Minding our stories.

April 16, 2020. Filed under stories 9 tech 1

If you took a minute to think back and pick your favorite conference talk, I have no idea what it was about, but I bet the talk was designed to tell a story. Likewise, I bet your favorite book, even if it’s non-fiction, is lanced through by a crisp, continuous narrative. If you wanted to explain your best or worst job, I bet you’d start by telling a story that captures the experience.

Humans love stories, which makes stories a powerful medium of communication, and like all powerful things, they can be used for both good and ill. The good is obvious – to teach, to communicate, to share. The ill is perhaps more subtle: folks are more likely to believe a lie wrapped in a clever narrative than they are to believe a messily articulated truth.

What’s genuinely scary is that almost every story we consume is created by folks pursuing a specific commercial, political or social objective. There are few markets for the truth, and any story widely told was originally intended to either sell you something, glow someone up, or to move towards a specific cause.

Our love of stories misshapen into the means of manipulation.

Carefully designed stories travel across many conduits. Mass media is owned by an increasingly small number of firms who control broad swaths of the television and radio. Technology is enabling governments to publish and rewrite information on the fly. Social networks are monetizing the micro-targeted delivery of propaganda into the hands of folks intent on undermining democracy itself.

While this is happening at the largest scales – countries, governments, society – it also happens at much smaller scales, including the narratives that define each industry’s history. In the technology industry, crafted narratives minimized and more recently excavated women’s critical roles in computing. This collation and editing of stories into a common history is an active process that’s happening around us, and one that that we can contribute to.

I think about this when I hear stories from someone about say some facet of Uber’s progression or Yahoo’s moderately tragic collapse. Preventing inaccurate stories is a superset of the someone’s wrong on the internet problem, but whenever I hear stories where I had some peripheral involvement, I think about how delightful it would be to have more versions of these stories out there. Versions which are not told with a deep profit motive and with only a modest polishing of the author’s own actions and involvement.

Yet, I consistently find that folks only share their most interesting stories in private. The risk is too high to share them in public. They’re afraid of offending the folks that hold the keys to success. Afraid of losing their employment, of retaliation, of industry blackballs.

It takes an immense level of privilege to feel safe – or courage to disregard the consequences – when writing stories about events that reveal that folks would prefer forgotten. Despite all my privilege, my most interesting stories remain unwritten, accessible only if we happen to work together or sit down to share a meal. This is one of the few redeeming qualities of failed companies, and why most of my written stories are about companies that no longer exist: there are few people around to protect the company’s image. This is why the “company postmortem” genre of blog posts is so active and engaging – folks take the opportunity to tell their truth.

There are arguments to be made that it doesn’t matter if accurate narratives prevail in the carefully managed economy of stories, but I think it does. Folks with limited story access spend years of their lives working at challenged companies and with problematic people, despite folks “in the know” being well aware of the issues. Whisper networks are an effective means of distribution, but not all folks have access to the appropriate whisper networks to retrieve a given story or are even aware they ought to be asking the question.

Perhaps more importantly, subsequent generations model themselves after the myths we hand down to them. Uber’s principled confrontation with the law and margin-eviscerating approach to growth have been replicated by an entire generation of startups, most of which started high on ambition and whose employees will walk away with considerably less than they were promised.

The same applies for legends of individual success. The most memorable part of Bad Blood for me was Elizabeth Holmes’ rapidly shifting management style based on emulating the latest chapter she’d read in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. Folks are surprisingly literal recreators of such creation myths, faithfully reenacting the stories we tell about how impressive folks become successful. The danger is that these stories are always too simplified, incomplete and misleading to follow. Some folks are starting with immense privilege, others are taking individual credit for work done by large teams or organizations, others are very lucky, others ellide intermediate failures out of the path to eventual success. Regardless of the motivation, faithful recreations of myth is much more likely to give you burnout than to burnish your career.

So, what should we start doing differently? There are many good answers out there, but mine is that we should write more of our own stories, and when possible write them in public. Write them before you forget. Don’t write them with a chip on your shoulder, just write. Story by story, we can build our communal histories, slowlying stitch them together into a broader, more representative narrative.

Thanks to Laurel for brainstorming this post.