Monday, April 25, 2011

Full confluence

All righty. At long last here is a first draft version of the complete Confluence Sensemaking Framework (CSF), written as a set of instructions for running a sensemaking workshop using it.

I have posted the instructions as a page in my blog so that people can find it without having to look through lots of blog posts to find it. I hope to put up a few more pages of useful concepts and methods and things (all of which is going into the book, and yes I am still working on it!).

If you use the CSF in a workshop and have questions or suggestions please do let me know. I am eager to keep improving it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Practical ethics in story gathering

First I want to point you to Thaler Pekar's excellent two-part post about ethics in story gathering on PhilanTopic. I started writing a comment to the post but it got long ... so I thought why not put it here so I can send people over to what she wrote.

Here is my favorite bit in what she said:
You may have noticed that I've refrained from talking about story "collection," or even story "tellers." These terms are transactional, implying a giver and a taker. Story is not a commodity, something that is taken from one person and given to another. This is especially true in development work, where there often is a tendency to take a poor or ill person's story and offer it to a potential donor in exchange for a monetary gift.
The need to refrain from treating story as a commodity goes beyond nonprofit and advocacy work; it should inform all your work with narrative. True narrative intelligence respects the sharer of the story and recognizes that his or her story is a unique part of them that cannot, and should not, be taken and shared without permission.
I do use the terms "story collection" and "storytellers" simply because it's hard to get around them when you are writing how-to sorts of texts. But I strongly agree that stories should never be commodities. I tend to use biological metaphors for stories: seeds, cells, swimming fish, grazing herds. Living organisms do sometimes need to be taken from one person and given to another, if only to help them thrive. Bonds of responsibility and care need not be bonds of ownership.

This part of her article wins my "consider both sides" prize:
Be aware ... of people feeling they have no recourse but to say "Yes" when you ask them to share their story. ... [BUT] The pendulum can swing too far in the other direction as well. I've often heard well-meaning nonprofit executives say "we simply can't tell this person's story; they are too vulnerable, and we must protect them." This, too, involves a kind of power imbalance. People have the right to be fully informed -- and to make their own decisions about whether to share, or not share, their stories.
I love that. It reminds me of dogs. My son and I have recently been watching a National Geographic series called Dogtown. In one episode my favorite guy (the me-if-I-had-stayed-in-ethology guy) said that people think the best way to be nice to shy dogs is to leave them alone. But, he said, that's not the best way to be nice to them. They want to come out of their shell, they want to have healthy relationships. They just need help, and for that they need patience and respect. Stories can be like that too. The "yes yes" story is like the dog in a panic to do anything and everything people say, the dog that cowers and pees in its rush to submit. Both behaviors are signs of poor treatment, intentional or otherwise.

So as I read Thaler's article I was thinking: I'm sure there are many people who want to gather stories in an ethical way, just like there are many people who want to take good care of their dogs. But I wonder if people wonder if they are being unethical without knowing it. People need to learn how to treat dogs well, and people need to learn how to treat stories well. So, how do you know you have avoided doing harm to stories (and to storytelling)?

My best answer is: Watch the stories. You can watch stories like you watch dogs. An anxious dog puts its tail between its legs, slinks, looks away, and licks its lips. A dog about to explode in fearful aggression stares and grows rigid and still. If you watch a person with their dog you can see how the person treats the dog in the way the dog responds to their presence. Even when the dog is alone traces of the practical ethics of people they have known remain on them, and a good dog trainer can read them. In the same way, the stories people tell can show you whether the storytellers are comfortable with what you are asking them to do or are showing stress due to your lack of practical ethics (let's just assume it's from benign neglect). Over the years I have noticed some things that differ between stories told in projects with positive, weak, neutral, and negative practical ethics. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it's what comes to mind.

Engagement. When people are "on board" with you in a story gathering effort, they are in their stories. They don't hold their stories at arm's length, pinching their noses; they hug them, they wear them. If people are not with you their stories are limp and empty of presence because the people are elsewhere. Listen to the stories and ask yourself: Is there anyone in here? If not, think about what would help people enter into the stories and inhabit them. I remember one project in which the questions were carefully written to avoid actually asking anything because the project's planners didn't want to encounter anything unpleasant. Of course the respondents got the message and said nothing unpleasant; so the project had essentially no outcome. The project was like an empty house: everyone looked through the windows but nobody went inside. No engagement, no result.

Effort. In a well-working story gathering you can see storytelling muscles at work. Meaning, you can see that people are taking their responses to the questions you pose seriously. They don't say things like "STOOPID!!!!" or "dunno" - they put some muscle into it and pull along with you. A correlate of effort is patience. If people cannot spare a moment, maybe you haven't given them something worth finding time for. If you find yourself wishing for a stronger response, think about why you are not getting it and what would draw out the effort you need.

Many story projects simply must use external reward or obligation to encourage participation, just because people are busy and have other things to do. But even so, there is a big difference between the leash of compliance and the leap of engagement. Don't make the mistake of assuming people can't or won't care. I'm always amazed when people set out with excellent goals but don't bother to tell their storytellers why they are doing the project.

Try this exercise. On one side of a page, list the official goals of your project. What will have happened if it succeeded, from the official (usually funding) point of view? On the other side list some unofficial goals participants might have. What will happen if it succeeds in meeting those goals? Now look for overlaps. How can you plan the project so that it meets its funding goals while engaging its participants in meeting goals they can put effort behind? Now tell people about everything: your goals, theirs and the overlaps. Get them pulling along with you to somewhere you all want to go.

