Clarity of Expression

Oct 12, 2011

All stories have a central theme or focus, and what makes a story good is how all its details work together to illustrate that point. In order to effectively communicate some fundamental idea, the story must be clear. And when it comes to expressing ourselves and our identities, our stories can’t be clear until we understand ourselves. Although social technology has drastically furthered our freedom of expression, it has yet to help us with clarity.

Every effective story is comprised of little details, all of which are crucial to the gestalt of the bigger picture. The creation of this perfection requires the utmost discipline, for if the whole story is to be focused, then so too must all the micro-stories be. Unfortunately for us, architecting such a system is extremely complicated. Driven by our somewhat unpredictable, complicated and fragile emotions, it’s not easy for us to be objective, maintain focus and articulate our thoughts, even when we do know just what we want to convey. Even this article, for example, is not nearly as clear as what I have in my head, despite the structuring and restructuring I’ve done to get it to where it is now.

Luckily, I’m not alone in this problem – I’ve talked with some friends who’ve helped me focus my thoughts. As I’ve written previously, social design works because it fills the gap between identity and community, helping one person connect with others. It does this by facilitating conversation. But it’s the storytelling in that conversation that really helps us communicate effectively. We tell stories to illustrate who we are, what we feel and what we want everyone to understand. It works because, as social beings, we relate to and empathize with each other through our experiences.

Storytelling has been used as a teaching method for thousands of years, yet despite its ubiquity, we are still unable to help each other tell our own stories. History shows us that we have continually struggled for the freedom of expression, the very thing which acknowledges our individualism. But now, many of us live in a modern world that not only allows this freedom, but encourages it to a fault. Storytelling requires focus, and we’re falling short.

Social technology aims to mimic real society, but real society may not be the best role model. These days, we’re allowed so many choices for so many things that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to focus on what’s really important. Psychological research posits that we are the unhappiest generation yet, not because of some chemical imbalance, but simply because we are overwhelmed with the number of options we have, more paralyzed to make choices and more unhappy with our decisions. In many ways, it was easier to exist hundreds of years ago because we felt we needed less. The truth is, we need just as little now as we did then – we’re just distracted.

The same is true for communication. On Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the multitude of other social services, anything that might be thoughtful or meaningful gets lost among the dribble. Conversation is more boring or entertaining than it is helpful. At this point, even if someone can articulate some profound thoughts, do we even notice? Can we even hear it anymore?

Having the freedom of expression simply means that we have an outlet for all the emotions we are filled with and a community to listen. Naturally, our friends make up that community now, because they understand us, are quick to validate what we say and are forgiving when we aren’t clear on our thoughts. Outside that trusted group, however, communication isn’t working well. When you give everyone in the world an outlet for their emotions and make it public, you get what we have now: a chaotic collection of thoughts ranging from the most profound to the most dull, from the most humdrum to the most enraging. Furthermore, we see a spectrum of communal results, from new relationships and reunited families to murders, hate groups, riots and political strife. And you get it all louder and stronger because this is the first time people from all over the world can interact in the same rooms.

Despite the ubiquity of Internet communication, we don’t really understand each other any better. We tend to keep to our friends, maintain surface-level chatter and become lazier in our communication. In order for social technology to really help us, we must learn to be more thoughtful, understand and express ourselves better and to help others do the same. Undoubtedly we will find that when we can do this, we are, in fact, all on the same page: driven by the same causes, fearful of the same fears and hopeful of the same hopes. We are simply different versions of the same story.

“Society is commonly too cheap,” said Thoreau in Solitude (Walden), written in the 1800s. “We meet at very short intervals, not having the time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals, three times a day, and manage to give each other only another taste of the same, old moldy cheese that we are.” Even 150 years ago we tended towards the meaningless palaver, of which we only have more today. So as we embrace this new age, let’s strive to make our storytelling richer, more economical and more meaningful, exploring how it can help better us on the whole. It’s not about us as individuals, nor even our children – it’s about that greater story of humanity and how we pushed it forward.

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