The Evolving Narrative



What happens when you offer up your narratives to virtual online communities? By narratives, I am not referring to your life stories or the highlights of your weekends. Instead, I am referring to the evolution of a thought pattern; an ongoing series of thoughts you might engage in on any certain topic, whether it be celebrity gossip or economic game theory. Virtual communities ask us to take a stand, to declare something as interesting and expose our half baked ideas aloud. They welcome us to visibly and obviously struggle with the “validity” of our own opinions. Online communities ask us to be vulnerable – and that is inherently threatening.

When we throw these ideas out beyond the safety of our own computer screens or controlled audiences, they become free to others to tweet at, blog about, contradict and champion. Like the Free Box in Telluride, Colorado, which is one of the largest and more comprehensive community donation spaces I have ever seen, our written artifacts become open to the creative interpretation of others. The Free Box has been around since the 1970s serving as a place for people to offer up artifacts of their past, pieces of their own identity, to the world at large. Once deposited, the original owner cannot control a coveted t-shirt of their favorite band being torn and sewn into a quilt or used by an youngster who doesn’t understand the significance and glory of the band for a Halloween costume. We offer our ideas for others to try on, mix and match and use as a means to anchor their next narrative. 



Julian Stod beautifully discussed on his blog the organic life cycle a narrative takes once released into the world.   

The narrative is important, the words that surround it less so. The meaning is what will persist if it is relevant and clear, so when we craft our stories, like posters on a wall, they need to be clear, but we have to recognise that they will move out of our control. And, eventually, they will weather and fade, becoming simply the foundations for the next chapter that is built upon them.”

Tanya Lau demonstrated that process as she wove together the ideas of many in the KM community and as a result quilted together a beautiful poem. Tanya’s offering, while perhaps grounded on some ideas of others, is pure and individualized, a unique and beautiful creation of it’s own that projects a voice, perspective and narrative into the blogosphere.  So yes, while there is the so called threat that your words can become part of another person’s narrative, that is where all the fun lies. And more importantly – it is where all the growth happens.  

Ultimately, we aim for our narratives to not only project our own identities, but more importantly identify with others. In the words of John Steinbeck, “A great lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting–only the deeply personal and familiar.”


15 thoughts on “The Evolving Narrative”

  1. wow, thank you for this post Andee, You are an awesome writer. So much in here that I related to: first, the talk of vulnerability. This is something I’ve been thinking about too – specifically its role in encouraging others to participate and engage online. Yes – putting stuff online, making it publicly accessible makes you vulnerable because you open yourself up for comment, criticism etc as you’ve said. But I also wonder if displaying this vulnerability is also necessary to encourage others to engage with you? This is something I’ve been thinking about through the rhizomatic learning mooc which has delved a lot (mostly) into how to shift the power and control from teacher / instructor to students – to make learning more participatory, and self directed. And a few weeks ago while I was thinking on this issue of vulnerability and its role in encouraging participation, I read this on DS106 (online digital storytelling course) What stood out immediately for me was the bit about the instructors blogging themselves – and doing the same work as the participants – in order to change the power dynamic. As you say, once you put it out there, it’s no longer within your control. it can be criticised, complimented, misinterpreted, reinterpreted, misquoted, misused….

    And then there’s narrative – or storytelling. Again – I think there’s a pretty intimate link between this and blogging, which is, essentially a way for us to tell stories. Blogs are a personal space – you write what you want to write about, in the format, language and style that you choose. You tell your stories. And the most compelling blogs are often the ones that give you some glimpse or insight into the person behind the words.

    Anyway, I’ve ranted and rambled, I should let give you back your blogspace. Thanks for writing and listening.

    1. Tanya – Many thanks for your thoughtful comments! Your statement, “But I also wonder if displaying this vulnerability is also necessary to encourage others to engage with you? ” is such an interesting insight! I think there is definitely an “we’re all in this together” mentality that goes on in any digital learning space and this is so fun to look at through your typical traditional classroom environment. Jeff uses many of the behaviors talked about in DS106 in his class (blogging himself, giving students the power to help shape assignments, etc.) and it has proven to be exceptionally exciting and valuable. I think that while this may be difficult for some professors, I also think that in some environments students could find this shifting of power dynamics uncomfortable and foreign as well. Traditional education models encourage a passive interaction and both students and professors need to realize that learning comes when students are forced to process the information for themselves and decide where the next step is.

