An Interesting Social Experiment

A while ago David Brooks came across a collection of autobiographies written by the Yale class of 1942 for their 1950 reunion. He was fascinated by their stories, and I was fascinated by his discoveries. It feels as if you have the privilege of being a very close confidant for all these people. Being the professional journalist par excellence he did not stop at just enjoying the reading experience. He tried to extract common themes and find patterns from which he can analyse and use in his other role as a social scientist. For instance, he finds the common regret shared by many of the respondents, the one of working for their entire life at the same company. Another interesting observation is that many other people would have loved to take risks and take a different road in life. He found joys and tragedies, he found satisfaction and bitterness.

While thinking about all these stories he found in the collection of autobiographies, David Brooks got this idea: what about if I ask my readers to send me their life stories? So he asked his readers who are over 70 years old to send him “life reports” in which they would write the story of their life divided into five categories (career, family, faith, community and self-knowledge) and give themselves a grade.

What an idea! During this time he published the readers’ content on his NYT column, David Brooks managed to “skip” his duties for a while by publishing the life reports on his column instead of his own writing. I am sure he didn’t stay idle. He received thousands of stories in response to his call and he needed to do some serious reading and evaluation of all that “user-generated content”.

This is an interesting social experiment. The content is interesting and a researcher would have enough material there to stay busy for a year.

But I think this experiment is more than interesting. David Brooks may just have made an experiment that could lead to a novel form of crowd writing. He has content sent by individuals who don’t know each other but responded to the same call. They don’t collaborate to write a shared text, but they contribute to generate a big picture around a central theme. The result is a fascinating read. Several aspects are worth noting here:

Social Sharing

Why did they respond? One of the readers said “I believe that my life story is well worth noting and sharing” (Noah Inbody, November 11, 2011). This is such a powerful statement. My life is well worth noting and sharing! Don’t we all have a story that we want to share? This is about identity; this is about what really drives people in social networks to contribute. David Klement said “Thank you for asking. Not many do. After a certain age, probably mid-60s, I have felt like the invisible man. Having a hearing loss which limits my ability to understand – and participate in – certain group conversations leaves me further on the fringe than most my age“. Communication is probably one of the most important desires that motivate us in a social setting. It is selfish and altruistic in the same time. Yes, it is about the secret desire for achieving fame, but it is also about reaching out. Each personal account was offered openly to anyone else to have a look at it and if possible, offer a valuable idea. Each person who authored a life report agreed to have their name published so they are verifiable, and while they have the opportunity to have their name published in one of the most prestigious papers in the world, the genuine emotion that transcends their writing is undeniable.

Freedom of Expression

The initial request was for each author to divide their lives into five categories and grade themselves. That didn’t work. After the first week everybody ignored that request and just sent their story the way they saw it. The reports are clearly emotional. Putting a structure on them would have made them look like they were doing a job. That’s work. Who wants it that way? David Brooks was smart enough to go with the flow and adjust to the public tune.

Untapped Talent

The reports are so authentic and so well written. Have a look at this fragment from Gilda Zein‘s report (she lost her husband): “The loneliness will never disappear. The intensity ebbs as the years go by. To take care of the cold, empty nights, I have substituted an electric mattress warmer and a large pillow to hug and push into, to take the place of my beloved. As the years go by, I have come to understand that death is a part of life. … Who am I? I am that until I am not“. There is so much talent hidden out there that we don’t know. There is so much potential embedded in our society that yearns to be exposed. This experiment triggered a creative response which otherwise could have stayed there dormant in the minds of these people perhaps never to come out. How much are we missing, no, let me put this in affirmative terms, how much creativity can the social collaboration tools unleash? The term “collaboration tools” cause a grimace of my face. We need a better term to describe a way in which people genuinely participate as someone they really are, not as someone who plays a role restricted by artificial social or business norms.

Better Social Policies

This can lead to ways in which the policy makers can do something to improve our society. Maybe many contributions like these may reveal aspects of our society that we have never had the chance to discuss openly. There might be some brilliant research studies lost somewhere deep into specialised academic journals only a handful of people read, but because of the seclusion in their ivory towers nothing happens, they cause no action, they are of no consequence. Crowd writing can trigger a snowball effect and cause a huge public reaction which governing bodies cannot ignore.

Better Media?

The contribution of the participants would have not taken place if it wasn’t for David Brooks to initiate it. The participants trusted him and The New York Times and felt attracted to the idea of sharing. The issue of trust and perception of quality is important. The brand power matters. I very much doubt that if I issue a similar request people will rush to send me their stories. Actually I am certain that would not happen. You would not get a similar response on large social networks either because of perceived lack of potential recognition or because of lack of engagement quality. At New York Times the prize is valuable. David Brooks is a well-known journalist, political and social commentator. The contributors felt they are engaged in a conversation with a person who knows and being mentioned by him in a prestigious publication and read by its large audience is something worth trying.

Arguably, this may become a hybrid model for the traditional media. We have to remember that David Brooks reviewed the life reports before deciding which ones are worth mentioning. This is typical to traditional media where a few in privileged positions make decisions for the many, but the fact is that curation is becoming fast a critical component needed to make sense in the deluge of content that is made available on the Internet each second. Maybe publications like The New York Times could open the gates to the public to contribute on selected topics and have a team of experts weaving in their expert content and skills engaging with the public to promote the best quality material. This model can borrow a few lessons from the new media by letting the public add their views on what is quality and what is not. As an example, the books review system at Amazon works extremely well and it has become the de facto benchmark for book reviews.

Learning Life Skills

Then there is this thing called LIFE. We think too often in terms of activities, tasks, job and money. But when you look at the entire package, the whole thing is wow, so different. We don’t get to think about that until is too late. The serenity of an old person is because life suddenly has value in a social context in which people have meaningful relationships with other people. We need more of this. Is it possible to bring this message down a few generations so that we get to understand or at least get a glimpse of this when we are 20? Maybe young parents could get classes by the time they are 30, so that they can see their life unravelling in slow motion and get to understand there is no need to hurry and miss the good things in life.

This experiment must continue.

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