Storytelling in the round – experiments in 360 video

ARgassi beach in Greece at sunrise

This post was originally published on Inspiring Learning, where I do most of my worky blogging.

It’s not often we get to do overseas work in this job, but last weekend I was at the international digital storytelling conference in Greece, running a workshop on digital storytelling using 360 video.

I’m going to hold my hands up at the start of this and admit that I’ve not been a fan of VR and AR technologies. There are some really strong use cases in education and entertainment but “mixed realities” are one of those things that are often touted as a “transformative technology”, able somehow to radically change the way we “do digital” if we’d only give it a chance. My inner sceptic feels uncomfortable with this.

But sometimes you get called out on your assumptions, which is what my colleague John Sumpter did in Leicester a few months ago and I realised I was trying to argue a position without even having properly engaged with the technology.

Hence why I was in Greece presenting the workshop having been through the process from start to finish. The aim was not to convert myself to the technology, nor to try to debunk it, rather to keep an open mind.

Why 360 video and storytelling?

I’ve been a digital storytelling practitioner for over 10 years now so it seemed the easiest way to explore a new technology, by combining something I knew well with something I didn’t.

I wanted to see whether 360 video was a good fit for the sort of personalised storytelling we do at Jisc as part of our workshops and consultancy. Usually we’d just be using still images and voiceover to create a simple video. This different medium would involve a different production process and maybe create a different sort of audience experience.

I’ve spent the last month with the help of John, Zac, Suhad Aljundi and Matt Ramirez creating some proofs of concept.

There’s probably scope for some “How To” posts in all this but for now I’ll stick with the big picture stuff.

The first one, Tides, was made using 360 images captured using Google Streetview on an iPhone.

Notes on viewing: If you watch this on a desktop browser you can scan round the scene by clicking and dragging the video. If you’re watching using a mobile device I’d recommend viewing them in the YouTube app which will let you scan round by pointing your phone in different directions. If you have a VR headset like Google Cardboard, that’ll probably give you a more intense and isolated experience with fewer distractions. Use headphones if you can.

This was edited in Adobe Premiere, complicated and expensive software that handles “monoscopic” VR like this reasonably smoothly. It also allowed me to try out some nifty tricks with overlays, graphics and sound design.

The second one, Bridges, was filmed using a Samsung Gear 360 video camera and edited on the software that comes bundled with the camera. It’s a lot simpler but more limited in what you can do. For example, you can’t record a narration straight onto the movie. I had to use Audacity to create the finished MP3 then time the transitions of the different scenes accordingly. Storyboarding was doubly important for this one.

I’m less happy with the second one, I think. One of my errors was filming at too low a resolution. I put them out on Twitter to get some feedback before the conference which I’ll come back to but if you have any thoughts on how effective they are please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

These are the main things I learned from doing it…

The technical stuff

Expect hiccups.

The whole experience felt like trying to do video editing 10 years ago. The technology isn’t particulalrly refined or standardised and not all types of software can handle all types of 360 media the same so be prepared for some frustration while you get up to speed.

Learn some new terminology.

In order for editing software and websites like Facebook and YouTube to recognise 360 media it needs to be tagged with the correct metadata. The main thing to know is how to change the “projection” to “equirectangular” or to flag up that the video is “spherical”. Also, your screen size ratio is 2:1, rather than 16:9.

Altering metadata

There are some simple tools for changing the metadata. I recommend eXifer for editing still images and the Spatial Media Metadata Injector (choose a better name, folks!) for video. Neither need a lot of technical skill to use and they mostly worked fine. Software like Adobe Premiere lets you alter the images after the fact but it does involve going deep into the settings.

The Samsung Gear 360 camera
The Samsung Gear 360 camera

Bump up the resolution.