      1. Yes and yes! I can certainly see that Jeff would use a lot of these strategies – and he’s also very transparent about this on his blog, as well as the fact that he’s just trying stuff out. Really admire this in a teacher – admitting they don’t have all the answers, and are just learning as you are. This is the approach that Dave Cormier took with the rhizo learning ‘mooc’ / ‘course’ / ‘party’ thing.
        And yes – very perceptive point too about the fact that students can be uncomfortable with this too – the school system is by and large set up to train kids that the teachers are the experts, and to take direction rather than participate in setting it. It’s an institutionalised norm – and it was interesting that this was still detectable even in rhizo14, in which most of the participants were pretty progressive and open to the concept of open, participatory pedagogies – but by and large still stuck to the ‘norm’ of responding to the weekly challenges posted by Dave. That said, there was also a lot of self organising, emergent creative collaboration which was good to see too.
        But yes – your point about this being new to both teacher and students is definitely a valid one.

  2. Hi, Andee.

    Another enjoyable read.

    Interesting you raise the vulnerability issue. Last week week Martha Burtis and Jim Groom from UMW talked about open education and that they thought that vulnerability on the part of open educators was a key to being any good at it. The presentation was called Open is as Open Does and I loved the simplicity and depth of it. You say: “Online communities ask us to be vulnerable – and that is inherently threatening.” I started there, feeling threatened by it all. I know what you mean. But I had a group of people ‘holding my hand’ and who ‘had my back’ as I took little risks in ‘open’ whilst learning digital storytelling – The DS106 community. Through these amazing group of people I learnt, and am learning, another thing you mention: Everything is a remix.

    I am one of the people whose ideas Tanya’s poem is grounded on. I have over time realised the truth of Jefferson’s statement: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” It is not easy, ownership is so engrained in us academics in particular. You put it nicely ‘there is the so called threat that your words can become part of another person’s narrative.’ Yes, that is the nature of human communication, I guess. It also seems that you have in you own way come across the truth that everything is a remix: ‘that is where all the fun lies. And more importantly – it is where all the growth happens.’

    If you have not seen Kirby Ferguson’s defining documentary Everything is a remix, you might enjoy it. It certainly challenged and changed many givens I held about who owns an idea. I also wrote a Storify a while back exploring the difficulties of collaborative creativity when juxtaposed with the economics of who gets paid for a given idea. Tough issues.

    I learn each day that ‘only the deeply personal and familiar’ sticks. Is that any different online than in physical life? Humans have a special sense for those of us who are willing to be vulnerable and relate i-thou to others rather than use others as instruments to populate our own echo chambers. Interesting and knotty issues, you raise 🙂 #rhizo14MF

    1. Mariana – wow what a beautiful response! There are so many elements of truth embedded in this. I will most definitely work on tracking down the Ferguson documentary and your Storify about collaborative creativity.

      This topic of vulnerability is inherently inspired by Brene Brown’s TED Talk (one of my all time favorites) on the Power of Vulnerability ( ) . This talk speaks to human nature across so many different levels and platforms, it is always lurking in the back of my mind somewhere 🙂

      1. Though I have a lot of resistance to the packaged sound bit nature of TED talks, Brene Brown’s talk is special. I believe her insights should be integrated into primary school curricula! Especially the relation of vulnerabilty to empathy. Which leads right back to dialogue, which is arguably impossible without empathy. Perhaps learning is impossible without empathy?

