Storytelling in the Age of Twitter


Storytelling has been on my mind this week. Not the kind of stories that many of us had a children like those in Mother Goose, but rather the ones that we more often tell through chance encounters in the hallway or Tweet about over the Internet. However, like Mother Goose many of the stories we tell include narratives that feature archetypes and draw on a long history of shared knowledge between the storyteller and her or his audience. Unlike in cultures where storytelling is fashioned in a manner that requires sustained attention and considerable skill and practice (think of the many First Nations & Aboriginal communities worldwide or the Irish Seanachaidhean), tools like Twitter, blogs and Facebook enable us to tell stories in new, short form ways to audiences we might not even know about. Sorting through the tweets of 150 different people per day requires a process of sensemaking that is different from those used to ascertain meaning in a long form story. Both are valuable.

Although it is tempting to privilege long-form storytelling, the kind found in essays, feature films, and books, it may be those tweets that better fit with our cognitive tendencies for sensemaking. If you think about your average day, you might interact with a few dozen people face-to-face and perhaps many dozens more through your social networks. How many of those interactions featured a full-fledged story; one that had a clear start, middle, end and coherence that could only be gathered from the story itself, not past relationships with the storyteller? Probably very few. Instead, we much more often speak, write, and even film in narrative fragments; small chunks co-constructed and contextually bound. Think about any buzzword or catch phrase and you can see this in action. From ‘whassup‘ to ‘getting Kanyed‘, these terms have meanings that go far beyond the obvious and can be conveyed with one or two words. Twitter represents this very well with its 140 character limit.

This past week I spent three days with a great group of people getting learning about complexity-based approaches to sensemaking using narrative fragments, software and a variety of facilitation techniques aimed at taking the science of complexity into the practical change realm with the folk at Cognitive Edge. What this accreditation process did was provide a theory-based set of tools and strategies for making sense of vast amounts of information in the form of stories and narrative fragments for purposes of decision-making and research. What this method does is acknowledge the complex spaces in which many organizational decisions are made and, through the Cynefin framework, help groups make sense of the many bits of knowledge that they generate and share that is often unacknowledged. It provides a theoretically-grounded and data-driven method of making sense of large quantities of narrative fragments; the kind we tell in organizations and communities.

From a systems perspective, viewing knowledge exchange and generation through the narrative fragments that we produce is far more likely to lead to insights about how the system operates and developing anticipatory guidance for decision-making than waiting for fully-formed stories to appear and analyzing those. This, like nearly everything in systems thinking, requires a mind-shift from the linear and whole to the non-linear and fragmented. But thanks to Michael Cheveldave and Dave Snowden and their team this non-linearity need not be incoherent. I’d recommend checking out their amazing website for a whole list of novel and open-source methods of applying cognitive and complexity science to problem identification and intelligence.

Thanks Michael and the Toronto knowledge workers group for a great three days! I’m looking at my tweets in a whole new way.

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