Hyperessay #5: The Social Narrative

D. E. Wittkower explained friendship, along with the rise of social media, as a “caring investment in the members of our own personal communities.” At its heart, social media offers users a chance at two of life’s great desires: identity and intimacy. We get to frame our personal experience on Facebook or Twitter through every form of multimedia and continually “broadcast [this] presentation of self,” as Graham Meikle put it. Then we publicly choose who and what this self “likes” or “retweets,” and sit glued to our screens, waiting for the stream to update with more and more affirmations of commonality and connection between us and the people, things, and organizations we want in our lives — whether they are a part of our “real” lives or not.

Thus it stands to reason that a company that successfully engages its audience through social media has used content to tap into these user desires for identity and intimacy. Many have, including two that have affected my personal interest in outdoor adventure: Black Diamond Equipment and Patagonia. Though the base mission of both companies is very similar (to sell products for a profit), neither have made the mistake of using social media as a platform to sell. (This is the function of a well-designed website, among other media platforms.) Black Diamond and Patagonia have chosen to use multimedia in the social media environment as a means to build community and brand. After all, pictures of a shiny new set of skis or Gore-Tex jacket can offer a fleeting sense of identity or intimacy, but not to the extent that a genuine sense of personal, chosen community can.

For its part, Black Diamond (BD) has created a Facebook community by acknowledging that the adventures enabled by its products are more appealing to its customers than the products themselves. BD customers don’t dream of sitting on their couch, clutching their newly purchased Fusion ice tools. They dream of swinging them into fat ice at the end of a classic mixed route high in the Alps. So BD smartly offers that dream by frequently imbedding adventure videos of its sponsored athletes on its Facebook page:

Thus, as a user, I identify with this multimedia. I want that experience for myself. And by watching I have gained intimacy — with the ice axes, the Alps, and even the athletes. Another example:

“Climb well and be safe!” exclaims one of BD’s users, clearly expressing his own attachment to the community, one that couldn’t possibly be as strong if BD used Facebook strictly for product announcements and company news. The company has identified the user’s desire to experience a great adventure and to connect with like-minded people and is using that desire to bolster its brand. Thus, personal adventure and an adventurous community become synonymous with Black Diamond. Et voila, a great brand. It’s no wonder that members of the “BD community” frequently post pictures of themselves in faraway places putting BD gear to the test (and that the company encourages this practice). They don’t feel as though they are intruding on a company’s social media campaign, but rather building a collective narrative for a community of climbers and skiers.

This Facebook fan communicated his experience on BD's Facebook page not just with BD, but with other BD customers. Part showing off, part sharing, he's engaged in a social interaction that is exactly similar to a personal status update or a post he might make on a friend's wall. That's a sign of genuine community, with a great byproduct of free BD product placement.

Patagonia, in many ways, has engaged in a very similar social media effort. They too have focused on community instead of product. But Patagonia suffers a major disadvantage to Black Diamond: they don’t make cool stuff. As a clothing manufacturer, Patagonia can’t elicit nearly the same level of technical nerd-dom as BD. (For example, it’s harder to imagine a Patagonia user replicating the picture above with his favorite Capilene baselayer.)

But in place of gadget lust, Patagonia has helped build its Facebook community with an even more powerful company asset: morality.

Environmentalism is woven into the fabric of the Patagonia brand, and what better place to express this core value than on Facebook, where users are constantly defining their own values and creating associations with those of similar predispositions?  “Our friends and peers are crucial to the way we develop a sense of moral self-exploration,” wrote Chris Bloom on how we choose our Facebook friends, “because they have taken upon themselves the responsibility of directing our moral course.” This is precisely what Patagonia is up to here, and in the “reality” of the Facebook newsfeed, there is little, if any, difference between the moral imperative of a friend and that of an admired organization. They trickle down newsfeeds indistinguishably, gratifying our desire for identity and intimacy just the same.

Is this strategy effective in building community? Look at the two comments in the picture above. Posting content on their latest snowboarding pants couldn’t possibly elicit such a personal and intimate reaction.