When you’re using a 360 camera, you’ll want it on the highest resolution possible. 4k video is 3840 x 2160 pixels which sounds a lot and it is when you’re looking at traditional screen. With 360 video, however, the “screen” is actually a massive sphere with you at the centre. Even the highest quality video will start to look a bit blocky. But raising the resolution will lead to another issue…

Get a powerful editing computer.

Your file sizes will be pretty huge given the resolution of the images involved. A finished 3 minute video could be anywhere south of 2GB in size so when you consider all that raw footage you’ve collected, a single project could be 5-10 times that! Also it’s heavy on the processor and RAM. My laptop sounded like a hairdryer for most of the project to stop it overheating even though its spec is quite high.

Software is a bit of a compromise at the moment. You can either go for something that’s powerful and flexible but expensive or free but rudimentary. There isn’t really a middle ground yet and there won’t be until we see the likes of iMovie and WeVideo inhabiting this space. That’s the reason I think this sort of media will remain stubbornly outside the mainstream for the time being.

I followed this Adobe tutorial to get the hang of things.

The artistic stuff

This bit was actually more interesting and challenging.

It’s all about taking your time.

Rapid cutting between 360 scenes is horribly disorientating. You don’t have time to explore your environment before the scene changes. Normally, I’d feel nervous about holding a still image on screen for longer than 5 or 6 seconds but with 360 video, it worked better when the scenes lasted 30 seconds or more. This inevitably affects the writing too, requiring a more reflective, meditative mood.

How do you “frame” a shot when there is no “frame”?

You want to create images and video that are engaging and interesting whichever direction someone is looking but it’s also important to direct the viewer’s attention to particular things at certain times to help tell your story. I didn’t wholly succeed here but there’s a whole separate blog post in it! The main thing is to think in terms of location, rather than image. Honestly, it’s a geographer’s dream and a cinematographer’s nightmare!

Sound is important.

The mic in the Samsung camera isn’t that great, especially in windy conditions (See the Bridges story) but I found completely removing the “live” or diegetic sound made the experience too disconcerting. If a car goes past, your brain expects to hear it. For the Tides story, obviously there was no “live” sound” so I just used my iPhone’s audio recorder to record some in situ. I did cheat a little here in the edit. See if you can spot any inconsistencies in the Tides story soundtrack…

Filming in 360 is a pain in the butt.

Firstly finding somewhere discrete and secure to place your camera in public places to get a decent shot takes creativity and certain amount of chutzpah and then you have to find somewhere to hide from its all-seeing eye. Fun game: watch the Bridges story again and see if you can work out where I’m hiding in each scene! It’s like a pixellated “Where’s Wally?”! I ended up having to explain myself to passers-by quite a bit. Using Streetview to capture still images was easier in this regard as you can always be behind the camea as it builds its shot but it’s difficult to keep your shadow or tripod out of shot (see below).

A flattened out 360 image of a beach in the evening sun
“Stitched” 360 image from the Tides story

Impressions

My overall impression doing this was it was worth exploring and a lot of fun once I’d worked out what I was doing with the technology. I would say that I’m about 65% happy with the results. I think my main problem was taking the form and pace of storytelling I’m used to and trying to shoe-horn the 360 media into the process. I’ll need to do a lot more work to get the storytelling style and medium better aligned.

The viewing experience is really important. Of the people I asked via Twitter it seemed that those who had viewed it using the click-&-drag verison in the desktop browser had the worst experience. It’s too active and repetitive taking attention away from the story. The mobile app was much better either for whole screen viewing (iPad worked best) or through a VR headset.

The whole point of digital storytelling is that it should be open to anyone to create their own without being as much of a video nerd as I am. My eye was always on whether this was a process that gave good results at the end but without requiring a lot of complex jiggery-pokery. The Bridges story is probably the closest I came to finding that simple workflow. It’s rough at the edges production wise but was possible to do with no more pain and stress than using iMovie which bodes well. Facilitating the whole process from story writing, selecting and filming locations and editing would still need some hand-holding, though.

