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A Story Culture

The Editor and I don’t argue, we discuss.

We’re arguing… discussing over a glass of red wine my concern over our collective attention spans. Not just she and I, but everyone. The whole damned planet.

I say, “Information just keeps getting smaller. We’re sharing our bright ideas in 140 characters now and no one is taking the time to construct a strategic thought. All these micro-ideas are free and everyone is taking them for granted. We’re just tactically stumbling through a day full of intellectual sound bites stuffed with shortened URLs. There’s no deep now. Just shallow passing seconds.”

“No one is learning. There’s no work involved in knowing a thing, so we’re becoming mentally flabby. I want people to read more.”

To which the Editor retorts: “I don’t think you know what information is.”


Information has a Hierarchy

So I looked it up. According to Ray R. Larson at Berkeley, information has a hierarchy that looks like this:

  • Data – The raw material of information
  • Information — Data organized and presented by someone
  • Knowledge — Information read, heard or seen and understood
  • Wisdom — Distilled and integrated knowledge and understanding.

If you ignore the fact that the word information is used to define a hierarchy about information, this hierarchy makes sense, but it dances around a key point.

Another version of this hierarchy describes the same categories as above but focuses more on what happens to information once we get a hold of it. Not just consumption, but synthesis.

  • DataRaw material. Facts. Got it.
  • InformationOrganized data. See what happens here? Someone showed up and organized the data into something else. Why’d they do this? How’d they know it was the right thing to do? Let’s keep moving.
  • KnowledgeInformation seen, heard or read and understood. To me this is when information is transformed by the understanding of why. Our data is organized into information and that is passed onto someone else who can now recognize the value in the information and thinks, “Oh, wow. Now I understand how a trash compactor works. Slick.”
  • WisdomDistilled, integrated knowledge and understanding. The idea here is that higher order constructions of information are based beyond our ability to consume, combine, evaluate, and interpret information. The information becomes a catalyst for creation. Think of it like this: maybe a lot of people understand trash compactors, but you know so much about trash compactors that you could build one yourself and perhaps advance the art of trash compacting in the process.

Still with me? This is going to take more than 140 characters and there’s a point. Just wait a tick.

Take a look at this list:

  • New York is a city.
  • It takes me about five hours to fly to New York.
  • I’ve been to New York three times this year
  • I never believe I’m in New York until I’m in a cab or smoking a cigarette.

Is this data, information, or knowledge? Or just four boring tweets? That would depend on whether or not you’re interested in my experiences in New York. But what I provide in this list is the opportunity for increasing amounts of understanding, and understanding is the progression through, and synthesis of, increasingly complex pieces of information. Right?

There’s another thread that ties this information together, and you may not initially see it, but if you’ve started mentally asking questions – Why does Rands go to New York? What does he do there? Did I know that he smoked? – you have started to find it.

I’ve begun to tell you a story.

A Shattered Narrative

The reason no one watches or cares about the evening news anymore is because there are a great many other ways to find your news. A weblog here, a Twitter status update there. In the deluge of information variety we’ve realized that the evening news is just one set of facts and just one carefully constructed story, and increasingly one with its own specific agenda. Who wants to be spoon-fed 30 minutes of ad-infested evening news when I can figure out what my world thinks is important by glancing at The Daily Show, Twitter, and NetNewsWire?

The traditional narrative has been shattered into bits of well-indexed information. Google wasn’t the first indexing tool, but it’s certainly the best. Still, Google is powerfully dumb. Yes, I can find whatever piece of information I’m looking for, but what’s more interesting are all the related pieces of information. How do you query for knowledge via Google? How about wisdom?

If you’re buying my definitions of the informational hierarchy, there’s no replacing the process of understanding if you want to delve into more interesting forms of information. There’s no replacing a human being combing through seemingly disparate pieces of information to evaluate, interpret, and combine it into something unexpected; into a new work. Into a story.

