Crowdsourcing the Authentic Story: a social history of mass storytelling.


The real story lives with the people. Finding that story, harvesting it and recycling it, has taken us from the clipboard to the keyboard, from the polling space into cyberspace.

From social studies right up to social networking, the story remains king. “Story anthropologists” and the tools they use are now an important feature in the communication landscape.

As more leaders hunt for authentic stories to encapsulate their messages and galvanise organisations, the focus is shifting from delivery to the origin of these powerful tales.

By definition, an authentic story can’t be “made up.” It has to be lived. Preferably by lots of people with whom the words will resonate when played back to them.

As every speechwriter knows, trawling mythology or social history for examples delivers references, but these can often sound dull or bookish. Using archetypes from Marvel comics sounds plain silly. Nor can we always rely upon a speaker’s own biography or experience to furnish the perfect anecdote. Storytelling professionals need a method to find the right story to match it with their client.

Over the last three quarters-of-a-century a “story harvesting industry” has grown up to search for meaningful tales amongst the flotsam of daily life. Until the advent of social media, this “crowdsourcing” of stories was a largely-unvisited corner of the communications industry.

Now, with LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, youTube, FlickR and other online community tools, it’s right at the centre of things.

Story harvesting used to be an expensive, time-consuming and ultimately subjective business. Academics, fanatics and evangelists owned the field.

Mass Observation began its work in Britain in 1937, inventing a pre-war “anthropology of ourselves” with the help of two thousand volunteer observers who collected stories of working life in Britain’s grittier industrial towns. Its left-leaning founders Charles Madge and Tom Harrison kept up the tradition of social observation until the mid 1950s, when the organisation veered into consumer trend analysis.

In the United States, Studs Terkel in the 1960s pioneered audio recordings with old-timers to harvest stories for his Conversations with America series, and created a succession of oral histories on the Depression, wartime, work, or race. Author-researcher Gail Sheehy continued Terkel’s methods in her bestselling Passages series to collect baby-boomer stories of life’s triumphs and disasters, boosting the process with managed focus groups.

Behind these authors blossomed a commercial “clipboard army” of interns, volunteers and vacation workers, noting down observations for what became the consumer trend analysis industry, spawning giants like Nielsen. This in turn shaped not just the ads – but also the story-lines for the soaps, series and shows we grew up with on TV.

The advertising industry that drove such initiatives certainly got the behavioural research it wanted to sell more stuff – but this was hardly authentic story-harvesting. Eventually, trained researchers began going into organisations with tools like Appreciative Inquiry (a associative technique designed to get people to envision positive outcomes which helps to uncover meaning and purpose using storytelling).

But “clipboard fatigue” had already set in. Businesses didn’t want to invest the money or time educating consultants and junior researchers in how their own culture worked. The workforce had real work to do, rather than sit around telling stories – and companies rightly suspected that the results were losing authenticity through editorial meddling. Instead they wanted a solution that didn’t eat into employee time, stored all inputs, and generated an authentic snapshot.

The pioneering use of online research tools for corporate storytelling came with the IBM’s monster Values Jam project sponsored by CEO Sam Palmisano. For a 72 hour period in 2003, he opened up Big Blue’s intranet for a hosted dialogue between 319,000 IBMers around the world. The result was a huge file of stories, reappraisals, rants, confessions that profiled IBM’s role in the world.

“I don’t think what resulted – broad, enthusiastic, grass-roots consensus – could have been obtained in any other way,” said Palmisano. “We are getting back in touch with what IBM has always been about – and always will be about – in a very concrete way. And I feel that I’ve been handed something every CEO craves: a mandate, for exactly the right kinds of transformation, from an entire workforce.”

Values Jam eventually became of product for IBM and was used at events like the 2005 UN Habitat conference.