Lastly, this isn’t a one-size fits all solution. There will be some storytelling projcets that this will work well with and others where it’s an unnecessary complication. I found that capturing the media and writing the stories helped me get a much better understanding of the places I was in and how I related to them which might give an indication of what storytelling purposes will work well with 360.

Going back to the beginning

Reflecting on my mission I set out to complete, I don’t think I’m finished with this yet. There’s still lots of things I want to try like mixing video with still images in 360, using surround sound and so on.

VR and 360 video still isn’t rocking my world entirely but it seems much more achievable and useful now in this context at least.

Feedback from others

Let there be tech: what “creation myths” tell us about control

Lawrie’s been at it again! Following a conversation with Amber Thomas, he posted last night about classic tales and our relationship with ed tech referring to classics like “Stone Soup”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and so on and he asked for people to contribute ideas for other narrative types that characterise the ed tech landscape.

So, like a bad student who doesn’t read the question properly, I started thinking about Creation Myths. You know, go big or go home! More specifically, how the stories that are told of the genesis (small G) of technical innovations tell us about the values of the different parties involved.

I started out reflecting on how the creation narrative around MOOCs panned out with some focussing on the efforts of Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng and so on with the likes of Coursera and on the other hand looking to the deeper roots of the approach pioneered by Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes et al. It’s hinted at in this article from University Affairs.

Then I got thinking about Facebook. There was an advert recently that FB put out to try to salvage some of its reputation in the fall out from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Here it is:

It’s an attempt ot reclaim that origin narrative. It’s the line that goes “when this place does what it was built for then we all get a little closer.” Is that really what it was built for? I mean, really? If you watch another version of that narrative, David Fincher’s Social Network movie, that phrase takes on a different meaning.

Lastly, I thought about a talk I saw a few years ago at the Thinking Digital conference in Gateshead by the economist Mariana Mazzucato where she effectivley dismantled the received wisdom that products like the iPhone were all to do with the innovation and entrepreneurship of the private sector and pointed out that it was public sector-funded developments that had made it all possible in the first place. Watch it, it’s brilliant

In posts and workshops in the past I’ve mentioned the hackneyed and serially misattributed phrase “those who tell the stories, rule the world”. Stories are how we make sense of events but they’re never neutral .You can tell a lot by looking at contrasting narratives as a way of taking control.  And who is telling them can be instructive. Ask yourslef, in whose interests is this story being told. It pays to be critical.

And if you’re the storyteller, it pays to do this responsibly.

Telling the story of ME recovery

I’m trying something new here. I recently found out, having been feeling ill for the best part of a year, that I have ME. It’s not something I’ve come to terms with yet and I’m looking for ways to take back a bit of the control of my life and body that I feel I’ve lost.

This week I tried out doing a video diary. That’s nothing new. YouTube is full off people talking about their illnesses so I’m adding to already crowded field. The point is not that I think I’ve got anything useful or new to say or that I’m uniquely ill; I’m doing this mostly for me. In workshops I often refer to a quote about storytellers ruling the world which can be interpreted a gazillion different ways. In this case I’m trying to assert a sense of agency over my symptoms rather than feeling I’m at the mercy of them. The world I’m trying to rule over is me.

There’s an ulterior motive as I talk about in the first video, about making people I know and work with aware that I’m not at my best. That takes a bit of the pressure off me and lessens the feelings of guilt that I might be letting people down from time to time. It’s easier to do it like this than go round explaining to people individually – something which would feel like a demand for sympathy which is not what I’m trying to do. I’m happy to talk about it face to face with people if they want to but I won’t be shoving it down anyone’s throats.

Unlike some of the other storytelling stuff I do, I’m not bothered too much about technical or content quality. I’m trying stuff out. It’s unscripted, unpolished and for the moment, unedited. Much of what I plan to say gets forgotten. I’ve never been great at speaking off the cuff so maybe this is good practice for me.

