than the usual turn-taking, it requires an understanding among everyone involved which is not always present. You've probably met someone who seems to suck all the stories around them into a black hole because they won't let anyone have the floor long enough to tell one. So there are complex patterns that determine whether stories actually get told. But having said all that, people tend to be more at home in some of these areas than others.

Caveats in place, I've noticed some things about what happens when each of these behavioral/perceptual combinations is met with a request to tell stories. And I have some recommendations on what I've seen work best and worst when collecting stories from each.

The natural storyteller

The superheroes of natural story collection are the people who think they don't tell stories but do. These people come up with story after wonderful story, and the best part is that the stories are absolutely wild and authentic. Since the person doesn't see themselves as a great storyteller, they don't try to perform or create a sensation. They just talk about what happened to them, in the way they usually talk, which is in stories.

I love these people. When you have listened to a hundred people drone on and on, and then one of these people starts talking, it's like a light has been turned on. Once in a while I find one and just let them go to town. It's hard not to rush up and hug them, to be honest.

A story elicitation session with a natural storyteller might go like this.
  • You: Can you tell me what happened on your first day at the plant?
  • Them: Sure. Let's see, I think I got there at 5am that morning. I was so determined to prove myself. When I went through the front gate my stomach was in knots. I remember I kept fixating on the company logo and trying to memorize it, in case they asked me any questions. Which is really funny, you know, because why would they do that? (laughter) I can still remember how worried I was that I'd drop something on somebody's foot. (etc, etc, etc)
  • You: (secret grin)

Notice a few things about this fake interview. First, the storyteller narrates events unfolding over time: this happened, then that happened. (You'd be amazed how many people don't do that.) Second, they give details that provide context, emotion, motivation, and visual description - but in realistic proportion. Third, they respond to their own story as they tell it, meaning that they add that-was-then-this-is-now metadata (which is immensely useful in story listening).

Of the three main venues for story collection (interview, group session, written form), the best venue for the natural storyteller is the group session. Natural storytellers make group sessions work. If there were a magical way to seed each storytelling session with one or two naturals, I would suggest it. Natural storytellers model natural storytelling and other people pick it up. But since naturals don't think they tell stories, they don't take over or get competitive or possessive, and they are willing to let things flow. They may be enthusiastic, but they usually take hints and will let others talk, since they don't need to tell stories.

The second-best venue for the natural storyteller is the in-person interview. If you are interviewing people and you find a natural, see if you can get them to give you more time without suspecting why you want it. If you let on that they tell good stories, bang, they turn into a performer and the great stories stop coming. Every time I see one of these people I think of that stereotypical line in crime movies where the policeman says "keep him talking so we can put a trace on him." Keep natural storytellers talking, but don't betray the trace.

The worst venue for the natural storyteller is the written form. Even though these people tell great stories, they don't know that, so they may be intimidated and leave quickly, thinking the collection doesn't apply to them or they can't fulfill it. These people need a lot of encouragement if you are using written forms. They need to understand that you really do want to hear their real, natural stories even if they are not "good" by Hollywood standards. They need permission to do what they do all the time, which is just tell one story after another. They may have had a lifetime of people saying "there he goes again" and need to know they are in a place where what they do naturally is safe.

The half-story teller

The absolutely worst combination is when people think they tell stories, but they actually don't. Often these people don't understand what you mean by "story," or they are stuck at one of the corners or sides of the what-is-a-story triangle and think a story is a message, lesson, report, joke, and so on. ("Half-story" is my term for something that is sort of like a story but doesn't quite fit the definition in terms of things happening.)

I've found that half-story tellers often appear in positions of power. My guess is that it may have something to do with how power creates a reality distortion field around itself. Half-story tellers can be difficult to work with because they are sometimes unwilling to reexamine their definitions and assumptions. A story is what they say it is, and nothing you say can turn them from that course: so no matter what you ask for, they give you what they want to say and call it a story.

