Telling stories in an age of information hysteria
A few years ago I gave a talk about information design, and I began with this idea: that in the 18th century, the amount of knowledge that one was expected to have learned in a lifetime was equivalent to the amount of information found today in a typical edition of the Sunday New York Times. It’s a frightening thought, one that might be called information anxiety—”produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. We read without comprehending, see without perceiving, hear without listening. It can be manifested as a chronic malaise, a pervasive fear that we are about to be overwhelmed by the very material we need to master in order to function in this world.” That’s a concept developed by Richard Saul Wurman in his book Information Anxiety—20 years ago.
If we thought we were overwhelmed then, what’s happening now? We’ve connected, networked, linked, friended and twittered our way into a new kind of being—and perhaps that anxiety has developed into full-blown neurosis. Or maybe we could even call it information hysteria: an overwhelming compulsion to consume and be consumed by limitless amounts of information, content, data and choice…the uncontrollable desire to document and broadcast in real-time. Limitless information, access, and choice. Always on, always available—the need to be recognized on the live network as we scan for the best opportunities in any given moment. Information hysteria has the look and feel of a Google Earth landscape with all of the layers turned on. It has the texture of a complex social network, visualized and mapped in real time. Information hysteria might be the fact that as you now buy your bananas on Amazon, you can read a review of them written by another user—uploaded a moment ago—and find out that people who bought bananas also bought grapes and melon. Or that you can search through 2 million new photos today, on Flickr. Or that 13 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube—every minute.
What we think we need might be making us crazy.
Of course, the web is a big part of this. Perhaps it fuels the hysteria. We know that it does. And that’s what I want to know: what is the web today? What is it becoming? What are we becoming, as a result, in an age of information hysteria?
In the 20th century we got our information by reading newspapers, magazines, watching newsreels, television news hours, listening to the radio. All of this media was filled with advertising, and editorially produced. We wrote letters, spent time on the phone. Each of these were built around the idea of a narrative structure we can all relate to: beginning, middle, end. Or as I like to call them: “Start/end” structures.
When the web appeared we spent a few years relishing the fact that traditional narrative was out the window and now we had a new way to communicate. The hyperlink ensured that stories could be told in multiple ways, not just one way. I can go here, there and there, and back “home” again. This kind of quality of the early web was not at all linear—it was more spatial, more flexible and open. It was less about telling the story, more about navigating it. One could say that it was a structure of mapping and connections. A kind of “here/there” structure.
The problem with “here/there” is that it’s sometimes difficult to find the story, and it’s easy to get lost. As our attention spans on the web grew shorter, we’ve become less and less patient for this kind of delivery.
But the web is changing again. Now the stories flow—blogs, txt messages, RSS feeds and chat sessions produce a stream of news in real time. And it’s relentless. Our Facebook and Twitter friends tell us in 140 characters or less what’s going on. We’re broadcasting headlines to each other—and the stories are getting shorter and shorter, appearing instantly, sometimes flying by. And we’ve gotten used to seeing the most current information in front of us, before having to scroll down. The space and time of the new web might be illustrated like this: this is the present (in front of us), and this is the past (scroll down). To scroll down = the past. As I move down the web page, I go back in time. At the bottom of the page, the information is less relevant as it eventually gets pushed off onto other pages, where it’s no longer relevant at all. This kind of flow—never ending—where new information is always being “posted,” each time I look—is appearing more and more. If the old web was “here/there” then the new web is “now/then.”
So, a shift from “start/end” structures to “here/there” to “now/then” structures. We want what’s current. Not just current, but instant—now. The news as it’s streaming. Messages that say: “posted a moment ago.” It’s flow: a kind of meshing together of heterogenous sources into a constant real-time stream of information. One reason the status update is so powerful and why we love to do it over and over again, and read up on our friends’ updates, is because it replicates intimate contact: “this is what I’m doing right now.” It’s personal, it’s autobiographical, and it’s meant for relatively few people (my 150 facebook friends, or the 50 people following me on Twitter).
It’s not that “start/end” is gone—think Hollywood cinema or TV sitcom. Start/end structures like the Gutenberg Bible have been around forever and they’re not really going anywhere. Here/there structures are here to stay too: maps, charts—an entire history of collecting and organizing information.
What about now/then? Does it have a history? We might trace the concept of continuous, instant news flow back to the Times Square zipper sign, which was created in 1928: the original status update. At most, the sign was broadcasting to a few hundred people at a time—it was a continuous flow, but location-based. But go back further, to Thomas Edison’s ticker-tape machine, which used morse code to transmit stock prices to brokerage houses on Wall Street. Instant news, late 19th century. In each case technology pushed the instant forward in a new, although very local way—at most, at the scale of a few hundred people at a time.
But let’s go back further. To medieval England, where town criers, or bellmen, were the chief means of news communication with the people of the town, since most could not read or write. The town crier, a person of some kind of education, would dress elaborately, ring the bell and cry “Oyez Oyez,” from the French ouïr, to hear—meaning “hear ye”—a call for silence and attention. The news was announced, once or a few times a day, as needed. Instant news in the Middle Ages—to a village of a few hundred. Then the town crier would nail the paper to a post in front of the local inn. Thus, he “posted” the news—and today we send our news via the “post office”, we read our news in the “daily post”—and make a “blog post”. The origin of the post.
So “now/then,” or continuous news flow, is actually not so new. The status update—at a more local scale—has been around in one form or another for at least 500 years.