I’m not fussed how many people follow this. I don’t know how long I’ll keep it up – there are a few things I think it’ll be interesting to talk about but whether the ongoing treatment stuff is just too tedious, I suppose I’ll find out.

But I think there will be benefits for me by being open, and who knows? Maybe it’ll be useful for people who are going through something similar.

Image

Taming the darker dragons of student experience

Today I’m travelling to Birmingham for Jisc’s annual Digifest event. I’ll be running a workshop with Liz Austen from Sheffield Hallam Uni on enhancing the student experience through digital storytelling.
On the BBC news site this morning is a story by Hannah Price, a graduate of Bristol University and now a journalist. Hannah was the victim of a horrific sexual assault whilst at university, a much too common aspect of the student experience.
Her story stands on it’s own but while I feel uneasy using Hannah’s story to make some abstract points about storytelling it has forced me to reflect in the run up to Liz and my workshop.

Digital storytelling is NOT therapy

Let’s acknowledge a limitation. Digital storytelling is not a form of therapy. Good therapists may use storytelling as part of their toolkit but always within the context of support that requires specialist training. What I’m talking about here is no substitute for serious pastoral care and safeguarding.

If you are undertaking storytelling activities with people who are vulnerable for any reason you need to establish, probably with expert help, how best to support them realising that problems may manifest themselves in ways that are not always easy to detect.

Rebalancing power relationships

One of the most powerful aspects of storytelling is that it gives a voice to people who are disenfranchised for one reason or another. In Hannah’s case she had her voice taken away by her rapist as well as the social structures around her. Here she is using the tools at her disposal (journalistic skill, digital platforms, our attention) to challenge that power imbalance.

Vulnerability in storytelling

Rape is weaponised shame among other things. Telling this story has taken courage to overcome that but that is not something that society should demand of victims of violence. That in itself perpetuates the power imbalance. Hannah has chosen to do this herself but she also used digital tools like Snapchat to help people to tell their own stories whilst protecting themselves. As Donna Lanclos says, you owe nobody your story. It’s yours to do with what you like.

Process and product

Related to that is the point about what the process of storytelling is for. Hannah has created a product that we can engage with but I suspect the act of telling this story has been an empowering one for her. Even if a story remains private or shared with a small, trusted group the process of turning experience into narrative is what storytelling is for. Seeing digital storytelling as simply a mode of production ignores this.

The worst thing I had to deal with during my time as a student was navigating my parents’ divorce and acknowledging my mental health was not as good as it should have been. For the most part, though, I enjoyed my time at university.

Sadly, we need to acknowledge that people’s student lives are not immune from challenge and trauma. Using storytelling carefully and sensitively can be a powerful way of helping students to overcome difficulties and institutions to learn how they need to change.

Voltage: thinking about the power and peril of stories

Last week’s Point of View on Radio 4 was from the academic Tom Shakespeare talking about “the power and peril of stories”.

In a nutshell he’s saying that the persuasive power of stories has real social consequences and this can be used for good or ill.

I’ve been trying to understand this more recently as it is something that come up from time to time when I’m talking to people about stories and leadership.

Stories and Voltage

What Tom Shakespeare’s podcast made me think about was voltage. Stories are a bit like electricity. Electricity’s a good thing, but it has to be handled with care, especially when the voltage is high.

Some stories are low voltage, like a triple A battery, an anecdote about my journey to work this morning, for instance. It might be entertaining or funny but in terms of personal or social consequences it’s probably neither here nor there.

But what about high voltage?

Some stories strongly influence how people behave, the choices they make, the way they vote. And it affects the storyteller too. Any form of storytelling includes a measure of vulnerability so it should be done with awareness and support and be an explicit choice on the part of the storyteller.

Without that level of care we’re inviting unintended consequences a bit like leaving live wires exposed.

Narrative awareness

Going back to some of the points Tom Shakespeare makes, narrative is an extremely powerful thing, especially in the face of facts. Quite often the compelling story will win out over a rational argument.

