Thursday, March 24, 2011

The diverging practical definitions of "narrative"

Yesterday I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours in Cambridge MA listening to a lecture by one of the worlds leading design thinkers, Bill Moggridge.  The lecture was on the subject of his new book Designing Media and it was truly fascinating and extremely well done. 

Bill Moggridge
Over the course of the lecture, Bill shared excerpts and quotes from a number of interviews he had done with thought leaders and successful big entrepreneurs in the expanding new media landscape.  I won’t spend the time here to review the very interesting observations and summaries of those interviews and will instead suggest that you get the book and/or read the chapters (which are all apparently available online for free, a bold and exciting experiment in and of itself).  Instead, in this post, I want to expand on some of Bill’s observations to talk about the notion of what “narrative” means for the purposes of defining a common understanding within which to talk about Meta-story™.

For me, one of the things that Bill’s well-delivered talk brought into sharp focus is that the ongoing incredible creation and expansion of new formats and venues for content, communication and expression, are also quickly stretching and changing the meaning of the words we are using to discuss and explain what we believe we understand about what is happening.  The words themselves aren’t evolving to differentiate as quickly as the formats and how we are using them.  As a result, it’s quite possible to use a word in a discussion with participants from different media and formats resulting in each of the participants drawing a different conclusion from the discussion!

Though this was neither an observation nor an insight in Bill’s excellent talk, it became interestingly clear to me that what certain words mean can be largely dependant on what the prevailing market or commercial truths for a particular new media or format are. 

If “success makes us certain,” then meteoric success can make others uncertain and question their understandings and actions.   For this reason, emerging media-based differences in what words we share in speaking about those successes and our crafts, could have a big impact on conclusions we draw and insights we think we gain.

The upside to all this interest in big success is that it helps change to move through our established thought cultures with a bit more muscle (and believe me it needs it when dealing with many of the commercial and creative cultures that have had their own certain successes decades ago).  Insightful visionaries like Bill and others help us to do that by sampling our new realities and organizing them for further insight thereby evolving our understanding and constantly adding depth and subtlety to our knowledge.

The downside of wanting to follow wildfire success is that reaction to it can turn into a kind of rush for a shiny new hammer to pound everything with.

 “When all you have is a shiny new hammer, everything looks like a nail!” 

 I have found that it is rare that 100% of the success dynamic from one format ever translates fully into another format.  There are often new indications and opportunities that are important to aggressively pursue in this quickly changing landscape but it requires the courage to change coupled with the wisdom to understand what remains, what evolves, and how it all fits into the new tribal landscape.

At the core of our communications and discussions with each other to navigate this extremely dynamic, exciting and fast evolution, is the language we use to discuss and define concepts and meaning.  Just like the varied success factors, use of language within each media is varied and subtle and we must endeavor to learn to translate with and for each other in order not to create shiny new hammers.

One of the best examples of diverging variations in meaning and use of a shared word was “narrative.” 

On Facebook, the audience and their connections within the community wholly contribute “narrative.”  This kind of narrative is the capturing of conversations and personal expression and it spontaneously evolves and spreads organically. 

On Twitter, "narrative" has an even more immediate and fleeting context and meaning in that it converts the activity of the moment into a simple personal connection of light social contact.  It too is socially shared to spread and fade quickly.

Many of the hottest forms and formats in new media, to a large extent, share this tribal and viral “narrative” immediacy and some varying level of impermanence.  Narrative, in these cases, is less about structure and designing of the user’s path through the content and more about capturing and enabling a matrixed sharing of the collective exchange in service of simple human “grouping.”  This allows the audience to find and explore their connections and form “flash tribes™” or “persistent tribes™” in the process.

Contrast this to discussions at a traditional book publisher where "narrative" clearly means a story carefully crafted by an author.  Here narrative is the result of a singular act of creation that has been painstakingly put through a rigorous craft that likely has taken years to learn and perfect.

Narrative, as defined in publishing, has a great deal more in common with formats like Motion Picture and television than it does with social narratives.  That is not to say that they aren’t all about human issues, themes and ideas.  It is more to point up that the act of creation and development in these different kinds of narratives is profoundly different, and each is successful in its own format.

All these different forms of narrative, and more, have things they can learn from each other.  It is important to learn how narrative is evolving and the many new and different forms it is taking.  This is especially true since “convergence” is just in its infancy enabling the audience to move freely from one form of narrative experience to another.  Learning when and how to enable that movement to perfect our knowledge of Transmedia story presence is a knowledge base we are just beginning to contribute to. 

Does this mean that creators will be writing everything that appears on Facebook and Twitter in regards to their narratives?  No, because that is one of the new and joyous roles for the audience in the new media landscape.  Can we be aware and listening to what happens to the narrative as it processes through the audience?  Absolutely!  The social relationship with the audience no longer needs to exist only after the release of a launch format.  There are many examples of engagement through social media that brings together tribes around a singular creative expression both before and after its release.

At the other end of the scale, does this mean that book authors should hand over their narratives to a room full of media producers and creatives and expect the end result to be creator-vision driven? Consensus is not often a friend of new excellence in creation (input, feedback, research, observation, yes).  This is however, the prevailing model today in part because book authors aren’t trained in anything other than writing books.  Perhaps it is asking too much of certain book authors to even consider these other format needs.  I suspect in many cases it is.  That isn’t a statement of failing of any sort.  All creators should find and work on the canvas that is a size that best suits them.  It does mean however, that some creators, given the right knowledge, will be able to create for a broader canvas.  Others will create single media concepts that will require another creator to take the work and envision it larger for the greater creative and commercial opportunity.  Both approaches are valid insofar as the end result remains creator-vision driven.

Equally important to maintaining this nuanced and questioning perspective on narrative, is to not assume that a wild new success in one new format should wholly transform all other formats (keep the shiny new hammer in the garage).   Crowd sourcing an author’s book makes no more sense than editing and single sourcing social exchanges. 

Now to bring this home for perspective on the kind of narrative a Meta-story is.

Meta-story, in terms of defining what kind of narrative it is, is a vision-led, creator-driven, form of narrative.  As I’ve covered in other posts and lectures in the past, this is important because of the simple truth that to make a Meta-story that functions in a truly Transmedia fashion, it has to achieve a kind of “grand human mythological state.”  It's not only what makes it creatively and mythologically successful, but the follow-on of broad commercial success requires that same singular vision and excellence.

 Combine this with the truth that not one of the great, generational, commercial, fictional stories from any time throughout history has ever been created by a large team of people and you begin to understand why I believe in the simple equation:  

Grand fictional commercial mythology = Creator-driven vision.

There is a huge difference between observation and insight: 
“Observation is what we see.  Insight is what we learn that makes us think differently about what we see.
Creating transformative insight within your audience that then delivers human meaning and lasting empowerment (two elements critical to Meta-story and Transmedia success) is extraordinarily difficult even in the most ideal circumstances.  This is why there simply aren’t that many big fictional mythologies that work well.

There is something profoundly human in a creator’s relationship to their story that is fundamental to delivering moving and effective Meta-story™ narrative. 

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