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Reaching the Breakpoint: How Story & Context Change Cultures, Businesses & Brands

I’d like to expand on Sasha’s last two posts on privacy and reflexivity because I feel, we feel, that they represent very critical elements in the future discourse of our cultures and our global economy. Somewhat selfishly, and with full transparency, I’d also like to engage you in more dialogue around these themes for our upcoming book, “Breakpoint” (coming soon!).

Journalism is the default lens through which we can explore our current cultural and economic situations. In short, technology and evolution have accelerated our means to consume and share, all the while forcing us into bubbles that actually threaten our existence as individuals who desire to self-express and seek meaning. Why? Two reasons, in our mind: stories are not being shared in more meaningful ways, and therefore context becomes lost in our decisions to act and create change.

You might say: “Nonsense! Just look at Occupy and the Arab Spring!” Those are indeed great examples of social movements, but we don’t believe they are by-products of social media, rather they’ve been amplified by them. In other words, these movements were long in play before the stories broke about them, and the sharing part (word-of-mouth and interpersonal collaboration) is what catalyzed the change. And while these movements are pervasive and far-reaching, they are also anomalies when you look at the bigger picture — consider all the censorship and monitoring that happen around the world at the hands of social networks. The differences lie in what we know we can’t do versus what we don’t even know we can or cannot do.

Fact is, context is abundant, but we have yet to compute it and leverage it in ways that create meaning in a world of radical consumption. When you think about how consumers are sick and tired of ads (as we know them), and how they really aren’t loyal to “brands” (as we know them), and how individual privacy is affected as a result, we have a significant, complex challenge we must take head on. There are also significant macro- and microeconomic factors that play into this, which I won’t address here, but will be addressed in our book.

Thankfully, several thought leaders are really starting to examine these associative problems with more acute perspectives. Many of us are familiar with Eli Pariser’s deft take on The Filter Bubble. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel are addressing contextual computation and the contextual web in their upcoming book, The Age of Context. Alexis Madrigal wrote a terrific piece in the Atlantic a day ago, on “Dark Social”. Today, Om Malik produced an insightful piece on the changing role of journalists. John Battelle has been discussing how data wars will manipulate or transform our collective consciousness. And of course, Clay Shirky has been talking about cognitive surplus (r)evolutions for years.

These folks are identifying a pattern, or a series of patterns, that are immensely powerful — what we see as this: how context operates at the edges of society, and, how shared stories can be our saving grace by cultivating dimensions of context.

Notice “shared” as the operative descriptor when it comes to story. What’s unusual about all of this is that very few journalists, if any (including the guys mentioned above), have really elaborated on the storytelling part of the equation. What is a “shared story”? Simple: It’s a theme, topic or idea that becomes a narrative by way of participation. Currently, this happens more passively by way of curation, but can happen more actively when people take action on the things they talk or care about, when they actually engage with each other through context. We have, again, two popular examples in Occupy and The Arab Spring (and by the way, the “strong ties/weak ties” debate lacks context in its own right…). We not only believe — and will prove in our book — that shared stories are transformational, but are computable to the extent that they can build markets and align cultures and businesses in profound new ways. However, we don’t believe this can continue to happen through “social media” as we’ve come to know them. We also think that social networks, by current design, aren’t built for this type of scale, hence all the filtering and rigging of news feeds.

So first, let’s debunk the notion that social networks are growing at scale. They’re not — while registration seems to increase, conversely, so is attrition and time spent is decreasing within most channels. This is just one study that was conducted recently to prove it.

Note that while Facebook recently announced it reached the 1 billion user mark, in actuality, the sample size is substantially less because of bots, spammers and fake aliases. To that end, there have been a host of other studies that show how privacy, or the lack of standards around it, have forced younger generations to rely on “safer” modes of communication, preferably email, direct messages and texts. A big part of this behavioral shift is tied to how we build relationships between people, as well as between corporations and people.

So what happens next? If there are thresholds such as the one mentioned above, how do relationships function through shared story in an economy still based on scarcity yet accelerated by technological and cultural abundance?

Here’s a snapshot:

The “breakpoint” we describe — not a tipping point per se, but an actual shift — is one in which we go from dialectic states (single points of “complete or absolute truth”) to empathic states (multiple points of “best connections” or “best possible assumptions” or “best possible outcomes”). As a result, we renew context, build upon it, and make discoveries about our natures as humans, organizations and institutions. It also means that we go from cultures of rhetoric, to those of action and innovation, and in our own unique ways (on the Occupy/Arab Spring front, imagine how we wouldn’t have to impose Western ideals on Eastern cultures, but enhance perspectives on change in those regions by “thinking from the other side”).

You’ll also notice this concept of “context and stimulus” in the graphic. Len, Francesca and I have talked about it in other posts before, but simply put, an integral part of renewing context is actually retraining our brains to think critically, and to react more slowly to the things we consume, produce and share.

Another important thing to note is the notion of trust. While trust is no doubt the currency we seek in our personal and business relationships, without renewed context (by way of shared story), we are fairly inept at building it. Relationships are hard, and we should be honest with ourselves — overall, we’re really not that great at managing them. We believe this is the fundamental problem of branding, and in more obvious ways, why there is so much dissension within governments and institutions. The larger point is that trust is not a given just because we share and connect. It is built when we commit ourselves to action and change… In the real world.

So back to the breakpoint. We’re not suggesting that this shift isn’t already happening, because it most certainly is; however, in order to shape media discourse and our commerce systems more meaningfully, we need to understand how meaning is created both as individuals and institutions, in relation to one another. Hence the power of relationships. And understanding how they are reflected within context.

On a final note, the book will cover very specific use cases that go deep into methodology and show how corporations can truly become learning centers, as well as how markets can be built for sustenance around the “present values” inherent in people and the products and services they help to shape… all through shared story.

So, what can context mean to you in your relationships? How can you cultivate the breakpoint in your own life and business?