Story Math: Why Sentiment Matters At Least As Much As The Facts Do (essay)

I’ve been playing with this mental model / formula a lot lately:

facts + sentiment = story

That means:

Story – sentiment = facts


Story – facts = sentiment

The biggest missing variable here is time. To add time, we need to introduce the Snapshot / Movie continuum (and I’ll spare you my attempt of that mathematical formulation).

We can take a snapshot in time of some story and apply the equation. If the snapshot is of something in the present, it’s going to be colored by the past (look at a daily headline today). If we’re picking up a snapshot taken in the past, it’s colored by our view in the present (look at an old headline, and take note of what informs how you think of it that they didn’t know when they wrote it). We have to handle snapshots very carefully, because they can be connected in random ways, aka “non-linearly.”

For example, you might see a “Titanic Sinks!” headline today, and get “My Heart Will Go On” stuck in your head. Note the non-linear aspect of how you made the association today with a 90s movie, and a whole separate set of emotions that no one at the time of the actual headline would have felt. Now realize this is evident of how you process and respond to all historical snapshots.

We can also take a series of snapshots (that make a flip book or even a movie) to show the progression of each variable in the equation over time. We still get the artifacts of the coloring discussed above, but we can also gain a much better understanding of the interplay between sentiment and facts (or simply information). When we think like a movie, we connect snapshots in a non-random, or “linear” manner.

I wouldn’t argue either that either the snapshot or the movie approach is better or even more reliable, BUT when we are trying to understand something, it pays to know which approach is being taken by the presenter.

There’s a big difference between presenting a snapshot (or snapshots) unbounded from time, and presenting a sequence of snapshots bound by a time. The formula and the continuum can help us to be skeptical of any assumed credibility. They can also help us understand, when we are presenting how to gain credibility (more on this at a later date).

When we bind facts and sentiment to time, we also start to uncover the “feedback loops” and “paradoxes” that shape the broader story. Feedback loops are self-reinforcing bits of sentiment (progressions that go up or down, as in from good to great, or from bad to worst). Paradoxes are self-contradictory statements (progressions that go around, so when great rolls over to bad, or when worst rolls over to good).

We all spend our days telling and consuming stories. If we can just break apart the facts from the sentiment and understand how time is being used in the explanation, we can gain a better understanding of where we are, and maybe even seize control of where we are going.

Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony contained lots of “story math,” with sentiment as the variable in focus.

It should be clear that if congress wants to make some changes, they will need public sentiment tipped in their favor. Likewise, if Facebook wants Congress off of their backs, they will need that same public sentiment to feel like the government is somehow overreacting.

We can use a common sitcom / movie metaphor for the emotional framing we, the public, are subconsciously placing this in to form our opinion: picture a teenager coming home late at night after sneaking out, with the adult waiting up to confront them.

Zuckerberg is coming home to Congress and he had better have a good explanation for whatever he was up to.

The emotional stakes are high – who will we side with? You don’t root for the adults in Romeo and Juliet. You don’t root for the adults in every John Hughes movie. In those settings, our sentimental anchor is tied to the kids as the youthful hero. However, we do root for the adults as the hero (and moral authority) in Leave it to Beaver and Full House. In those cases, our sentimental anchor is tied to the adult hero’s wise judgement.

Story math says both Zuckerberg and Congress should use “facts – story = sentiment” to attempt to frame the public’s feeling towards them as the hero of our story.

Consider this oversimplified timeline of facts:

Zuckerberg starts Facebook in his dorm room.

Facebook gets in trouble for privacy violations and Zuckerberg publicly apologizes, more than once.

Cambridge Analytica uses Facebook data to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election.

Zuckerberg’s strategy is to disconnect these events from time, and make starting the company from his dorm room the central point. The lovable underdog hero can’t predict the bad events in advance, so at each stage of self-discovery they’re just learning a lesson. The lessons always connects back to humble beginnings. The teenagers didn’t sneak out to hustle drugs, they did it for love – you don’t hate love, do you? This is a strategy based on creating positive associations with basic principles.

Congress, or at least Rep. Jan Schakowsky, understands the crime procedural approach of using the timeline to show a pattern of negative behavior. The sage-hero explains a chain of actions and their consequences. She ended by pointing out how self-regulation is clearly not the answer (like a true Danny Tanner). In other words, this kid needs some tough love because accepting these apologies is enabling. This is a strategy based on creating negative associations with a pattern of behavior.

For both, if we understand the math, we can understand how they’re laser focused on shaping sentiment. In the end – what will really matter is how this does, or doesn’t, shape the broader public’s sentiment.

Who do you think is winning? Why?

This conversation is just beginning.

We can use “facts – sentiment = story” to understand the past, and also understand where we might be headed. If we can imagine more than one scenario, we can apply probabilities to them each occurring. Don’t get your calculator out just yet (unless you really want to), but consider it as a thought experiment.

We want to think about what Tim O’Reilly calls a map of the future (see his book, WTF?: What’s the Future and Why it’s Up to Us), and list the driving variables that are carrying us forward on each path. The point is not to be “right,” but to increase our awareness of the direction we are headed in.

By adding sentiment, we also force ourselves to ask more than just, “what could happen,” and add “how are people going to feel/respond/react to it?”

When we think about Facebook and the congressional testimony specifically, we have to weigh these changing attitudes. We have to remember that it’s bigger than Mark Zuckerberg and the people of Congress, we’ve got society / the entire user-base in the mix as well.

Tim Wu (see his book, The Attention Merchants) tells the story of Parisian posters literally taking over the city until they figured out that there had to be reasonable limits on the method of advertising. There is a long history of the pendulum swinging between one extreme and then reverting back. It seems like we are reaching one of those points now.

It’s a good thing to know that history is full of these miscalculations, but it’s a really important thing to understand that only by examining and updating our inputs can we make the progress we want. My own worry with Congress is that they may not quite grasp the issue itself yet. For better or worse, Europe seems to have their act a bit more together. Interested people should watch the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as it is rolled out May 25, 2018. This may be a case of a country that the company does not call home having greater urgency to get something on the books (and having less leniency when enforcing it too).

If nothing else, the Facebook story also makes for a great working example to talk about at work or home, since just about everyone has some experience with the company. It’s also a bit easier to tease the variables apart and argue both sides than the less tangible historical examples (ex. Asking “should we go to war,” is relatively less tangible than “how should companies be allowed to use my data” for most people to think about).

We are quite literally surrounded by stories every day. We should do our best to deconstruct them and understand if we like or dislike the path towards the future they are guiding us on.

We should understand what tools the presenters are using on us, and what tools we are using when presenting stories to others. If we don’t like the path, if we don’t like how the “movie” is playing out, then we have to ask what we can and should do about it.

We all share that responsibility. We can’t always control the facts, but we can all help to shape sentiment.

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