Those frustrated with Twitter are frustrated because they have a belief that a story needs a beginning, middle, and end. And that it should have all of those parts before it’s presented to them. What the hell am I supposed to learn from a tweet? The point of Twitter isn’t knowledge or understanding, it’s merely connective information tissue. It’s small bits of information carefully selected by those you’ve chosen to follow and its value isn’t in what they send, it’s how it fits into the story in your head. There are great stories to be found on Twitter, but you have to do the work.

This is what is going on all day. It will start with a random tweet about conferences and you’ll think, “I don’t understand why everyone goes to conferences”. You won’t act on this thought; you’ll leave it buried in your head until you see that link on where someone important rails on the lack of women presenters at conferences. And in that moment, you’ll remember that drunken thought you had at that conference last March when you discovered the basic truth about conferences: it’s not what you learn, it’s who you find.

From a disparate set of information, you continually find your own arc, your own story, and my question is: What are you going to do with it? You’re an information nerd, you’re adept at consuming massive amounts of micro-information, and those who watch you do this are saying you’ve got a short attention span, and you might.

But I think all this micro-information has macro-story potential.

Rands’ Story Hierarchy

As we’ve established, there’s information. Like everywhere. You, as a consumer of information, fall into one of three progressively complex buckets regarding this data:

  • You can understand the information — What does it mean? Why is it important? How does it relate to other things I care about?
  • You can explain the information to someone else — Hey Bob, this is what this means. I can explain it to you and impart my understanding.
  • You can create more information, building something new and telling a story – Hey Jim, actually, we discovered a better way to do X. Bob and I were working on Y one time and realized that…

But Rands, I’m not a writer.

This is a poor excuse and the death of many a worthy story. The construction of a story has very little to do with writing. It has to do with the semi-magical process of you taking disparate pieces of information, combining them into something new, which includes your experience and understanding, and then giving them to someone else. Look around the walls of wherever you’re reading this and pick two random objects. Got ’em? Ok, now tell me how they relate. No, you can’t say, “They’re both in the coffee shop”. What’s the first novel thing that crosses your mind about the intersection of these two items?

But you don’t have a story, yet. Just like information isn’t knowledge until it’s understood, your tale isn’t a story until you give it someone else — until they have a chance to see what they think about your inspiration.

But Rands, my thought is really, really stupid.

I understand what you’re saying but I don’t think that’s what you mean. I think what you’re saying is, “I don’t think that anyone will find anything of value in my thought,” and you’re wrong. You’ve got two things going for you. You’ve got the inexplicable moment of inspiration that created your idea, and it’s the closest thing to magic you’ll experience in your life. Second, you’ve got the entire planet listening and there’s just no telling what any of those folks are looking for.

The value of the idea is one part that it is yours and one part that you gave it to someone else. It’s you and something new.

Information Is Getting Smaller and Faster

Look at the historic progression of popular personal written information containers over the past 10+ years:

Home pages > Blogs > Lists of Links > Tumblr > Twitter

I see two symbiotic trends. First, I see a reduction in the average size of a piece of information. I see information that feeds our short attention spans. Second, and more important, I see our tools increasingly removing barriers from producing information. Remember when you needed a nerd friend to set up a weblog? Did you have any issue figuring out how to publish a thought with Twitter? I hope not.

Yes, these frictionless tools make it so anyone can say anything about any topic, but these tools are built with you in mind and I do mean you. Imagine if Twitter forced you to follow certain people. What if Facebook randomly added folks to your friends list? You know what you’d have? The evening news. Random stories from folks you don’t know and probably don’t trust.

We’re in a share everything world and you get to choose your role. You can be overwhelmed and sit in the coffee shop with your friends and say, “Twitter: what’s the point?” Or, you can jump in with both feet, grab those three random ideas and tie them into a story that no one has ever seen.

An Essential Skill

I wrote, edited, and published an entire book without physically interacting with a single person at my publisher. The t-shirt I produced last year and the one I’m doing this year were entirely designed, developed, and shipped by interacting with two different organizations that I never met. Paradoxically, it’s never been easier to share or meaningfully interact with more people with less physical, in-person effort.

Your ability to compose and convey information as well as express yourself through your fingertips is a skill that is only going to increase — and increase in value — as people become more comfortable with their place in communities that span the planet, and as the tools to connect them become more commonplace.