Patagonia and Black Diamond, like most organizations that have found success on Facebook, use multimedia content on social media platforms as a means to build community. They do this because an engaged community is the great currency of social media, where users digest multimedia as a way to affirm and expand their identities and relationships with others. (Whether those identities and intimacies are as legitimate and meaningful as those in “real life” is the subject of much debate.) Though using multimedia as tool for community building is not a new practice, it is a nearly mandatory component of the successful organizational social media effort.

Two Expressions I’ll Never Use Again

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates proclaimed a long time ago. That’s a bit dire, if you ask me. But he was probably right, at least when it comes to a handful of everyday expressions that – I assure you – the everyday person has not examined. Because if we did, we’d stop using them forever. Kindly consider joining me in banishing these phrases from your lexicon. I promise, we’ll all be better off.

It is what it is 

In the crowded realm of crummy platitudes, “it is what it is,” is the leper king himself. That didn’t stop me from using it for years, until a friend brought to my attention that it is as thoughtless as it is empty. Think about it literally… what a ridiculous thing to say.

Example: An old pal gets laid off and is barely getting by on unemployment. “Hey man, it is what it is,” is the equivalent of saying “Hey man, you seem to be desperately unemployed and you actually are desperately unemployed.” Why would anyone express that? I guess it’s supposed to put one at ease about a situation that’s out of control, but the saying actually means nothing, which makes it a wholly useless consolation. Thank you, valued friend, for pointing out to me that, yes — IT really is what IT is. Now IT all makes sense and I can live again.

A more thoughtful friend might say something beyond a declaration of 1+2 = 1+2. “I’m so sorry. Do you want me to set your boss’ car on fire?” There, that’s sympathy, loyalty, and willingness to extract revenge on another’s behalf… hallmarks of true friendship. Even totally hopeless advice can have some sense of meaning and direction, for example:

That’s actually helpful – a funnier way of suggesting to let it go and do what feels good. Nothing wrong with that, and a hell of a lot more useful than “it is what it is.”

It could be worse

Equally unhelpful as “it is what it is” is it’s close cousin — “it could be worse.”  This expression is, ironically, the worst way of expressing empathy. Of course it could always be worse. So what? “Oh wow you shattered your ankle in a car accident. Well, could be worse… you could be in a Nazi concentration camp.” By offering this lousy piece of advice, all you really do is signal that you’re not ready or willing to contribute anything of use.

Rescue step 1: Shout to drowning swimmer “it could be worse!”

Or, if seriously expressed about one’s own problems, it’s just an admission that you’re lacking perspective and grasping for meaning. That’s perfectly alright, but you might as well just say that instead. It’s more honest, at least. Either way, no one on the receiving end of “it could be worse” will take lasting comfort from knowing that someone out there has it REAL bad.

What could be more useful? Well, anything that’s better: An ice cream cone, critically acclaimed DVD, sexual contact (if appropriate)… just something to show that life can be fun, not a banal expression that tells of how much lousier it could get. Because life is pretty good, after all, and I contend it’ll be even better the less we toss around “it is what it is” and “it could be worse.”

Hyperessay #4: The Appropriated Narrative

My appropriated narrative was inspired by Newt Gingrich’s traditional, conservative views on marriage rights in America and his much more unscrupulous personal marital history. Married three times and a rumored adulterer, Gingrich walks on thin ice when he pounds the pulpit of marriage sanctity, and I aimed to highlight this hypocrisy in my narrative. My brief presentation was more propaganda than pseudo-event, as it was aimed mostly in inflame those who already don’t care for Gingrich, not to appeal to the general public’s desire to educate themselves.

At the root of my propaganda was a pseudo-event in it’s own right: a Republican presidential primary debate that took place on January 7, 2012. (Not only does the whole idea of a media-hosted debate play right into pseudo-event theories of Boorstin, but the mere fact that we are having debates 11 months before the election seems to reinforce Gabler’s contention that politics has become a full-blown form of entertainment.) During this debate, Gingrich was asked to offer his position on gay marriage rights in the U.S., and I edited a portion of his response to serve as the spoken narrative of my piece. The portion I chose captured the most grandiose segment of his response, where he called marriage “a historic sacrament of enormous importance in our civilization” that is a “part of how we define ourselves.” I chose this portion because one aim of my propaganda was to underscore his hypocrisy… so I thought it best to capture him at the grandest moment possible, then use images and sound to show that behind closed doors he is hardly qualified to stress the importance of marriage.

