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I am going to have to let this one simmer for a while.

I have been gnawing away at the content-context distinction for a while as well, and you are right, there is something major brewing there. When content gets increasingly codified, packaged and containerized in a meme-transportation digital reality, context because murky chaos. The more modular content becomes, the more messy context becomes, and the more valuable _good_ context becomes.

We definitely need to talk about this.


John, thanks for your courage of writing about and for the narrative, in intellectual climate dominated by the post-modernists "no narrative" narrative.

I just posted a blog dialoguing with yours, here: http://www.schoolofcommoning.com/content/commons-emergent-narrative-our-times .

Ira Koretsky


Just came across your posting. Your article is interesting and thought provoking. After reading it, I do not agree that narrative is different from storytelling.

My focus is storytelling as part of making your professional and personal communications unforgettable. Every single thing you say, write, or post online is a story.

For this to work, the "effect" of the story has to persist long after the story is read or heard.

It is funny for me to say this, when I was in college, I was repeatedly told that the soft skills were less important…I came to believe it. How shortsighted that thinking was. And unfortunately, it is ubiquitous worldwide.

It is an easy laugh to say public speaking is the number one fear. There are more than 20 phobias associated with communicating. Life in and of itself is not the best teacher for communication. Most students who graduate high school, college, and to some extent graduate school are not truly prepared for the professional world in terms of communication. They have the skills to be excellent in his/her profession.

I learned from working in a hospital years ago a nursing adage: see one, do one, teach one.
Rather than redefine or move people to rethink narrative over story, I'd strongly suggest providing people with the know-how (e.g., tools, templates, examples, and case studies) to be great storytellers--to be great communicators.

Ira Koretsky
The Chief Storyteller

Cathy N. Davidson

Beautiful, John. Exactly, precisely, imaginatively, creatively right.


Somehow this brought to mind for me "The Art of the Strategic Conversation" http://www.slideshare.net/julianjenkins/the-art-of-strategic-conversation

kare anderson

Your theme really resonated with many of us. As Peter Guber wrote in Tell to Win, crafting a purposeful narrative that is meaningful to those you seek to involve, that provides a way for them to become part of the story, is perhaps the most potent way to pull them in.

Then one must surrender one's story (let the information flow) to others as they gain meaning from it and remix it to tell to others.

The collective retelling and re-directing the message in many directions leads to the serendipitous meetings and idea sharing where innovation and friendship are likely to happen. That's probably one of the reasons why Steve Denning is also a fan of this notion


Hi John, good post.

Points well made.

There is, however, one thing that trumps the power of social narrative - distribution.

Without enough 'pipes' to push the social narrative through, then the narrative becomes limited. Muted.

Mac at Clientonomy.com


I thought you might be interested in this story

You can also learn more by checking out the student blog at:

Or visiting Donor's Choose at


I'm a storyteller John and I don't see how it's any different than telling narratives. This piece did not make a distinction for me that I understand. I"m also unclear about context being separated out from a a story or a narrative.

I get the sense you are trying to get at what draws people forward and engages them (is that right?) What is it that you want to figure out? I'm not entirely clear from the piece.

Personally I've viewed systems, countries, companies etc in terms of narrative and stories. It's a helpful predictive lens. For me stories have systems within them of people and drives and things they are acting out or consciously trying to learn.

What I've found in making performance participatory (see my notes lower right unpresenting.com) is that centering everyone on collective inquiry does engage differently than transferring information to people passively listening.

Another thing I think worth paying attention to in living is that while humans are compulsive story / narrative machines (I don't see a difference)...attachment to feeling you know the answer or the end can be really personally destructive in your own life. It's a mental / intellectual thing to stay in that attachment and an emotional / embodied thing to drop into your experience at the moment.

I love narrative/ storytelling like nothing else but experience is really the great teacher and emotion, witnessing, problems and uncertainty the great engager.

There's more in this talk about the changes in narrative I've found that have worked for me and that I see shifting for a narratively-saturated /game-seeking generation


Brian Hayashi

For an advanced case of persistent context, look at the "fantasy football" phenomenon - it takes a discrete event and gives users a way to meaningfully interact, not only in the regular season via league play, but in the preseason via mock drafts. Participants are more informed and there are both economic and ego rewards from performance.

As far as other influences -- I'm a big fan of the Urban Land Institute and its efforts in "New Urbanism", which provide a narrative structure for the places we live, work and play. And I'm also following efforts such as director Guillermo del Toro's new transmedia studio or Versace's vision of hotels -- as people look to spend more time in places they want to be, you're starting to see design influences from the design and entertainment worlds.

Account Deleted

The key take-away for me is that narratives help to provide stability and continuity, revealing the order underlying what appears chaotic on the surface. As John says, 'narratives help us to focus our attention' on matters that are truly important. We each must strive to discover and polish our personal narratives, while connecting them to the larger narratives at the societal level.