In this digitally distant world full of information that appears to only be moving faster and faster, you get to choose: how much will I consume and how much will I create?

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31 Responses

  1. Karl Strope 14 years ago

    A note:

    This post focuses on the evolution of sharing a narrative, but I think another very important part of sharing ‘data’ is the ability to take your knowledge and wisdom and distilling it for easier consumption.

    At one time, we watched the evening news because the broadcasters would hire people that had a vast understanding of the days events, and they would distill it for the citizen’s consumption. As broadcasting becomes simpler, we have the opportunity to use our knowledge and wisdom not only create data and information, but distill these in a unique and valuable way, thereby allowing others to become more knowledgeable and wise. (It works the other way around, too!)

    I might be stating something we’ve all already agreed on, but I think this is another point that needs to be made about understanding.

  2. Matthew Reinbold 14 years ago

    Its serendipitous that you posted about this tonight when Google’s Super Bowl ad is still fresh in people’s minds.

    To view it lazily its just a string of searches – data. But pay a tiny bit of attention and it suddenly becomes a narrative (and a surprisingly moving one at that).

  3. Your writing formed a question in me.

    Can information get any smaller than a tweet?

    if not are we experiencing the smallest form of information of mankind?.

  4. I am constantly amazed at how proliferated the view of the main stream new’s specific agenda is and how many people reference The Daily Show in the same breath.

    Great post! A handful of my more detailed responses to some of Rands posts, specifically a counter to “Wanted” here:

  5. Hank Fay 14 years ago

    A story connects the disparate, the hare and the tortoise. When I am teaching concepts, I tell stories that teach, not ideas to be learned. I use tweets to point to stories. Stories, ideas tweets: all have their place, so long as they stay in their place.

  6. “Home pages > Blogs > Lists of Links > Tumblr > Twitter”

    I’m not sure that an evolution process. it might be a tree. and it might have disconnected nodes evolving in parallel.

  7. Doug McCaw 14 years ago

    Very interesting post but I believe that you have mixed two entirely different beasts. That is the creation of information and the vast sea of data available. Information or knowledge cannot be measured by size, but is what it is. Context is important, not the size.

    My personal example for the information hierarchy is this:

    Data: Numbers

    Information: Adds context so that these numbers form a bus schedule.

    Knowledge: Knowing how to interpret the bus schedule to catch a bus to Toledo.

    Wisdom: Fusion of Knowledge from different sources (the weather) to determine that the bus will probably be late getting to Toledo due to a snow storm passing through the Mid-west. This requires the fusion of knowledge of the bus schedule, how buses operate and how weather can affect the operation of said buses. (Of course knowledge of delays built into a bus schedule may lead you to determine the bus will arrive on time)

    Now this is a simple example for illustration (data need not be numbers but could be pictures or even passages of text).

    As for the second part of your story the story. I think tweets and sound bytes do not have enough context to be considered Information. An example is that information, like the bus schedule is clear and not open to alternative interpretation. However a tweet, such as “Record snow fall on the east coast” may be interpreted as “proof of global warming (weather change)”, “proof of global warming hoax (it must be colder on the east coast)” or even a comment about some other east coast where snow fall has only been recorded for the past 10 years (rendering the data useless in determining global warming patterns).

    Because of tweets and sound bytes lack complete context they should be considered data. They must be placed in context to be of value, unless as you have suggested they are simply catalysts, where they are not required to rate as data or knowledge. In closing, placing tweets and sound bytes into context allows the formation of knowledge, but too often they are taken out of context and contribute to the level of noise that must be reduced to gain knowledge.

  8. Remember, information is not knowledge; knowledge is not wisdom; wisdom is not truth; truth is not beauty; beauty is not love; love is not music; music is the best.

    – Frank Zappa

  9. bruce wayne 14 years ago

    I think that what has changed is the amount of information that a reader/writer has access to. For instance we can safely assume that most readers/writers come to a site with knowledge about the information item “New York”. If we just have the information item “New York” in a tweet the reader has a good idea about the information that is contained in “New York” as well as other related information items that can be associated with “New York”

    Twitter and other micro information services work because we have come to a point where readers/writers have access to any needed missing information.