Finding images for this task was easy: I picked three shots of him with his three different wives. No one image is more important than another, but as a whole, they thumb their noses at Gingrich as he preaches in the background of how our marital choices define who we are. Dolled-up on stage, under the spotlight and firmly poised in front of a flashy podium, Gingrich’s argument is much more convincing. But juxtaposed with these pictures, it’s easy to see how even a simple digital tool like a photo can change the content of the narrative considerably.

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Finally, I scored the presentation with “Here Comes the Bride,” so to really underline the theme of marriage, then remixed the song with harsh record scratching sounds, timed so that each occur when a photo of a new bride suddenly appears. Those brash record sounds not only interrupt Gingrich’s speech, taking away some of his polished rhythm, but also act as a que to the viewer that there is a discordant relationship between the what he is saying and what the images are showing.

In total, the aim of this propaganda was to strip away the politician “star appeal” that Gabler described in his essay. Gingrich and his team go to great lengths to position him as a man of God, who takes marriage quite seriously, who is very devoted to his (most recent) wife. By highlighting his three marriages, the piece brings him down to earth, where divorce is as common as it is undesirable. In other words, it aims to break down a very small piece of the “post-reality,” where Gingrich has used misdirection and denial to fabricate an image for himself as someone who is qualified to preach the virtues of marriage. The reality is that he has a personal marital history that is uglier and arguably more immoral (and unchristian) than the average American’s.

When confronted with that reality, I imagine some viewers will feel negative emotions, like disdain or disgust, towards Gingrich. And perhaps the beauty of the appropriated narrative-style ad is that those viewers might also feel lied to, as Gingrich’s own words of marital righteousness make the case against him even darker.

Hyperessay #3: The Audio Narrative

“When forced to synchronize ourselves with the disembodied pre-recorded voice, our sensory impressions are amplified.” — Janet Cardiff

I was surprised how applicable this thought from Cardiff was when I retraced my aural walk while listening to my audio narrative. It’s true in very simplistic sensory terms: for example, of all the times I’ve walked down Falls Road to McCabe’s, never have I recalled hearing birds chirping like I was strolling through a park. I promise there is nothing park-like about this stretch of town. Yet there they were, a big surprise to me when I heard them on the recording, and on the second walk I didn’t see or hear them again. Nor did I ever really — really — think about the effect my clanging stairs have on me until now. Especially when I’m expecting someone to visit me, or when I’m really wishing someone would, that sound triggers a much more emotional response in me than I thought. I doubt I would have recognized that without this project.

At the same time, taking this walk again while listening to my audio narrative also offered a somewhat surreal experience, as Schaub described as when “we cannot immediately assign what we hear to the outside world or the world inside the headphones.” The cars and busses beeping and rushing past… those are very familiar noises to me when I’m out on Falls Road. More than once I couldn’t quite tell if it was coming through my headphones or happening in real time.

But on a different sensory level, my aural walk was also like the micro-narrative Chambers discusses, the kind of narrative that describes “not merely a space but a place.” Of all the landmarks I chose to discuss, I’m not surprised I subconsciously chose that “Greatest City in America” bench. Not only does it give the listener some kind of feeling for this place as a whole, but that bench is highly symbolic of my own bittersweet feelings towards Baltimore… affectionate yet jaded, critical yet defensive. I came to this city when I was 18 and somehow have managed to stay for 11 years. I’ve planned to leave almost every year, and some job or relationship has always compelled me to stay “just another year or two.” Hearing myself describe my close surroundings was a reminder of my place in this city, and my relationship with it.

