Centering on the Audience
Despite my love of dead German philosophers and obscure art theories, I’m a pretty practical guy (for a mad scientist.) I don’t see a phenomenal work mindset as an abstraction; I see it as a framework that actually makes real work better. I look at the way these ideas revolutionized art and science and philosophy, I read the words our predecessors have written about how it changed the way they thought about life and art, and I wonder: isn’t it time for the Networked Age to absorb in those same concepts? All it takes is another translation of phenomenology in a way that makes sense to the now, so let me start with a provocation and then humbly offer up a translation of minds greater than mine that left these gifts for us we’ve failed to unwrap.
As a community, we spend far too much time talking about the form of work, as if it were the central innovation of Networked Age – look at all the “new” things we can make, all the “new” ways we can stick them together, all the new words we need to describe all these new things. This is natural, because as creators we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make things and what to make (and should.) Perhaps we can get further if, just for a moment, we focused on the real innovation of the Networked Age: audiences will never be the same again, but human nature hasn’t changed.
Somewhere in the world, a person encounters a designed thing – they see the architecture, they load the webpage, their eyes glance at the billboard, whatever. We’re witnessing a moment in time when what we’ve designed meets the people we designed it for: the phenomena of the work in context with both the world and the person.
As creators, we rightly spend a lot of time talking about that designed object and what we believe it means: brand strategies, story bibles, authorial intent, etc. But, we must acknowledge to each other that all of that stuff is invisible to audience – it lies beneath the surface of the world of experience. We can imagine the “serious artist” who’s work is unintentional (and tragically) ironic, the Internet is full of that kind of work, and use that as an example of just how irrelevant that hidden strategic structure can be to what the design actually means to people.
Thinking about the phenomena of our work means focusing on the context of how people experience it. Left to chance, some of that context might distract from the moment of meaning and some might enhance that moment of meaning. Phenomenal work asks you to think of the context of the experience as something that can be designed as part of the work. When people in the Networked Age talk about designing for relevancy or discovery or surprise or “shareability” they are describing aspects of the phenomena of work. When these factors work together well, the experience of the person with our work becomes richer and more meaningful … and that unlocks the most magical of all effects.
We only know about the world (or ourselves) because of our experiences, and we only understand those experiences when we craft a story to describe it to ourselves: this is the moment of meaning. Because we’re social, we’re also wired to share the stories of our meaningful experiences with each other and we’re wired to find the stories of other people’s meaningful experiences as valuable as actual experiences. Science has confirmed this: what happens in the brain during an experience, when we’re telling the story of an experience, and when we’re hearing the story of an experience are remarkably similar. I think it is one of the magical things about the human experience.
And that’s exactly the part of us amplified the most in the Networked Age, the part that surprised Internet creators so much they felt they needed a phrase like “social media” to describe it. Never in human history have our stories of meaningful experiences been as universally available to each other as they are right now. Tomorrow it will be even better. And all of that starts with the meaningful experiences that we could be designing for each other, because all storytelling emerges from the phenomena of experience.
I didn’t make this up and I didn’t invent this. I only re-discovered it and re-translated it. And in the coming months, I need to prove how practically useful it is for predicting almost every phenomenon of the Internet we’re grappling with as creators. And I have to do that by October, when I’ve committed to unveiling this idea in front of a large audience to try to provoke a meaningful new conversation.
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