The System of Stories Part 1: How Great Ideas Spread

Mar 11, 2020

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"Life and death are in the power of the tongue." - Proverbs 18:21

Ancient Greece had nuclear weapons; they were known as “poets” and “playwrights”.

The legendary philosopher Plato is on his knees. He pleads with Athens’ leaders to exile all poets and playwrights from the city. Why was Plato convinced in 388 B.C. that they posed such devastating threats to society?

They told stories.

Plato stories quote
Plato’s quote: Those who tell the stories rule society.

Stories are the oldest, most powerful vehicle for our ideas. Ever since our ancestor’s campfire gatherings, we’ve mercilessly wielded stories to change behaviour - for better or worse.

There’s a second part to every story: it’s system. Whether they are consumers, corporations or even entire countries, successful stories spread across systems like a virus, passing their idea from one host to the next.

What makes some stories spread better than others? And could this be broken down into a repeatable formula for modern-day storytellers?

In other words, could we create the “System of Stories”?

On the remote Cambodian island of Koh Ta Kiev, Zowie Langdon and I looked for the answer. What follows is our discovery.

Koh Ta Kiev island
Koh Ta Kiev: Where the System of Stories was unearthed

The System of Stories is not for fiction or fables. It’s designed to help you share better, more applicable ideas for your system to use. As most practical stories are shared online, we’ll refer to you—a potential user of the System of Stories—as the Digital Storyteller.

This essay is broken into 4 parts.

We’ll start with some fundamental concepts that help us understand the relationship between systems, and stories.

Our second essay breaks down exactly what goes into a system, and what you’ll need to know for your story to spread.

The third piece looks at stories, where we’ll bring your story to life and prepare it to enter your system.

Finally, we'll apply the System of Stories to a case study playing out for over 2 billion people every month: Facebook.

The Dark Side

With (story's) great power comes great responsibility.

The dark side of stories are painfully found throughout humanity’s storyline. Men have weaponised stories to mobilise armies, provoke countries and change the course of “his story”.

Donald Trump attacks fake news on Twitter
Donald Trump is a master storyteller, using Twitter to tell favourable stories (at the expense of facts).

Story abuse happens daily. Humans are irrational animals. We’re hunted by armies of handsomely-paid professionals who exploit our brain’s biases in a relentless quest for profits.

Consider the fact that beauty companies target women with their products at the start of the week —a “prime vulnerability moment”—because women feel less attractive on Monday mornings. Or imagine an obese person, desperately trying to lose weight who receives a promotional text as he walks past his favorite donut shop… right when he’s weakest. As Ryan Calo notes in his paper “Digital Market Manipulation”: “When does personalization become an issue of consumer protection?” Big data and hyper-personalisation are fearsome assets for the Digital Storyteller.

In his final interview, the great psychiatrist Carl Jung asserts that “The only real danger that exists is man himself.” Nothing shines brighter on this fact than stories. As Digital Storytellers, we have a responsibility to use our power for good, not evil.

Ultimately, the System of Stories is designed to help drive more meaningful change. By the end of these essays, you will be able to use stories for the better, and defend yourself against ill-doers by understanding how they work.

The System... of Everything

Everything around you is a system. You are a system. Your workplace is a system, as is the air we breathe. 

According to Merriam Webster, a system can be defined as: 

System: “A regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.”

The people that make up your system form a unified whole, just as outfits are formed from separate clothes in your wardrobe. From now on when we say system, we mean one that is inherently social. Stories spread through social systems.

If you need to, re-read the opening 3 sentences again until you grasp how all-encompassing this is. It took Ben a while to realise that truly EVERYTHING is in fact a system. 

Once the fact clicks, it will become a powerful new lens to see the world through. From this point on, we’ll assume you’re viewing your audience as a system that can be broken down and understood. 

Everything is a system
Don’t proceed until you’ve grasped this idea! Credit: Flickr

System Basics: Ideas, Thoughts & Reciprocation

Any system interacts with three important concepts: ideas, thoughts and reciprocation cycles. Before using the System of Stories, we’ll need to clearly define them:

  1. A thought could be anything you think. “This would be cool…”
  2. An idea on the other hand offers a perspective and has clear direction. “I think we should do this…”
  3. Reciprocation cycles turn thoughts into ideas when people interact. “Have you thought about doing this?”

