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.

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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.