Here is an example of a story elicitation with a half-story teller.
  • You: Can you tell me what happened on your first day at the plant?
  • Them: Sure. Back then we knew how to work hard. I didn't give up at the first little problem like these kids do today.
  • You: Can you tell me about a specific problem that happened?
  • Them: Sure. I never let up, you know? I kept trying. I didn't let things get me down. Today all the new hires whine and complain and want us to hold their hands. It's disgusting.
  • You: So what happened on that first day?
  • Them: It was hard at first, but I kept going. I'm still here, aren't I?
  • You: (secret sigh)
Notice how the teller keeps drifting from narrating events back to giving opinions or facts or feelings. They don't mean to frustrate the story listener; they think they are doing what they have been asked to do, and can't understand what else you could possibly want.

The best venue for the half-story teller is the in-person interview. In an interview you can keep tactfully leading the teller back to narrative without embarrassing them by making the fact that they are not telling stories apparent to other people. Sometimes it's better not to confront them about this, at least not beyond some gentle probing. Try for a while to get stories from them, then if you can't get the message across, give up and move on.

The second-best venue for the half-story teller is the written form. Their contributions will usually be misfires, but at least the damage will be confined. You can classify their entries as non-stories (but still possibly useful information) and look at them separately from the stories you collect from other people.

The very worst venue for story collection from half-story tellers is the group session. Half-story tellers don't necessarily take over the session, but they do something worse: they lead other people to believe that the session is not really about telling stories. If you let them go on giving opinions or complaints or lectures, everyone else will start doing the same thing, and you'll end up with tons of text and no stories.

The story performer

The second-worst combination is when people tell great stories and know it. These people mean well, they really do. But they can't help getting out the big circus tent and climbing up to that trapeze, no matter what you ask them to do. An example interview with a story performer:
  • You: Can you tell me what happened on your first day at the plant?
  • Them: Oooooh, you should have been there. I was shaking in my boots. I had sweat dripping off my brow. I was there at 3 in the morning, and I drove around the plant two hundred times! Finally the guy at the gate let me in and he said, I've never seen anybody in all my years here so scared. You really take the cake. And then I fainted.
  • You: You really fainted?
  • Them: Well, I felt faint! But anyway I was scared.
  • You: What happened next?
  • Them: What happened next I will never forget. I was ushered into a room and the CEO of the Worldwide Conglomerate himself walked in and slapped me full in the face.
  • You: What?
  • Them: Well, it was more like, the head of HR in our town bumped into me, but it felt like that.
  • You: (secret sigh)
Story performers tend to exaggerate and claim to be the best or worst or first or last, not because they are jerks but because it makes the story better. They drive things to extremes in the service of drama. I'll give a funny example. I once was in a conference and somebody proposed something I thought was unethical. I said so and we talked about other solutions. A few years later I heard that same person tell a group that a "roomful of draft dodgers" had berated them until they changed their policy. Afterward I went up to them and said, "Hey, that roomful of draft dodgers was me, wasn't it?" They said, "Yeah, but it made a better story that way." You know what? There is nothing in the world wrong with that sort of embellishment. The truth should never stand in the way of a good story, and all that. It makes life fun. It's play. But it's not what you are looking for when you want to listen to stories for a reason. It obscures the stuff you actually do need, which is what really happened and how people really felt about it.

The best venue for the story performer is the in-person interview, because a good interviewer can suss out the story from the performance. They can keep bringing the storyteller back to what actually happened and how they actually felt so that something can be used in what has been said. Doing this may take some practice, but I've seen it done well. A good interviewer can also connect with a performer (eye contact is useful here) and communicate an intimacy and a casualness that removes the need for public performance and frees the performer to drop their facade and just recount their experiences.

The second-best venue for the story performer is the written form. You can explain what sort of stories you want, and you can design questions that lead people away from performance. And even if you can't stop people from going overboard, at least they won't infect others.