  3. The idea of the narrative as continuously evolving reminds me of Heraclitus idea that noone steps in the same river twice. We cast our words, our stories out and they are assimiliated, interpreted and recast, and that is beautiful. In the rhizo course/event/thing we discussed the tension between reification and participation and the degree to which there is a need, or not, at times to take stock, however much the product of that is then cast out into the river again to change and evolve. What online activity appears to do is to make the already ever-present process of interpretation and evolution more transparent and more evident, and perhaps tilt the balance in that tension towards participation where in a previous print-focused world, it was more about reification and consolidation.
    What seems to me to need exploring in relation to the value of this evolving flow when it takes place online is present in the notion of vulnerability. Deep communication requires an opening, and an acceptance of the other, that is hard to achieve, precisely because it involves vulnerability. It is especially hard when the other is not physically present, especially when the other is not even clearly identified. It is not therefore surprising that we should find it difficult, though as Mariana points out, vulnerability is central to openness. One of the difficulties is that openness, to be truly effective, probably has to be a way of living, and not all are able to be continuously open in that way, due to their circumstances.
    Another issue that interests me is the idea of trust. I have read some interesting cyber-psychology articles ( I am currently travelling but will post the references when I can check them) that suggest that trust seems to be built up through a gradual, negotiated process of self-revelation. Neither the person who reveals nothing, nor the person who reveals everything immediately was seen in experiments as trustworthy. It may be that we need to build openness carefully, step by step, for the trust, and the potential for deeper communication and learnign that develops out of that, to fully emerge. How we do that online continues to be a challenge.

    1. HI Nick,
      Thanks for joining in on this discussion! Your comments about cyber trust were really interesting. “Neither the person who reveals nothing, nor the person who reveals everything immediately was seen in experiments as trustworthy.” This implies that trust is in fact something deeper, more human, than one’s willingness to be vulnerable and open faster. I imagine that trust in cyber relationships relies more so on the how than the when. And because technology strips us of our reliance on non-verbal behaviors as a judge of character and openness, we are left looking for new social cues and hints of a person’s character. Very thought provoking! Would love to look up those articles when you get a chance to unwind 🙂

      1. More the how than the when. I think so.
        My own experience of online relationships, right back to the MOOs of the 90s, suggests to me that the development of depth (is this the right word?) in online discourse, which I associate with the idea of dialogue, as opposed to serial monologue, is likely to require different and initially strange signals and cues, that may not be immediately recognizable.
        The friends I have loved, online, that is to say people I have cared about and felt for, without any physical connection have become friends through a complex process that I am not able to map clearly. I never really thought about it at the time, it seems to be something interstitial, something that works under the radar, often through tiny weak signals. I think it needs mapping, or first exploring, and then mapping, or modelling. And this seems to be one of the most important things that needs to be done to develop the potential of online interaction and hence learning.
        I have had wonderful intense, relational experiences in a range of online contexts, from poetry slams in Second Life to extensive one to one interactions, to co-construction of imaginary worlds through text, to simple, ostensibly banal but long lasting friendships that later blossom into RL friendships. I haven´t researched them, there are difficulties there (observer paradoxes, the whole gamut of ethnographical complexities) but they need researching.
        At present I would suggest that much of the stuff we do online merely scratches the surface of who or what we are. I have the sense that the online environment could afford much more than it seems to at present. Though occasional beautiful fires burst into flame across the net, where brave dervishes dance their wild naked identities into being, most of what passes for “communication” across social media appears to be a kind of performance of openness, a dance of masks.
        I would love to explore these issues, over time, in a focused way. In a slow clear dance of understandings.

  4. wow, Nick. I love the way you write, so poetic. And you make some great points too. Really fascinated as well by how we communicate and develop trust and deeper relationships online. Lots to consider…

    1. Echoing Tanya here – Nick I love the insights and they are so beautifully written! “Though occasional beautiful fires burst into flame across the net, where brave dervishes dance their wild naked identities into being, most of what passes for “communication” across social media appears to be a kind of performance of openness, a dance of masks.” . . . this belongs on a billboard somewhere 😉

      As someone fairly new to virtual communities with “strangers” I will try to stay cognizant of these developing relationships, how they form and under what circumstances, to map my own transgressions with others. Such great food for thought!

  5. Such a phenomenal post, Andee! The way you tied each author’s thoughts together with yours and used the Free Box as an example was stunning. I’ve learned so much from not only your deep content, but the incredible writing style you have as well! Not to mention the extremely informative commentators on your blog as well :). The feeling of vulnerability that social media can rustle up within you when you finally let down your walls can absolutely be overwhelming, and your posts and its ensuing comments convey this in many unique ways. I believe this vulnerability can be exacerbated as well if you tend to be overly conscientious and afraid to step on anyone’s toes with your musings. It truly takes courage to say what you really think for all the world to see.

    Can’t wait to read your final post — these reads have really been extraordinary!

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