If we’re engaged in storytelling we need to be aware of our responsibilities and develop an understanding of how narrative and “truth” are related and what happens when the two diverge.

And for me, this is one of the core purposes of education. Do we equip learners to use stories effectively and do help them see where narrative begins and ends and to challenge it when needed?

 

Digital stories about objects – “Spruce, ebony and horsehair”

I had the chance to make another digital story recently. It was for Curiosity Creative, an organisation I’m a trustee of. Alex, who runs the company, is collecting stories of people talking about objects that mean something to them for a project called The Story Box.

This is mine

The Story Box collection is steadily growing and if you’re in the Newcastle area you might see the “screening room”, a full size replica telephone box, doing the rounds at various locations and events.

Have a look at the other stories in the collection. One of my favourites is “Mourning Earrings” which is a very frank account of family disunity. A prize for the best (if slightly misleading) title goes to Michy’s Porn Bear.

Stories in your pocket

One of the activities I do regularly on storytelling workshops is to get people to look in their pockets, bags, wallets etc and find an object that they could tell a story about, something that reveals a bit of themselves. I’m always surprised at how much you can learn about someone from an old rail ticket or a set of keys!

I’m reminded a bit of JK Rowling’s Horcruxes, objects in the Harry Potter books where parts of someone’s soul can be placed inside everyday objects for protection.

These stories about objects are obviously a lot less malevolent, but we go through life, interacting with the objects and people around us, leaving little traces of our identity behind to be recalled later.

A little while back I reviewed a book called The Chimes which used a similar device as a way of a society fighting amnesia using small objects they carried around with them which, if lost, meant the person lost all sense of self and slipped into a sort of waking coma.

So, have a look around you. See if you can conjure a story from a seemingly innocuous object.

More about The Story Box

You can find out more about The Story Box here. Watch out for the public screenings of The Story Box around Newcastle in the coming months. Keep up to date with Curiosity Creative on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Rembrandt and the fall of Western Society (probably)

Look at this picture below for a moment. It’s taken by Gijsbert van der Wal. It’s from 2014 but pops up like whack-a-mole on social media from time to time.

What do you see?

A masterpiece hangs on a wall while a small group of young people huddle round their screens.

That’s what’s in the picture, but what do you SEE?

The caption that accompanied this on my Facebook timeline recently said:
“This picture was taken by the security guard of the museum. He just realized that this world was lost.”

Kids, eh?

The conclusion we’re supposed to draw is that these millennials are so absorbed in their screens (probably Snapchatting or playing Angry Birds or something), that they are ignoring the priceless Rembrandt 10 feet away from them. It’s a damning conclusion. Young people no longer value the cornerstones of our culture. We’re probably doomed.

Now look again

This is a trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The children seem to be huddled in pairs or small groups. The two boys look like they’re talking to each other. The girls have a piece of paper balanced on their knee. Perhaps it’s a worksheet.

Let’s say that they’re using their phones to access an app created by the museum that explains the pictures they are seeing in much greater detail. Maybe they’re being asked a set of challenging questions in the app that means in a few moments, they’ll all stand up again and spend 10 minutes trying to decide why the woman in the background has the claws of a dead chicken strapped to her belt (I googled it).

Or maybe they’ll move on to the next one and not think about it again for a few years.

Or maybe they’ll go the giftshop next. Who knows?

The fact is, this is old news. Check out this Telegraph article for the back story.

But the real irony of this image is that, if you look at the comments on some of the tweets in the article, we’re bemoaning the fact that the children aren’t using their critical faculties to appreciate the meanings in this artwork while we do exactly the same thing.

Digital literacy in the era of “fake news”

So what’s this got to do with the “fall of Western Society”?