The worst venue for the story performer is the group session. These people can single-handedly destroy a group storytelling session. First, they take over, because, hey, we are telling stories and who tells stories better than me? (And sometimes the other people are happy to jump into the role of audience, because it gets them off the hook for contributing.) Second, performers get other performers going while stifling non-performers with the belief that their stories are not "good enough" because they are not full of vivid drama. The very worst is two performers competing, which can suck the life energy out of a storytelling session. If a performer appears in your story session, do your best to communicate the purpose of the session, and if that doesn't work, quarantine the infection.

By the way, in case I sound pompous and judgmental about performers, here is an admission: I used to be a "natural," but I've found that the more I identify with my career in organizational story the more I turn into a story performer. I've caught myself "hamming it up" with a story more times than I'd like to admit, because this little neon sign lights up in my head that says "Oooh, I can be admired for this!" And it's hard, hard, hard to turn that little sign off. That's why natural storytellers are so hard to find and so valuable. (It's the same reason sequels are never any good, and the reason "Yeah, but he knows it" is a negative comment.) Naturals and performers have the same talents, but in performers the talent is hampered by awareness. It's like playing an instrument - the more you think about how you play it, the less well you can play it. When I play the piano I just have to trust my hands and let them do what they know how to do. But I'm a duffer on the piano and I know it. I'm sure if I became a goat herder I'd be a great natural storyteller again, but in this career it takes an effort.

The unaccustomed storyteller

These are people who don't tell stories and don't think they do. They just don't think in stories. It's not their thing, man.

You'd think this would be the worst group, but really they are not that bad. Unlike the two groups who think they tell stories, these people are usually willing to help you get what you need. You just have to help them get there. Here's an example of what might happen in an interview with an unaccustomed storyteller.
  • You: Can you tell me what happened on your first day at the plant?
  • Them: It was a pretty hard day.
  • You: When did you arrive?
  • Them: Around six in the morning.
  • You: What happened when you got there?
  • Them: I went in at the gate.
  • You: How did you feel right then?
  • Them: Pretty scared. I was scared that whole day, come to think of it.
  • You: What happened next?
  • Them: I got my ID card. The picture didn't come out at first and I had to wait. That was scary.
  • You: That's interesting. What was scary about it?
  • (and so on)
Note how the interviewer has to keep drawing the story out, not because the interviewee is recalcitrant but because they are just not used to recounting chains of events. Sometimes unaccustomed storytellers get your point after a while and start anticipating your "what happened next" and "how did that feel" questions, and you don't have to prompt them quite so much. But some people need help all the way through. That doesn't have to mean they can't or won't tell the stories you need. It just means they need help.

The best venue for unaccustomed storytellers is the group session - as long as it contains more natural storytellers than half-story tellers or performers. If there are too many performers, the unaccustomed people will rush to claim the comfortable audience role. If there are too many half-story tellers, the unaccustomed storytellers will follow them far away from the land of narrative magic, and the whole thing will end up becoming a debate or a series of lectures. But when unaccustomed storytellers are around natural storytellers, two things happen: the unaccustomed storytellers get a model of what to do; and the natural storytellers (who after all think in stories) draw stories out of the others without your having to. Some storytelling exercises, like histories, help people talk about series of events that may seem like a blur to people not used to recounting them.

The second-best venue for unaccustomed storytellers is the in-person interview. I put this at second-best because it is heavily reliant on the skill of the interviewer. Unaccustomed storytellers don't have to save face about storytelling, but they may lose patience with it. It may take creativity to find ways to keep them engaged in what is an unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable process, like learning to play a new sport or musical instrument in which one has no interest.

