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:
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.
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.
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.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid giving a sense of political bias when writing about political events. Nevertheless, I will try, by preceding the observations that follow with a disclaimer: this is not a political post and I am as neutral as I can be. It is the social aspect of this political debate that interests me.
In his speech in South Carolina after the victory in SC GOP primary, Newt Gingrich made a very pertinent comment when referring to the strong reaction that people had to the news media. He said:
“I think there is something very fundamental that I wish that powers to be in the news media will take seriously. The American people feel that they have elites in Washington and New York who have been trying for half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system and in their action people completely misunderstood what’s going on. It’s not that I am good debater it is that I articulate the deepest felt values that the American people…”
There is a key element here that stands out. When Newt Gingrich talks about news media he means the big TV networks, the big newspapers, and the traditional media who are used to dominate the way the conversation goes about political events. He linked that media to the establishment in Washington and New York representing the political and financial powers and placed all of them against the “people”.
If you ignore the political context for a moment, and forget that it is Newt Gingrich we are talking about, you would have to agree that he is striking a chord here. The year of 2011 was the year of 1% versus 99%; it was the year of Occupy Wall Street, and the year of the “Facebook Revolution” in Middle East and North Africa. When he was asked about his past marital issues, his response drew a wave of sympathy from the voters who moved away from Mitt Romney simply because the public dislikes the “biased” traditional media and the establishment with which Mitt Romney is associated. He represents the big business end of the town and he has a large presence in the traditional media.
The distrust of the 99% in the financial and political establishment is so intense, that whoever manages to tap into this vein of emotional energy will get the “like” of many followers. More than ever, the American elections in November this year will see the influence of social media at an unprecedented level. But it would be a big mistake to believe that this happens thanks to the proliferation of social communication tools. It is more than that. We are going through a slow but profound transformation of our society which favours a different kind of engagement and socio-economic equity. After the GFC Wall Street and political establishment will never be the same.
There are two things that, I think will play a significant role not only in American elections but in other areas of high social sensitivity, where distribution of power is at stake. First of all, the media will be increasingly influenced by the collective opinions propagated through social networks. Secondly, there is a severe erosion of the capital of trust once owned by the dominant establishment. Governments around the world have lost the trust of people. Financial institutions can only dream of having the respect that banks had in the better days of the last century. There are very few people left that believe the government and large institutions will take care of them into the retirement.
A different kind of media is rising. They are inclusive, they are good listeners and they tap into the public opinion as it happens on the social networks. Instead of having professional journalists collecting the data through personal connections, they have the public bring the leads. Mashable, GigaOM, Huffington Post and the likes have strong communication links with the public at large and have them driving the news. They lead on matters that are important to the public, rather than by telling the public what the news is. Are these Web 2.0 outlets the media of the future? Probably not. Does this mean that the journalism is reduced to listening and second-guessing what others have to say? Does this mean the professionalism is dead? No, it just means that the way the news is sourced, discussed, prioritised and distributed changes. The New York Times of the future will be a newspaper – sorry I meant to say a newspad – much better connected to the public mind, and using more contribution from the public. The new professional journalism of the future is still under development.
This is not a trend limited to the news business. Staying connected through large social networks is key to staying relevant, informed and responsive to those who use and need your product. Collaborative consumption, networked consumption, however it is called, the idea that people with tiny contributions and opinions create something of importance in an aggregate form is too big to ignore.
At the start of the year Rupert Murdoch surprised many by opening an account on Twitter. Why did he do that when he was so dismissive of the role of the Internet in the production of content, reducing the public chatter to the “noise” level? Regardless of his motives, this fact alone is a strong signal that social media will increase in significance and we are in for a big change.
When I checked his Twitter status first time he already had over 14,000 followers. Today he had over 120,000 while he has produced over 48 tweets in less than two weeks. Rupert Murdoch must feel the power of social connectivity, and he must wonder where all this connectedness is taking us to in the near future.
The tweets are decent and he handles the rejections and the insults professionally; his many years of tough experience in the very competitive business of media have made him immune to all kinds of attacks.
Maybe the huge “faux pas” his son made in UK gave him a scare. The public reaction and the backlash by the British political institutions were severe. He could have lost the entire empire, if not he has already lost it in the sense that the credibility or the respect imposed by fear inspired by the sheer power of his corporation diminished considerably. Twitter is a way of making out with the public.
Maybe amidst of all this he saw that News Corporation started to lose its height in stature and become small compared with the news produced by the public and consumed by the public.
A year ago he announced plans to charge for content. We don’t know exactly how that is going at the moment, but what we know is that people get the uncensored news from other people much faster. When an earthquake occurs, the global social networks nervous system reacts far faster than any professional news outlet. If you want pictures, you go to Facebook or Flickr to see them, as you know real witnesses have already posted fresh information almost instantaneously. Meanwhile, the professional media is begging viewers to send photos and videos to them as part of their content.
In one of his latest tweets, Rupert Murdoch says “Consumer electronics show this week. Expect to see amazing new tech developments like last year. Will upend, improve delivery, not content” (in reference to CES Las Vegas 2012). Somehow, he is still sceptical about the role of the technology in the creation of content. He does not see the impact on the cognitive level of people and how that stimulates the creativity of content by offering better media production tools and lowering the publication costs to nil.
He says later, “Second thoughts! Content does remain king, but new tech will help improve much, especially education”, but you could see the scepticism is still there.
Well, the evolution of the global social network is exponential, so we should see what happens in one year. In the televised debate “Intelligence 2” on Bloomberg, on the question of should the traditional media disappear (be given good riddance), the public was swayed even more against the idea that the traditional media is still relevant.
More power to the participatory Public!