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Stories Are the Antidote to Information Overload

Posted on the 28 January 2011 by Drpamelarutledge @pamelarutledge

What does it mean when we have real time on-demand information? It means there is no longer an information shortage. We have more information that we know what to do with — even when we ask for it. We have a filter shortage. Stories are the way the brain processes information. Don’t leave it up to the receiving brain to make sense of your message. Stories are the way to contextualize information so people hear what you have to say.

Yesterday, I watched it snow in New York City. A lot. Today I am seeing people digging out and slushing through the snow banks at curbside. I can also watch a comedian named Mike Birbiglia, through a window in the Herald Square Macys. He is hanging out for a week on a queen-sized bed doing a real life demonstration for Downey’s “Clean Sheet Week” Challenge. I can see all this, but I live in San Francisco. Nevertheless, because of live videostreaming, I can appreciate the snowy mess and commiserate with my daughter while she is slogging her way up Broadway to her Design class at The New School and I can watch Mike on his bed learning about Downy fabric softener. Both real time.

Information Overload

Neither of these are earth-shattering revelations, but they are indicative of the shift in both information access and experience that technology can deliver. The ability to share experience using technology continues to break down barriers of geography and time and allows interpersonal connections that would have been impossible, implausible, or just very slow. As technology use becomes more organic and fluid, it recedes, placing a premium on content and context. You are able to participate in shared narratives. This is what makes transmedia storytelling so powerful.

On-demand real-time access also raises the bar on what it means to consume information. On-demand information means you instigated a search. It may not feel like it, since it’s all so easy. But the ability to have and share self-relevant information causes a very profound shift in user expectations and sense of agency.

NY times square webcam

EarthCam at Times Square

The social web has made sharing information the norm rather than the exception. This shift in expectations of connectivity allows people to triangulate information and exposes dishonesty; it also raises the awareness of a more global arena. Not every person will follow world events, but it is impossible to be connected on the social web and not be aware of a wider circle of people, resources, and events that you would have otherwise. One of many examples: homeless teens are able to expand their resources, information and social support through Internet access at libraries and shelters (Rice, Monro, Barman-Adhikari, & Young, 2010).

This increasing other-awareness combined with the ability to act and receive instantaneous information make people impatient when exchanges are one-sided or slow. The Macy’s/Downy stunt was interesting in this regard. While people can interact with Mike by asking questions on Facebook, they missed a tremendous opportunity to turn this stunt into a story that would have provided a more meaningful engagement and participation. The stories wouldn’t be about fabric softener or where to buy sheets, but ultimately would have much more sticking power when it came to brand recognition.

Real-time Demonstration Clean Sheet Week in Macy's window

Real-time Demonstration 'Clean Sheet Week' in Macy's window

Instead of just attracting attention by having a man (albeit a funny one) in a window for a week, why not give him a bigger purpose and link participants so they can contribute? The questions being sent in via Facebook are vacuous, not the kind that will keep an audience coming back. Successful comedians are extraordinary at tapping into the fundamental human emotions. Downy and Macy’s are overlooking a great opportunity by not giving Mike some material of substance (beyond sheets) to work with and invite the audience to help. Why not elevate Downy and Macy’s from a product that softens fabric and a place to buy sheets to a story that is about providing a sense of home and comfort? There are plenty of ways to do this, including a focus on people who do not have a place to sleep, much less a sweet-smelling one or to link to Downy’s ‘Touch of Comfort’ program that sends quilts to children’s hospitals.

We have plenty of information. What we crave now is meaning and meaning comes from story. There is meaning for me in connecting with my daughter and today’s chapter of her story. Not so much in the fabric softener thing — which is too bad. There was great potential to turn that from a clever stunt into a story with impact.

Rice, E., Monro, W., Barman-Adhikari, M.A., & Young, S. D. (2010). Internet Use, Social Networking, and HIV/AIDS Risk for Homeless Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 47(6), 610-613.

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