Clarity, not Freedom, of Expression is Key


All stories have a central theme or focus, but what makes them great is how all their details work together to illustrate that point. In order to effectively communicate some fundamental idea, the story must be clear. And when it comes to expressing ourselves and our identities, our stories can’t be clear until we understand ourselves. Although social technology has dramatically furthered our freedom of expression, it has yet to help us with clarity.

Every effective story is comprised of little details, all of which are critical to the gestalt of the bigger picture. Creating this perfection requires the utmost discipline, for if the whole story is to be focused, then so too must all the micro-stories be.

Unfortunately for us, architecting such a system is extremely complicated. Driven by our somewhat unpredictable, multi-faceted and fragile emotions, it’s not always easy for us to be objective, maintain focus and articulate our thoughts, even when we know just what we want to convey.

As I’ve written previously, social design works because it fills the gap between identity and community, helping one person connect with others. It does this by facilitating conversation. But it’s the storytelling in that conversation that really helps us communicate effectively. We tell stories to illustrate who we are, what we feel and what we want everyone to understand. It works because, as social beings, we relate to and empathize with one another through our experiences.

Storytelling has been used as a teaching method for thousands of years, yet despite its ubiquity, we still struggle tell our own stories clearly. It’s not about the minutia of what we do every day that makes us who we are, it’s why we do those things, what really drives us. History shows us that we have continually struggled for the freedom of expression, the very thing which fundamentally acknowledges our individualism. But now, our modern world not only allows this freedom, but encourages it to a fault. Storytelling requires focus, and we’re falling short.

Social technology aims to mimic society but society may not be the best role model. The multitude of choice makes it increasingly difficult to focus on what’s really important. Psychological research posits that millennials may be the unhappiest generation yet, not because of some chemical imbalance, but simply because we are overwhelmed by the number of options we have, more paralyzed to make choices and more unhappy with our decisions. In certain ways, it was easier to exist several hundred years ago because we felt we needed less to be content. The truth is, we need just as little today as we did then – we’re just distracted.

On Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the multitude of other social services and media, anything that might be thoughtful or meaningful gets lost among the dribble. Conversation is more boring or mildly entertaining than it is insightful and helpful. At this point, even if someone articulates profound thoughts, do we even notice? Can we even hear them anymore?

Having freedom of expression simply means that we have an outlet for all the emotions that fill us and a community that listens. Naturally, our friends make up that community now and, because they supposedly understand us, are quick to validate whatever we say and are forgiving when we aren’t clear on our thoughts. Outside this trusted group however, communication isn’t working so well.

When you give everyone in the world an outlet for their emotions and make it public, you get what we have now: a chaotic collection of thoughts ranging from the most profound to the most dull, from the most humdrum to the most enraging. Furthermore, we see a spectrum of communal results, from new relationships and reunited families to murders, hate groups, riots and political strife. And you get it all louder and stronger because this is the first time people from all over the world can interact in the same room.

Despite the deliverance afforded us by Internet communication, we don’t really understand each other any better. We tend to keep to our friends, maintain surface-level chatter and become lazier in our communication. In order for social technology to really help us, we must learn to be more thoughtful, understand and express ourselves better and help others do the same. That means looking at the larger, indelible undercurrents of what’s going on and not just the small, transient surface waves.

Undoubtedly, we will find that when we can do this, we are, in fact, all on the same page: driven by the same causes, fearful of the same fears and hopeful of the same hopes. We are simply different versions of the same core story.

“Society is commonly too cheap,” said Thoreau in Solitude, a section of Walden, written in the 1800s. “We meet at very short intervals, not having the time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals, three times a day, and manage to give each other only another taste of the same, old moldy cheese that we are.” Even 150 years ago we tended towards the meaningless palaver, of which we only have more today.

So as we embrace this new age, let’s strive to make our storytelling richer, more economical and more meaningful, exploring how it can help better us on the whole. It’s not about us as individuals, nor is it even about our children; it’s about that greater story of connecting humanity and how we pushed it forward.