  10. People are drawn to stories more than facts or information. A good story will trump the facts every time.

    I agree with the information hierarchy idea but what seems to be missing is the feeling or emotion that the information creates. Even in this hyper-connected, information age, people are still drawn in to stories or narrative that evokes emotions.

  11. Gord Wait 14 years ago

    chanux wrote:

    Can information get any smaller than a tweet?


    (aka True, aka 1)

  12. Information is getting faster and smaller. But the concept is not new. I have heard Hemingway thought some of his best work was a six word story.

    But most of us aren’t Hemingway, so Twitter and the like become a nonsense for many. Just as you point out. Most can’t tell a story in 140 characters.

    Experience dictates wisdom, but a good story is as close as you can get without it.

  13. Easily the best post I’ve read all year. Still noodling it a bit.

    Two primary thoughts jumped out at me while reading this:

    * Rands is our Marshall McLuhan

    * Rands is making new t-shirts!

  14. Matt Moore 14 years ago

    The DIKW pyramid has taken multiple kickings in the last week:

  15. hmm, yet another rands post i make it about 1/3rd through before skipping to the last paragraph.

    if my skimming worked the takeaway is “rands is doing his ‘i like to write, so should you’ thing again”.

  16. One of my personal heros, Miles Kington, wrote once:

    “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting one in a fruit salad.”

  17. Rich Mumm 14 years ago

    This was an interesting article. I think there’s an important piece missing in the exposition (at least one)–and that would be the “intent” of the information seeker. What is the individual trying to achieve when he/she accesses information sources? What questions are they asking of the universe? A prosaic example I recall reading years ago is illustrative of this:

    When we glance at our watch, the information we come away with is very dependant upon what question we are asking it. By this I mean–sometimes we ask “What time is it?” and so we come away with an answer such as 2:39 P.M. At other times, we may ask a very different question, such as “Am I late for my 3 P.M. meeting?” in which case the answer would be “No!” or perhaps “No! But you have to drive faster and take the short cut, or you’ll probably be late.”

    A simple and amusing test of this hypothesis is as follows: Observe someone glance at their watch. When they have glanced away again, ask them “What time is it?” Often you can see them look again at their watch before giving you the reply “It’s 2:39.” Now it may be that they have a very short memory or that they are simply performing a stereotyped sequence of responses to the question about the time–OR it may be that they did not register the precise time because they were asking their watch a different question and now they need to retrieve the answer to the question you have posed. As I mentioned, such an exercise is simple and amusing. I think it is also instructive and revealing of something deeply captivating about humanity and how we interact with the universe of information in which we are immersed.

    To pursue this just a bit further, I would say that the writer of the article could perhaps have addressed what the military (and many corporations) would term “intelligence.” This category of knowledge is similar to the knowledge and wisdom referred to in the article, but is conditioned in most instances by the pre-existing intent of the information gatherer. The seeker of “intelligence” has an objective and agenda that is distinct from someone who is surveying information simply to enlarge their knowledge of the universe, with no short-term objective (save enlightenment). One might compare the two forms of endeavor to two people entering a library–one to research a specific subject for a term paper and the other to browse the shelves for something that piques their interest (with no specific genre or list of authors in mind to limit the scope of the search). Both have valid objectives, but their methods of seeking for the information and the mental filters they employ to narrow the search are strikingly different–and will certainly produce different search strategies, processes and results.

  18. rich Mum 14 years ago

    The previous comment regarding the intent of the seeker coloring the search strategy and thus the result also bears on the question about the minimal size of information. It should be obvious that the minimal size that can convey information is a single bit. For example, of the question is “is the power on? then meaningful information is conveyed with a simple “yes”–if more elaborate information is requested,l then the minimal size of acceptable information content in the reply must also grow. Thus, the minimal size of “meaningful” information is a function of the intent of the seeker.

  19. Matt Grimaldi 14 years ago

    This touches on the concept I’ve been considering for a while, that a Story is one of the fundamental units of communication. It may be broken down into components, but there are attributes that do not appear without the components being assembled into a story.

