Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Trend in Media Development

A major trend in media development that I see is the changing and perhaps redefinition of the classic narrative arc as discussed by Drs. Isbouts and Ohler (2011). In classic literature, the story arc had an easy-to-identify arc of tension or dilemma to transformation to resolution, all held together through the story.  The medium was constant and the story-teller was constant throughout the story.  Two things, in my estimation, are driving this new trend. First, in the world of new media, and social media, in particular, the lines between “story-teller” and “story-listener” or “story-viewer” are becoming increasingly blurred.  Second, the medium can switch forms and technologies in the middle of the narrative.

Let’s explore the blurring lines between story-teller and story-viewer. What starts as a tension with one person, can be picked up by a second or third who either extend the tension or create their own narrative arc. The first person with the dilemma switches from being story-teller to story-viewer as he or she sees the dilemma now being “owned” by another. The dilemma may give way to a transformation, but then again, it may not until it has developed its tension further by others.  Such would be the case when someone has a critical comment about a product or service. What was a single person’s complaint suddenly branches into 10 or even 100 dilemmas, all searching for some transformative process or event. The complaint can even grow in scope, starting out as a complaint about a server at a restaurant, for instance, and growing to a complaint about the server, the food, the location, the manager’s response, and so on. The very same process can take place when a scorned person has a gripe about their now ex-friend.    The dilemma may never have a transformation but just floats from one storyline to another, and from one story-teller to the next. The more concurrent storylines, the more difficult resolution becomes for all of them. It’s like trying to put all of the feathers back in the pillow on a windy day!

Next, let’s look at the switching of media in the course of the story. Dr. Ohler in his book Digital Community, Digital Citizen (2010) writes of new media “coalescing into a collage”. This is especially true in social media. So think of the message of the complaint about the server. It may start on Twitter, but then automatically get posted to Facebook. Someone else picks it up and posts it on their LinkedIn site. Someone else wants to own the story and so they blog about. Someone important picks up on it and wants to make a point in a speech that is getting video-taped and posted to YouTube. You get the point. What started out as one person’s complaint is now the embellished and enhanced story of one hundred people, all looking for some sort of transformation and resolution.  Before long, the story line that the restaurant was using in its ad campaign has been co-opted by a hundred voices with a counter-story.  It doesn’t have to be a complaint. It could be a story of pain. Perhaps someone is finally brave enough to tell a story that no one wanted to hear, yet everyone else with the same pain was looking for someone brave enough to step forward.  All of a sudden what started as one person’s story of pain, transformation and deliverance becomes a hundred story arcs of others now brave enough to share their story. And it’s told in different forms on different social media sites: some with bit-by-bit Facebook postings; some with blogs; some with a collage of clip-art and a voice-over creating a video clip on YouTube. And then there will be some with all of the above. The narrative can be contained in an individual collage and a collective collage. 
Throughout the evolution of narrative media, as discussed by Ohler and Isbouts, the needs of the human condition are met from two perspectives: from the perspective of the story-teller, and; from the perspective of the story-listener (viewer).  The basic human need for the story-teller is to “tell my story” – to be known.  All of us desire for someone to know something about us.  The story-listener has a different need:  to get lost in the story. One of two conditions could exist here. The listener might be looking for something to identify with that makes his/her condition “alright”.  Or, the listener may have a need to disengage from reality and “live in a different world” – be someone else.  Even though narrative has evolved with technology and media changes to engage the different senses, these basic human needs have persisted.  Now, with readily available tools, the story-teller is no longer dependent on someone else to tell the story – they can develop their own story and even design their own audience.
I think the trend here is the converse of “back to the future”.  Call it “forward to the past”. Before print and the printing press, narrative and story were the main form of passing on current and historical events.  The collection of personal narratives was the information “feed”.  Since the invention of the printing press there has been a long, slow history of a relatively few “publishers” of information, whether a radio program, a television show, a video, or even a homepage. Additionally there has also been a long, slow trend to centralize the control of information and narrative about current events. Now, six media conglomerates, worldwide, control the news we see. With the meteoric rise in the use of social media, and the availability of easy-to-use tools, the tide is shifting. Control of the narrative is moving back among the masses and news from anywhere in the world can travel around the world ahead of the mainstream news sources.
Today, social media is viewed as a way for consumers to co-own the “brand” with a company. But in a world where story-owner and story-sharer can rapidly and subtly change places, how does a company ultimately maintain and protect its greatest asset – its brand? First, any company with a strategy for social media, should look to guide (as opposed to control) the "story arc". This takes a very pro-active effort. Social media has become the great "dumping ground" for every disgruntled customer. These story arcs, left to themselves, have a high potential for unhappy conclusions for companies. In fact, they can quickly become brand-killers. A sound social media strategy should include an investment in a "media control center" of sorts (it doesn't have to be sophisticated), where social "praise" can be pushed to and promoted by influencers - extending the narrative arc - and social "gripes" can be quickly detected and funneled to a "resolution desk" (one that is answered by a real person with no voice-response required) in order to guide the resolution of the narrative arc, and keep it from promulgating itself through the social media network.
 Second, even if a company does not employ social media (and I can’t imagine a company not having a social media strategy these days), they should understand that their customer base uses social media increasingly to convey their feelings about products and services. Knowing who your consumers are that have big circles of social influence is helpful, and then managing their perception or quickly reacting to negative perceptions can go a long way to getting good "net promoter scores" from your customer base. There are tools available to monitor social sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, as well as measure who is “listening to whom”. This monitoring can feed analysis tools to give a general sense on the relative sentiment of your customer base in general, and of the big influencers, specifically. Part of a good marketing strategy is to have good news stories more often than bad news shows up. These days of sitting back with a quarterly advertising strategy are over.
Successful companies in the use of social media will hire digital citizens, as opposed to digital immigrants. Marc Prensky (2001) makes the case for the generation of kids who are born with digital media all around them. They are fluent in the language, the lexicon, and even think “digitally” – like someone born into an English-speaking family who thinks thoughts in English. Those of us born before the digital age are immigrants. Some of us grasp the language fairly easily and “speak with very little accent”. However, we still think in old media terms and translate to digital – just like the English citizen transplanted to Germany, speaking German but thinking original thoughts in English. As Ohler suggests, new media demand new literacies.  Perhaps the next narrative arc in need of transformation is that of the American educational system.


Isbouts, J. and Ohler, J.(2011). From Aristotle to augmented reality. The Oxford handbook of Media (Dill, Ed.)
Ohler, Jason (2010). Digital community, digital citizen. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin

Prensky, Marc. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, Vol.9, No. 5. University Press

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