Walking by those kids as they were talking trash — my favorite part of the recording — was another example of this reminder of place and my view of Baltimore. I loved that scene… classic Baltimore. They were a group of four early-teens, walking to the corner store, and the big one with the big mouth (isn’t that how it usually is?) was pea-cocking to his friends about how when they get to the store, he’s “gonna get the big drink, y’all know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. That extra large.” I hear that, and I feel like I’m home. That’s a comforting feeling, and it describes this city well. Yet nothing about that scene could describe who I am. I don’t speak, think, or act that way, ever. Just walking down the street I wouldn’t pay it any mind. But hearing it over and over during this editing process and then again on my walk, I’m surprised how much it served as a reminder of place; that no matter how much I might love this broken little city, I’m a tourist in Baltimore, even if I’ve lived here for a decade.

This is especially surprising to me, as all I really set out to do was to record a lighthearted walk to a bar.

Hyperessay #2: The Collective Narrative

Sam Linkins was the first student to tweet during our #911thread collective history and, the way I see it, she struck at the core of the whole project.

In other words, “This is my memory and the image associated with it. How about you?” There were many themes in our discussion, but this reliving of personal memory and personal imagery during the attack was a dominant, reoccurring facet of the thread. (So much so, in fact, that it served as the inspiration for my own collective narrative project. See more examples there.)

Throughout the rest of the discussion, participants mostly limited their tweets to sharing some sort of information about themselves. Posts that mentioned someone else usually focused on a member of that person’s innermost circle; explaining terrorism to a son, for example.

That’s not to say this was a selfish exercise. It’s just that 9/11, whether or not you had an actual connection to its victims, is an extremely personal memory. When given a chance to talk about it, as we had in the #911thread, we chose to mostly talk about ourselves… where we were, how we felt, what we saw.

This is reminiscent of the Holzer reading and the idea of collective authorship, as well as the collaborative process, which Prof. Packer described as, “brief fragments of ideas, memories, stories, are written as part of a stream of writings emanating from multiple voices.” As individuals, we’re saying, “This is my truth, my memory.” As those individual memories start piling up, a narrative emerges. Most of us where in school. All of us were glued to the television. Many of us described the event with the word “shock.” And we all still have questions. This was the element of the discussion I found most interesting that day: For all our differences, our recollections of 9/11 are remarkably similar.

What’s more, we all have 9/11 imagery burned into memory. “The images most seared in my mind are the people jumping down,” tweeted Jenni Jarventaus. “The images of the people covered in dust were unreal,” said Theresa Sazama. Sharon Coviak was (and likely still is) “shocked at the enormity & awestruck at the sight of the massive towers collapsing.” She then shared one of the countless “too real to be real” images from that day, which many other #911thread authors did as well:

“The New York events have radicalized the relation of images to reality,” wrote Baudrillard. “the image consumes the event, that is, it absorbs the latter and gives it back as consumer goods.” 10 years later, all those images are more real, more present than the terrorists that caused them, the beliefs they died for, or the victims themselves. We turn to them to refresh our memory, not the victims families or the terrorist co-conspirators.

In my opinion, 9/11 in general and certainly the #911thread was an amalgamation of Bauldrillard’s notion of image radicalization and the themes of collective authorship we’ve been exploring in class. In other words, no one person can describe the event in it’s totality. Rather, it’s a cobblestoning of personal anecdotes… little imperfect bricks that tend to look alike that eventually build a wall of narrative. And the binding agent of this wall is imagery — pictures and screenshots that are personal but at the same time shared among us all, critical to our recollection of the event.

Is this story telling of the future? I’m not entirely convinced it is. I think our minds are more wired for linear narratives, and if I was looking to get “the story” on 9/11, I would look many places before Twitter hashtags about the attacks. But I think that is does serve a purpose. We’re social beings that crave connections with each other. By sharing our experiences this way, we’re all but forced to gain further perspective on the subject of our collective narrative, and that particular kind of perspective is harder to garner from a traditional narrative.