Freedom. Everybody self-censors, even when we talk to ourselves. But when things are going well in a story gathering, you can tell when people are maintaining a level of self-censoring appropriate to the context. Watch people as you ask them tell stories. If they flinch when they hear your questions, check what you are asking them to do and what you are planning to do with it. You can watch people flinch in person if you are in a workshop or interview, but there are ways to observe people flinching in other situations - hesitations, mumblings, markings. I remember once getting some scanned forms from a pilot workshop and finding that several people had drawn angry marks clear across some of the pages. That meant something, and I needed to find out what before we went any further. (As I recall, it meant a few of the questions offended the respondents' sense of identity.) Another time I remember reading the responses to a survey and finding quite a few people speaking directly to me, the person reading the collected responses. They'd say things like, "Do you actually think people are going to tell you what they really think here?" and "This project measures nothing." I did not write that survey, but I told its writers what I had found out about it.

Respect. Another measure of practical ethics is what people say about the project, the people funding it, those running it, and the other people telling stories. Sometimes I ask people to guess what other people might say about a story. Would they find it inspiring? Worth retelling? And so on. This is a good question for pilot work, when you are figuring out how to approach people on a subject. If you notice people referring to anyone involved in the project in negative ways, it might mean their perceptions of the project and its participants is not what you would like it to be. You can gather such references and consider what changes might address them. I remember once reviewing some stories collected in a pilot project concerning hospital patients. The respondents showed such a strong tendency to try to please those in charge of the project - essentially jumping up and down telling stories like a dog begging for treats - that I realized we were going to have to tone down official-sounding requests, to get people to speak freely and calmly. This was a case of too much respect, or maybe respect mixed with fear, that influenced the later project design.

Gratitude. I've come to believe that if you can't find any stories expressing gratitude in what you have collected, you have failed to explore your topic fully. There should be a proportion - small but real, maybe ten or fifteen percent - in which people say things like, "I'm glad to have had a chance to talk about this" or "It's good to tell what happened." Granted, some topics are not ones about which people will have pent-up emotion. But still, you should be able to find some expressions of thanks here and there. And the deeper and stronger the emotions the project touches on, the more gratitude you should find. I'd say that most of the tears I've shed in story work have been in times when people thanked me for listening to their stories (and I felt privileged to have been given the honor to hear them). That sort of thing makes the work feel like cooperation, not extraction, and it tells you things are going as they should. If you can't find any expressions of thanks, think about why. Did people feel their story would have no impact? Did they feel it would be misused? Did they feel it had been taken from them (as a commodity)? Did they feel put aside or ignored? What can you do about that?

Hope. At least some of your stories should express hope that they will be useful and helpful to the goals of the project. This is similar to the gratitude measure as a sign of healthy participation. One way to improve your hope score is to make sure you tell people what you are going to do with their stories (and better still, involve them in doing it). When you do a story project it's easy to slip into feeling that you are the only person in the world who cares about it. And project planners can sometimes get - if we admit it  - a bit possessive about projects. If you want your project to succeed you need to share your hopes for it with all those who participate. That doesn't just mean telling people what your hopes are. It means letting your participants have some hopes of their own, and making sure their hopes are included in the project. If you don't see any hope in the stories you hear, maybe it's because you are hoarding it.

You can use these measures after you have collected some stories in a pilot effort. But can also use them in the narrative sensemaking that happens before you begin collecting. Start by telling a story in which each measure succeeds and another in which it fails. What might happen when a person was engaged or disengaged? Think of some antecedents that could lead to each story happening. Look for mistakes you may be about to make and opportunities you may be about to let slip away. Now use those stories to contrast groups you plan to work with. Take a story of positive engagement and put a teacher, then a student, then a parent, into its main character slot. What would engage or disengage each? What does that mean you should do?

Finally, importantly, imagine that the participants in the project suddenly know everything you know about the project. Say your detailed notes and discussions suddenly become public. Or pretend that your inner hopes and dreams somehow become the subject of a tell-all documentary. What changes as a result? If the stories yelp and run away or retreat to a safe place you can't reach, are you about to act unethically, and put the project in danger, by hiding information? If the stories come bounding out to meet you full of new energy, could you be about to miss an opportunity to engage them?

This is just a short, top-of-the-head exploration of practical ethics, something jotted down in response to a thoughtful essay. I'm sure there might be much more to explore along these lines. Anybody care to discuss?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Spring and new life for Rakontu

Every year I forget about spring, and it's such a wonderful surprise to find it all happening again. I can't get enough of sitting on the ground beside the withdrawing snow and just looking at the dirt. It's still there, and there are still things growing in it. What are seasons but a story that gives us hope?

I am happy to report that Rakontu has emerged from its long snooze and is scampering about again. Meaning, we have new documents on the architecture and visual design of Rakontu 2.0 for you to look at. Please send feedback and suggestions.

