Narrative infrastructure to build a bigger we
Campaigners, funders, strategists and storytellers are all thinking about the systems and tools needed to measure, teach and test narrative change strategies. At Meeting the Populist Moment, a convening co-hosted by Narrative Initiative and Open Society Foundations in Berlin this past June, participants spoke of narrative infrastructure in a time of rising populism.
We spoke about the shape of infrastructure: data, software and tools are infrastructure. It also includes communications networks and collaborative processes that bind people across geography and issues. It includes the ability to identify capacity needs and grow skills to meet gaps. Infrastructure also looks like consistent investment and resources that allow both high-level research and front-line narrative work to thrive over time.
And we spoke of the impact a strong narrative infrastructure may have: rapidly gathering data and making decisions about what to test (and what to learn), an ability to define and build tools for networks, and resources that support organizations and individuals to invest in narrative strategy over time.
Narrative tech: Data, software, tools and more
Tech is the portion of infrastructure that seems most, well, infrastructure-ish. Tech measures and tracks narrative, collates and analyzes data, and transmits analysis across networks of groups and individuals.
Tools measuring the level and impact of conversation – and narrative shift – across social, print, and other media are often held up as a missing piece of narrative infrastructure. We’ve found that reaching the right people, knowing who those people are, testing the impact of that outreach and measuring impact in real time and over time are characteristics of a strong narrative program.
A tech infrastructure also serves narrative research needs. Tracking narrative reach and impact on public conversation is a form of research. We like to talk about a “narrative weather service” that uses technology to track words as well as their approach, influence and impact. It’s like putting together a weather station. Over time, researchers learn to find and interpret signals that point to a coming storm, it’s path and impact. What if we had a similar narrative research infrastructure with a weather station, remote sensing outposts and thousands of monitors trained to contribute data?
Collaborative opportunities and processes
At Meeting the Populist Moment and other convenings on populism we hosted in New York City, participants noted the loose ties between people in different countries (and continents). People working on narrative change in the wake of authoritarian populism are also focused on different, sometimes divergent, issues. People also approach narrative strategy with different methods: pop culture, arts, analytics, strategic communications, and more.
Narrative change work is dispersed and collaborative processes are difficult to find and use. The result is a sense among advocates that authoritarian populists are well organized while progressives are distributed and easily divided into smaller groups.
We heard that the progressive community lags in it’s access to and use of software, tech and tools needed to counter the rise of authoritarianism. But many acknowledge that some gaps may be leaped more rapidly by focusing on what we know, collaboration and organizing, than waiting for resources to build tools.
Participants at our Berlin convening observed the value of bridging trans-Atlantic collaboration while together. Meanwhile, many noted that some of the most innovative narrative work on populism is happening in the Global South, a community unrepresented in Berlin.
Relationship building and network awareness is the larger goal of collaborative tech and processes. A couple themes that surfaced focused on skills and relationships:
- Mapping the skills landscape. What people and groups have narrative change skills? Where are they based and work? What gaps exist in capacity, training, facilitation and access?
- Facilitating relationship building and collaboration. In person gatherings can be invaluable but are cost and time intensive. They’re unavoidably exclusive. Narrative networks can be better defined, provide opportunities for connection and collaboration. Here are a few ideas: email lists, webinars, online skill shares, side gatherings at existing conferences/convenings.
Collaborative infrastructure may include more clearly defining what narrative strategy work looks like. This reveals the wide network of groups and people doing narrative work, testing strategy, and developing narrative skills.
Testing, learning and teaching
A network of narrative strategists requires ongoing training and skills development. We heard about the need for a much larger pipeline of narrative strategists.
A network of narrative strategists also needs opportunities to share learning, test results, and needs. This could look like online communities, a published journal, or test-driven consulting shop that exists to fail, fail again, and sometimes succeed (but always share results). There are many options, some of which exist and others in development or planning stages.
Teaching and training became central to Narrative Initiative’s 2017-18 statewide work in Minnesota. Turning training resources into network infrastructure has been a priority in 2019. Our Minnesota project included a wide-ranging coalition of progressive organizations. We co-created training and testing guides and helped participants build skills to teach narrative strategy to others. Training builds infrastructure. So does sharing training resources like these from our Minnesota project.
Progressives often struggle to create, test and iterate narratives in part due to a lack of networked capacity for tracking and using data that informs good decision making. Narrative Initiative is currently testing the potential for social listening software to support collaborative narrative strategies. A few years ago, Upwell (founded and led by Narrative Initiative Program Director Rachel Weidinger) piloted the use of Radian6, a social listening tool, to speed up learning and testing of ocean-related communications.
A wide range of organizations, activists and strategists should be in a position to engage in conversations, networks and collaborative processes that gather, evaluate and test narrative data.
Investment as infrastructure
Narrative change takes time. Populism may have created an opening for shifting deep narratives about economic and political systems. But this isn’t work that will happen quickly and progress will be accompanied by setbacks. Groups working in narrative strategy are often non-profits with tight budgets and low risk tolerance. Innovation, testing and iterating forces organizations to take chances on programs, invest in tools and training, and measure change over long periods of time.
Participants expressed enthusiasm for ongoing collaborative processes, data and testing, and learning infrastructures. They also demonstrated concern about their capacity to invest resources in long-term narrative change strategies given the tenuous nature of their funding sources.
Holistic infrastructure for long-term change
There is no single bit of infrastructure to build. There is no obvious fix to ongoing data, software and training concerns across the narrative sector. But the messages heard about narrative infrastructure from those working in and around narrative strategy is a holistic one. Develop software and tools that are accessible to those closest to the work and field as well as those running high-level research projects and think tank. Assess and make available training across networks and develop a pipeline of strategists who can train the trainer and help scale narrative skills, research and testing.
Building relationships, collaborative systems and tools takes time. Shifting deep narratives a long game. Participants at Meeting the Populist Moment and across our network of people and events recognize that time is needed to create the future we see as not just needed but very much possible. Narrative infrastructure will turn enthusiasm for long-term, lasting narrative change into real analysis, skills, testing and training.