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Storytelling In The News: #94

Using social media to tell stories

March 20, 2004

Can we use blogs, wikis, IM or RSS feeds tell our story?

I had a mild complaint that other day. Someone said: "Your site has a daily update but it isn't like most blogs. You don't talk about yourself here." My respondent is right of course. Personal revelation is not the objective of this part of my website. My explicit aim here is to look at the business news through the lens of storytelling, and understand the scale and diversity of its impact, not to talk about me. There are other parts of the website where you can learn about me, where I'm speaking and what I think about a wide variety of topics.

Nevertheless this might be an appropriate moment to reflect on the prospect of the emerging forms of technology being used to tell stories or share knowledge in an organizational context. So I'll take a quick look at blogs, wikis, instant messaging and RSS feeds.

1. BLOGS: In principle, blogs are a great way to tell one's story, with unlimited space and with potentially an infinite audience. But I'm afraid I'm skeptical whether they are likely to make much contribution to sharing knowledge in an organizational setting. Most, but not all, blogs I've visited tend towards the "Dear Diary" variety, with a tinge of (sometimes charming) self-indulgence, narcissism and self-absorption. Maybe I’ve visited the wrong blogs, but I’m not alone in noting the phenomenon.

I find it hard to see how the unconstrained outpourings on blogs will be compatible with "The Apprentice"-like environments of big corporations in which most people work, where the task is to appear as cooperative with the boss as possible, while avoiding being the victim of the next round of downsizing or outsourcing. Blogs are great as an outlet for personal expression, and certainly cheaper than a psychiatrist, and perhaps may help one find other geographically dispersed soul mates. They've proven their power in politics by linking together geographically dispersed individuals of similar persuasion to effect political change (e.g. in pulling down Trent Lott and pushing up Howard Dean). But for knowledge management in an organization? I'm not sure.

Some would argue that there is a small category of blogs which become, for a period at least, the authoritative source on a particular subject, e.g. some questionable factoid of a political campaign. Could this kind of blog become useful in a corporate context? There was in fact a case study in the Harvard Business Review (September 2003) where a blogger got going, and then started saying things that the management didn't quite appreciate: what to do? Although only one of the four management "experts" advised explicitly to close down the blog, the three others essentially suggested various ways of co-opting the blogger into the management agenda. Ay, there lies the rub, as Hamlet might say. The free-flowing dynamic of the blog is at odds with the discipline and focus of the large organization, and given the blog’s potentially infinite circulation, it is likely to be seen more as a threat than an opportunity by the powers that be, unless it can be “tamed” and “brought under control”, at which point, it may of course cease to be of interest to anyone except the management.

2. WIKIS: Wikis seem more likely to be productive, because a Wiki is a blog built for a community; it’s like a community drawer rather than a personal drawer. And it has different rules for participation. It’s no longer just a threaded discussion group; Wikis have the interesting feature that, if a viewer doesn’t think something is said right, it’s the viewer’s job to re-say it correctly - the viewer can’t just comment on it or criticize it. The attempt to build a gigantic encyclopedia with Wikis on the web is promising at In principle, it should be possible to use this technology in a organizational context, as a way to build a knowledge base, though I personally haven't seen any examples to date.

3. INSTANT MESSAGING: The potential of instant messaging to keep members of a community in constant touch tends to be underestimated by older people. If you talk to a teenager today growing up digital, and you only use email, she’ll think you’re a dinosaur because email doesn’t really support the sense of extended presence.

4. RSS FEEDS: RSS feeds should in principle be useful, as a way to have content streamed automatically to individuals for a particular purpose. The actual examples that I've seen are however less helpful than I would have expected, as the coverage is not as systematic as I had hoped and the format not always congenial. But the potential is there, at least for information. I'm doubtful how much knowledge will be streamed.

5. DIGITAL STORYTELLING: If it's a matter of transmitting information, then digital methods can be very effective: the web is a very efficient transmitter of vast amounts of information. Much of the thrust of my work however concerns oral storytelling in a face-to-face mode to communicate complex ideas and spark action. Quite often people ask me: is there a way of accomplishing this task virtually? In general, my answer is no: when when you're trying to pick up a big change-resistant organization by the scruff of the neck and hurl it into the future, merely sending a memo or an email or having a video conference won't get the job done. It's face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball communication with a great deal of feeling, interaction and presence that's needed. One of the reasons is that much of the communication is being carried not by the content of the story, but by the tone of voice, look in the eye, the gestures and body language. The proportions of "mode of performance" to "content of the story" may be around 90 percent to 10 percent. Most of the work of communication is being done, not by the content of the story itself, in the physical interaction between storyteller and audience - almost like a dance. In an email or on the web, there simply isn't enough bandwidth to enable this interaction - this dance - to take place.

Afterwards, once people have bought into the change and are on the same wavelength and have a minimal level of understanding and trust, then a great deal of communication that shares information and knowledge through both abstractions and narratives can take place in writing and by virtual means (as in this listserv). But getting people on the same wavelength in the first place is a bigger challenge and for that, you have to actually *be there* with your entire heart and soul.

This page draws heavily on insights by John Seely Brown in our forthcoming book, Storytelling in Organizations.

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