Storytelling needs a social infrastructure

zuckhansonI published a letter to my community at the same time another leader did the same to his exponentially larger one yesterday. Coincidentally, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and I both explicitly referenced “social infrastructure” as counterbalance to the tech solutionism many of us early adopters championed over a decade ago.

In that time, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing various institutions being upended — with the so-called “Arab Spring” as peak positive disruption for the digerati. And yet the cataclysmic events we are now experiencing closer to home might be the true inevitability of what began with the advent of social media in the early 2000’s.

In the graduate program for communications professionals that I lead, we’ve pivoted in the last couple of years to the idea that we are the storytellers who tackle challenges and spark change through the currency of content and human relationships. These challenges are greater than ever. Who we are, how we connect (sometimes through technology, sometimes not), and our unique approach to collaboration and community-building will help provide solutions. It’s why we offer master’s degrees in both digital media and communities & networks.

Zuckerberg didn’t exactly define what he meant by “social infrastructure” and The Verge went as far to say he was “changing Facebook’s mission because the old one was broken.” But I’ve begun to explain the concept as the need to create the right kind of supportive spaces for convening and communing, especially as a form of resilience during times of upheaval.

To me, it’s the essential corollary to the stories that catalyze our ability to come together over shared narratives and values in the first place. Whether it’s face-to-face or online, what can we do to provide stability, accountability and assistance? I appreciate Wired’s exploration of this concept last fall in how tighter-knit communities experienced the least fatalities during a killer heat wave in Chicago in 1995.

In the past year, I recognized that my graduate program needed to practice what we teach. So we have begun to systematically deploy our students to meet the incredible demand of non-profit organizations who also see story as their solution. By doing so, we offer both a service to our community and “beyond the classroom” experience (along with financial support) to our students, who gain real-world skills and knowledge.


The resounding overtures we have received from people and organizations in our community since then — including a week of career-driven events offered directly to our students by Mark Zuckerberg’s company (as you see me pictured above in Seattle) — have only confirmed that bolstering the bonds of our humanity through “social infrastructure” is the right thing to do, right now.