Influencing your system always starts with an idea. That idea then sparks new thoughts in your system, which they might reciprocate by sharing with others. You can visualise this process with a simple flowchart:

Simple flowchart for understanding systems
“Here’s a new idea for you…” → “I hadn’t thought of it like THAT before…”“Hey, maybe we should try doing it that way!”

An idea sparks a thought in our system’s agents, which drives real change when the idea is shared (or reciprocated).

System Definition 1: Thoughts

You might think ideas always start as thoughts. Which is true! But a thought is not always an idea. And that’s where things get interesting. 

Everything you think comes from thoughts. It could be a flash in your mind that lasts a mere moment. It could be the last thing you think right before taking action, or the seemingly random epiphany that hits you while staring blankly into space.

The thought you have right before you stand up to a bully—imagine someone verbally attacking a colleague—is one that takes a complex collection of emotions and experiences. But first and foremost, it requires you to believe in someone’s rights. The thought of standing up against oppression (or even to oppress) is a consequence of believing in an idea about someone’s rights.

Think of ideas as seeds of thought that can be planted by how you communicate. And once those thought seeds bloom, they become the ideas that shape our actions.

System Definition 2: Ideas

What makes ideas powerful? The fact that we humans can have nearly unlimited thoughts and potential actions all from one idea. Think about this for a second. Billions of people, all provoked by one idea. It’s happened several times in our history (“I have a dream.” / “In the beginning…”). It’ll happen again.

Ideas depend on each other. To see the overlap, imagine someone just asked you to tell them your future idea of tomorrow. Wouldn’t you base some of it on your current idea of today?

You are an idea in other people’s minds. To be viewed favourably, the idea of ‘you’ overlaps with the preconceptions people have for what a good person means to them (like being kind, smart or happy). The same goes for being an unsavoury person too.

For most humans, our self-absorbed heads make ourselves our most important idea. We apply most thoughts we have to our idea of ‘me’. (Unless you’re in some way “enlightened”. I know I’m not.)

In other words: who you are—both to yourself and others—can be boiled down to an idea. They play a powerful role for humans as a social species.

System Definition 3: Reciprocation Cycles

Once we believe in an idea, thoughts will follow. It won’t be long before we start thinking about the next step: using our new knowledge to act differently. That’s why stories are so powerful: They plant the seeds of change. 

But a story that spreads to one person rarely changes the world. The number of people who believe in an idea matters too. So how do ideas actually spread? Through reciprocation cycles.

According to Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of reciprocate is: 

Reciprocate: “Respond to (a gesture or action) by making a corresponding one."

Any powerful idea has been reciprocated. Once people believe in an idea it spreads through your system, gaining more power with each reciprocation. The reciprocation cycle looks like this:

The reciprocation cycle
The reciprocation cycle

There’s no certainty your idea will be reciprocated once shared. That all depends on which system your idea is planted in and what happens during your story's life cycle. If the system is a bad match, the idea can’t fully bloom. In order for powerful ideas to last, they must be reciprocated often. When preparing to share an idea, you need to select your system carefully. We’ll cover this in the next essay.

3 Key Takeaways

Let’s sum up what we’ve learned. 3 big ideas for you to take away:

  1. Stories are the most tried-and-tested vehicle for our ideas. Since our ancestors gathered round campfires, stories are consistently the best way to share ideas that spark meaningful change.
  2. Everything around you is a system. Your family, your friend circle, even your country. Once the Digital Storyteller starts seeing the world as social systems, it becomes much clearer where your idea can spread.
  3. Systems are influenced by ideas, thoughts and reciprocation cycles. “Here’s a new idea for you…” → “I hadn’t thought of it like THAT before…” → “Hey, maybe we should try doing it that way!”

Before your idea can spread, you’ll need to know your system inside out. Next essay, we’ll break down your system, so you'll know which factors will make your idea spread as effectively as possible.

Thanks for reading. Did you find this introduction to the System of Stories useful? We’d love to hear your feedback. You can reach Ben directly here or on Twitter (@benbradbury_). You can reach Zowie on Twitter (@zowielangdon) or via his blog, Eclectic Rhetoric.