Fluff ...

I have heard this stuff long ago as a student ... It profoundness rests upon an empty mind ...

The idea that stories can be categorized is not novel ... The idea of hierarchy is not new ... Kingdom, phylum, species, ... Was introduced long ago

The bashing by a few fools is interesting ... Any intellectual endeavor that attacks a group is not really intellectual ...

Tony ODriscoll

Appreciated your insight (and JSBs) in Power of Pull... Content is King but Context is the Kingdom!

Limor Shiponi

Interesting read yet many terms are mixed up in a way that does not clarify the language. Content and context are not separable - they influence each other all the time and there are many more clarifications needed here.


Hey John - Really appreciate you getting us thinking about the larger meta-narratives that play out across everything.

You have me thinking of what Joseph Campbell warned about the 2nd half of the 21st century: We are a modern culture adrift having lost our connection to a living mythos.

In many ways, the social web and the infinite freedom of knowledge is instigating a renaissance of living mythos.

It begins with the cultural meme and value that everybody is a storyteller. And we're each the narrator of our own life story; with the power to change and reinvent that story. From this place, there's an opportunity to rekindle a new cosmology from the ground up of who each of us is - in relationship to each other, and the world around us. In the end, that's what a meta-narrative is all about isn't it? In that the power of a story grows exponential as more and more people accept that story as collective truth. Of course, there's still many competing storylines to this global convergence and cultural mashup. Thanks for stewing the pot!

Lynda Williams

Without context, there is no meaning. Very short blips that appear meaningful dodge that fundamental truth by relying on shared culture. IMHO.

Karen Dietz

Well, there's plenty to think about here! I'm not sure if the distinctions between story and narrative really hold, as if there's some hierarchy to superimpose on them. There certainly is a difference between our every day stories told in conversation, and other stories that guide us and act as a life compass for us. The word narrative has typically been used to distinguish between oral storytelling and other narrative forms (examples, memos, etc.). Or has been used in a strictly literary sense.

I do love the thoughts on context. Context is a defining characteristic of oral storytelling because when we tell our stories, we shift and change them to fit the immediate context. Which is why videos, audio files, and other media used to tell stories are somewhat limited as contextual tools.

Digital technology can definitely expand our reach in sharing our stories, but again, I'm not sold on it being a glorified medium for storytelling. It's helpful, but actually has significant limitations when compared with oral story sharing. The medium is not the message.

I do agree that we need to focus on different story content today than what we've focused on in the past. For example, the hero's journey is not the only journey available to us. In fact, the hero's journey has gotten us into a lot of trouble over the past few decades. There are the journeys of the magician, the trickster, and stories of community that are available to us but not emphasized or told near enough. These stories are not 'new', just buried. It's time to resurrect those stories and start sharing them so we can move into a different future for ourselves.

Thanks again for the provocative thinking!

Peter Fennah

Excellent article John.

Finding the narrative within ourselves when in career transition is my specialty as it allows us to explore the development of our working identity.

Ibarra has done some excellent research on this for those interested in career identity change.

Best wishes,


Intriguing insights for me - especially the distinction between stories and narratives.

Perhaps each storyline has inherent "story" and "narrative" aspects?

The story aspect (with an end point) might be paramount whenever the sequence of events is considered from the viewpoint of its participants and their frames of references.

The narrative aspect (with an unfolding, emergent character) may have primacy when the storyline is viewed from the perspective of future (potential) participants -- the next level of holon, out to create its own standalone story (and provide material for yet more unfinished narratives).

I think this may fit with your sense of the "nesting" properties of stories.

A related thread on "narrative fractals" and emergent holons is at:


Look forward to seeing the narrative on narratives flourish!


Mark Frazier

Some related

Donald Clark

Storytelling sucks
It’s received wisdom in learning that storytelling and narrative are unquestionably good. But is it? Plato warned against filling young minds with fixed narratives and I’m coming round to a similar view, but with a twist. I’ve always been a big fan of sports and more recently of reality TV. Add to this computer games, virtual worlds, blogging, wikis, social networks, email, messenger and skype, and I find that most (not all) of what I really love is relatively unscripted, open, fluid, and often with more than a touch of ‘play’.
The top-down, command and control, baby-boomer culture is really starting to annoy me. The more I watch prescribed movies and TV, with their fixed plot structure, and abandon the publishing hyped ‘modern’ novel, the more I enjoy life. There’s an obsession with ‘stories’ that borders on the manic in learning, the arts and media. They really do want us to open our mouths and swallow.

Sports- non-narrative learning
I love sport because of its unpredictability. The story is ever fixed and from this one can learn a lot through being a spectator or participation. My children have spent years learning Ta Kwon Do and it’s done wonders for their application, attention, sense of achievement and self-confidence, and that’s before we get to the more obvious mental and physical skills.