Where I Was

@hannahdurocher Hannah Durocher @SamLinkins Was an unemployed college grad living at home. Turned on TV. Like most people, watched as second tower was hit. #911thread

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@katieliz06 Katie W I was in 8th grade science class when the first plane hit. Our teacher had the TV turned toward the wall so we couldn’t see #911thread

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@TorECook Victoria Cook I stumbled into a 9AM class at BU a few min. late & still half asleep, didn’t understand what the prof. was talking about at 1st #911thread

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@HimAndJohnWayne Ian Mathias @SamLinkins #911thread  my dorm room at loyola college. Just woke up for classes that never happened

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@randallpacker randallpacker That morning I began recording CNN. This was one of the first stills. #911thread

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@SamLinkins Samantha Linkins Looking out my kitchen window on Capitol Hill. I would have seen smoke rising from the Pentagon. #911thread

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@jennijar Jenni Jarventaus @GalloNK Traveling in Europe, no access to TV. Heard it from a Belgian friend and thought at first he had been smoking something. #911thread

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@ChrisWeinkopf Chris Weinkopf I was working @ladailynews at the time & we produced a special midday edition. This was our front page. #911thread

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@Amkru April Krueger I was on the Paramount Studios lot in LA. LOUD sirens everywhere.#911thread

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@hannahdurocher Hannah Durocher Today’s sky over NoVa reminds me how blue the sky was that am. Not a single cloud. #911thread

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(All words and images tweeted to #911thread on 1-28-12.)

Hyperessay #1: A Seminal Multimedia Experience

When I started to think about moments in my life when a multimedia experience really challenged my preconceptions, the first thing that came to mind was this guy:

While he might be the best cyclist of all time, Lance Armstrong is by no means a master of multimedia. But, as a pretty serious cyclist and cycling fan myself, I have to credit him for changing the way I think about social media, journalism (in all its forms), and communication in general.

Throughout his career, and still today, Armstrong’s had a tumultuous relationship with the media. Reporters and enthusiasts have accused him of doping to enhance performance, a charge never proven to be true (but very well might be). And, frankly, he’s the kind of headstrong Texan that tends to rub people the wrong way and is always insisting on total control over messaging related to LiveStrong or his own brand… the kind of attitude that journalists loathe.

So, in May of 2009, Armstrong just stopped talking to them.

He didn’t stop commenting on cycling stories, cancer, his comeback, and his personal life. He was still in published pictures and videos. He just stopped talking to reporters and posing for photographers. Armstrong already had a huge fan following on Twitter, mostly his target audience of cyclists and cancer survivors. So he cut out the middlemen (journalists and their publishers) and began speaking almost exclusively through his personal Twitter account. When the races were over, he’d stroll right past the media scrum and into the team bus, where he’d tweet his daily thoughts.

Surprisingly, the reporters played along. All of a sudden I stared to read Armstrong quotes in the media that ended with, “said Armstrong on his Twitter feed,” or “according to a tweet sent by Armstrong.” He gave them no choice… either follow him on Twitter, or get scooped:

As the New York Times reported a few weeks into his refusal to speak with reporters:

“By taking total control of the coverage of his own comeback, interviewing himself on video and choosing which comments on Twitter to respond to and which to ignore, Mr. Armstrong has ensured that, for as long as his press blackout lasts, he can write his own story and present himself to his fans on his own terms, without even having to acknowledge any criticism or doubts.”

He sure did.

This, of course, also changed the way I started to seek out “Lance news.” Why turn to any media outlet when I could get it right from the source? Also, guess where the best behind-closed-doors photos of Armstrong’s teammates came from? That’s right, Lance’s iPhone… no longer some photog with a zoom lens. Even crazier, now I could talk to @lancearmstrong, just like the reporters shoving microphones into his face at the end of the race, and he might respond to me directly — or anyone else with a Twitter account. Print, photos, video… they way I got multimedia and who I got it from had suddenly changed.

All of this opened my eyes to how the same thing could be happening in almost every news arena. Why would Barack Obama call a news conference instead of just posting a video on his YouTube channel? I can’t even begin to describe or explain the way social media affected the Arab Spring and other revolutions around the world. Nor can I fully understand how this has changed the media business, and what it means to be a reporter.

What I do know is that sometime in the late spring of 2009, Lance Armstrong, of all people, was the guy that really helped me “get it” when it comes to the modern multimedia experience. Social media is so much bigger than a way to keep in touch with friends. It is an entirely new way to create and share multimedia, some of which can be very important and meaningful. Plus, multi-sensory experiences are now interactive and personal — more than just words on a page or news on the TV. This was by no means my first multimedia experience, but Lance Armstrong ushered in a new age of it… at least for me.