It’s easy to believe at the moment that we on the West live in a society where truth is more and more fluid and “fake news” abounds. Before Trump adopted the phrase as his all-purpose come back for journalists critical of his ineptitude “fake news” was the shadowy web of misinformation on questionable websites and some reputable ones that aimed to shape the outcome of the democratic process by dubious means. (It’s amazing how quickly meanings change these days!).

I tried a while back to to explain why I thought false news stories circulated so widely and quickly. My conclusion was a bit like stating the obvious but I was interested in how we find comfort in narratives that confirm our view of the world rather than truly shock and challenge us.

For me this is a major plank of digital literacy; the ability to question the meaning behind images and other information on the web, the narratives associated with them and their impact on behaviour and society.

We’re starting to see how society’s inability or unwillingness to grasp this nettle can have dire consequences particularly for vulnerable groups far from the seat of power but potentially for all of us. Misinformation and misinterpretation in the digital realm isn’t the only reason for the rise of the far right but it’s certainly helped.

And no, I’m not saying that this picture of some kids on their phones is responsible for or even emblematic of the fall of Western society, but using it as a tool to help us talk round these fundamental issues isn’t a bad place to start for us as educators.

And maybe pictures like this one suggest that hope is not lost…

… but maybe that’s just my interpretation.

There’s something very odd about this movie trailer

Watch this trailer. It’s for the upcoming film Morgan and it’s very interesting. How effective do you think it is? Does it feel like all the other trailers you watch or different somehow. HINT: Don’t rewind it as the preamble gives some spoilerific context.

You probably picked up on the clues before you got the explanation at the end of the trailer (the title overlay gives it away).

The trailer was pieced together mainly using artificial intelligence. IBM’s Watson computer analysed the full movie and constructed the 1 minute plus trailer from what it thought were the key moments. There was some human creative input but it’s a bit unclear as to what that was.

Read the full post from The Next Web.

Beyond the eerie nature of the film, I found it a bit unsettling. I watch a lot of trailers and without knowing all the ins and outs of how they’re constructed I feel like I’ve internalised what a Hollywood style trailer should be like. I suspect most of us have – try watching one from a movie over 15 years old and you’ll probably be surprised how different they are.

This one, while seeming on the surface to follow the right patterns, doesn’t feel quite right. It’s a similar feeling to looking at one of those “realistic” androids where the features are all in the right place and the skin looks properly textured but as soon as it starts to move we’re in the uncanny valley.

What really interests me is how well AI can understand narrative. While a trailer only gives a partial story it still tries to convey a sense of the meaning of the story so you come to the cinema already understanding what the film will be about. How people do that is highly subjective and I don’t think easily computable. It’s a bit like the Turing test in that sense (and maybe a computer won’t be able to pass the Turing test until it understands narrative properly).

We’re also feeding the computer a lot of rules about what we think a good trailer should look like and Watson is emulating that. It’s not the same as creatively coming up with an original and creative way of doing the same job (although you could argue that’s exactly what some human marketing people in Hollywood are doing anyway!)

In this case, I don’t think Watson gets it quite right. It’s like a computer working through a checklist of things that work in theory but still manages to miss some important beats. Some cuts happen too early or too late and the pacing feels a bit wrong but for all sorts of intangible reasons I can’t fathom, annoyingly.

But…

…it still works.There are still some brilliant moments. The scene where Morgan talks to Paul Giamatti about his daughter, for instance. That genuinely made my skin crawl with the editing meaning the camera relentlessly focussed on his discomfort. Also the moment when the chair doesn’t quite make it to smash the window before the cut to black creates real tension. A human would be proud of those.

So all in all, the unnatural, unsettling feel suits this movie right down to the ground.

It would be interesting now to see how it handles a rom-com or a costume drama.

