Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Punching holes in the walls that surround us

I recently watched a talk by novelist Elif Shafak on TEDGlobal 2010. She talked about her background growing up in a diplomatic life, about the expectation critics have that her books reflect Turkish issues, even when she's writing novels in English set in Boston.

She described the circles we build around ourselves, the walls we use to enclose our groups of friends who tend to live lives so similar to our own. How associating with others like ourselves can blind us to the way other people live, and the stories that they have from their own point-of-view.
One way of transcending these cultural ghettos is through the art of storytelling. Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls and through those holes we can get a glimpse of the other and sometimes even like what we see.

This is one reason why my bookshelf, Google Reader, and Twitter friends are so diverse (at least I think so, hope so). I love seeing the world thru different eyes, getting a perspective on lives so different from my pretty sheltered Western NY existence. Being obsessed with stories and language as I am, it's not just about the subject material, but how the stories are told - the language people use, the tone and meter of their prose. For more on the benefits of following a diverse Twitter crowd, see Twitter Strangers on The Frontal Cortex.

Now, Shafak is adamant that her work is "JUST A STORY" and doesn't have any underlying meaning other than what the story intends to say - no hidden messages. I don't think that holds true across all stories.

Explore, open your eyes, punch holes in your walls - see what life can be like beyond the circle of those just like you. And let me know what you find.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Art in the Community

It's that time of year again. Humongo (formerly Plaid), the agency that is super-smart about everything social media and confectionery, is touring the US and visiting bunches of cool people on the way. My favorite stop so far was early on in the tour - the NuPenny store.

Image via boingboing

The store is an art installation in retail space by Randy Regier- a store of retro-looking, not quite real toys in shades of grey - that you can only see thru the windows.

I love this on 2 major points:

Unexpected Art.
As most of you know, my brother, CW Roelle, is an artist. While in Baltimore, he'd often show his work in a cafe. He did not want people walking into his show with "expectations" or preconceived notions about "art". Instead, he wanted them to see the art in "living spaces", to be surprised by it, and therefore elicit perhaps a more honest response. NuPenny is much like this, as it could be just another store on the street, but there's something special and unique about it.

Peering into someone else's dreams. Regier talks about the project as a dream space. Seeking to give people the impression they're peering into someone else's dreams. Giving an almost tangible essence to the experience, akin to the physical reactions we can have to vivid dreams. By not letting people into the space, he's keeping the experience at arm's length. It doesn't become "too real" so the dream-like atmosphere is not broken. This is awesome. It brings TOM associations with the film Inception and with the intense dream-communications Shadow experiences in Gaiman's American Gods. It is a physical embodiment of the principles behind good stories. I'd love to hear stories from visitors about the experience...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Won't you be.... my neighbor?

Neighbor is one word where the British spelling always seems better to me - neighbour - random note.

It was roughly 2004 when I really started digging into blogging - when the list of blogs I followed grew exponentially, I started RoelleKids, and I started noodling on a potential whitepaper "Personal Encounters in a Digital World" - shortly thereafter I was moved to a different assignment where I was not required to produce whitepapers and didn't really have time for that anyway. Not that I stopped obsessing, just never wrote the paper.

Part of the fodder for the paper was the book Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam. It's been a while since I've read the book, so no extensive review here. My feelings for it were mixed. It's a great treatise, but also annoyed me enough that I lashed out in my margin notes. Part of the problem is that the social sphere of the web that Putnam described seemed dated to the days of primarily usenet groups and he didn't seem to get that people were connecting in ways that made it accessible to everyone.

I dislike the implication that if you're connecting online you're not connecting in the real world and society is going to pot. We all know the power of Meetups - that online connections become more valuable when you can meet face-to-face. And many people who are active online are active in other aspects of community as well.

Community isn't deteriorating, it's adapting.

The Pew Internet & American Life project recently released a report citing that, while face-to-face encounters and phone calls are still the top ways neighbors communicate, 27% of adult Internet users connect to neighbors or neighborhood orgs via online tools. I think that's cool. You're going to get to know neighbors faster if you start interacting with them online, rather than spending months or years waiting for friendly nods to turn into a conversation. People who may be bashful about in-person neighborhood meetings (me) may be more more comfortable speaking out/ volunteering from an online forum.

I'm pleased that there has not been a wave of concern or backlash around these findings - that people realize this is just one piece of the puzzle.