Why storytelling trumps algorithms for Internet success

by Paul Furiga, on Mar 7, 2013

On the Internet today, the Holy Grail is figuring out how in the heck to gain the attention of the masses surfing the tsunami of available content.

Legions of Internet scientists/wonks are hunting the answer. They draw complex mathematical equations and derive serious-sounding theories to accompany the math. Their basic premise: what attracts our attention and earns our trust on the Internet can be reduced to a formula or algorithm.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

One recent example comes from Daniel Tunkelang, head of query understanding (yes that’s a real title) at LinkedIn. Tunkelang has already posited a mathematical equation for Twitter relevancy that he calls TunkRank. Recently, he suggested that whatever mathematical equation might emerge to explain the content that attracts our attention on the Internet could be likened to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s theory is often expressed as a pyramid, with basic needs (food, shelter) at the bottom and the attainment of personal goals (self actualization) at the top.

In Tunkelang’s application of Maslow to Internet content, the pyramid is information at the bottom, some function that grabs our attention in the middle, and at the top, trust. Put another way, for some reason, we trust certain sources or information on the Internet and that’s what breaks through the tsunami of noise and information.

Tunkelang says the Internet doesn’t have too much information, but rather that our feeble brains can’t process the richness of data available and thus must filter to make sense of things. Ultimately, he says trust is the discernment mechanism that decides what content we consume. In his view, the challenge is to express this as a mathematical equation. Once that happens, Eureka – the enigma of the human mind will crack open to any smart Internet wonk with the right algorithm.

From what I can tell of his work, Tunkelang is a very smart guy. He works at LinkedIn, one of my favorite social networks. I even like his personable profile picture with a young girl I suspect may be his daughter.

So I mean no disrespect when I say Tunkelang and wonks like him who want to reduce the science of human comprehension to an algorithm are partly if not all wrong.

Yes, they may be able to develop some useful math that sharpens the focus for some Internet content creators. Yes, they’re right to see science in the way us crazy humans consume Internet content. They’re just looking at the wrong science.

The right science is biology. Every science has math baked in somewhere, so this not an anti-math screed. I’m focused on understanding the same things that Tunkelang and his peers hope to understand. I’m just not as certain that everything in life can be reduced to an algorithm.

The biology of the human brain is very old. At its root, the “old brain” or what some call the “reptilian brain,” makes very basic decisions that are below the level of rational thought. This is where flight or fight lives. It is also where emotional connection is made, where visual cues drive response, where the brain hungers to understand contrast between light and dark or movement and still, where the brain seeks tangible understanding, and where it craves stories.

Our brain is hard-wired by biology for stories because it is the original energy-saving appliance. Though our brains constitute 2 to 3 percent of our body mass, they suck about 28 percent of our overall energy. That’s a huge drain and so the old brain’s programmed to come alive at the beginning and end of important events (otherwise known as stories).

Over the last five years, we’ve developed a proprietary approach to communications success in business called StoryCrafting. It’s built on this very primal hunger for stories. What we’ve learned along the way is that the thousands of years that went into the creation of our current human biology has prepped us to consume and digest information along a particular process or path. It’s much more complex and nuanced than anything that might be reduced to an algorithm. It’s also simple and quite elegant.

This mix of complexity and simplicity not only predates the Internet, it supersedes it. After all, the Internet is not a replacement for the human brain (at least not yet), it is merely a new channel, or more accurately, a panoply of channels, to deliver content into the human brain and make the same connection that Socrates or Shakespeare or Tupac Shakur might have made.

So what’s the secret to unlocking the brain to make a real connection of value? There’s no silver bullet but there is a silver pathway. And an important concept along this pathway is something we’ve come to call the Story Box. It’s a better depiction of the path to trust on the Internet than a pyramid that borrows from Maslow for some very important reasons: Information and attention are great, but they aren’t the full picture of what our brains require to establish trust.

To enable comprehension and then trust, we see a few more inputs: Before information comes data (hence the explosion of interest in Big Data, including the book on the topic); then comes information, as a refinement or distillation of raw data; and from the data and information can come knowledge. We’re still not at trust yet, because before you get to that, you need context.

The best example of this is the now classic 1988 Dustin Hoffman/Tom Cruise film, Rainman. In the film, Hoffman played the autistic savant brother of Cruise. Hoffman’s character consumed and organized data into information that made him a font of highly accurate knowledge that, dependent upon the situation, was largely useless. In other words, it’s possible to have all the data, information and knowledge you want, but without context, you can’t make sense of it.

A more current example: I keep the weather info for Cancun Mexico on my phone, because that’s where I spent my 30th anniversary with my wife. I keep it in my iPhone for sentimental reasons, since I’ve not been in Cancun since. Its continual presence in my weather app delivers accurate data, information, knowledge that is contextually useless to the 99.9 percent of my life lived outside Cancun. The overall Internet delivery of information today is very similar: Great data, rich information, stupendous knowledge. But help! I need context to make sense of it all.

This comes back to our very old brain. One of its critical functions is to distinguish contrast in what it sees, hears or feels. A refined version of contrast thinking (which certainly resides in our newer brain) is the ability to put things in their place – to provide context.

The Story Box puts things into context.This critical progression or pathway led us to create the Story Box. It’s only a tool, but we believe a useful one. If you want to envision comprehension and successful communication in a tangible way, think of a box – something contained and discreet. To build this box requires the drawing of a single line or path – a line that begins with data, which turns the corner to information, which turns to become knowledge, and then closes the square, becoming useful, through the application of context.

We place context at the bottom for an important reason: Without context, the accumulation of data, information or even knowledge is an exercise that, like a sieve, will leak more than it will contain. It doesn’t help us make sense of the content we’re taking in.

And now we’re ready to establish trust. And that comes from another process that we believe is anchored on the authenticity of the story being told, the fluency of the storyteller, and the ability of the storyteller and the story to evolve and be in sync with the audience.

If only the science of connecting with humans were as simple as a mathematical equation with a great-sounding name. Connecting with humans is absolutely a science, but it’s more about biology than math. And until those very smart people tinkering with the maximization of Internet content start considering biology, our society and our world will be limited in achieving real Internet success.

Topics:story
Paul Furiga-wordwrite-headshot
Paul Furiga
President and Chief Storyteller

Paul Furiga is President and Chief Storyteller at WordWrite. Follow him on Twitter at @paulfuriga. 

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