 

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

 This wasn’t an easy read, but it was an enjoyable one. It was the other half of a 2 for 1 from Waterstones (the other was Jon Ronson’s excellent book on shaming) so I got it on the strength of the blurb rather then reputation.
It’s going to be hard to describe this book without giving away key plot points but I’ll give it a shot. The story is set in a post apocalyptic London which is a well-worn cliche but Smaill does interesting things with it. People exist in a state of musically-induced amnesia. Memories are reset during a daily event called Chimes, an almost devotional ceremony that draws on liturgical language and imagery where inescapable music seems to cover the whole country. The rare ability to remember is treated as a kind of witchcraft which adds the medieval feel.

It’s a disorienting world. Smaill writes in a way where day to day events are vivid but anything relating to the past is ambiguous and feels fragile even as Simon, the main character, gradually pieces together the past from the fragments around him. It’s his gradual awaking to his ability to remember and the reason that he finds himself away from his family in London that drives the book.

I’ve never had to draw on my ancient Grade 5 music theory for a novel before. Smaill is a violinist and music plays a central role in how the characters remember crucial information like routes and learned expertise. As a result, the text is littered with Latinate phrases. Events happen subbito and characters remain tacet. Sound and silence are almost characters in their own right. This was quite disconcerting initially and made it hard work to follow at times but after a while you become attuned to it and it has it’s own internal logic.

I did find it stretched credulity to breaking point at times. How would a society function if memory and consequently identity, reset every 24 hours? Smaill fills most of the gaps and after a while I found myself going with the flow, willingly suspending disbelief. 

One thing that resonated with me strongly was the use of objects as a way of retaining a link to the past. Characters carry round collections of keepsakes connected to past events and even if the memory they evoke has faded, the fact of their existence helps people keep a sense of self. Those that lose these objects become memorylost, stuck in a permanent catatonic state like the victims of the spectres in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials books.

It resonated because one of the warm-up activities I ask people to do on my storytelling workshops is to find a random object they’ve brought with them, a set of keys, lipstick, ticket stub etc, and use it to explain something about themselves. Usually people talk about an event that’s connected to the object and that pens up a conversation about something more fundamental. It’s a bit of a game but it’s a great way in to looking at the art of storytelling and the link between narrative and identity.

Smaill puts this at the heart of her own story which, like all the best sci-fi, makes it a parable for something more important than the familiar setting suggests.

You can read the Guardian’s review of it here.

Why do we share what we share online?

tl;dr

People choose to share certain things via social media mostly because they confirm something about their view of the world. Even if the story or image is “shocking” on one level it’s more likely it’s being shared because it fits with an existing narrative rather than disrupting one. Understanding our own narratives and those of the people around us is an important part of developing digital identities and digital wellbeing.

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” Jonathan Swift

Attention in social media

This week we found out via the BBC about a 10 year old boy in Lancashire who had been questioned by police and social workers because he wrote in a school activity that he lived in a “terrorist house” rather than a “terraced house”.

As you can imagine, this become widely read and retweeted via sites like the BBC, the Guardian and social media.

I can’t link to the Guardian’s original article, though. It’s been removed pending an investigation. Lancashire police have complained about misrepresentation as the Guardian and the BBC reported later.

At the very least, and as you’d expect, the story looks to be more nuanced than the initial headline and accompanying interest on social media.

It’s a pattern that happens a lot; a story grabs attention and sparks strong emotions then a little while later either a different truth or a more complex picture emerges which gets a lot less coverage.

I’m interested in why this happens and what it says about why we pay attention to certain things online. A while ago the New York Times did a piece on this that tried to describe what’s going on and why it happens. It concludes, in relation to an unfounded rumour that a woman had had a 3rd breast implanted:

“That hoax may seem silly, but it’s instructive about the problem with rumors — they’re often much more interesting than the truth.”

That’s fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t really explain why we find something interesting in the first place. We’re swamped with information on the web so what is it that draws our gaze and incites us to action, even if it’s only to click “share”, “retweet” or sign a petition?

I think it comes down to the narratives that we make for ourselves about the world.

