Cultural Cartography

Yesterday I attended a TEDx (x=independently organized TED event) in North Adams MA. The eight local speakers included a Williams College alum who founded Bondh-E-Shams, an international solar water project, an African-American children’s book author, a ninth generation farm manager who oversees a “giving garden,”  the dance troupe dysFunkcrew, and the founder of WAM Theatre, whose productions help fund organizations serving women and girls. They were inspiring. I plan to write more about what I learned from these extraordinary talks but decided to start with one that wasn’t live and which I found disturbing. 

In between the live speakers there were previously recorded TED talks, one of which was What Makes Something Go Viral?” by Dao Nyugen, publisher of Buzzfeed, from October 2017. According to Nyugen, the question we need to ask about what makes something go viral is not about its content, but what it does for the user. “How is it helping users do a real job in their lives?” In response to this question Buzzfeed engages in what they call “cultural cartography,” or mapping the “jobs” people say media content helps them do. In broad categories, these are:

Humor – it makes people laugh

This is me – it helps people define their culture, upbringing, and other aspects of their identity

Connection – it helps people connect with other people

Do something – it helps people settle an argument, learn something about themselves or another person, or explain their story

Feel something - it can make people feel curious or sad, or restore their faith in humanity

Noting that “connection is the greatest gift of the internet,” Nyugen adds that “If we can be a part of establishing a deeper connection between two people, then we will have done a real job for these people.”

What I found disturbing about this talk was that the goal of “doing a real job” for people is not to make their lives better, but to sell them something. I understand that is Nyugen’s job as a businessperson, but it just adds to my concerns about the power of the media, and internet driven media in particular, to manipulate us. Nyugen says it is not about how many views or fans the content generates, but the role content plays in the users “actual life,” ending by advising us to ask these questions about the consumer:

Who are you? How did you get there? What do you care about? What can you teach us?

These are the questions policy makers, educators and nonprofits should ask about the people they serve. The better we know our constituents, students, and clients, the better we can help them with the “real jobs” of their lives. We can help them learn and connect and perhaps restore our own faith in humanity.

Barbara ViniarComment