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Workbay.net’s CEO Shares Her Take on the Power of Storytelling

Apr 18, 2013

By: Mary Hayes, CEO, Workbay.net

This week, three of my extended family members passed away, and nothing else mattered more than our family’s need and ability to communicate instantly as each new wave of loss overcame us.

While travelling to my cousin Bobby’s funeral, we heard in transit that my Uncle James was in a coma after a heart attack, and then that night, my sister was consoling her children via Skype from our airport hotel because their grandmother, her mother-in-law, had died.  While travelling the next morning, we got the news that Uncle James had slipped from his coma to death.

With so much happening at once, our family’s best way to cope was to share and reminisce – so this has been a week of storytelling. That’s what happens next when someone passes, we tell their stories to each other: “Remember Bobby singing “Chantilly Lace?” and “G.L.O.R.I.A.!” ”Remember how he stood on stage and told the entire cruise ship that he loves his wife!” “Remember Uncle James dancing to ‘Call Me Maybe’ at Mom’s 80th birthday party? ” “Remember how grandma loved us so much?” Even though great distances separated us – we needed that ability to share, to communicate, to love – and because of social media, Internet, email, mobile, and more, we were able to do that, and do it immediately.

At the funeral, Bobby’s elder brother David stood at his memorial service and told one wild story after another so that the standing room only crowd at the Marrietta First Baptist Church shook with laughter as tears glistened.  But behind that event, the main gathering place for sharing stories had actually been online, as friends and family posted photos and videos, supported family and friends with messages and letters, and also found others whom they barely knew and gathered them in as “friends”.

Memorial service websites have become active social media environments, linking to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.  This week I needed stories to reaffirm that my lost loved ones lived joyfully, lived meaningfully, and were loved – and I found those stories shared through technology.

Another funeral also happened this week: a young women, who no doubt was independently unique in so many ways, but was only known by her story – a young girl, intoxicated, gang raped, filmed, and the criminal porn produced published via social media technologies. Here – the beginning of this online story overwhelmingly tortured that child until she ended her life.  She erased her life because she could not erase her story.

But now the greater social media world has picked up her story, and now I know her story and you know her story and by listening, the story is changing, the story is being revised and the empathy and compassionate response of the millions of people who now know her story, infuses and rebuilds what the story means. It washes clean the shame of victimization, and calls for carrying forward the story in a new light. There will be laws named for this woman.   Her name will be written in the books of law and live in courts of justice for the rest of history. But… it’s not enough.

I lined up this morning at airport security and just ahead of me was a young man, maybe 22.  He wore a t-shirt with block letters “HANDS UP!” over a photo of a girl, her dress pulled down to her hips, her hands just covering her nipples and a large gun pushed in between her naked breasts.  We were sardined in a snaking line up of maybe a hundred people and I didn’t know what to do.

I felt angry and sad.  I felt that if I called him out on his hate crime of a t-shirt, he’d just laugh and snicker with his friends at the old lady who couldn’t take a joke.   I thought, what if I tell security that I object to this shirt, would they make him change clothes?  Does he have any change of clothes in his carry-on bag?  And I started thinking like a mother.  He’s young. He’s on a trip with his friends.  He doesn’t know that his t-shirt tells a story to me that is not a joke, and it’s hateful.

And a part of me also acknowledged – here too is social media – it just doesn’t happen to be online.  The shape of the story came from the choices of the storyteller – not the medium it was presented in.

Technology has given us the power to publish our own stories and to share forward the stories of others – to add meaning to the understanding of another’s life, or for the destruction of it. What we have to remember is that the true power of media is in how we choose to use it, and not the medium itself. As another person’s story passes through our hands to our friends and listeners, what role do we play in writing it?