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How Tech Changes Conversation - Part 1 of a Series on Tech & Culture

·1205 words·6 mins
Articles culture tech

This morning, I found myself thinking of how technology can alter communication, particularly in the way it alters our way of storytelling.

At its base, conversation is a means of exchanging information and can be used to make collaborative decisions. But that alone is boring and unhelpful. What we do in discussion that allows us to compare and make those decisions is by referencing past experiences, and using that as justification for our opinions and predjudices. Then in essense, the best and most effective conversationalists are the those who are the best storytellers.

Those times when we are not deciding what to do right now, our discussion becomes almost totally comprised of telling stories. I might express an opinion on a particular topic, and immediately follow it up with an explanation, which is considered weak unless it consists of storytelling on some level.

For example, let’s say we are sitting around discussing books and I express dislike for a particular novel. You may just let that pass, rather than put me on the spot, but let’s say you are curious and ask me why I don’t like it. Now the burden of proof in on my shoulders and in order to defend my opinion I will have to explain exactly what I didn’t like about the book, most likely by retelling parts of the story and/or my reaction to it. If we reverse the situation and I am praising a book I enjoyed you will probably ask me what is so good about it. If I don’t want to spoil the book for you I will have to provide some information and put the focus of my story on the reaction I had to the book. If I fail to do this in either case, you will probably not give my opinion much weight in your decision-making, or in reformulating your own opinion, unless of course we have a history together in which you have found my opinions trustworthy. If you wish to disagree with me vocally we will once again return to storytelling to demonstrate our points.

Of course it is ludricrous to debate a piece of art, but that’s not my point. What I am saying is that storytelling is essential to the conversation.

A year ago (and I am going to shamelessly name-drop here) I attended a dinner and lecture done by Salman Rushdie, as well as the after-party thrown in his honor by the Writer’s Workshop. One of the themes of Rushdie’s lecture was the importance of story in human existence.

“Man is the animal that tells stories about himself to himself,” Rushdie observed.

He went on to illustrate how stories also carry a sense of ownership and community. For example, when you first begin dating someone and you go to meet their family, a huge part of your integration into that new group of people is learning the stories, the mythology of that family. You learn about Aunt Doris’s embarrassing outburst at a wedding, or when Grandpa played a prank on his grandchildren one Halloween. Your knowledge of these stories and ability to retell them identifies you as a member of that group.

For example, I claim group identity with the people who attended those events and those parties by telling stories about it. I could tell stories about the sycophantic members of the Writer’s Workshop or how T.C. Boyle was a pretentious jerk (Okay, I withdraw that. He wasn’t a jerk, just pretentious.) who attended the party but never went over to talk to Rushdie, instead nursing his own fan club in another room. And I could tell you how Boyle’s daughter is ridiculously hot. The only purpose of my telling those stories is the aforementioned name-dropping, which is related to this notion of community identity through story ownership.

Okay, so we all understand how stories are used to defend our opinions and proclaim group membership, but how does this relate to our day to day conversation and technology?

When you and I are in a conversation, if we know each other fairly well or are getting to know each other, we will include a lot of what I will refer to as meta-references in our discussion. A meta-reference is any statement or quotation that we use to refer to either another conversation we have had in the past, something we discussed earlier in our conversation, a joke we both know or other experiences we have in common (e.g. movies we have seen, books we have read). What make a meta-reference different from retelling a story is that it involves a bare minimum of information from the original item it refers too, and your ability to associate the meta-reference with its original source is often used as an indicator of how well we understand and know each other. In other words, it is a measure of how much we have in common and to what extent we can be classified in the same group.

With communication on the Internet, this concept of meta-references becomes even more prevalent, with the use of hypertext to produce links. For example, in the course of my writing a blog entry or in an IM, I can encode my meta-references with direct links to the story or information I am referring to. Once again, this can be a previous blog entry, a web page, an article, a video or a song. In fact, if I don’t provide some kind of link to explain my reference I may even be regarded as unhelpful or even unfriendly to my reader.

This change has two major functions, the first of which is that it makes online communication more efficient. I no longer have to type out an entire retelling of a story, instead I can encode it as a link, with the reasonable expectation that you will click on that link to read the information yourself, which drastically speeds up our online discussion by compressing all that information into a meta-reference. If I am trying to draw a parallel with a funny story from my past I can just write something along the lines of:

I am well known for my courtesy.

This way I manage to meta-reference that story without having to break up the narrative of my current entry in order to retell that story. The second function of using links for meta-references is that they serve to broaden your community. By using a link, I am providing you with instant access to the story in question and building a commonality between us. In short, I am inviting you to join my community on some level. There may be occasions when I do not use a link, in which case the meta-reference serves the same purpose as it does in standard conversation, however in more and more cases bloggers like myself are utilizing links to reference other material, including their own.

So what does this mean? Does the use of links as meta-references in blogs/email/IM indicate an invitation to join a community? Or is the assumption of electronic communication that we all are already a community, and the meta-references serve to facilitate clear understanding between our diverse group members?

More on this in Part 2.