For those who have no idea what that means, here is the elevator speech on Rakontu:
Rakontu is about small groups sharing stories for a reason. Rakontu communities are private spaces where people share personal experiences about something they all care about and in the process build something they can all use. Usually people in a Rakontu community will have something they want to do together, some common goal, and they will be interested in collecting and working with their stories as a means of getting there.
You could call Rakontu groupware for story sharing. I think that gets the point across better than anything related to social media, because social media has taken on a sort of Seinfeld-like nothing-about-nothing tone I'd rather avoid. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

So I thought what I'd do here is use this space to go back to a previous blog post about Rakontu, Steal these ideas, and use it to explain (and test by explaining) changes and improvements in the new version. (If you haven't read that and want to understand this, you might want to go back and read it first.)

The most exciting thing about Rakontu 2.0, to me, is that I am not building it. My husband and I have been building software together for nearly twenty years. Our skills and interests dovetail so perfectly that we work much better together than alone. Where each of us fears to tread the other rushes in confident of success. So this time around, his will be the legs you see sticking out from under the chassis when you visit, and I'll be priming the body panels.

This time we are building a rich thick gooey client in a Java desktop application that communicates via mediated something-or-other (here we see the efficiency inherent in the system). This gives us the ability to move far beyond the straitjacket of web forms and "view next 25 items" links. I am very excited about this movement to the rich client, as the new visual design surely shows. (And yet I also eagerly await the inevitable embarassment when the real thing makes these designs look ridiculous.)

One thing that has not changed and will not change is that Rakontu is free and open source. It will remain so. We have made and will continue to make a substantial investment in developing Rakontu. Our business model is to sell our (hopefully very useful) services, as a subject matter expert in the area of story work and as a technical expert in support of the software, to organizations who want to use Rakontu. I always say that people who make open source software are like those old-time doctors who took payments in money or chickens. If you have a budget, we will be overjoyed to help you make Rakontu work for you. If you don't have a budget, here it is (will be), and if you have any spare chickens, that is, good word of mouth, feedback, bug reports, icons, connections ... then by all means drop in and say hello.

So, on to those improvements.

1. Support sharing over performing

From Steal these ideas:
One of the biggest challenges in supporting online story sharing today is countering the performance problem. The web has developed into a grand marketplace for self-expression and self-promotion, and people shape their behavior on it accordingly. There is nothing wrong with self-expression, and surely all storytelling contains an element of performance. But I'm interested in supporting the kind of storytelling that leads to conflict resolution, perspective-taking, mutual learning, strong communities, and effective decision making. I call this story sharing to distinguish it from storytelling in which performance is a larger force.
Rakontu 2.0 will have some features that I hope will increase the ratio of sharing to performing in story exchange: embedded utility ranking, preservation of context, social translucence, and synchronous story sharing.

Embedded utility ranking means that it will be impossible to rate a story for quality or give it a "thumbs up" or any other measure of popularity. Why? Imagine a group of programmers building software together and voting each other's code up and down based on how cool the indenting is or how clever the variable names are. Or imagine a group of engineers building a bridge together and voting their designs up and down based on the fonts and colors they used to draw them. It would be useless information that would get in the way of building something useful together. In the same way, when people want to work with their stories to achieve a shared goal, a unidimensional rating of stories based on their resemblance to Hollywood blockbusters or Shakespearean tragedies is a distraction from the task at hand. So the "nudge" system I built in Rakontu 1.0, which was a grand and lovely mistake, will move underground in 2.0 and become a question about contexts in which each story could best be useful to the group. It will still be possible to rank and sort stories, but questions of utility will be just that: questions, whose answers have meaningful uses. Not ratings, not badges and not popularity contests.

Preservation of context means that Rakontu 2.0 will keep the context of story exchange in sight as new stories are elicited, told and linked into the story museum. One thing I realized the last time through was that "out of sight out of mind" applies strongly when it comes to story context. We don't close our eyes when we tell a story, and software that helps us tell stories shouldn't close our eyes either. So when a person is telling a story they should never lose sight (literally) of the context in which they are telling it: who they are telling it to, why they are telling it, what they are responding to, and so on. You should see some indications of this when you look at the new visual design, but I will be keeping it in mind as we build the working version.

Social translucence is a wonderful term coined by Wendy Kellogg and Tom Erickson at IBM Research. I think sometimes people have misunderstood this term and built systems with social transparency instead of translucence. The reason healthy social relationships are translucent and not transparent is that people constantly negotiate boundaries and partially share information. That's the necessary opacity in the translucency that makes things work. As many people are painfully aware of at this point, nobody wants to know everything about everybody all the time.

One thing I've thought a lot about is the impossibility of channeling social translucence into a unidimensional measure or score of activity and behavior such as karma and buzz systems. My husband pointed me to what Clay Shirky said about trying to engineer social negotiation (sorry - don't have a particular link to give you; just look at his stuff, it's all good). What Shirky said was that people already know how to be aware of each other. We've been doing it for a long time. If you try to give people a "better" way to do that you will just get in their way. It's like giving a dog an electronic sniffer that can identify ten smells. I like what he said and it rings true based on what I've seen in other social software and in my own attempts with Rakontu 1.0. So I'm getting rid of all attempts to summarize or package social awareness and just letting people see what other people are doing. In other words I'm now concentrating on creating a portrait of activity rather than a measure of it.

Synchronous story sharing means that Rakontu 2.0 will have a much stronger emphasis on people sharing stories in real-time conversation. People will still be able to enter a story into the system in the same way people make posts to online forums, but it will be easy and natural - I hope - to complement asynchronous posting with chat-type conversations in which stories naturally flow, are noticed, and are tucked in to the story museum as they appear. Of course I'm waving my hands around furiously as I type this (metaphorically) because this part will depend very heavily on strong testing, in which I invite everyone who is reading this to participate and contribute.

