Can stories help us to organize and make sense of our information?

While I was having dinner with friends the other evening I was again impressed by a simple observation: People love to tell stories.
The topic of conversation shifted throughout the evening – first the weather (the Seattle area had an unusual two week plus period of cold and snow before Christmas), then eating disorders, then a discussion of teachers and parents at the elementary school that our children attend. And so on.
There were six of us sitting around the table. Each of us told one or more stories, in turn, for each of the topics. 
Take us back in time… say, ten thousand years. Many things would be different. We might be gathered around a campfire instead of a dining room table. There might be very different rules for who sat where and who participated. And, aside from possibly the weather, topics would certainly be different!
But it’s likely that we’d still be telling stories.
Much has been written of the what, how and why of storytelling. For starters, try the Wikipedia article on “Storytelling”.  (I also enjoyed a recent article, “The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn”, http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-secrets-of-storytelling). We tell stories to get attention, sympathy, recognition and praise. We tell stories to establish and reinforce life values and principles. We tell stories to understand and make sense of our lives. We tell stories to exchange information with and establish connections to other people.
It’s no surprise, then, that we love to tell stories. We get so much out of our storytelling.
But we often avoid organizing. Think of your office or the basement or that closet in the back room. Think of the documents on your  computer’s hard drive or the email messages in your inbox.
Suppose there were a way to combine storytelling and organizing? No matter how many stories we tell, our offices, basements and closets will be just as messy as before. But the story, as it were, for our digital information is different.
Here are two stories of how digital story-telling can also organize:
·         Jill posts a series of photos to Flickr taken from a summer vacation to Italy. She writes captions. The sequence of pictures and their captions tell a story of her summer vacation. Her travel companions comment. Other friends comment. Jill comments on these comments. As this happens the story is told in greater detail. In this way, storytelling is a social interaction that happens over time and, potentially, across great distances.
What gets organized? For one thing, the pictures. The pictures on Jill’s camera or on her hard drive are a source of guilt and foreboding (“I really should do something with these pictures before I forget… “  “What if I lose them or delete them???!!”). The pictures on the Web set the stage for an enjoyable interaction between Jill and her friends.  Text from Jill and her friends is part of the dialog – part of storytelling. Later on – next year, 20 years from now – this same text can be used to index, document and organize the pictures.
·         Bob blogs to describe his project to re-model his house.  Bob wants to do most of the work himself. He’ll contract out only for specialty work such as for the plumbing and electrical. He’s done small repairs around the house before but nothing approaching the current re-model.  Like Jill with her photos, Bob blogs mostly for the social interaction. Bob wants his friends and family to know what’s going on.  He wants to tell his story about all the work he is doing and all the hurdles he is clearing along the way. In response, friends and family post comments with words of encouragement and sometimes even with useful advice.
What gets organized?  Lots of information concerning the what and why of various decisions. Bob may find these notes useful years later when there is a need to repair or replace various systems that are part of the re-model (like the sound system).  And, since blog entries include web references for information related to the re-model, Bob looks back to these entries even now while the re-model is ongoing.
In these examples, the primary motivation is social. People want to tell their story. But the information is usefully organized as a side effect.  Are there other examples?

Comments

Sometimes the data is the

Sometimes the data is the story and the story is the data - like dreamtime tales from aboriginal tribes that can describe everything from trade routes to spiritual rituals. I've recently picked up your book per Janis Machala - we should chat! Best, Kimberley

A story organizes the data a

A story organizes the data a certain way, but the data still exists in its
raw, cluttered, what-do-i-do-about-it way.
I make stories, ie art submissions, very frequently. Each submission has
different requirements and formats. So I go to my data, shape it for the
submission, and send the story out. Now I have not just accumulated raw
data, but accumulated stories too! Need a bigger closet!

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