Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Building Story Algorithms


Social Media by the Numbers

Which comes first: the numbers or the words?
Story is part of a connective thread that weaves our lives together in the tapestry of humanity. I saw this in the work of Esther Krinitz at the American Visionary Arts Museum special storytelling exhibit in Baltimore on a recent visit. She has literally stitched her personal history through the war into fabric in crewelwork. It is a magnificent masterwork of memory.
In the same way, my writing weaves together what is otherwise a fragmented set of sensory experiences into a coherent narrative.
But what is story without an audience?
We’d been feasting on Maryland crabs, fresh out of the Chesapeake—with only a slight detour to a nearby seafood place to pick up bags of the steaming, Old Bay-seasoned crustaceans. The litter of crab shells, hammers, picked over legs and entrails piled up on newspapers in front of us, as did the corn cobs, beer bottles and other detritus from a traditional summer backyard picnic. 
Satiated, fingers and tongue burning from too much Old Bay, my son Ben and his girlfriend, younger son Ari and our friend Mickie visiting from Israel settled in for conversation. Interested in getting feedback from a generation of digital natives for my just-launched tweet-storytelling experiment @OutofTimeMovie, I observed how Ben has been busily following people on Twitter for his band Clones of Clones’s upcoming release of a new EP.
Out of Time (link to post below), for those not familiar (okay, for the 7 million people minus 30 some-odd who are now followers) is based on a screenplay I’ve written about some wicked smart teens building Leonardo da Vinci’s version of a time machine for the school science fair using modern technology that old Leo could only dream of: GPS activation of a secret code based on relativity and enabled by everything from Legobots to curling irons to solar electrical panels tied into an iPad for activation. With some gummy worms and energy bars thrown into the travel pack for a snack on the 500 year ride back to Renaissance Florence.
The characters have developed a life of their own. (Teenagers!) A friend suggested I start tweeting the story. Much like the way Dickens and other authors of his day serialized their stories in London newspapers, and soap operas became daily “stories” for millions of fans—based on Proctor and Gamble’s innovative intention of telling a story while selling Ivory soap—Twitter is shaping up as the modern medium for serial storytelling with a potential worldwide audience tweeting suggestions and advances to influence the outcome.
“Hey, Mom, it’s all an algorithm,” said Ben, which came as something of a revelation to me in that moment of repose. Not that I am unaware that search engines and social apps work by the numbers, but I had never before applied that to gaining followers, connections and friends on my own social media outlets. (Duh!)
I’d noticed that other people win by popularity, ubiquity, or by being influencers. Their nodes grow through celebrity or controversy, novelty or blooper. Not my claim to fame (or, in the case of the blooper, at least I hope not!)
Having just seen Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Band featuring Edie Brickell (aka: Mrs. Paul Simon) in concert at Chautauqua and noted to myself that the fabulous blue grass (!) musicians in the band sans banjo-picking comedian Steve Martin wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of ever leaving wayside bars in North Carolina, much less playing to packed houses on tour around this here U.S. of A. with complete acoustic, lighting, staging and publicity hands, I also understand the rocket boost that can come along with good old star power.
Mind you, this is not unfamiliar ground: having spent much of my career in public relations, I knew all about the power of the mainstream media to launch (or fell) a rising star. And the news media—whether its local news, cable, or the esteemed New York Times and Washington Post or TV networks that made up the apex of my old PR hierarchy for pitching stories for clients—had always been the holy grail for influencers and wannabes. My current work in social marketing is all about gaining traction for the big ideas that shape—or change—people’s approach to health, and spreading evidence-based research as the foundation to substantiate positive behavior change.
An enthusiastic adopter of social media, I also use channels like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to boost reception for the messages my clients and I feel compelled to share. But I told myself that influence in the digital age was different. In my world, it’s all about content. Provide interesting, compelling stories, and the world will want to listen.
But that proves to be a slow way to win the race to getting attention. And my new storytelling project will only really come to life once I can convince people to join in the telling.
‘Coz it’s all about the algorithm.
So here is the news for digital popularity. Numbers beget numbers. Does content matter? Well, yes…but first you have to get people’s attention.
Which set me to thinking: what if mathematics is, indeed, the foundation of being? Not a numbers person myself, the idea that we can shoot to fame strictly by being statistically significant leaves me cold. And since one of my personal obstacles in life—one that I am coming to the realization that I need to overcome in order to advance soulfully—is the very idea of publicizing myself, drawing attention to me (as opposed to another person, a cause, idea or principle), it’s hard to wrap my head around becoming this algorithmically significant statistic. Playing the numbers game.
Why is this idea so hard?
First and foremost, it’s a reflection of how I was raised. Putting yourself out there feels, well, aggressive. “Good girls are modest; they don’t draw attention to themselves.” “Your husband and family come first.” “It’s selfish to indulge your self-passion, -interests, -needs, -care (fill in the blank).”
 This may seem sexist, but as a rule, I have noticed that men do not seem to suffer under the same constraints. The way we raise boys to appear in society does not discourage them from promoting themselves and their ideas.
Beyond the constraints of social mores and upbringing, I have some ingrained biases towards substance over statistics:
·      I want to believe ideas matter.  It’s not for nothing I trade in them for a living.
·      Numbers may have their own elegance and internal logic, but life is messy.
·      The number of people who are, in their heads, mathematicians—and this might also include economists, physicists and others hard-wired to make sense of numbers—is relatively small. In the world and in the soul, words make meaning out of the randomness around us. Numbers included.
If this notion turns out to be all wrong, or at least incomplete, that stands my world on its head. But that’s not all bad. Maybe from here I will be able to tell the story in a whole new way.
So here we go in 5…4…3…2…
Up, up and away