  20. Stephen Augenstein 14 years ago


    I think the only major shortening we’ll see in long-distance information transmission will come with a change in medium. A picture conveys a substantial amount of information in an incredibly small message. From there, maybe it will be shortened to little pulses of emotion, a la Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”.

  21. I read your post with interest. As a photographer, I find great parallels in the visual world, and specifically, with the way different ‘artists’ see and photograph.

    There are the literalists; photos of trees that are taken just to record the data, ‘This is what an oak tree looks like.’

    There are photos of trees taken to record, “this is a beautiful tree, as you would surely agree if you were here looking at this postcard-of-a-scene. Isn’t nature beautiful.” (yawn)

    There are photos taken because someone goes beyond the literal, the data, or knowledge, to the point of creative synthesis; “This is a tree that you would ordinarily not notice, but because I see it in a unique way and can share my vision with you via a photograph, you can see in a new and (hopefully) delightful way that which you have never thought of before, and if I’m really lucky, it will suggest a story (trees perform a secret night dance when no one is looking and may have an entire hidden life) and henceforth, you will always remember the tale of the night-dancing trees when you see those puny little saplings in the office park parking lot, and life will seem a bit more magical and wondrous.”

    And through the great invention of social networking via flickr, I can share my vision with people all over the globe, and be equally inspired and enlightened through seeing their unique visions, that tell me stories and show me things I didn’t know were possible, via their images.

    I’ve read tweets that were as subtle and nuanced as haiku, setting an emotional stage and leaving edgy unanswered questions in their wake, and then again, I’ve read tweets that flowed from the empty into the void. It’s the person reflected, not the depth of the puddle.

  22. Stellar post sir, thank you for letting us participate in this discussion with the Editor.

  23. This was a great post. Thanks.

  24. Kevin Webber 14 years ago

    I find Twitter to be a source of entertainment. The data, information, knowledge, and/or wisdom I gain is incidental. I’d sooner spend 30 minutes consuming potentially banal information on Twitter than watching America’s Next Top Model. 🙂

  25. Hi Rands, Great post and a thoughtful way to help people understanding how they can create. Your concern about the increasing fragmentation of information, as well as of the people who create and consume it, who get virtually sliced and diced, is shared by Jaron Lanier in his book, “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto”

  26. Lori O. 14 years ago

    As a writer and communication specialist, I talk a lot about the power of storytelling, and you’ve hit upon why. 140 characters imparts very little beyond data, and the quest to create entertaining data often feels forced. If I’m being brutally honest, my batting average for

  27. You’ve gone and made my twitter feed public again.

  28. Michael 14 years ago

    Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.

    Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

  29. Rands, thank you. You ideas really resonated with me since there is quite a bit of overlap with my own recent thinking on the subject of information and knowledge.

    Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the information streams that we come in contact with in our lives, and how these information streams fare in terms of value (or knowledge or wisdom) they deliver to us. My latest blog post is actually about migrating from Google Reader to Twitter for most of my information needs, and I believe that this personal experience exemplifies a trend.

    You noted the profound simplicity of putting personal thoughts and ideas in front of the world, but the flip side (the reader side) of this is equally important. We as readers increasingly find ourselves in an informational deluge. Now more than ever we are all looking for a coping strategy to overcome the flood of information to reach what we really care about. I am hardly a Twitter advocate, but I think tools like Twitter and Facebook perform a tremendous service getting us there.

    Twitter and Facebook are founded on a trust network which is modeled after real-life social network and is tuned for our established social behaviors. The social network is a natural concept, and it has been a part of our human genetic and cultural heritage for millions of years. The information doesn’t come from CNN, which has kind of a global trust score in our heads, but it comes from a trusted individual, which has a very local, topic-specific trust score and past performance.

  30. thanks to @kabaim for pointing me here.

    i want to share with you what i recently discovered. it builds on your post and “goes meta.”

    if you make it through to the end, read through this exchange between me and zrks for the final insight:

    would love to hear from you

    – @venessamiemis

    i’d love your thoughts

  31. Fine 1 post. Basic problem can be G. modify their mind too repeatedly.