Very recently, the U.S. State Department sent a delegation of staff and tech entrepreneurs (broadly defined) to visit Russia. The delegation included the diversity of State Department maverick Jared Cohen, entertainer and businessman Ashton Kutcher, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and well-respected thought leader Esther Dyson. The delegation seemed important. At one point, Cohen described it as, "the greatest specific meeting of the minds specifically between american and russian tech experts."
Heady stuff. I don't disagree with the point of the trip, nor the participation of the individuals in the delegation. It's pretty cool. (I wonder if the White House should be doing similar things with, say, Alabama, Utah, and Wyoming – you know, outreach to citizens? – but that's not really the point of this article.) But in my new role as something of a corporate storyteller, I was thinking about the way in which the story of the Russian Tech Delegation (#RusTechDel) was being told primarily through Twitter. (Some activities were livestreamed through Kutcher's UStream channel, as long as his iPhone had battery power, that is.)
At some points, some participants were tweeting something every couple of minutes. And in some cases participants were retweeting other participants. What's the "right" number of tweets? Everyone has to decide that for themselves. But for me, as a member of the audience, I found this somewhere between confusing and annoying. I've written before about how difficult it is to piece together a coherent story by merely following a hashtag: You sort of get the story, but between the primary storytellers, the secondary retweeters, the tertiary commenters, and the people who do any of those things, but on a delay, it's disjointed and hard to follow.
Narration, for everyone, is hard. There has to be a balance between providing information and providing too much information.
The #RusTechDel "exciting event story" is just one of many examples of recent experiences I've had with social media storytelling, or attempts at it. A year ago, few people used tools like Twitter, and so only one person might be live-tweeting an event – making their information rare and valuable. Now however, we often see modest or extreme versions of Paul Carr's "Look at me, looking at this" syndrome, in which people feel compelled to drop every thought they have into a tweet, with almost no regard for the audience they are presumably trying to reach.
A talk is longer than a tweet. And stories are complicated. I've seen a lot of easy-way-out examples now of "live broadcasting" interesting events via user-generated tweets and a shaky Flip cam. What I'm looking forward to is the next generation of microstorytelling, for government (as in the case of the State Department here, and others) and for business (whether that's huge conferences like SXSW or a corporation running an online campaign).
The tools are there. Sophisticated use of proper, branded landing pages, engaging use of Facebook groups, and activation of simple but powerful blogging platforms like Posterous and Tumblr (which can be used from mobile devices), in combination with more "traditional" (if that's possible after only a year of high popularity) UStream and Twitter usage is the way to go, I think. But this isn't the final word – I think all organizations are currently grappling with issues surrounding how best to tell stories to audiences.
To his credit, Cohen tweeted me that, "beuaty of tech is u can choose what you want or don't want to listen to" (forgive the spelling, he was tweeting in the middle of his event). But with all due respect, I think that the notion that tech provides lots of channels and you choose what you want or don't want to listen to works well in theory but not very well in practice. Following the social media conversation surrounding even a moderately popular event can be overwhelming. So, until the social technology community mechanically fixes Clay Shirky's "filter failure" problem (with no economic logic to filtering for quality before pulbishing), my opinion is that storytellers should do a little of it on their own if they care about their audiences.