Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Narrative Tech: Categories, needs and what’s next

Technology has always had a role in shaping how narratives are created, distributed, tracked and absorbed into society. Today, technology moves the words, pictures and meaning of narrative around the world in seconds. Technology helps us track the movement of narrative and research how narrative shifts behavior. The work of narrative change now asks progressive groups and movements to expand access to, learn to use, and continually test narrative technology and tools.

But where do we focus our efforts? What kind of technology do we, as a field, have and need?

We recently shared a draft definition of Narrative Technology:

Narrative Technology encompasses the tools, platforms, and infrastructure that can be used to assist and accelerate the shifting and/or maintenance of dominant narratives. This includes technologies that can baseline, listen to, test, and respond to media and online discourse at scale.

When we shared that definition with dozens of campaigners, communicators and technologists, we also asked them to describe the narrative tech they have and need.

We’ve distilled these conversations into a few themes about narrative tech:

  • There’s already a lot of tech out there. Maybe too much. It’s hard to keep track of it all – even harder to know what to use when.
  • There are powerful tools we can’t afford. And if we can afford tools, it’s difficult to get support and training to do the work right.
  • Some narrative tech is lo-fi and not so fancy or hard to get. But people aren’t socialized to use it in their work or are already at capacity.

Complexity, cost, access, capacity, sustainability and community are all words that help summarize the current role of tech in progressive narrative change as well as the sector’s vision for the future.

Narrative tech we have

There are many narrative tech tools in use. But there are some important caveats when categorizing and describing their utility to the field:

  • Some tools are very expensive.
  • Most big platforms don’t hold progressive values.
  • Often, people who are working in digital/technology spaces in organizations are also doing three other jobs. This makes narrative technology deployment difficult even when there’s a powerful upside to its use.

Together with others in the field, we identified categories that sort narrative tech tools, their abilities and how the field uses them. Here are some of those initial buckets:

Big Listening
There are tools that monitor public digital conversations. Those that we classify as “big listening” technologies also help us separate signal from noise, identify themes, and better understand how conversations respond to events, influencers and communications strategies. These tools give us insight into the “why” of a conversation. They can also model the networks in which narratives operate.

These tools are often expensive (Crimson Hexagon/Consumer Research) and purpose-built (usually not for social change). They can also be free but come with a significant learning curve (MIT’s Media Cloud).

Listening is something people have always done (see every focus group ever). Today, most groups deploy tech to help listen to and monitor online conversations. Listening can include things like traditional and/or social media tracking. Approaches can be low-fi (hashtag analysis) and low or medium cost (Google Analytics and Google Trends). Basic listening doesn’t employ data scraping, machine learning, or network visualization and analysis.

Much of narrative change practice draws on principles from community or political organizing.  As such, the robust set of tools and practices associated with digital organizing can be useful narrative tech.  This includes: email, SMS text-to-action programs, digital ad and news buys (ActionSprout, TweetDeck, etc.).

Story Tech
In Toward New Gravity, we noted that stories are the mosaic tiles that make up deep narratives. The key role stories play in disseminating deep narratives give story tech a place in the narrative tech spectrum. When we talk about “story tech” we’re thinking of storybanks, audio and podcasting (Memria, SoundCloud and StoryCorps, etc.), and tools to share and tell immersive stories.

Internal Communication & Messaging Coordination
Narrative change work takes a high level of coordination. From email to WhatsApp and Slack to web conferencing, the tools we use to coordinate with each other, activists, members, volunteers and other audiences can help build and maintain alignment, operationalize narrative work, and connect a narrative “nervous system” of collaborators.

Narrative tech we need (let’s dream big, shall we?) 

Narrative technologies will always be changing. But it’s debatable whether spoken word, newspapers and television had the same impact as email, social media, and other channels that flow across the internet.

Today’s communications systems continually flood our distribution and listening tools with information. The new landscape might require some new tech and new ways of working with technology.

The people we spoke with in the field were full of suggestions for long-term (and short) tech needs. Let’s frame this in terms of what we want tech to help us do:

  • Batching & Analyzing: Tech to sift through noise, misinformation, keywords, images and sentiment to find clues to how people listen to and talk about issues.
  • Mapping: Tools that map networks of people, messages and narrative to understand where to focus and test our work.
  • Targeting: Tech that helps us drive narratives where they need to go.
  • Fair Access: We are concerned about equitable access to (and capacity to use) narrative technologies.
  • Safety: We’re also concerned about privacy,  security and ethical principles. When corporations and governments monitor and mediate messages they distort not just narratives but politics, policy and tools.

Tools that may address the concerns outlined above fall into several different categories:

Shared Big Listening
Ideas for addressing challenges to access, training and support include creating or leveraging cooperatively held tools for big listening, meta-data collection, and interpretation. Could we do big listening at a scale that’s useful, and accessible, to movements and coalitions?

Shared Big Viewing
Photos, videos, and other visual information (we’re thinking about memes here, too) require tools to aggregate and analyze visual content at scale. This would advance the ability of social change organizations to create, monitor, test and use visual content for narrative practice.

Shared Resources
There is a need for local, national, and transnational platforms that allow people to coordinate and access resources (like story banks, unbranded materials, media contact lists, and shared data) to be leveraged in narrative change efforts.

Security technologies may be used to help protect people doing dangerous or risky narrative work across the globe. This might include face obscuring technology, algorithms for identifying and preventing harassment, and a set of clear, easy to use security protocols.

Platforms and Values
Platforms and tools that reflect our values and have public accountability. Platform technologies like Facebook and Twitter operate as a public square. But they are privately held companies that have made the user a commodity and do not behave in the public’s best interest.

Tools to combat disinformation
Platforms, tools, and/or standards that allow practitioners and the public identify and surface sites of disinformation and tools to verify the validity of news, stories, images and more. Groups like FirstDraft are already working on this).

What’s next?

When talking about narrative, we often focus on its content: the stories we tell ourselves about culture, politics and society. But technology has long guided how narrative moves across communities, how it’s shaped and how we perceive it. As a result, we shouldn’t view tech as separate from narrative – a line item or add-on to bolt to our communications when the budget is right.

The team at Narrative Initiative is excited to learn about ways progressive organizations and movements integrate technology and narrative practices. Groups with the tools to track and test their work will create, find and distribute more powerful narratives. We’re looking forward to staying in dialogue with the people doing narrative change work about these questions as we move forward together.

Top photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Categories: Frameworks
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