In 2005 I worked on an IBM-inspired but nevertheless groundbreaking story-harvesting project at Royal Philips Electronics. At that time our sequence of four Online Dialogues managed by the communications department was the largest such venture after IBM’s – and was an integral part of major changes introduced by then CEO Gerard Kleisterlee, with whom I worked for eight years.

We used a mid-level population of 8,000 executives to explore in depth the management agenda of Growth, Talent and Simplicity during 48 hour moderated online sessions around the world.

In those days bandwidth and technology limitations restricted us to text-based interventions (we worked with the IT department to adapt the existing Lotus Notes platform). But we could stream and shape the emerging themes into story topics, with instant polling for favourite suggestions. And we added live interaction from board members to stimulate yet more “story sharing.” I still have the telephone-book sized printouts containing thousands of “stories” we harvested for analysis.

In 2006, our Online Dialogues proved their power to shape the company’s future. Despite a near century-long presence in China, India and other emerging markets, Philips still only sold 13% of its product in these countries. Something had to be done urgently.

We took the “ideas mood music” from a special emerging market Online Dialogue, and used this as direct input for the program we helped design for the March 2006 Philips management offsite in Delhi, India. The findings of our online crowdsourcing underpinned the CEO’s keynote speech and other key documents I drafted for the event. Philips changed its governance model for emerging markets, which today deliver around 40% of global sales.

Since our early work in those days, the concept of crowdsourcing has been taken up by many others, thanks in part to the advent of social networking technologies, and in part to thinking such as James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds.

Today everyone knows what I started out trying to prove over a decade ago: that storytelling changes companies. And we know how to use online tools to source authentic stories.

A major new crowdsourced documentary, Life in a Day, has edited down thousands of hours of home-made video footage to produce a compelling vision of what life of earth was like on 24th July 2010. The project is headed by Oscar-winning director and executive produced by Ridley Scott. People uploaded their videos to youTube and trusted that the  directors would use their material to tell a story faithful to their individual contributions.

In the US, corporate giant GE has been proving that convincingly. Its programme began with a challenge to find and tell 100 stories in 30 days using a dedicated website space.

As the GE Reports site says, it’s a “a simple, no-frills-way of communicating what’s happening at GE. Our goal is to be a resource for people who are interested in learning more about GE.”

The site produces everyday stories, and has a companion youTube channel. All 320,000 employees can contribute, and there are subsidiary blogs for the GE community in China, Japan, Middle East and now Brazil, which started up in April. Hats off to GE: as tellers of their innovation story, this company has few equals.

If you can crowdsource the mood of a company, why not probe an entire nation? That’s the premise behind the online National Values Assessments carried out by the Barrett Values Centre. The centre, which has carried out national surveys of 11 countries since 2007, since claims the results can help public policymakers to plan. Following Iceland’s roiling financial collapse and administrative turmoil, a 2010 survey showed Icelanders overwhelmingly focus on the need for stewardship, accountability and ability to plan for the future as necessary values for leaders. And, backing up this approach, Iceland has just announced it is crowdsourcing the content for its new Constitution.

And if a nation’s values can be accurately plotted, how about its musical taste? That’s the premise behind a new project by the makers of one of the BBC’s very oldest radio programmes, Desert Island Discs.

Since 1942 the BBC has been plugging an unchanging formula: invite an artist, celebrity or public figure to select just eight music tracks around which to tell their life story in an hourlong chatshow. Guests get to keep just one disc for company on an imaginary desert island to which they’ll be exiled. More than 22,000 tracks have been picked, offering a statistical sample of Britain’s best-loved music.

This June the BBC raised the ante by opening up online polling for the nation’s popular vote for everyone’s Desert Island Discos. Over 25,000 people took part – albeit middle-aged, mostly white, mostly middle-class listeners of the BBC’s flagship Radio 4 station. The results: six of the eight tracks were classical, with old rock icons Queen and Pink Floyd representing “modernity”. And six of the eight were British – although the Beatles didn’t even make the cut as the nation’s top songsters.

Why? Now that’s another story.

Richard House

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