Yesterday, I went to the Third Tuesday Vancouver meeting to hear Shel Israel talk about his new book, Twitterville. I have a love-hate relationship with technology pundits constructed equally of envy, scorn, and (since I have been occasionally been called one in my own small field of free and open source software) fellow-feeling, so it was the presentation that interested me, not the hope of any revelations about Twitter. And, sure enough, what I learned was not about Twitter, but about story telling.
I probably wouldn’t have learned the lesson if Israel hadn’t described himself as a non-fiction story teller near the start of his presentation. This offhand remark, so peripheral to the actual topic of the presentation, ended up framing my reactions to Israel remarks.
Israel is an enthusiastic story teller, and he collects stories about the subjects he was researching as though he was a folklorist, or a geeky Studs Terkel. He also has a knack for apt phrases, such as “lethal generosity” (generosity that forces rivals to respond in kind or lose) and “braided journalism” (reporting through a variety of sources) that help to make his stories memorable.
However, as I listened, two things started to irk me about his presentation.
First, his stories seemed to entirely about people winning – that is, accomplishing something through their use of Twitter. This tendency bothered me for two conflicting reasons. On one level, it bothered me because part of the structure of non-fiction narrative is usually an attempt to look at both sides of an issue. To hear Israel, Twitter is an unalloyed good, with no negative effects whatsoever. In fact, Israel appears to have not even looked into situations where Twitter proved limiting or handicapped someone. As a result, his narrative seems not so much non-fiction as mere ad copy – and, as such, contrary to the genuineness that social media participants need if they are going to be accepted by their communities.
On another level, the emphasis on winning seemed to lack morality. Israel did not talk about whether people did good with Twitter, and when someone asked a question that tended in such a direction, he evaded answering. This emphasis got up my nostrils (to use a wonderful phrase I first heard from folksinger Eric Bogle) because it seems to be that all kinds of narratives are essentially about morality. Except in poorly constructed narratives, the morality is not an subtle confrontation of good versus evil. At times, it may be ambiguous. But a sense of which side is right – or at least deserves our sympathies the most – seems embedded in the whole concept of narrative. When such a perspective is missing, the way it was in Israel’s talk, it is like stepping on a stair that isn’t there, jolting me and making me uneasy.
Second, Israel consistently resisted drawing any conclusions from his narratives. I suspect that he would argue that making generalities was not his job, that his role was to report as accurately as possible. And I agree that outright editorializing would have been out of place in his talk. However, I believe that part of reporting is to make implications and relationships clear. Without such efforts to see the pattern, Israel’s presentation struck me as directionless. The effect would have been much the same in a piece of fiction that excluded plot.
I suspect that what I am saying has less to do with general tendencies in storyteller than with what I look for as a member of the audience, or with how I try to tell my own non-fiction stories. Still, in an unexpected way, I am grateful to Israel for having provided the starting point for me to figure out these things – even though what I took away from the evening was almost certainly not what he would have wanted me to take away.