Comfort and disruption

We use stories as a way of making sense of what’s going on around us. Without these structures we’d be dealing with vast amounts of data so we need to filter it and stories give us a framework for doing this.

Here’s a fictitious example to illustrate what I mean.

Imagine every morning my daughter heads off to school at around 8:00. I always say “hope you have good day”, she smiles, gives me a wee kiss and I wave her off from the doorstep.

I think this confirms for me a few things about how the world works. It means my daughter is happy to go to school and that we have a good relationship. I’ve built up a narrative around it and there’s comfort in its repetition.

Now, let’s say this morning was different. This morning, I was ready at 8:00 to say goodbye to her but she was late. She was disorganised, had to be reminded about her bag and when I said “hope you have a good day” she said nothing, leaving the house quiet and sullen without looking at me or saying anything.

How does that fit my narrative? The pattern has been broken and it feels uncomfortable. I need to find an explanation why things happened differently. It might be a momentary blip or it could be the first sign that my narrative about our relationship and how school is working out is about to change.

So, two stories. One that matches the pattern and maintains a comforting narrative; one that breaks the pattern and disrupts the narrative. But why is this relevant to sharing behaviours?

I think the reason we give our attention to things on the web isn’t just because we find them interesting. I think it’s because these things relate in some way to our existing narratives but the question is whether this is to do with comforting narratives or disruptive ones.

Looking back at the Lancashire schoolboy example in it’s original incarnation, it’s tempting to see this as a disruptive narrative. It’s quite shocking, certainly out of the ordinary but I actually think it got so much attention because it appealed to an existing narrative that people had rather than challenging the basis of one. It’s impossible to say definitively what those narratives were because they’ll vary by individual but I’ll speculate for some it will be because it confirms a narrative of an over-bearing state, unfeeling bureaucracy or maybe their feeling about schools, police or social workers.

Seeing other people share the story confirms the narrative and gives a sense of belonging and shared understanding of the world. Sharing it deepens that engagement.

I suspect that the vast majority of news items, videos, inspirational quotes  and images are shared not because they are actually shocking in any fundamental sense but because they are, at their core, comforting.

When the more complicated picture emerges later, as it did in the “terrorist house” story, in most cases (not all) it just doesn’t carry the narrative appeal. How many times do you see people saying on Facebook “that thing I shared yesterday? Turns out it’s a lot more mundane than I first thought”?

If something we see does actually shake our narrative view of the world that brings along many more complicated emotions and psychological responses. These sort of transformative events happen much more rarely and people may even choose not to pay attention to something “true” if it erodes the certainty of a prevailing narrative. The narrative shocks makes us vulnerable and I think most people would be reluctant to share anything like that openly , at least until another narrative has formed to take the place of the old one.

Digital identity and well-being

This is probably all stating the bleeding obvious but I think it’s worth thinking about, particularly if we’re involved in helping people make sense of digital identity and their well-being online.

Questions we might want to ask are:

  • How can I understand my own identity by looking at the things I choose to share?
  • How might other people’s narrative about me by affected by the things I share and does that conflict with he first point?
  • How can we understand the narratives of people in particular communities online whether they align or clash? Are there risks in trying to draw these conclusions?
  • How does these narratives shape social or political action?
  • When and how should we challenge these underlying narratives and explore what alternatives might exist as educators.

Look at your social media timeline in Facebook, Twitter or Linked In over the course of 24 hours. Pay particular attention to the more sensational posts if there are any. What can you tell about the underlying narratives at work and how are they shaping action and relationships?

Its also quite instructive to look at the language that people in the public domain use and what it tells you about the narratives they are constructing, particularly around contentious issues. Try this story for starters…

Further reading:

Baumeister, R. F., & Newman, L. S. (1994). How Stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences: Motives that Shape Autobiographical Narratives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(6), 676–690.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard University Press, London.

Image: Facebook’s infection by Katie Sayer CC-BY-SA 2.0