Our perception of concepts that have existed since the beginning of time, are changing. These concepts: community, friendship, belonging – are flexing out. In the past, their definition has changed owing to a greater enablement of travel possibilities, but clearly it's the Internet which has become a key proponent of definition change in recent years. Facebook is one obvious example of how our view (and vista) of friends has changed, and for many, expanded.
Caf Fean and Nina Honiball are two creative practitioners at community engagement agency Soundings. They aim to challenge the way in which communities – of all types – function. Their theories of community development maybe relatively new, but the way in which their theories are executed, is through an ancient technique: storytelling.
As our perception of community is changing, it is also fragmenting. Digital connectivity has, according to Fean, "has both enabled some communities to come into being, and separated some others into distinctly different categories - those who do not adopt, those who watch TV, those who catch up with their leisure time online."
Fean makes the point that it's really about a changing literacy, rather than a fundamental change of what community is: "I think that fundamentally we all instinctively know what a community is for us, and seek them out. The interesting thing in my work, is understanding other people's communities, and then suggesting new ones, often based upon people's interests rather than by location."
Introducing complex mechanics into community development, allows for new techniques to be tried out and implemented. Honiball suggests that while crowdsourcing, for example, is an interesting way to develop a certain type of community, it does not necessarily give a community the structure that it needs, or allows for a framework to facilitate consultation with existing communities. "At some stage, you need the expert to step in. As far as consultation is concerned, then no, it doesn't make sense to use crowdsourcing. We could dip into it, but we need to be very clear about what it is that we get from people. I am for it, but it needs to be used in a very sensitive way."
The use of digital media to develop and sustain communities – either online or offline – challenges ideas of proximity and closeness. Do we "feel" closer to a Facebook friend living in Japan, than with our next-door neighbour, and is that feeling any different? Honiball observes that tools such as Skype allow people to physically "sense" someone's presence, which certainly challenges the definition of proximity. Fean produces a clear rationale as to why there is an increasing reliance on digital media in the everyday: "Our ability to use different means of communication through digital interfaces, are becoming more and more honed towards effective messaging as time becomes a perceived to be a dwindling resource."
Honiball explains the start of the community consultation process. "We've got technology, and we've got a passion and interest in storytelling. When you bring the two together, how can they become tools to start interesting community building projects, or social enterprises? How can you use these things to make them more powerful, or come up with a more creative solution?
In my head, narrative is both. It's more than this, but it's story and telling. You've got a message, and need to figure out: what's the most interesting way that I can get that story across? That gives you two ways to look at it. Narrative can be used to help you think through your process in a more creative way, but it can also be used as a way of communicating an idea. Imagining a situation as a story makes me think of coming up with a more creative solution."
Honiball and Fean's consultation process involves the collection of these narratives, in order to build a sense of the place where their community project is focused. These are condensed into an overall "picture", consisting of words, imagery and events. This "picture" is communicated across the community, supported by reports and feedback to the community on what the team has collected.
Both practitioners consider the use of narrative, and the telling (and understanding) of a story, to be fundamental to their work. Honiball explains why, in terms of "story" and "telling".
"In reality, when you ask someone to think of a story, they only think of a story when they can only imagine something fun where they are at that point in time. What they imagine is not unrealistic, but has some kind of creative magic to it. Following on from that, in terms of using telling - everyone can do that. There are millions of ways to make the communication of your project, creative. That's why advertising agencies exist."
Effective stories also contain microscopic levels of subtlety. Fean points out that non-verbal communication is clearly very important, as is the vocabulary: the place might have, and use, its own language. The way in which the story is then produced, is through the use of, as Honiball explains, one of time's most powerful techniques.
"The most traditional way to do that is through the hero's journey. If I put my mind into the hero's journey, to imagine an idea, or get people in a multi-disciplinary team, to go through the hero's journey and get something [amazing] out at the end? That is exactly what the storytelling cards are about."
A rich process informs a beautiful outcome.
At this point in the conversation, Honiball demonstrates a set of cards to facilitate community storytelling, and developed by NearInteraction's team of futurists, NearLabs. The cards comprise of seven parts of the "hero's journey", ending in a conclusion and outcomes.
As Honiball observes, the cards are simple, but can be used it in any given degree of complexity. Storytelling is ancient, intuitive, and are how we make sense of life. The "Urban App" comes through in the setting: the desire to facilitate an outcome that is brought to life through the storytelling process. "It's easier when you see this as an impossible possibility: a dream in reality. A rich process informs a beautiful outcome.
"That's what I've realised; I started as a graphic designer, which led to an MA in Narrative Environments. It taught me a different way of thinking about my process. So, if I had to design a [brand] identity [now], the way in which I would approach it would be far more rich. I would spend more time on the process, and let that give me the clues of how to shape the outcome."
Fean fleshes out some of the intricacies in facilitating narrative within communities, and how storytelling must be used in a guided way to give a realistic, not fantastic, outcome. "You need to be sensitive to how people tell their stories and which elements you wish to translate. When we work with people and their stories, we always have to manage expectations. They are trading stories with us, and we like to remain as open as possible when it comes to what might happen next. There has to be a clear delineation between what is in the realm of imagination, and what is realistic and deliverable within a project."
Such realistic expectations are particularly explored with the earlier cards in the series. In asking "What if?" and applying different scenarios, the outcomes are changed. These small tweaks can make a big difference, in terms of building both physical and virtual communities. What if the Government's cuts continue in terms of council services? What if the interface was changed to our blog? What if we used real people rather than actors, in our campaign? As Fean observes, this is akin to "running a risk assessment on a storyline".
Processes and outcomes
The use of storytelling cards is consistent with Stefanie Posavec's recent observation concerning artists and data - that the process as important as the outcome. Fean totally agrees with the sentiment. "You cannot deliver an end result without a lot of ground work - and a lot of time and effort. Communicating and establishing a bond between yourself and the person with the story, and then transforming that story into an aspiration or a goal is a creative process. It can only work in tandem with the person who willingly offers up that story in the first place, or with a group - they guide the process, and act as your sounding board along the way.
"Basically, we're saying the same thing. With data visualisation, the input is well researched and categorised. In my profession, it is content. Without different stories, categorised and filtered, you have nothing meaningful to represent: no content means no story."
As storytelling becomes increasingly prevalent through all parts of the creative process, across an increasingly wide range of media, it is useful to understand how even the most minor tweak in the process achieves a very different outcome – and exposes the fine line between success and failure.
Nina Honiball and Caf Fean are part of Soundings, where their roles respectively cover visual communications and public consultation projects.
Both Nina and Caf will be speaking at Urban Apps, a NearLabs event which connects ideas, communities, and interactive technology. Urban Apps takes place in London, on Saturday 5 February. Use the code NEAR15 for a 15% discount.