2. Build a café in a library or a library in a café

From Steal these ideas:
Possibly the most important things I learned by designing, building and using Rakontu are that online story sharing is both a verb (storytelling) and a noun (stories); and that neither matters more than the other; and that they must intermingle for story sharing to work. I picture these as a café where people meet and recall their experiences, and a library where people browse through experiences previously recalled.
This part I am super excited about. In fact two of the menus in Rakontu 2.0 are going to be "café" and "library." I have essentially divided the user experience into two main spaces: those where you ask what is going on here and those where you ask what is in here. Here is a quick look at the café timeline (non-working mockup which will appear nonsensical later).

As before the timeline shows time on the horizontal axis, but the disastrous popularity axis has been replaced with categories of activity, to supply the "what" that is going on here. Of course power users can manipulate the categories to explore nuances of activity such as word usage, answers to questions, fiction and fact, and so on. This design also removes the need to remember what a lot of little icons mean which is a hindrance.

I came up with this design, by the way, after taking a stroll through the periodic table of visualizations at I took each of the hundred or so visualizations shown there and tried it out with stories and people and comments and so on in the slots provided. This "swim lane" diagram won the competition for best fit for purpose.

Everyone in a café should see the same café so they can use the same language when they talk. But the best way to look at a library depends on who is looking at it and why. So the basic view for the library in Rakontu 2.0 is a simple one based on the old Smalltalk browser, which I still miss every day. It was just a great way to drill down and up and sideways through a mass of related information very quickly. Using the Smalltalk browser always reminded me of riding the elevator in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory: it doesn't just go up. This is Rakontu's version of the browser:

Here we see the user looking through polls (sets of questions) about stories and finding stories people said they would remember for a long time. Under each story the drill-down continues to explore the comments and things hanging below it like catkins on a twig.

I also said in Steal these ideas that, "as soon as we got up over a few dozen stories I found myself wanting to see many other views of the data: link maps, bar charts, tables, sorted lists, and so on." We are creating a plug-in interface for visualizations of Rakontu data so that other people can write fancy bubble charts and whatever kinds of insightful navigation and pattern detection devices they would like to add. That's kind of a no-brainer.

You may be wondering why I keep talking about a distinction between café and library, since in Steal these ideas I said, "I'll be so bold as to say that any story sharing system in which the telling and the keeping are not intermingled will not succeed." The great thing about software is that if you design it well you can create tools that provide distinctions between and passages between at the same time. How? By encapsulating each activity within the other. I've seen many well-meaning pieces of software that enforce modality where it is not necessary simply because their developers failed to imagine passages through the walls of their conceptual constructions. The normal laws of space and time do not apply in software. Say you are in your kitchen, and you remember you forgot to clean out the fish tank. You have to go into the living room, right? But not in software. You can just extend your magical arms and reach anywhere in the house.

I love contextual menus. You know, those right-click-on-everything-in-sight menus? They provide secret passageways through many otherwise impenetrable software fortresses. One I have grown to love is in PowerPoint. You can click on any number of objects on the screen, then right-click and choose "Save as Picture." PowerPoint will write a PNG file with exactly those objects, even if they were five out of a hundred on the page. That is a passageway. So even though we are building café and library areas, they will be so criss-crossed with passages that it will be more like a café-library and a library-café. Which passages are best kept open and which are best left to heal closed is a matter of testing, testing and then some testing.

Who does what

There was another element in the café/library section in the Steal these ideas post. It was about roles people could take on to help make the community work: curator of the story museum, guide to help people engage in story exchange, and liaison to bridge gaps to off-line members. I still love the roles, but in hindsight, because I wanted them to be volunteer and easy to take on without approval, I put too much work onto the managers as a result.

In the new design I've changed that in two ways. First, managers can choose whether each role is open (anyone can take it on at any time), agreed (anyone can take it on, but they have to agree to some terms and must commit to a time frame), or moderated (a manager must approve members taking on the role). In this way the software can better accommodate a range of groups with varying degrees of trust built up before the software is in use. This is similar to how people run real storehouses of memorable items. If the museum is grandma's attic, all the family members can come in and poke around. But if the museum handles a city's treasures, measures must be taken to safeguard the collection.

Second, I've designed some new roles that delegate some of the tasks previously given to managers.
  1. A facilitator takes responsibility for planning group workshops for story gathering and sensemaking, and they maintain any fictional characters for anonymous attribution. Facilitators are like guides in focusing on the people-parts of the community, but they have wider and deeper responsibilities in that context.
  2. A researcher explores the collected stories to look for patterns that can be used in sensemaking workshops. They also manage the polls of questions about stories, observing which questions are most useful and which are misunderstood or ignored. Researchers are like curators in focusing on the data-parts of the community, but they have wider and deeper responsibilities in that context.
  3. A technician handles all computer-related issues. Like guides they answer questions, but they help people set up, maintain and understand the software itself.
With these delegations the manager is only required to provide governance for the group, that is, setting policies and resolving disputes.

Now you may have noticed that the facilitator, researcher and technician roles require expertise that may be beyond the capacity of many people who might be using Rakontu. This reflects two realities. First, I want to expand Rakontu to cover a wide range of storytelling and sensemaking activities so it can fully support people who are working with stories for a reason. And that is going to involve some learning by somebody. People may grow into the knowledge, but somebody has to learn to carry out those roles.

