Storytelling is the crux of what most people do with their lives. Communications, sales, design – we’re all taking the data we have at hand, and weaving it into a narrative that will help personalize the information into digestible pieces, whether we’re using words, images or another medium. People are more likely to remember a story than a set of disparate facts, because a story helps us internalize and relate to the data.
With the explosion of big data, and our cultural focus on ‘just the facts,’ we’ve started to forget the importance of a finely crafted story. However, as author Frank Rose explained, “stories are to humans what algorithms are to machines,” because we need a framework that supports and explains our data. Without structure, we have a wild compilation of insights and information that don’t guide us to an ending or call to action. That structure of organized, sequenced data provides a narrative through which we can comprehend the information at hand, and make decisions or conclusions.
Everyone is using big data to frame or support their own narratives. Politicians are utilizing big data findings to weave information into their rhetoric and capture as many eyeballs as possible in the 2012 election, while Target used big data analytics to determine whether or not its shoppers were pregnant, so as to alter the sales storyline those women received.
With this overabundance of data, we’ve seen an evolution in the format of our cultural stories; we regularly incorporate as many data points as possible now. Charts and data used to be the conclusion of a storyline, use to emphasize a point the ‘author’ was making. Now data is used at the beginning, and throughout the entire narrative, as support and proof of the validity of the information from start to finish. If used properly, big data can vastly improve the way everyone tells, and understands, storylines.
The problem with this wealth of information made possible by advances in technology is that it’s actually affecting our ability to create a cohesive story. We fear we’re coming to the wrong conclusions based on our data, and instead of succinctly bundling the information into a package, we recklessly throw data points around and hope someone else will weave a narrative thread throughout the relevant information. Privacy advocates are worried as more and more data is collected about people, according to a recent study from Pew Internet Research. They worry about profiling and that “those who crunch Big Data with algorithms might draw the wrong conclusions about who someone is, how she might behave in the future, and how to apply the correlations that will emerge in the data analysis.”
This is a trend that needs to stop, as it’s our job as storytellers to take those extra steps, and weave the information into digestible bits for our audiences. Big data should make our jobs easier, providing us with readily accessible proof points for our narratives, we just need to pay more attention to which bits of information are relevant, and which need to be left out of the story.
~Caitlin Ridge is a senior account executive at Airfoil, a high-tech PR/marcomm agency with offices in Silicon Valley and Detroit.