Sunday, April 10, 2011

Story and the Social/Behavioral Soup

“The heroes that we aspire to be in the popular stories we choose to tell, effect the nature and health of our society.”

Narrative Responsibility
Today’s post, rather than focus on the ABCs of Meta-story, is going to talk about the effect that stories have on our world.  As part of this discussion I’m going to raise the notion of “narrative responsibility.”   This is the idea that the storyteller/creator bears a responsibility to be aware of the culturally transformative power of narrative and the nature of the aspirations he or she is putting into our collective consciousness.  The ideaological, social and cultural effect of a narrative is something that is sometimes unconsidered or even ignored in exchange for marketable sensationalism, angry ranting and other unhealthy motivations.  This is an especially important discussion in our increasingly Meta-story enabled Transmedia world because of the pervasive quality and mythic power that these largest of stories can have.

This is not a discussion about censorship or regulation.  I leave those debates to the lawmakers, regulators, agencies and our legal system and hope that they tread lightly.  This is also not an ideological discussion about my values and beliefs.  I certainly have them and include them in my narratives and my life.  This discussion is simply asking that as storytellers and Meta-story creators we consider the significant effect that our narratives can have on the audience and world culture.  Our goal is to be very successful at reaching the largest possible audience and moving them with meaning and mythology so thinking carefully about the aspirations we will represent is important.  Realize that stories can and have changed the behaviors of individuals and countries and influenced the times and events throughout history.

Cultural Soup
Let’s begin this subject with a truth about the effect that being so connected has had on us all.  We are all floating about in the same cooking-pot full of our cultural soup!  Every narrative we put into the broth contributes a little or a lot of flavor for all the rest of us to soak up.  There is no such thing as isolated content that can’t spread (unless you are talking about secret documents and even then, those are finding their way into the larger kettle to boil about these days). 

Let’s also dispel another popular notion.  There is no such thing as public content or narrative that doesn’t have a lasting effect.  It all influences us.  If it’s entertaining and moves us emotionally, then, over time, it can change the way we think, feel and act even if we don’t realize it’s happening.  Seemingly harmless but voyeuristic narratives that use the “easy” emotive triggers to gain interest and audience share, over time, elevate the “entertaining” but caustic values, behaviors and beliefs they contain to true celebrity status.

“Culture of Celebrity”(link to interesting article with additional links in psychology today)
Once celebrity status is granted, much of the audience imbues content and characters with many of the qualities and power that in the past, we attributed to royalty.  Those qualities include: a better class designation, access to greater voice with significantly greater credibility assigned to that voice and a lessening of critical questioning or evaluation. Increasingly today, once granted, popular celebrity brings with it an almost irrational and extreme tolerance for forgiveness of socially unacceptable or damaging behavior. 

From Entertainment to Power
Our media connectedness and a number of other factors have resulted in creating a path directly from entertainment value to legitimacy, cultural influence and even political power.   There is no proof or consistent examples that show any automatic correlation between entertainment celebrity/popularity and socially beneficial ideas and actions.  Those benefits lie in the narrative’s meaning and underlying human truths and insights and should be judged and elevated on their own merit.

There is also no direct relationship between how successful a narrative or media product is and how humanly meaningful or insightful it is.  I am not suggesting that, as story creators, we should only create high human mythology or profoundly meaningful narratives.  Entertainment plays many roles in our lives and the success and growth of those various formats is proof that we both want and need them.  Many forms of successful and satisfying entertainment are nothing more than fun, simple, distraction.

Instead, I am suggesting that some of the narratives that can be entertaining can also have significant unintended consequences for our human culture and behavior and we should be aware of them to make conscious choices that are responsible. 

“Acceptance linking”
Our Hyper-media-soaked lives supercharge a very simple mechanism that for now I’ll call “acceptance linking.”  It works something like this:
I like something.  I want others to like it and like me.  I share it and we expand our relationship and friendship a bit further because we now share a like.  The thing we now both like, takes on an importance beyond itself.  Not liking our shared like means you don’t like a bit of us.  The bigger the “us” the more powerful the effect.  Soon we grant the “like” its very own celebrity status and all that comes with it because it helped us to extend and define our community and ourselves.  Meaningful stuff yes? 

“Embarassment TV?”
Here’s where it can be not so healthy.  All humans have curiosity about the not-so-good behaviors and intentions in the human spectrum of behaviors.  Many a psychological study has shown that all humans have these urges and thoughts but learn to suppress them for their own good and the good of the community/tribe/culture.  How do we learn this?  Our stories!  Parents, schools, siblings, societies are all chock full of the stories that shape us into good citizens of the tribe and of the planet based on the values it holds.  Some of those stories model the best in us facing off against the worst and some model the bad in contrast with the worst (and many forms in between).  All can be quite compelling and really give us insight into the human condition in highly entertaining and motivating ways.

However…there is an entire class of entertainment that has grown up in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century that is driven by this voyeuristic curiosity to see into the bad boy and bad girl side of life.  I’ve heard it called several names such as “Embarassment TV, Anguish TV, Conflict TV and Humiliation TV.”  Some of this kind of content lives on the web, shared by mobile and beyond.  Our interest in it, though not our proudest moment, is natural.  The issue arises when we aren’t fictionalizing that experience and/or we aren’t showing appropriate social and human consequences for it either.  Remember, “acceptance chaining?” It happens even here and quickly.  Once the no-consequences bad behavior and its stars become acceptance linked and get granted celebrity status, we create aspirations for the audience that are truly unhealthy.  Soon, some of the audience will want to be these characters and act like them because…it made them celebrities and…their social group has linked around these stories and internalized them in subtly approving ways.

I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances tell me “it’s just a show and it’s just fun and I know the difference between what I see on TV and real life!”  As one proof point that there are changes created in our society's behaviors by these narratives I offer the terrible rise in bullying behavior in our school-age children.  Though there are most likely many factors contributing to this epidemic, it’s hard not to see a clear link between emotional and physical bullying and some narratives such as:

The various “real housewives” glorified but venomous, snarking, narcissist behaviors (heavily watched by tween girls),

Jersey shore’s real life self-absorbed “stars” slapping and fighting in excessively hedonistic situations (also heavily watched by tweens),

Charley Sheen’s ranting and self-absorbed tirades (invited to colleges to give speeches like a scholar or hero) and other celebrity status bad behavior turned entertainment.

I could continue with examples but I think the point is clear enough.  The stories we tell (and yes, even reality TV tells stories) express what we want others to see, hear, understand and learn.  Transmedia enables it all to travel and grow much more quickly and powerfully.  Be aware of that power and help by making choices that make us all better when we experience your story.  Show us the grit, the grime, the bad choices, bad people and behaviors, as well as the consequences that come with it.  It is human drama after all and it draws us like moths to a porch light. 
 It’s important to note here that the audience also bears responsibility in this by rewarding those narratives with purchases and viewership.  When it comes to stories, we all need to be aware of the choices we’re making and be careful not to inadvertently build momentum behind human behaviors that history shows us are not good for us, our children, our communities, our world.

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