Second, we can't continue to develop Rakontu forever without any funding, so I need to design some way I can help people use it for a fee. I can't do that from the outside, so I need to build myself into the system, and it only makes sense to build in other people like myself who can help people work with stories. Much of my work in the past several years has concentrated on helping everyone learn how to do what I do, but it is always reasonable to charge for useful work. If you happen to be a person who facilitates story work and would like to be involved in using and improving Rakontu, by all means let me know. I would love (in time) to be able to point to a network of facilitators, researchers and technicians available to help people with story projects using Rakontu. You know that story about heaven and hell, right? About the long spoons? We can feed each other and eat well or feed ourselves and starve.

3. Embody knowledge about narrative

Looking back at the Steal these ideas post, I said about embodying knowledge, "Probably the best successes of Rakontu so far have been in this area." I still feel that way. I feel pretty confident that Rakontu will help people share stories and use them to do useful things even if they know absolutely nothing about stories.

And while I'm at it, let me repeat what I said back then in this part, which is that nobody needs Rakontu or anything like it to share stories or work with them. Why am I building software then? Because people use computers. If there were no computers, after I recovered from my three day celebration I would set about helping people work with stories without computers. But here they are, and here we are. So let's get to work.

4. Build for commitment

Yep. No change there. I still think the web needs this, more and more in fact, and I'm still committed to it. I know that much story sharing happens in casual settings, and I do not claim that by designing for people with a shared goal I am building the only reasonable or even best story sharing support. It is just what I care most about, that's all.

5. Decomplexify

This is where I will need your help. I can never be anything but a hopeless nerd, a detail lover. You will always find me mucking about in the viscera of any system I use or build. I will need the help of many friends to rise up and have a look around to see how things look different from up there. All criticisms will be gratefully acknowledged, even if with a snarl. (Joking...)

6. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

This part of the post was about how you should not build what I built, but build other things I didn't think of. I am still thinking of this as well. We plan to include a few different interfaces for both plug-in and exchange connections between Rakontu and other software, and we would love to exchange ideas with anyone interested in pursuing ideas similar to these.

So: that's the plan. I'll say it again: We have new documents on the architecture and visual design of Rakontu 2.0 for you to look at. Please send feedback and suggestions. By next spring ...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Saving stories or saving storytelling?

The other day I read an article in this week's Christian Science Monitor called "Saving the stories." I can't stop thinking about it. The article is about people in Qatar collecting stories from old people and packaging them for young people to experience. As I keep rereading it I keep coming back to a few particular sections of the article. It starts:
Growing up, Kholoud Saleh never heard the story of the donkey and the grain. Or the one about the magic fish that helped a lonely stepdaughter escape her evil stepmother. "The older people, they were told [these stories]," she says. "But us, no."
And this part:
In Qatar, stories have primarily been shared orally. This was partly by necessity – the government didn't offer comprehensive public education until the middle of the 20th century. ...
Folklore was a way for extended families to share their heritage and values. It "allowed grandfathers and grandmothers to play a big role in children's verbal education at home," explains Elnour Hamad, an art education professor at Qatar University.
But in the past 10 years, Qatar has rapidly transformed into a bustling cosmopolitan society. Now, young people spend more time at school and in malls than they do with their families.
The article describes how young people set out to capture some of the old stories the old folks tell, spurred on by a researcher who "armed them with tape recorders and sent them out to find elders." One the student collectors recalled that he
... ventured into coffee shops and mosques in the hopes of finding people to talk to. He was turned away again and again. "It was so difficult at the first," he says. "I would come to ask, and they would say no, no, no."
Eventually, he convinced one woman to share a story about a donkey that steals grain from an old woman on a farm. The donkey denies that he is responsible, but the old woman designs a clever test to figure out that he's the thief. ... Since that initial breakthrough, other stories have followed.
Some people involved in this project are converting the captured stories into "graphic short stories" with "accompanying illustrations." Says a student helper:
Today, kids are more concerned about Disney stories and TV shows ... We want to take them back to their tradition.
And a participant:
My daughters and my sons should really be able to read these stories.
Half of me reads this and says, yes, bring stories to the people. Good things happening. In fact at first I thought nothing but: we must put that link on our blog, it's good news.

But the other half of me keeps crossing its arms and saying: Wait a minute. I understand that people are trying to work with the rock-solid fact that people are unreachable except through polished, packaged, television-style stories today. But is that a rock-solid fact? Do we have to accept it? Can we change it? Could it be that saving stories and saving storytelling are at odds? If we concentrate on saving only one, might we unwittingly aid in the destruction of the other?

When I read this article I wanted to know some things. Why did people stop telling stories? What do the old people say about why they stopped telling stories? Why do they say "no, no, no" when you ask? What is the story of the loss of storytelling? What stopped working? Is anyone asking these questions? Or are we only asking about the stories themselves? Stories without storytelling are like facts without faces; they lose their humanity. It seems a hollow achievement to capture only the stories while storytelling itself is left to die. If young people "spend more time at school and in malls," can nothing be done about that? Is there no innovation or creativity we can apply to the situation? Are we treating the disease or only its symptoms?

