Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Let's Talk Narratives, Part 1

I've seen a lot of folks talking about how merely discussing and sharing things on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. doesn't change anything.

I get the cynical dismissal; it's a lot easier to call someone a slacktivist than to accept that you're ignoring real problems you could be doing something about. I know I probably tread a lot of this ground when I bitched about the Kony thing a million space-years ago, but that's just like my hit single "Too Bad" from my debut album "Suck It Up," it's not very good, but you're going to listen anyway because if you weren't you wouldn't still be here.

Both the cynical critique and the discussion of real world problems on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. are narratives. Competing narratives shouted between the "this is bad and you should know about it"s and the "unless you're on a plane to South Sudan shut up"ers and packaged so as to best be processed and accepted by their audience. The winner becomes the accepted set of assumptions for the populace, the loser becomes a weird uncle, and a tie means a culture war between two competing social messages

Before I continue, I want to say that I'm not a sociology professional; this is all just something I've noticed and I'm sure there are more precise technical terms for all of this.

My favorite example of narratives is the talk show monologue. Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, and Conan O'Brien[1] get in front of ten million Americans five nights out of seven to take the existing narrative and reinforce and regurgitate it.

So, what's the social narrative? Jimmy Fallon can be a good host. NBC isn't a very successful network. The network leadership looks unstable. Justin Beiber is young. Mike Rice has a temper. Science is silly because it measures silly things. Congress is dumb. It goes on. The goal as a comedian is to get the joke to land, to make people respond emotionally to it. In so doing, they also accept the narrative implicit in the joke.

The goal is to get the narrative to stick. It's not Leno's goal; he wants people to associate his show with enjoyment. Humans are social creatures though and we're specialists. Sure, Heinlein is right, specialization is for insects, but you can't both oversee the construction of the world's largest particle accelerator and perform the world's longest study of micro-scale evolution. Technically you could, but Specialization allows a kind of focus, so the particle accelerator guy makes an excellent particle accelerator and the evolutionary biology makes a lifetime out of studying microbes. We live in a society where we each rely on others to perform tasks for which they have experience and training.

That means that much of our knowledge is part of a social narrative passed onto us informally. Don't lick a light socket. Look both ways when you cross a street. Don't wash that pan with dish soap. Don't wear that when you go out. People with tattoos are dangerous folks. Gay folks are sex maniacs with diseases. Obviously, some narratives aren't as true as others, but accepting those socially-accepted narratives and promulgating them is an indicator that you are part of the group. From caves to hair salons, they don't merely inform, but strengthen group identity and dole out social renown for making and abiding by them (see "Nazis").

I have a friend, Richard, who watched Garth Merenghi's Dark Place, and asked "Is this serious?"

If you don't have the time to watch the first thirty seconds of episode one, "Once Upon a Beginning," Garth Merenghi's Dark Place is not serious. I can't call it a parody because it's beyond a parody; it is the most perfectly bad thing ever created. I'm not a trained film professional, but it is art and should be required viewing in every introductory film class ever.

The entire key to Dark Place is that you don't buy into the narrative. You're very aware that you're watching a show made by people who aren't very good at making shows. Folks who are actively averse to questioning the story won't quite know if it's joking or not because there's never a moment where anyone turns and winks at the camera. They expect someone to tell them how they're supposed to react and feel about the topic at hand, and narratives are designed to do exactly that.

Some folks just scan to see whether something supports their ideology and reject it when it doesn't. The Onion article that contrasts the derision of Christian views with the fact that churches can do good in their communities has outraged some people because it calls Christians "brain-dead idiots."

At the final corner of this continuum are the folks who seriously consider the messages they're being sent, both those they object to and agree with. It's a continuum because everyone is a bit of all three; passive, reactionary, and critical.

How a narrative is accepted does depend on the audience, but it's also in the message and delivery. If the narrative is unobjectionable or delivered well enough, then it lands. If it's radical and brash, then there will be pushback and rejection. Going back to the late night monologues, they pick bland, agreeable messages and present them wit, creativity, and timing. In so doing, they get the positive feelings from the audience they want and incidentally perpetuate the narratives behind those bland, status-quo messages.

Continued Friday

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