While our tools are changing rapidly, we as people aren’t. We continue to be bound to each other through stories in ways that are biological and sociological. Structural psychologists now know, through the magic of MRI, that our brains light up very similarly when we’re having an experience, when we’re telling a story about that experience, and when we’re hearing someone else tell us that story. Social psychologists have been able to explain for decades how this sharing of experience and story triggers reward and bonding. Anthropologists can demonstrate the role this plays in culture, and thus why civilizations devote energy of invention to storytelling technologies, from cave paintings to the cellphone.
My colleague Michael Monello, one of the producers of The Blair Witch Project, has argued for decades that digital technology and the interactive storytelling it enables is a return to something ancient, as ancient as the bedtime story or the heroic myth told around a campfire (the origin, and point, of the name of his marketing agency, Campfire). Technology can finally enable storytelling that is far more natural, a blossoming of the oral traditions baked into us as humanity.
To support that, the key question becomes, “How do we use the Web to extend the reach of our ears?” In my many collaborations with Mike, the amount of information that we wanted to listen to as a storyteller standing around that campfire grew exponentially. In the late 1990s, reading all the posts from fans and participants in a couple of discussion boards was something you could synergize intuitively and find remarkable opportunities to create “storytelling ecologies” similar to the “service ecologies” that Nathan Shedroff described. Those ecologies continued to become more and more complex with the emergence of blogging and then social media: now, the meaningful stories from our audience about the experiences we were triggering were spread across the entire Internet at scale.
Fortunately, there were brilliant people working on that challenge since the end of the last millennium, including another colleague of mine, Pete Snyder, whose background was as a political pollster and became one of the true pioneers of social listening. His company, New Media Strategies, didn’t focus on measurement but on actionable intelligence, exactly the kind of listening that people like Mike and I were most focused on scaling as phenomenally vital input. Imagine receiving every morning a concise email narrative, rich with pull quotes and hyperlinks, of everything that had been said in the last day online about your brand. Now imagine that brand is Ford and these reports encompass hundreds of issues with different emotional sentiment, some expanding in volume and others not … and that report will drive decisions being made today.
Experience design thinking encourages you to learn to love data (but only when it can bring you what Newberry & Farnham called “the right amount and kind of information”), because the challenges of a brand are remarkably similar to the challenges of an interactive story or a political campaign. They are all phenomena. You can only really see them in the reactions of the people who are experiencing them.
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