I could imagine an article that involved all the same people, but in addition described a series of monthly meetings held in every city street or village where the old people were asked to tell the old stories and the young people listened. It's not hard to hold such meetings; just advertise a free meal and people will show up. You could even hold them in schools and malls, if that is where the young people are.

Consider the Laughter Clubs of India. In these people get together regularly to do something together that harks back to old times and helps them all. They don't preserve laughter: they preserve laughing. Maybe research projects with aims to reinvigorate traditional culture could sponsor and promote story clubs. And maybe some few young people might be attracted to the idea and might be given a small stipend to undertake a storytelling apprencticeship where they spend time with one or several old storytellers and learn to tell the stories themselves. What would that be like?

I've seen several other instances of people creating spaces where people come together to do something of mutual benefit. Have you heard of the Hole-in-the-Wall stations in India? These are shared workstations set up where people get together. From the web site linked above:
For experts, like Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, Hole-in-the-Wall is a ‘Shared Blackboard’ which children in underprivileged communities can collectively own and access, to express themselves, to learn, to explore together, and at some stage to even brainstorm and come up with exciting ideas.

For villagers, it is more like a village Well, where children assemble to draw knowledge and, in the process, engage in meaningful conversation and immersive learning activities that broaden their horizons.

And finally for children, it is an extension of their playground where they can play together, teach each other new things, and more importantly, just be themselves.
Could you imagine storytelling/listening centers like this? Why not?

If people created some sort of support for storytelling like this, some tape recording would go on here and there, and some stories would  be saved. But that would be a safe-guard in the event of loss, a complementary action, not the entire effort. What if there was a balance between reviving the practice of story exchange and reviving the old stories?

In the environmental movement there are groups like the Nature Conservancy who preserve land, and there are groups like the World Wildlife Fund who preserve the idea that nature matters. Which is more important? They both matter. What if there was a similar balance in efforts to preserve the narrative life of humanity? (Is there? Then why do I keep reading articles like this one?)

(Of course I am writing based on an ignorant reading of one newspaper article. Perhaps the people leading this effort are creating such a balance.)

What do you think? Is it better to save stories or storytelling? What is the best way to support both? Are they at odds? If they are at odds, what are some solutions? If they are not at odds, how do you see them?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Form, function and phenomenon

I have sorta-kinda written about story as form, function and phenomenon so many times now that I wonder if people wonder why I keep glancing at it and never hitting it head on. The answer to that question is (of course) a story.

The quiet question

The Knowledge Socialization group at IBM Research, of which I was a part and of which John C. Thomas was the head, was formed to address issues of organizational narrative in ways that would help IBM and its clients and customers (external and internal). I happened to be hired on just as the group was forming in early 1999 and was in it for two years. I built the group's web site, which I had no possible idea would still exist twelve years later (just shows you what a metropolis IBM is). As to how long the group lasted, I believe it was five years or so? Anyway so in the first few months we spent a lot of time talking about what sorts of projects would be most useful and doing mini-projects to explore possibilities. I was also reading everything I could get my hands on about narrative so that I could become more useful.

XML was just beginning to take off at the time, and John suggested building an XML specification to describe stories for use in organizational story bases. I'm a natural organizer and am never happier than when I have hundreds of similar-but-not-quite-identical things to put into little piles. So I set to work.

How to begin deciding what metadata people might want to collect about stories? Said I then,
The idea of classifying and deconstructing stories is not new. Aristotle proposed three fundamental elements of which all stories are composed. In 1916 Georges Polti proposed that all stories could be classified into thirty-six dramatic situations (including such categories as "The Slaying Of A Kinsman Unrecognized" and "An Enemy Loved"). 
People generate and exchange metadata about stories every day, in discourse, memory and anticipation. In fact, people telling stories often include explicit metadata ("metanarration") about the story or the storytelling situation to prove that the story is worth listening to—"I’ll never do that again" or "That was an incredible experience." [That last had a pointer to the seminal 1967 paper by Labov and Waletzsky, now available online.]
I came up with this question: What are all the questions anyone could possibly ask about a story? From that I landed on: What are all the questions anyone has ever asked, or recommended asking, about stories? The idea was to arrive at a global list, a narrative Key to All Mythologies if you will, from which one could draw set of questions for particular contexts of use. (The Key to all Mythologies was the lifelong endeavor of James Casaubon in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, an endeavor that ended badly when he died without having found a suitable successor to take over his work.)

This was my original list of fields to consider, in rough order of the degree of attention paid:  
narratology, folklore study (comparative and contextual), professional fiction writing, professional storytelling, case-based reasoning, narrative organizational study, narrative inquiry and analysis, narrative psychology, narrative philosophy, knowledge management, knowledge representation, artificial intelligence, information retrieval, literary theory, journalism. 
Today this list shows me my background as an ethologist and the technology-and-information culture at IBM. I can see some important things I left out: community theatre, conversational analysis, sociology, cultural anthropology, marketing, advertising, PR, policy analysis, foreign policy, complexity, just to start with.

However, I still remember this part with fondness:
I deliberately juxtaposed fields of academic literature and fields of professional literature to encompass both reflective and practical perspectives.
No academic blinders here, which is significant given I had been spat out of academia not long before this. Actually, as I recall at the time I was still barely able to read an academic journal without dissolving in anger. But I digress.

