Storytelling can give us community and connection – and it’s more important than we think.
As we know, humans are social animals. Cooperation and connection run through our very core. Evolutionary history and umpteen psychology experiments show this to be true. Even the most introverted loners amongst us have this characteristic. They read books, for instance, written by other human beings about the human experience. They listen to music and find that lyrics speak to them. They would immediately pull together with other passersby to rescue someone from a smashed up car. We all would. Connection and cooperation are in our DNA – but not necessarily in our daily lives.
As Sherry Turkle and Shimi Cohen pointed out: “Man is a social creature and the feeling of loneliness can drive them mad. Yet, the western and modern world sanctions individuality. The individual is measured by personal achievements, such as having a career, wealth, a self-image, and consumerism. In this course of action, many people lose their social and familial connections, in favour of a self-actualisation ideal. As social fabric in the western world weakens, it is not surprising that more and more people define themselves as lonely. And thus, loneliness has become the most common ailment of the modern world.” (Connected, but alone/The Innovation of Loneliness)
This is reiterated by Mark Pagel: “humans evolved a tribal nature that revolves around life in relatively small and exclusive cooperative societies… The growth of human populations happened far too quickly for biological changes to our nature to have kept up.” (Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Cooperation, p.346). We aren’t really cut out for modern life, it turns out, but what can we do about it?
Humans evolved to function best living in communities of up to 150 people all knowing one another and sharing reciprocal relationships but society doesn’t look like that anymore. We might not be able to reconfigure modern life to fit this model, but we can find ways to disrupt the modern condition of loneliness by finding as many sources of authentic human connection as we can.
How storytelling can make us more connected
We need connection for wellbeing and one of the ways to find it is through storytelling. Listening to a true life story or reading a blog might not mean you get to form a reciprocal social relationship with that person, but it can top up our connection levels. Storytelling achieves this in a way that most social media sharing cannot. As The Innovation of Loneliness explains, “the social networks offer us three gratifying fantasies. One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be, two that we will always be heard, and three that we will never have to be alone…. The best way to describe it is, “I share, therefore I am”. But this is only a fantasy of human connection – unless you incorporate the depth, insight and reflection that are part and parcel of stories. To add real connection to our online interactions, we should turn to the most powerful and effective method of communication we have: storytelling.
There is an enormous difference for our wellbeing between reading a genuinely connecting story about living a human life, and looking at a carefully constructed, filter-heavy instagram photo about being a body that looks a certain way. We only need to think about trolling to remember that our apparently socially connected lives are only one troll away from disconnection and lack of communication. The aim of trolls is to use lies to disrupt or skew a discussion off-topic and hopefully upset or anger people in the process. Nice work, idiots. Trolling interrupts and undermines real communication online but it doesn’t mean we can’t use the internet anymore – only that we can turn to authentic storytelling to keep it real.
Reading the internet doesn’t have to be bad for us – a miasma of fake news, trolling and angry discussions that default to Hitler. Like most technology, it can be used for good or bad. We really can access, not just credible information, but also human connection, online. We can find our tribes, discover useful advice and gain acceptance and understanding. We really can connect with like-minded people even if they don’t live nearby. We can also find the things we value – in the form of information, training, services and products that actually benefit us. Storytelling often plays a part in these relationships – “heart centred business” owners swear by it.
Stay with me netizens, this isn’t a 20 years too late justification for the information superhighway – but a campaign for making it a more human place. It’s human beings who fill the web with words and pictures and it is up to us to do this in a way that creates more human connection in the world, instead of eroding it completely. We used to gather round the campfire telling true stories and now we gather round the world wide cyber-net-superhighway, filling it with lies. I hope I’m not distracting you with my fun old timey tech phrases, because it’s actually a serious point.
How stories can help with trust issues
We already know that modern communication enhances our feelings of loneliness – and it is also wiping out trust. As sociologists will tell you, trust is essential for social cohesion, which is also the condition required for human connection, health and happiness. “Trust affects the wellbeing of individuals, as well as the wellbeing of civic society. High levels of trust mean that people feel secure, they have less to worry about, they see others as co-operative rather than competitive. A number of convincing studies in the USA have linked trust to health – people with high levels of trust live longer.” (The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, pp.56-57).
Inequality is at the root of this. There is “widespread concern that modern societies are, despite their affluence, social failures” which can be traced to inequality and shows up in “level of trust, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children’s education performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates, social mobility” (The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, pp.18-19).
According to this research, the European and World Values Study, designed to allow international comparisons of values and norms, definitively shows that in societies with greater levels of inequality, people trust each other least, and vice versa. Further data from the USA’s General Social Survey paints the same picture across US States comparisons. For the USA as a whole, trust levels have fallen from 60% in 1960 to under 40% in 2004, according to the National Opinion Research Centre. (But who needs trust, right, when we’ve got shiny new things?…)
And so “we can think of trust as an important marker of the ways in which greater material equality can help to create a cohesive, co-operative community, to the benefit of all” (p.62). Inequality is destroying trust and failing societies. The way we use communication technologies might be adding to all this. We should probably try to infuse it with as much authentic human connection as we can instead.
How to engage people with life stories
The most engaging online content often tells true life stories. Check out Brittany herself’s blog, Jennifer Dziura’s business, podcasts like The Lapse, or Serial, and successful crowdfunding campaigns like this library of things.
If you are a blogger, online entrepreneur, campaigner or community grower, you can achieve greater engagement, find more followers and create more human connection through using true life storytelling – and the internet will be a better place for it.
Don’t worry about market saturation – there is room for all of our stories. The more, the better. Collectively, we need to out-story the tsunami of commercial messages coming at us each and every day. “From the moment your alarm sounds in the morning to the wee hours of late-night TV and web-surfing, micro-jolts of commercial pollution flow into your brain at the rate of about three thousand marketing messages per day. Every day, an estimated twelve billion display ads, three million radio commercials, more than two hundred thousand TV commercials and an unknown number of online ads, spam emails and marketing messages are dumped into our collective unconscious”. (Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics by Adbusters).
We are so attuned to this infotoxin exposure that we don’t really notice it is happening. Commercial messages are designed to appear human: they look like humans talking to us, singing for us, sharing experiences and information, testing things on our behalf and writing about them in sponsored articles. They are warping our sense of human interaction. We can feel like we are surrounded by humans all day long when, in reality, most of it is advertising: people reading scripts and acting on camera.
By filling webpages and podcast airwaves with more and more true life stories we can re-balance our daily story intake – away from adverts and infotoxins and towards trust, connection and cooperation again.