The worst venue for unaccustomed storytellers is the written form. These are the first people to fall through the cracks in a written story collection, because there is nobody there to draw out the rest of the story. They write things like "It went fine" or "I liked it" or "My experience was pretty good" instead of telling a story. I've seen quite a few responses that imply the person would have had more to say if they had been asked follow-up questions. One way to anticipate this type of response in a written form, and I've seen this done, is to ask a series of questions that segments the story and prompts unaccustomed storytellers to tell the whole thing, thus:
  • How did the day start?
  • What happened when you came through the gate into the plant?
  • What was getting your new ID card like?
  • How did you meet your boss?
  • (and so on)

At the story project level

This observation is like the last one on perceptions of stories: it was originally about how people reacted when I asked them to tell me stories, but since has expanded to relate to how people react when I talk to them about story projects. Again, there are two axes of distinction: the degree to which people "get" story, and the degree to which they understand what they can use story projects to do.

"Getting" story is hard to describe, but it's something like what happens when you say something like (this is from Working with Stories):
Telling a story is by nature a more personal, animated and emotional response than providing a factual answer because it taps into a different set of instinctual behavior patterns. Because of this, people often reveal things about their feelings or opinions on a subject while they are telling a story that they wouldn't have been willing or able to reveal when asked a direct question about the topic.
Some people will hear that and say, "Yes, go on." Others will say, "Can you prove that?" (Many people have proved that, but I don't carry the books around with me.) This axis of variation roughly fits with the axis of whether people tell stories or not and is usually correlated with it. The more likely people are to think in stories and tell stories often, the more likely they are to "get" a statement about how people think in stories. (That is not a value statement about "getting" stories - it's just a statement about how people differ. I don't "get" football, and I hope you don't think that makes me morally or intellectually inferior.)

The other axis is what people think they can do with story projects, which, as you can guess, is often correlated with how much people think they tell stories. Somebody who thinks of themselves as a storyteller is more likely to think of many things you can do with a story project, because they are used to using stories (singly and in groups) to suit purposes.

If we again combine the extremes on these scales, we get these four types. In this case I am considering the types from the point of view of you trying to get these people to help you (or let you) pursue a story project; so people are "collaborators" rather than "storytellers."
  1. I can't do anything with stories (But I "get" story) - the naive but open collaborator
  2. I can do things with stories (But I don't get story) - the off-track collaborator
  3. I can do things with stories (And I get story) - the dramatic collaborator
  4. I can't do anything with stories (And I don't get story) - the unreachable collaborator
All the same caveats as above apply here - nobody is really like this, these are deliberately created extremes, etc etc. And again, these are my observations from people watching in this context, not scientific studies.

The naive but open collaborator

As with storytellers, the best collaborator is a person who has never really thought about using stories for anything, but understands intuitively the things you say about the properties of narrative. These people have what the Zen Buddhists call beginner's mind and are willing to experiment and learn. By working with them you may find new solutions that work best for your goals and group.

The best way to convince a person like this to collaborate on your story project is to tell some great stories about outcomes you have had in the past or heard about from others. People who tell stories react to stories. And when you can find a collaborator like this, get as much of their time as you can.

The off-track collaborator

A person who sees things they can do with stories but doesn't understand what stories are about is the worst possible collaborator. You are likely to be constantly stopping them from moving the project off into areas where the magic forces of story have no power. Oz is just more Kansas to them.

You don't usually have to convince a person like this to collaborate on a story project, but you do have to make sure you spend some serious time explaining what you can't do with stories. Telling stories won't help, because they don't respond to that. They may do better with lists and tables showing the concrete possibilities and returns on different investments in story projects. You can still work with such people, if they are willing to open their minds a crack and let in some new ideas. But people who think they know exactly what stories are and won't listen to you (and are wrong) are best avoided as collaborators. If you get stuck with one, you may have to spend a lot of time protecting the project from them.

The dramatic collaborator

These people get story, but they see so many things you can do with stories that your work is cut out reining them in. To these people all of Kansas is Oz.