The forest of detail

Having decided on this list of fields, I found out (by asking and by following webs of citation) what were considered the seminal books and papers in each field. And then:
I looked for instances of metadata—questions, categories, segmentations, classifications, analyses. There were many of these, and many of them overlapped in scope and meaning, both within and between fields.
Everything that didn't start out as a question I reframed as a question. I found that
Looking for story metadata is like breathing: it’s everywhere. Story touches so many fields that finding new pockets of academic and popular literature with something to say about story has become nearly a monthly occurrence. The problem is not to find story metadata; the problem is to make sense of the huge mass of it and reduce it to something tractable.
This was all done by hand on sheets of yellow notepaper (yes, this is a story from long ago, children). After I felt I had reached a feeling of satiation in every field I had intended to cover—this took nearly three months—I stopped writing things down and started cutting things apart. I snipped the sheets of paper up into smaller pieces, usually with one question apiece but sometimes with a few very closely related. Then I played with the slips of paper. More formally:
I began to assemble a composite sketch of possible metadata through a sort of implicit consensus. I allowed the structure to emerge slowly, continually checking and adjusting to take account of new perspectives. At a few points I reiterated the design by taking apart the whole structure and putting it back together again.
Taking apart the structure meant literally scattering the bits of paper and starting to heap them up again. Why? Clustering gets better the second and third times, as you gain a stronger sense of the shape of the body of things. There is satiety in assembly as well as in collection. The more you care about the result, the more important it is to destroy what you have built.

The number of questions topped out around 400, and they formed slowly into three large groupings at the top level of a hierarchy several levels deep: form, function and phenomenon. (Actually, phenomenon was ineptly named "trace" at the start; the alliterative improvement only occurred to me years later. Let's just sweep that under the carpet shall we?)

The beast of industry

By now you are asking: What are all those blocks of quoted text? They are taken from a 24-page paper I wrote about the project in 2000. Where is the paper? That's another part of the story. You see, I petitioned the IBM powers-that-be through official channels to publish the paper externally. I was told I could not and have sat on the paper, and the 400 questions, ever since. Of course it's probably because I put the 400 questions in the paper that IBM declined to publish it.

When I tell myself this story I alternate between telling it in three ways. In one version I trembled in submission before the gods of industry, was spurned, and crawled away nursing my wounds. Oh the inhumanity, the poor meek creature who never did any harm to anyone crushed by the heel of cold profit. In the second version I strode forth and tilted at the windmills of industry, knowing full well that the heartless machine would never let go of anything worth possibly anything ever, and fiercely immolating the project in protest. In the third version I stupidly threw away a pretty good paper to seek an unrealistic utopia. I knew people at IBM who ignored the official channels and published papers without permission and never got in trouble for it. I might have got away with it if I hadn't asked permission, or if I had stopped at the line clearly marked "do not push IBM beyond this line." But I wanted to ask, and I didn't want to stop at the line. I was meek. I was cheeky. I was naïve.

In any case, I keep pondering as time goes by if I should publish these things and risk arousing the beast, or approach it and bow and scrape. But I don't seem to do either of those things, even though I have been on the verge several times. The paper itself would win no awards and reads no better than a school term paper to my eyes at this point. But I do often peevishly wish people could make use of the 400 questions, because they do provoke thought, or at least they seem to when I get them out and look at them every year during the International Days of Self-Pity.

I have published the list in part. I took the brazen step of sneaking my favorite twenty questions out of each of the three large groups into my book three years ago. (Nobody noticed.) Besides, I've come to realize my grand list was never the Key to All Mythologies anyway. It was just a glorified literature review. They aren't my 400 questions, they are just 400 questions other people asked and I mashed together. Anybody else could go out and read the same books and papers and arrive at the same list, or a better one. I don't even consider the list all that complete at this point. I'd be embarrassed to put it out as anything authoritative now, at least not without another three months to smarten it up.

My dream then was to put the questions up on a web site and invite everybody in the world to bring the list to the next stage with me: to annotate, sort, organize, append, expand it. That's what I would have done if I had got permission to publicize the paper. If anybody at IBM can hear me and wants to help me do that, I'm game. But I no longer think it is the loss to humanity I once did. It took me around three months full time to compile the list, and I'll bet it would take anybody else no longer; and if you divided that task up among ten people it would only take ... hold on ... about 50 hours each. So, not a big project really. And the thing I found most useful from it is too big and too alive to be owned by anyone, so the point becomes moot.

Something old/new/borrowed/blue

Do you care deeply about this story of the idiot standing before the hulking dragon of industry? Not likely. Here is something you can use.

Consider this fable from Aesop:
An ant went to the bank of a river to quench its thirst, and being carried away by the rush of the stream, was on the point of drowning. A dove sitting on a tree overhanging the water plucked a leaf and let it fall into the stream close to her. The ant climbed onto it and floated in safety to the bank. Shortly afterwards a birdcatcher came and stood under the tree, and laid his lime-twigs [trap] for the dove, which sat in the branches. The ant, perceiving his design, stung him in the foot. In pain the birdcatcher threw down the twigs, and the noise made the dove take wing.
That's just the sort of story Aesop would tell, isn't it? The old rascal. It never comes right out and says anything, but we know what it means. That sort of understanding is what people do best. So, we apply the instrument:

The form of a story is its internal structure. In the realm of form, a story "works" because it fits our expectations of what stories are like and uses that fit to deliver a message. Within those expectations of what stories are like, many nuances can be used to produce particular effects. The largest distinctions within story form are those of environment, character, plot, and narrative.

