“Write Your Own Story”

Every week, there is someone or some entity in the tech world that had a story written about them that as just a bit off-message. It may not appear to be much to the audience, but it happens to strike a deep chord with the folks who are mentioned, who provided interviews, and so forth. Folks like to beat up on press for getting a story wrong, or for reporting it incorrectly (in their eyes), or for mischaracterizing their contribution to the overall subject. Earlier this week, when it happened yet again, I instinctively tweeted: “Write your own story.”

The original sin here is clear: People and organizations outsource their stories. Instead, people should write their own stories.

Writing your own story is hard. This applies to individuals, to companies, to firms, and everything in between. First, it can come off to others that you’re only talking about what’s central to you or your colleagues, etc. Having someone else write or say something may come off as more real. Maybe. Or maybe it strokes the ego. Second, the finished product is likely not part of the “official record” like it would be if it ended up written about by the NYT, or by Wired, or by Re/code, etc. Third, it can be hard to build up an audience. It takes time, effort, mistakes, pissing off some people. And, fourth, you have to own it — a misstep, a typewritten slip of the tongue can be screenshot, bookmarked, and saved for eternity until someone wants to dig it up and revisit your fumble.

There’s another slightly more subtle reason why one should write their own story — the decline of the influence held by reporters, journalists, and writers. Now, of course, some publications and writers will not only maintain their authority, they could actually boost it. But, for the overwhelming majority of them, whatever inherited influence they wielded before is eroding, and eroding fast. Stories on most topics are virtually indistinguishable from others. People will grow less willing to link out to other sites, especially how difficult it is to navigate sites on the mobile web or insider other reader apps. Additionally, the audience often expects to be able to directly engage with the writer of a story — on very public tech blogs or formal publications, those forums can degrade quickly or be quiet enough to hear all of the crickets.

Writing one’s own story isn’t just about controlling a message — if done well, it’s also an invitation for another person to comment, disagree, or help out. Writing a story isn’t about text or prose — it could be pictures, or Vines, or a collection of things. This actually gets to the heart of the problem some create and the opportunity others embrace. The opportunity is that each interaction, no matter which kind, is a way to engage and reengage a person in the audience, and over time, they become loyal, bring in others, and so forth. People fundamentally want to be a part of something, and those feelings are shifting more to the online world. On the flip side, the problem is that many people or organizations with big brands, big brand names, and “famous” people use online media to broadcast their message — they talk “to” their audiences. Yet, the opportunity, what what readers or watchers want is to be part of a conversation. They want to feel that they, too, are being heard. That’s the way I believe online attention has been shifting, and I have no reason to believe the pendulum will swing back in the other direction any time soon.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus