Saturday, October 17, 2009

Getting Out of Sync, part 1

There are times when it’s good to have the whole world watching. But having the attention of any large group of people all at once presents a security problem that most of the time is better avoided.

One way to understand this is to look at how few television programs are broadcast live. Whenever possible, a television production is completed before any of it is broadcast. Often sports events, political events, and awards ceremonies have to be broadcast live because the impact of the information depends on its timeliness, but doing so requires a prodigious amount of security, with multiple layers of security surrounding both the event and the broadcast. By contrast, producing a program for later broadcast requires only ordinary business security.

The need for these layers of security has long been known in broadcasting, and it became evident again in the early history of the MTV live program Total Request Live. In its first few days, this was just a small show done in a small studio that happened to have floor-to-ceiling windows that showed the studio’s Times Square location. After viewers started to understand what was going on, though, all subsequent shows were shot with a crowd of several hundred to several thousand spectators on the sidewalk and street below, trying to get a glimpse of or any connection to the show that was going on inside.

Anywhere large numbers of people are paying close attention to any focal point of action, it is inevitable that they may imagine themselves influencing the action. This is not the result of a conscious choice, or even a suggestion. Observation and intention go together automatically — you see a puddle and walk around it without having to stop and think. Sports fans are encouraged to cheer and applaud, but the security is needed in case some spectators have ideas of of getting closer to the action. The issues are the same regardless of the nature of the action.

The connection is broken, however, when people are watching a broadcast of action that took place previously. As long as the viewers believe the outcome is predestined, because “it all happened already,” then they will not have the thought of connecting to the action or influencing the outcome.

I have been using television as an example, but the same issues arise with any communications medium, even word of mouth. Celebrities and business executives know not to tell too many people about their travel plans in advance, lest they be met at the airport by the wrong people. Some e-mail addresses and telephone numbers are known to the public, while others are kept relatively secret — a telephone is useless if the whole world is trying to call.

This issue is important this year because more people are more “live” than ever. In an increasingly interconnected world, we are all important in our own ways, and we all have to take on some of this celebrity mindset at times. The idea involved is simple enough to remember: don’t be too live. That is, don’t broadcast too much of your action while it’s still going on. How much is too much depends on who is watching, how strongly your action resonates with people, and how much security is around.

Here is an exaggerated example of saying more than you can safely say in real time. Imagine that I’m live-blogging my life, and I write:

[Wrong] I won the lottery! The very first ticket I bought here at the Florida Ave. Pathmark is worth $250,000! I can’t wait to walk the six blocks home to tell everyone there!

The time element is critical. Notice how much the story changes if it appears in the newspaper two days later:

[Better] “I was stunned,” Aster recalls. “The very first ticket was a winner. I was so excited I didn’t stop to think about the fact that I was walking the six blocks home with a piece of paper worth $250,000 in my pocket!”

The story loses its security implications when it’s told after the fact. That’s because it is no longer possible for anyone to get in sync with the story — they can’t meet me on my walk home because that part of the action has already ended. There is still, of course, the issue of the junk mail that some people like to send to lottery winners, but that does not present the same level of risk because the level of resonance is so much lower.

The simple answer is the same answer that television has found: to not broadcast your action live in any level of detail when you don’t have a compelling reason to. Time and detail are equally critical. People get entangled in your personal drama — they resonate actively with it — only if they have a relatively vivid and coherent account of it while it’s happening, and even then, only if it matches up with something they are already feeling. It doesn’t take much reshuffling to keep this from happening.

You can make your story as vivid, compelling, and public as you want — after it’s all over. You can give people the news as it’s happening — but save most of the key details for later. And on those occasions when it is valuable enough to be presenting a vivid, compelling, live, public story, be aware of the resonance you’re creating with the people watching, and know what your escape route is.

This principle of resonance and entanglement also works in reverse, and that is a subject I turn to tomorrow.