Story form in the ant fable (sorry, these are mussy screenshots; when I tried to recreate the hierarchical lists I nearly broke blogger; click to see them bigger):

The function of a story is its use in our thinking and remembering. Function depends largely on relationships: between characters in the story; between characters and their plans, goals and actions; between the story and other stories; between characters and events in the story and people and events in our lives. In the realm of function, a story “works” when we find it in the right place at the right time, when we learn something useful from it, or when it reminds us of something we need to know. The largest distinctions within story function are those of meaning, understanding, and connection.

Story function in the ant fable:

The phenomenon of a story is the story of its existence as it moves through time and society. A story’s phenomenon depends largely on context: when and where the story was first told, what effect it had, when and where it was heard and retold in different forms, how it changed over time. In the realm of story phenomenon, a story “works” when it survives through time and impacts the lives of people. The largest distinctions within story phenomenon are those of the story’s origin and development, its current variation and use, and details on individual storytelling events. For each storytelling event, story phenomenon details the interpretation of the story by the storyteller, the events surrounding the storytelling event, and the viewpoints of all participants on what took place.

Story phenomenon in the ant fable:

There. That's about five percent of the original paper, and it's still far more than I've ever published about these three dimensions before. But hopefully it can give you a bit better and more useful idea of what I mean by form, function and phenomenon. The simple example serves to illustrate the utility of considering different perspectives on stories, I hope. You could try looking at a story in each of these ways yourself and see if new insights emerge.

The way I see these three dimensions coming together is in a metaphor about cells. A story is sort of like a cell in our bodies. Internally a cell has all sorts of complex-complicated structure (including possibly other organisms-that-were such as mitochondria living their lives inside of ours). This is like story form. The cell membrane is not simply the border of the cell; it is almost like a brain in its detailed control of transport and communication. This like story function. If we zoom out our microscopes and look at the larger tissues of the organism, we see cells embedded in the contexts of their tiny destinies, some never moving and some traveling vast distances. We see them come together, form things, move apart, die. This is story phenomenon. What is life? It is all of this. What is story? It is all of this.

The river of life 

I count FFP (shall we call it) as one of the top five useful things I have learned about stories so far. It has informed all of my work, sometimes without my knowing it. It has become a trusted friend. If my thinking on narrative is incomplete it is because FFP is incomplete. Is FFP incomplete? Sure, maybe. I can imagine that. I can also imagine it being derivative or redundant of some obscure treatise I never happened to read. If you can see something I have missed in it, please tell me. If it's the same thing you've read in so-and-so's book, I want to know who so-and-so is. If you want to work on improving it with me, let me know. I want it to grow.

I remember reading Stuart Kaufmann's book Investigations and laughing at this line:
It may be that I have stumbled upon the proper definition of life itself.
What, stumbled upon it right next to all the other thousands of people stumbling upon it with you?

Here's another one, in Stephen Wolfram's doorstop (sorry, seminal work) A New Kind of Science:
Just over twenty years ago I made what at first seemed like a small discovery: a computer experiment of mine showed something I did not expect. But the more I investigated, the more I realized what I had seen was the beginning of a crack in the very foundations of existing science, and a first clue towards a whole new kind of science.
Ooooh, your own science. It is a sad fact that success often brings its own failure with it. The safest thing is to never succeed, or to never succeed entirely, or to never believe that what has succeeded is you yourself. Because it never is, really, is it? Have you read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius? You should. It's rational emotive therapy thousands of years ahead of its time. I pull it out every year or two and go over it again. From Book three:
Hippocrates after curing many diseases himself fell sick and died. The Chaldaei foretold the deaths of many, and then fate caught them too. [...lots more dead people, lice, mud, etc...] What means all this? Thou hast embarked, thou hast made the voyage, thou art come to shore; get out.
I love that part: get out. Get out and leave the boat for others. If you have built a beautiful boat and have come to love it, but you have built that boat to fit so perfectly your own form and that of no one else, when you get out of the river of life the boat will get out of the river of life with you. What could be sadder than that? The reason Casaubon's attempt to build the Key to All Mythologies is a tragedy is not that he didn't finish it; it's because he couldn't let go of it. In Book four Marcus Aurelius says:
For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them.
But a mere tale is a lot. It is everything. It is the river of life. Only by getting out of it can we stay in it.

Represent stories as stories represent themselves

Having set my insight-child free in the river of life, one essential element I will defend with defiant zeal is its aspectiveness. Read this quote from the book Neuroethics (found on one of my favorite blogs, Heroes not Zombies, and actually it did not originate in the book cited, but is a quote citing another quote from the biblical scholar James Dunn):
While Greek thought tended to regard the human being as made up of distinct parts, Hebraic thought saw the human being more as a whole person existing on different dimensions. As we might say, it was more characteristically Greek to conceive of the human person "partitively," whereas it was more characteristically Hebrew to conceive of the human person "aspectively." That is to say, we speak of a school having a gym (the gym is part of the school); but we say I am a Scot (my Scottishness is an aspect of my whole being.)
Form-function-phenomenon is an aspective distinction, not a partitive one. The dimensions do not divide and exclude but interpenetrate and augment. They cannot and should not argue. They should only present and represent. This is wonderful because it's exactly what stories do, and it's why they have such a central place in human life. Stories are among our most aspective elements of thought and conversation. They deserve an aspective framework of understanding, don't you think?