As with the off-track collaborator, this type doesn't need to be convinced that stories can be useful. However, they are likely to load the project up with so much ambition and imagination that it will be impossible to fulfill all of their visions. With this type of collaborator you need to mark out in advance what possibilities you are not willing to entertain and where the scope of your project will end. Some cautionary tales may be helpful. It is also helpful to talk a lot about future projects so they have somewhere else to place their giant ambitions and don't load up the current project until it drops dead from exhaustion.

(And yes, I'm a dramatic collaborator. I get carried away, I'll admit it. It's all so fascinating! Somebody stop me!)

The unreachable collaborator

People who don't get story and don't see what they can do with it are likely to refuse to collaborate on (or allow) story projects at all.

I'm not sure it is possible to convince a person with this constellation of behaviors and beliefs to collaborate in a story project. It may be better to look elsewhere for help. If you end up in a situation where someone is forced to collaborate and combines these tendencies, you may be able to lead them along (as you do with an unaccustomed storyteller) to the point where they begin to see the point. But you usually will have to put energy into the interaction all the way through the project. The minute you turn your back they are likely to drop the project because it all seems pointless and silly.

Story project perception measurement

How can you tell what sorts of people you are dealing with when you pitch a story project? First, make a statement about how stories work in human society and see if people nod or grimace. Second, tell a few stories, either about projects you've done or projects you know about. See if people respond with animation or look at the clock. Finally, throw up a list of things people can do with story projects, then ask for more suggestions.
  • Naive but open collaborators will not understand your point at first, but as soon as you tell some stories their faces will start lighting up. They will not be likely to add to the list of uses, but may want to hear more stories about things you've seen work.
  • Off-track collaborators will get the point, but they'll suggest goals that don't fit narrative, like gathering specific facts or feedback. They will say things like "So you plan to ask people what they ate that day?" or "A good question might be to ask what brand of chocolate they like best." or "So you are essentially asking people to list their acquaintances?" that show they have no idea what you are talking about, even if they think they do.
  • Dramatic collaborators will make wondefully appropriate and imaginative suggestions, but they will make too many of them. They will say things like "And at the same time, we could do this!" or "We could ask people to call all of their first cousins!" or other over-the-top schemes.
  • Unreachables will ignore your pitch, give no suggestions, and check their email while you are talking. Their faces will not light up, either at the stories or at the great things you can do. You will need to work very hard to even get them to stay in the room until you are done.
After you assess your group, you can alter your pitch to suit and optimize your collaborative potential.

An ending note on narrative intelligence

I can't figure out where to put this bit, so I'll just throw it in here since it has to do with storytelling and personalities.

Once I was at a workshop after a conference, and we were demonstrating story construction by having a room full of people build some stories out of their own combined experiences. While the instructions were being given, a particular woman kept asking one question after another. The questions were so shall-we-say simple that I wondered what this person was doing here if they couldn't understand the most basic instructions. Everyone was irritated at how this person was using up our valuable workshop time asking questions to which everyone else knew the answer. But when we started moving stories around using fable templates, I had to hide my astonishment. The same woman was an absolute wonder with stories. Watching her work was like watching a master painter in action. In our small group we just let her take over: she was so obviously out of our league in skill. I don't think she had any idea that her narrative talent was so huge. She was a consummate natural.

Martin Gardner's work on multiple intelligences has been a boon to understanding differences in how people think and reason (at least it has been to me). As I understand it there have been dozens of additional intelligences proposed. I'll add one more: narrative intelligence. I've seen an amazing range of natural talent in telling stories, listening to stories, making sense of stories, and working with groups of stories. Some people, like the woman I described above, are truly astounding at it.

Narrative intelligence isn't limited to creating or telling stories. Some people are better at noticing stories, or finding patterns in stories, or helping other people tell stories, or creating pathways for stories to travel on. Personally I'd like to see more people (especially young people) who love stories expand their perceptions of what careers in the narrative field can be. If you love stories, you don't have to be a novelist or screenwriter. Narrative is a wide open landscape, and most narrative professionals are walking along a thin little path in the middle of it. The rest is just sitting there waiting to be explored.