Computer games – non-narrative learning
Games do, sometimes, have a narrative arc, but it’s gameplay and participation that really matters. This is what makes them such powerful learning experiences. The unpredictability is what makes them challenging. When the narrative is too strong, or the challenges too narrow, the game suffers.

Wikis – non-narrative learning
Baby Boomers feel uncomfortable with Wikipedia, not because of the content but because it doesn’t fit their expected fixed-narrative expectations. They can’t abide the idea that ‘experts’ need to ‘author’ content into ‘fixed’ packages. This open, fluid and on-going debate around knowledge is epistemologically sophisticated, but they can’t live with the uncertainty. They crave certainty.

Blogs – non-narrative learning
There is a clear gradient now in ‘journalism, from comments to posts to blogs to online and print articles. Bloggers are, of course, despised as amateurs by so called professional journalists. Yet who are these journalists? I’d say the bloggers, as a group, are often a stronger in terms of their experience and knowledge. They can often be more objective, as journalists can be constrained by fear of upsetting advertisers. They also present a less fixed narrative, open to comment and debate.

Social networks - on-narrative learning
Every person’s a portal, every person’s a publisher. Online identities evolve and change within rich networks. There is no fixed biographical story here, only millions of people creating their autobiographies as they live their lives. Baby Boomers carp on about privacy but what they really don’t like is the erosion of identity as a fixed narrative. They need control. Young people are relaxed about identity. They don’t see it as fixed and immutable. It's also a great soccial lering space, where people learn about how to commuicate with each other.

Every Baby Boomer has a bad novel in them. Let them stick with their peripheral book groups. They seem only capable of feeding on what they’re served up, receivers rather than givers. And don’t tell me that this is a story I’ve just posted…..


Fascinating post John, on many levels.
You help us understand the "resurgence of fundamentalist movements around the world as well as the continuing appeal of nationalism" which are our biggest threats.
I like your distinction between stories and narratives, narrative being the never-ending story, the tapestry of our lives as humanity.
There is one phrase which really resonated with me "Rather than waiting for the heroes who will bring us salvation, we can begin to look within and find the hero in all of us."
What if we explored the hero and the heroine inside and slowly extend it to the notion of tribe, weaved with the digital world?
What if we needed to grow seeds of trust instead of religion?
There's also a very high level of risk that the new narratives, taken to the collective level, have a soothing and mystifying effect on people, preventing them to think critically and to create.
Back to Karl Marx 's famous line, Religion is the opium of the people.
I like Gregory comment in becoming free of narrative. There's a fine line between freedom and slavery, between new collective narrative and new religion.
"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions." It is very tempting while the world goes into pieces and one has to be extra cautious not to alienate our freedom whe looking for Utopia...
Let's start the Hero and Heroine's Journey with constellations of digitally connected tribes...


Hi John - thanks for writing this: "persistent context" is an apt descriptor and the basis for our work at ThinkState through search technology development and multi-platform storytelling frameworks. To build on Stephen's approach, when we make narrative the core structure and story the form, we can transcend the channels and archetypes that have confined us in a hypermediated world, and then begin to co-create emergent marketplaces. It is also our belief that narrative holds the keys to contextualizing the dynamics of complexity and in redefining our roles as evolutionary beings ;)

For reference (through the lens of media):





Brian Frank

I like "persistent context," and might start using it (though maybe as "regenerative context": see below). Reminded me of Jose Ortega y Gasset's "I am myself and my circumstances" (as relevant to his "I am the author of myself").

Dan McAdams's "redemptive narrative" comes to mind too, along with "generativity," which he took from Erik Erikson. I've found by combining that psychology with tech metaphors (e.g. the web) via Jonathan Zittrain's notion of "generative technology" a whole new range of articulate answers to these kinds of questions opens up — shifting the vocabulary away from static connotations to more complex & active ones...

I'm a bit wary of "potential." This might seem pedantic but I've found it eventually gets in the way by subtly undermining the notion of emergence by perpetuating deterministic & finite assumptions — as if the future is contained in some closed little package inside each one of us, waiting to get out, instead of something that doesn't exist yet and has to be *generated* through an ongoing stream of trials & transactions with the world.


Interesting piece John. Context is especially hard to decifer in our hypermediated world. Storytellers are the shamans who shepard us to see the narrative structure, and therein to find our story. As an interactive narrative deisgner I think of this often in my work. Narrative is the structure, story is an interpretaion of that structure.


This resonates strongly with me! I have long been dissatisfied in the US with a continual drift toward the far right, a drift that could be explained by a fragmented progressive stance. At first the right had some good points, but it's all politics now and very little sense-making. A new political narrative would help, the lack of which expresses my disappointment with O'Bama's administration.

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