Thursday, October 10, 2019

Tell Stories

There are, as I'm only beginning to appreciate, just so many ways people are tackling this, and just so much I can do.

It is my nature to gather my thoughts together before putting them on the table. This allows me to get details sorted, it also risks putting too much of the load on my shoulders. With a load this heavy, however, that way results in a breakdown:

While I collate my thinking on power struggle, let me offer a piece of advice I heard from a wise man many years ago.

By all means share. Reach out. Contribute to others' efforts.

But it will be that much more effective if you can overcome homophily: the love of sameness.

That wise man's advice ... ah! here it is, in full. The bit I want to point is this:

I’d been hoping the internet could be a solution to these problems. After all, it’s now possible to read the newspapers in another country, to read the blogs of people who live in these countries and hear what they’re thinking about. We can go to flickr and see the photos that people take, we can surf youtube and watch the videos that are making people laugh in other countries. Shouldn’t this help us connect with people around the world?

That’s what I thought a few years ago. I helped start a website called Global Voices, which is basically a site designed to help you find citizen media from other countries, especially the developing world. Want to know what people in China are talking about online? We filter through thousands of Chinese blogs, try to find the conversations that are interesting, translate them into English… and then into over a dozen other languages. If you read the site, you’ll end up getting a much better sense for what the hot topics are in other parts of the world… and you may find yourself emotionally invested in someone else’s blog, and by extension in their life and ideas.

[Reach out: ]But you probably won’t. That’s one of the biggest things we’ve discovered with the project - it’s hard to care, even if you want to. I can point you to a lively conversation taking place in another corner of the blogosphere and even if you can read the language, you’re probably not going to connect with the conversation. You don’t have the context. And beyond that, you don’t have any connection to the people or events involved.

It’s not your fault. Human beings are tribal by nature. There’s a sociological phenomenon called “homophily” - it’s the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. Let people organize themselves and people will form into groups, usually by race, nationality, religion, level of education. In the US, there’s a lot of mobility - people move all the time - and we’re starting to see this happen politically - Bill Bishop calls it “The Big Sort”. It ends up meaning that left-leaning people live with other leftists, conservatives with other conservatives and we’ll each understand less about each other. We do this with information as well. If information affects people like us, we pay attention to it - if not, we’re almost hard-wired not to care.

It turns out that there’s an art to getting people to care. It’s about telling stories, stories that introduce us to people we care about, whose pasts we speculate about, whose future we worry about. Most of the world’s problems can’t be summed up by a single story about a single person… but unless you can attach a story to a problem, it’s likely that you won’t get anyone to pay attention to the larger problem. The problem with this art is that it can turn into a trick. The trick works by oversimplifying, turning stories into good versus evil, black and white. If we tell the story and lose the subtlety, at a certain point we’re lying.

We’ve got the infrastructure that makes it possible to connect to one another, to tell stories to one another, to share films and family photos and things that make us laugh or cry with people anywhere in the world. And so far, we’re pretty bad at using it. At the worst, we use it to hurt each other - think of the guy in Lagos who wants to rip you off while promising you millions of dollars… or the guy in London who makes sport out of humiliating and punishing him.

So here’s where I’m asking for help - we need bridge figures, people who can help build connections between cultures. We need xenophiles, people who are interested in the whole world and in building conversations that break out of the homophily trap. We need tools that let us use this infrastructure to connect. Help me figure out how to bridge people and how to build these tools.

- Ethan Zuckerman

In the end, the art of superstructing is the art of 'xenophily'

So, tell stories.

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