Week 3: Expert Interview

Emily, Chan Yuen Ting - Individual Tasks

Storytelling, and technology – the interpretation of history and culture

Interview with John Keenan on Storytelling, technology and advertising, and their interpretation of history and culture.

conducted on 24 Nov 2014.

I was able to launch an interview with Dr. John Keenan from our university who is an expertise in advertising and had done a recent ethnographic research with life-history. I was lucky enough to get more insight of the connection between the form of storytelling and its way to record life history and culture. My main concern and interest is the change in society and its form of storytelling experience, and the meaning carried in the change.

I am questioning whether there is any cultural meaning incarnated in the different tools(e.g. social media platforms like instagram) we are having to engage in the society, record history and create culture. And that there seems to be a change in the representation of life history and the way human are recording it, particularly when we are in the age and mist of the mass media. But why would we have theses changes? And what are they telling us?

Keenan foremost defined what is storytelling by describing it as a way of achieving goals ,and as the perception to understand our world and self. That it is universal at all ways and being a part of the human condition.

“A story was really human’s need to go back to the beginning, and understand how we start from the start and get to the place we are right now, in our mind and physically.” 

I began the interview by asking the definition of storytelling, because I think there is a need to show the universality of it and the connection it has with the nature of the social media platform.

Keenan continued to point out the control in the information flow, suggesting the ‘gatekeeper’ is the biggest concern when it prohibits and allows certain voices, that freedom is limited.

“The way we are having right now are encouraging us to storytelling, it allows more freedom in forms to tell stories. But what gets in the way is the gatekeeper, certain authorities are prohibiting some platform for general to tell stories in certain forms, but overall it gave us more opportunities and encourage us to do that. Like publishers can allow certain writers to publish.” 

He opened up an important discussion on the control in voices and information, it leads us to question the construction of these social platforms, its aims and effects on people. The question is how do those tools limit and narrow our presentation of life when it aims to broaden it and make it versatile. And we came to the following discussion: When we transcribed ourselves onto these platform, there may be the change in the embodiment of the public signs and symbols – “as a web weaved by man himself which makes the world understandable”.(Greetz, 1983) New cultures could be created and our point of view in the narratives may be changed. Then the structure of personal or social denotation and its ways to construct a person and society, and their place in the social order. It could be developed to the construction of identity.

Examining trends like short-form literature in online writing, it encourages to neglect details while emphasising on introspection, and people seem to enjoy this kind of fragmented nature of it. Keenan suggested that the short-form writing cannot propose any unified ideas, instead, they are just shattered pieces of documentary and noises.

“We are documenting our times on these (social platform/storytelling)form, it’s just noises and reflections of our times(past). the purpose of carrying history and communication is lost, it just focuses more on the human contact. Short-form storytelling lack of content, emotion and cultural aspect on what it is to be human. They ended up to be just non-consecutive noise. It goes back to what we chose to read and remember.”

Here Keenan reflected on the quality these literature carries and their effects on storytelling. It gave me the epiphany on the quintessence of these communication tools, is the nature of human contact and collect emotions. However, they seems to be lost and have the tendency to tide with advertising. It seems to me that the way advertising is intertwined with communication nowadays became a new way to form culture. It could circle back to our construction of social identity, how new ones are formed and old ones are kept through these changes in communication.


“What I think about advertising and these short-form of storytelling is that we are both requiring a short and instant message to be delivered immediately, that the constant shot of information has form the addiction in us to get information quickly. I think advertising has affected the way we tell stories and the online/social media way of storytelling has become a way to form culture.”

The discussion moved on to ethnographic research and Keenan’s paper. As my research requires interviewing people for their life history and attitudes, I wonder about the aural nature and interaction in it, does it allow more authorship or needed more directions for content to be told? Does it relate to the way we used to tell stories(aural culture)?

“Regarding my paper’s interactive way of recording life history, the aural culture and interaction of the listeners. Yes, I think we are lacking listeners, we don’t have aural culture anymore like we use to in the past. Instead we left our stories to be recorded on the internet in a active form, and I think we are lost in the mist of noise.”

I continued to question the necessity to understand the interviewee, their culture and the structure of it, even as a stranger to another culture.

“To be an ethnographer, we do have understand people and their culture, what’s working. It’s difficult to stand outside in an other world and to observe it, but we are not a stranger of the culture. There is a thing called emic and etic, emit is inside of the perspective, and etic is outside of it for some one who is not form the culture. An attic view is absolutely ok. I think if you are having an attic view, its very difficult to study a culture. Because we make sense of ourselves from our culture, so people form different culture make sense of reality in different ways, and so certain things means something different for different cultures.”

I certainly agree to Keenan’s opinion, that we make sense of ourselves from our culture, and it is difficult to observe culture by separating ourselves from it. On top of that, we get to see the variated perception of the culture and self from the same culture, and provide reflexivity as a researcher or a social body. More importantly, we landed ourselves the discussion of the meaning in the change of mass media, more self-expression, introspection and memory recording. It revealed the desire to ‘being remembered’ and ‘to remember’, and the advocation to the sense of self and emotion. While it is interesting to note that by participating in those storytelling, it is a new way to engage with the society. Much of our discussion circle back to the notions of the communication, the tools used to communicate, self and emotional considerations and how the notion of subjectivity be challenged and allow more authorship at the same time.

Geertz, C (1983) From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. New York: Basic Books. 55-70.

Geertz, C (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. 89.


Questions used in interview:


1. How would you define storytelling? Do you think it is universal?

2. How do you think technology or a web platform can encourage people to share their stories? Or do you think they are missing the important aspect in storytelling according to what you define storytelling?

3. Do you think those technology work as tools with pre-ascribed culture meaning for us to tell stories and construct/maintain culture? Are those technologies preferring what we want to tell or showing the diversity of tell one story with many people at the same time(“meta-story”)? Do you think advertising has anything to do with it?

4. Do you think those storytelling platform can work as a reference library for real-life experiences/history for human beings?

5. Do you think there is the anthropological quest for an adequate representation of one culture’s experience of reality? If so, do you think it is slipping away nowadays?

6. In the context of Social media platform(e.g. twitter) are encouraging short-form storytelling, neglecting details while emphasising on introspection. And people seem to enjoy this kind of fragmented nature of it, do you think advertising has been blending with the form of storytelling? Do you think we need a longer form of storytelling? Why?

7. With blogs rights now, there seems to be a hyperconsciousness of personal branding that encourage full self-expression, but the part of listening is missing. do you see any essential changes in the storytelling experiences over the years? Are they the same form of history record or interpretation of our culture? Do you think there’s a need for theses changes in order to achieve better storytelling experience.

8. Regarding, ethnographic research, do you think ethnographer has the need to have a deep and rooted understanding of the symbols, meanings and their structures of the culture, given that they are part of the culture themselves?



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