Tag Archives: Facebook

Who Gets to Tell Our Story?


Frieze of Columbus in the New World, US Capitol
Frieze of Columbus and Indigenous Americans in the New    World, US Capitol Rotunda

 There is truth in the irony that our most cherished possession is not exclusively ours to own.

We think that our most precious possessions are the things we have acquired or the relationships we have.  But for many people the “right” to tell their own story looms just as large.  Narratives of our personal or tribal lives may be the keys to understanding who we are and where we came from.  But in fact they are not exclusively ours to tell.  We don’t have proprietary rights to our own personal histories.

This is both self-evident and enormously consequential.   It’s not just that we can’t easily agree even about the foundational stories about our collective past.  What Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln actually achieved will always involve contentious narratives.  We can also be unpleasantly surprised by accounts of ourselves offered even by friends or relatives.

It’s apparent that anyone can write someone else’s biography.  Even biographers who are out of favor with their subjects or never met them are frequently eager to weigh in with their own versions.  For example, we are presently surrounded by multiple narratives that recreate the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.  There’s Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography (Steve Jobs, 2011) and the forthcoming Aaron Sorkin film based on it.  Both recognize Job’s  vision for turning computing into a necessary life skill.  And both portray a garage innovator with a knack for ingenious design and an inability to acknowledge his co-visionaries.  Then there’s Alex Gibney’s very different documentary (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, 2015) detailing a single-minded marketing genius reluctant to engage with the unpleasant facts surrounding the Chinese factories that produce Apple products.  Amazon currently lists about ten books on Jobs. The point is that we can count on each version to offer a different person to readers.

The same is true for groups that seek power or legitimacy in the larger culture by presenting what are sometimes very different accounts about their pasts and their aspirations.  What’s the story of Scientology? It depends on who you ask. How has the institutional life of Catholicism evolved since revelations of widespread child abuse were widely reported at the beginning of the new century?  Skeptics and admirers routinely compete for attention to relay their stories.  In many ways the fissures that are spread across the culture deepen over time, often expanding into complete fault lines as interested parties vie for media access to “get their story out.”

There’s a whole lexicon of useful terms to represent these divisions.  We talk not only about “narratives,” but also “contested narratives,”  “counter-narratives,” “preferred narratives,” “backstories,” “storylines,” “myths,” “legends,” “lore,” “rumors” and “histories” that are disputed as “more fiction than fact.”  Facebook champions an individual’s own preferred narrative: a kind of carefully constructed window display of one’s life. Most other digital outlets focusing on the culture of celebrity capture readers by taking a very different turn:  favoring counter-narratives and backstories.  Sometimes they are even true.

Novelists who would seem to have the advantage of exclusive use of the products of their imagination are inclined to end up in tangles of their own making when readers find possible connections to the writer’s biography.  Readers can also be unforgiving if a scribe borrows another’s particularly traumatic narrative.  A few years ago the prolific Joyce Carol Oates came under criticism in New Jersey for embellishing on a news story about a college student found dead in a campus garbage container. The short story, Landfill, was published in the New Yorker, to the chagrin of the student’s family and others in the region.

For all of our hope that our stories can be communicated in ways that bring us the credit we seek, the fact is that we can never claim rights to exclusivity.  Ask anyone who has recently been in the news how well their views have been represented or how they were characterized. You are apt to get a response of mild frustration.  What we see in ourselves is probably not what those who retell our stories are going to report.  For individuals or groups without power this is sad to witness. Groups lose something basic when they lack the means to communicate their preferred narratives.  The rest of us battle on, even occasionally discovering a narrative that gives us far more credit than we deserve.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

Perfect Response logo

Tell Them You Like It

Comment boxWe need their music, and the music of your words. Let them know they’ve done something you like.

The other day I was searching online for information about a brilliant but mostly forgotten figure in the film industry. As expected, I found a brief entry on Wikipedia, but also a link to a beautifully written and illustrated blog post written  by someone motivated to express his appreciation. The rekindling of interest in the composer/arranger Conrad Salinger with the help of this particular blogger is the kind of thing the internet does so well. The part that’s new for most of us is the impulse to follow through on a digital discovery and actually tell a talented an expert, performer, or amateur enthusiast—anyone whose work you admire—that you really like what they’ve done. We need to get in this habit. And most websites are set up to make responses easy.

We live in an age when there are often more sellers than buyers, more writers than readers, more supplicants to join the ranks of musicians and actors than audiences to support them.  Our politics is now described as more “oppositional” than celebratory.  In sum, recognition, praise and gratitude are increasingly rare forms of response.

There are two parts to this. We are used to consuming the products of our culture as commodities, letting it slip from our notice that someone worked hard to produce a piece worthy of praise. In this age of fragmented media–and especially writers and musicians who tend to be underpaid and over-copied–a little personal praise is a small but useful gesture. Beyoncé can probably live without hearing from you. But musicians appearing at a local club or releasing their first recordings would probably welcome an encouraging word. The same is true for bloggers, journalists, newsletter compilers and others whose labor is likely to be taken for granted. We need their music, or the music of their words. Really useful internet content does not simply happen. Do more than “like” them on Facebook. Let them know they’ve done something that moved you, even transformed your understanding of a subject.

The second part of this requirement seems unnecessary to acknowledge, but is important in a era of mindless trolling. Be complementary. As we know, web anger seems to be the new normal. Comments after news posts or in Twitter feeds are notoriously cranky, and all the slimier for usually being anonymous. Instead, say something nice and sign your comments.  Meaningful and constructive criticism is best when knowledge of a subject makes it fully earned. But praise is an important gesture of acceptance and needs to be more freely expressed, especially in a society where most of us are stuck looking inward.

Comments?  Write woodward@tcnj.edu