Patterns, stories and communities

I was thinking about the P.S. in my learn-and-latch post and trying to figure out the process by which people absorb general patterns into themselves. In fact, what are those general patterns? What forms do they take?

My thesis of the day is that the general patterns I was talking about are stories. I circle back to the topic of stories pretty regularly, as I find that stories are extremely powerful patterns that our brains are structured to absorb. For instance, I regularly tell stories that I don’t know the origin of; I don’t remember where I read or heard the story or even many of the specific details, but the general pattern of the story itself was memorable and sticks with me. I think the reason for that is that our brains are wired to remember patterns, not details, and our predilection for stories reflects that.

So what makes a story a good general pattern? And how do we even evaluate the “good-ness” of a pattern/story? My evaluation metric is going to be whether a story sticks with people and influences their behavior. As usual on this topic, I’m influenced by Orson Scott Card’s story The Originist, which has the wonderful quote, “the vigor of a community depends on the allegiance of its members, and the allegiance can be created and enhanced by the dissemination of epic stories.” Stories create community. Becoming part of the community involves learning the origin myths and the identity stories and incorporating those into your self story. A great story is one which people take to heart, that changes their behavior, that causes them to self-identify as part of a community.

Constructing these sort of stories is really tricky. Without any details, the story doesn’t seem real, because there’s nothing to anchor our perceptions. More details make the story more specific and real. But too many details doesn’t work either; somebody that drones on, unable to resist talking about every last detail, is incredibly boring. A good storyteller leaves out certain details so that people can project themselves into the story, lettiing them fill in the blanks.

Getting the right details is important. A storyteller will tailor the details to the audience, making references to things they would know so as to anchor the story in their reality. I was noticing this last night when out with friends; I was telling a story about my time at TEP, and slipped in an aside to the other TEPs present of who the protagonist was; since they knew who he was, it helped to ground the story, since they knew that this was totally expected behavior on his part. The story was still funny to the non-TEPs, but I think the extra detail I threw in to make the connection for the TEPs helped.

One of the reasons we often struggle with integrating into a new group or community is that they don’t share the same references as us. So the stories require extra explanation for them to make sense. It takes time before we learn the back history and meet the people of the group so that we can appreciate the stories. But once we become fully integrated, we have taken ownership of the community stories as our own stories, and it almost doesn’t matter whether we witnessed the story or not. The same stories get told about the same people, even if the names keep changing.

Another aspect of a good story is that it should create a template for others to follow. The stories that last are the ones that are exemplars of the desired community behavior. We reward such behavior with immortality through stories. In the context of a community like TEP, the stories almost always revolve around otherwise intelligent people who do odd (and often stupid) things. The Hanging Couch, the Musical Stairwell, Water War stories, etc. In other communities, other things are rewarded, whether it’s great hacks (either computer or other) or self-sacrifice or awesome layouts in frisbee or whatever. The stories that define a community are the best guide as to how an ideal member of the community should behave.

It’s interesting to try to take all of these factors and use them in attempting to evaluate the quality of the construction of a story. Is the story well or badly constructed? It depends on what you are trying to achieve in a story. If it’s to entertain folks over dinner, keeping it snappy and concise is the way to go, and you get instant feedback. If you are trying to create an origin myth for one’s community, you have to consider these other factors, the balance between detail and generality, and it takes much longer to evaluate whether you are successful.

It’s very difficult to self-consciously construct such origin myths. It seems too calculated, too artificial (the example of L. Ron Hubbard to the contrary). The stories have to evolve, to be told and re-told, by people who never even met the people originally in the story, eroding the details such as names and dates and specific places until only the essential bones of the story remain. As the community evolves, the stories change to match.

Patterns. Stories. Communities. Welcome to my mind.

7 thoughts on “Patterns, stories and communities

  1. Take a listen to This American Life’s 12/6/6 episode on “reruns” (Episode 226). Your post reminded me a little of Act 2 on the way couples evolve stories for each other.

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