The Narrative narrative.
The Narrative Clip is a small, wearable camera that automatically takes pictures throughout the day and presents you with either the full set (up to 2800) or a small selection at the end of the day. I first learned about this product from an interview in a publication that covers local startups. In this article, the company representative used the classic pitch tactic of laying out a problem that people experience and then explaining how the product was developed to solve that problem.
The problem that caused him to begin the development of Narrative, he said, was that he never remembered to take pictures of his day, so when he went to post on social media to tell people about his day, he didn’t have the pictures to go with the posts.
I’m not what you’d call fully on board with social media. I don’t think it’s the solution to problems with the journalism industry, I don’t think it’s going to change the world (not by itself, anyway), and I don’t think it’s making us free thinkers who cannot be influenced by marketing. Most of all, I don’t think it’s making us more connected with each other. Most of the time, I think it’s allowing us to be disturbingly alienated.
So when I heard about Narrative, and heard the explanation of what it’s for, what I heard was “I need a way to be narcissistic that isn’t as much work as using my smartphone to take pictures. I need a product to allow even forgetful and lazy people to talk about themselves on social media!”
In short, I did not approve of the Narrative Clip. I wished the company well, as I wish all of the local ventures well, in the abstract sense, and I certainly believed they had a saleable product. But I did not, personally, approve of the object and the function that it could serve in people’s lives.
But a couple of weeks ago, I heard that they were launching a second version, so I decided to go back to their website to check it out. Okay, I’ll admit that I was nursing a sort of fascinated hatred for the product, and I went to their website because I wanted to feel smug by reading again about how dumb and socially destructive it was.
I had first summarized their USP in my head as “More Narcissism, Faster” and I was turned off. I do not believe that making it easier to talk about ourselves is a need that should be met. My Instagram is full of people’s lunch photos; my Twitter is stuffed with 140-character messages about users’ self-published novels and pets, and through Facebook I once unwillingly (and uncomfortably) learned all about the miscarriage of someone I had only a passing professional acquaintance with.
The problem is that I don’t care what you ate for lunch. The problem is that you only sometimes care about the photos of my kids in my Facebook stream, and I only sometimes care about yours.
Sometimes I long for a return to the time when those who talked about themselves excessively were considered at least boring, and often downright boorish. I know we’re not going to return to that era, and there were some definite downsides, but we have gone much too far in the other direction. What used to be considered intolerable self-regard is now quite acceptable, and I don’t think it’s healthy.
Narrative makes it even easier to share the information that others don’t really care about; that is, it makes it easier to just disregard their interests. I don’t trust people to counter that ease of sharing by trying proportionally harder to be relevant. I thought Narrative was cool, saleable, but ultimately a socially destructive product.
But when I visited the Narrative website, I completely changed my mind within two minutes, because they have a great marketing team and a great writer. Their website presented a sales proposition that I hadn’t thought of, and a series of user stories that left me feeling that my life, too, would benefit from this product.
Their sales proposition is this: “The automatic photo capture of Narrative Clip 2 lets you stay in the moment while capturing it.” That is something I actually value, and want. And then, to show how this was playing out in real life, their blog told me stories about families who were enjoying time together and not worrying about stopping for pictures, and about people who were enjoying reflecting on their day in this unfiltered way.
I was forced to ask myself, is narcissism the right term for what these stories are describing? If you have a new way to reflect on a shared experience, not by yourself, but as a family, or to review your own day, by yourself and in private, is that a sin or a virtue? The stories about families, in particular, made me think about creating group cohesion and a sense of togetherness. Does that amount to group narcissism? And even if it does, is that bad?
I also considered that in my role as Community Manager for Guerilla Office (and therefore the owner of the Instagram and Twitter accounts), I could professionally benefit from the Narrative Clip. My job requires me to regularly log my day, the events that I go to and the people that I meet. That’s not self-absorption, that just the sort of quasi-journalistic behaviour that’s required to do my job well.
I have to conclude that the product itself is a fairly neutral object, and my objection had been to the use I first heard it put to. But I don’t reject Twitter as a tool because some people choose to mostly talk about the meals they are eating; that’s not Twitter’s fault. Twitter has set up a platform for people to communicate. What they choose to communicate is determined by the users.
What they choose to communicate is their experience, and sharing experiences is a primitive social behaviour, a fundamental need of our social species. We send a lunch tweet and post a selfie because we want to share, in order to not be alone. The urge to connect is profound, even if the content of our shares is shallow.
The social problem that we need to handle is the same one we have always needed to handle: what do we share, and when, and with whom? Maybe, in light of the far greater ease of sharing our experiences and thoughts, we’ll find that the answers to those questions haven’t actually changed all that much.
I still have questions about Narrative. Is it something that can create a net improvement in our lives, or will the destructive effects outweigh the benefits? What about privacy? And will they release one in orange? Because that’s my favourite colour. My fixation on this product has in no way dimmed, and I’ll be keeping an eye on them.
In the meantime, I’m holding on to one definite positive value of the Narrative Clip: it’s hard to take a selfie with one.