So why does it feel so new? If Walter Cronkite was the town crier of the 20th century, it’s because the story was suddenly scaled up: the nightly news, broadcast to an entire nation. But in the last few years there’s been a fundamental, editorial shift from the institution to the individual—we are now the curators of our own news. Each of us is heard. It’s no longer just “American Journalist Arrested in Egypt” but one Twittered word from the journalist himself: “Arrested.” Or “Stephen wrote on your wall.” Or a single tweet from Yoko Ono: “Dancing.” How is this flattening possible? Because of technology’s beautiful ability to amplify our messages across time and space. We can tease the threads of message amplification throughout history, across the evolution of technology: from the voice to the printing press to electrical impulses to high-speed wireless.
We are all broadcasters now.
Technology allows for limitless amplification. Go back to the idea of information hysteria, and managing the messages one consumes suddenly seems hopeless. We’re exposed to thousands of brand messages and stories a day; add to these the personal stories we receive from our friends and family—how can anyone hope to get your attention? As marketers, or as people who might be responsible for creating messages on behalf of an institution—a non-profit, or a corporation or a university—how can we possibly get anyone’s attention?
The key might be Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist. In the early 1990s he researched 38 species of primates and how they socialize. He suggests that the number of social members that an individual can track is limited by the size of the neocortex region of their brain. By tracking, he means: maintain stable social relationships. And by relationships he means: where the individual knows who the others are in the group, and how each individual relates to the others. This makes sense, since most of human evolution, and the evolution of our brains, took place when we lived face-to-face in small groups, and when we cared about relatively few people, over small distances. It’s a theoretical number, but what is now called Dunbar’s number, for humans, is 147.8, rounded up to 150. Humans socialize in the largest groups of all primates because we are the only animals with the evolved brain capacity to handle that kind of social complexity.
Dunbar surveyed village and tribe sizes and this research supports his number: 150 as the estimated size of a neolithic farming village; the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times; and the idea of appropriate company size. Above 150, groups get unruly—without imposing hierarchies or governing structures, larger groups turn into crowds, or mobs.
Now keeping Dunbar’s number in mind, consider the Obama brand story. At this scale—the scale of the mob—Obama crowd-sourced the campaign. By crowdsourcing, I mean mass collaboration: using the power of a generally undefined, very large group to raise money, formulate opinion, organize and analyze data. There’s a lot of this going on right now on the Internet, and Wikipedia is the best known example: instead of paying a few editors to each write a thousand articles, millions of people volunteer to write and edit a totally new kind of dynamic, limitless encyclopedia. At the scale of the crowd, anything is possible. Obama sent out a clear “call to action” in the form of 1 billion pieces of email: “Give $100.” He raised $750 million to tell his story, from 4 million donors—more than double the donors who gave to Bush in 2004. 80% of these people gave $100 or less. Suddenly, there’s a totally new kind of fund-raising that can be scaled up without limit: instant amplification and unprecedented participation.
But it’s Dunbar’s number—the idea of the small network, the community—that allows us to feel that we belong. Obama understood that and tapped into a powerful sense of “the personal” to create a grassroots campaign that was different from any other in history. Why did this work? He harnessed the power of the crowd and the community simultaneously. Two scales of communications, operating together. He crowd-sourced the campaign to raise limitless amounts of money, which allowed him to activate devoted communities of people. Obama also understood the idea of “now/then,” the flow of real-time news. He understood the intimacy of the status update. He was able to craft a personal, accessible voice that mobilized smaller “Dunbar”-sized groups of people, and used technology to amplify that voice to a nation of 300 million.
But Obama wasn’t just “now/then”—he used traditional storytelling techniques too. Data was mapped and organized into open vaults—”here/there” places for information and understanding, available in the background when necessary. His campaign uploaded over 53,000 images to his Flickr account—a place for both flow AND mapped data—and this image “library” continues to grow, organized by rally, location, group and activity.
Most importantly, Obama used the “start/end” structure—the traditional narrative—to punctuate the campaign with mega-stories that blow out his brand into deep, meaningful narratives. These “deep spots”—the convention videos, the great race speech in Philadelphia, the 30-minute commercial—anchored the campaign and let us take the time to get closer to him through compelling, traditional stories.
I believe that this is key for us to understand, as brand marketers, as museum developers, as non-profit leaders, as educators. Harnessing the power of the crowd to service the community, using different temporal and spatial techniques of storytelling. The crowd and the community, working together. One without the other isn’t enough anymore. As a creative director, I’m learning. I can point to very few examples of anything that resembles this in my own work. But I want to understand because it’s evolving before our very eyes, and I want to help my clients because I see them struggling every day, as they rely on familiar, old-school techniques that aren’t effective anymore. Big power-brands like IBM or Nike or the US military might have more to learn from small non-profits that cultivate face-to-face, meaningful relationships, than the other way around.
To conclude, and with a bow to the Obama campaign, I’m offering up 7 techniques for effective brand communications in an age of information hysteria:
Use a personal voice—think of your audience as “friends, fans and followers”
Use open-source technology to amplify your voice across several platforms at once…and to crowd-source money, data, opinion
Understand the significance of Dunbar’s number (150) as you mobilize small communities that share your values and are committed to your cause
4 Chop it down.
Create relevant, bite-sized messages that support big concepts
5 Let it flow.
Use the notion of the status update (in whatever form) to foster ambient intimacy and a continuous flow of real-time information
6 Allow for emotion.
Use traditional, “start/end” narratives to punctuate your delivery with emotion and meaning
7 Add depth.
And use “here/there” structures—open vaults of information—to add depth and substance to your story
And if all else fails: simplify. Because we don’t need more complexity.