Once Upon a Long-Term Time:
Storytelling as Part of Collaborative Scientific Activities[*]
Helena Karasti, Karen S. Baker, and Geoffrey C. Bowker
University of California, San Diego
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Although storytelling is a part of collaborative activities, there are few studies of organizational storytelling practices. We have been studying a distributed scientific cooperative venture which has been working together for over 20 years. Our study offers a new empirical venue for the field of CSCW. Scientific collaboration differs in its vision, motivation and approach from that of the business community where the CSCW emphasis has centered. Articulation of complexities associated with scientific data and its reuse in distributed organizations has been initiated (Star and Ruhleder, 1994) but remains a largely unexplored domain in terms of design innovations with the exception of a few well-known examples of organizational memory applications, such as the Answer Garden (Ackerman and Malone, 1990).
The Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network (Callahan, 1984) conducts long-term ecological research at 24 geographically distributed, independent research sites with the mandate to share the field data within a specified time of collection (Porter and Callahan, 1994). Scientific data is to be accompanied with contextual information that describes the data collections. These descriptions are called metadata (data about data). In recognition of the need to support the data policy and the focus on data capture, sharing and integration, each site has an information manager as part of the staff. In efforts to facilitate cross-site research and data synthesis by making datasets comparable between sites, standards for metadata have been developed and adopted. In addition to the data and metadata, there are a variety of both formal and informal forms of information flow.
Furthermore, there are multiple dimensions to the data re-use issue because of the large-scale and the long-term aspects of LTER. The setting brings in the temporal dimension since participants respond to the summons to preserve data for decades to centuries. Science Studies have demonstrated that formal data descriptions ‘wrapped’ in informal descriptions increase the usefulness of the data (Bowker and Star, 1999).
We observe the important role played by storytelling in the everyday doing of science. The inherent transience of a story conveyed verbally contrasts with the notion of long-term. Some stories survive and inform over time despite temporal and cultural boundaries. An extended time dimension poses challenges for the design of technologies that support distributed collaboration and large scale databases.
Features to consider with stories and storytelling
We need to consider and understand several features of stories and storytelling as we aim to produce storytelling frameworks that facilitate creation of socio-technical mechanisms for narration. First, we need to think carefully about what constitutes a story and how we recognize it as well as the methodological limitations involved. Next, we need to address what issues stories are told about and what genres are used in storytelling. Additionally, Linde (in press) has suggested that a great deal of attention be given to several design dimensions including capture and production effort, use effort and genre issues.
What is a story and how can we recognize it? Some narratives are recognized as stories by the members of the community in which they arise. They may be ‘obvious’ for several reasons: they may be highly entertaining and engaging or contain a moral message, the social situation may be particularly suitable for storytelling, or they may be told by acknowledged storytellers. There is another layer of stories, however, that is less noticed by members of the community though they may frequently engage in telling them amidst their daily work activities. These are the stories researchers may be able to observe and distinguish in the daily narrative practices of a community.
LTER abounds in stories and storytelling practices. Storytelling serves many purposes and is particularly well suited to transmit the part of social knowledge that concerns history, values and identity (Linde, in press). Some of the stories are specific to a site or a themed subgroup (stories about the successes, failures and frustrations of mediating technology in the everyday work of science are told by information managers) while some of them are found throughout the network (stories about network history and unique long-term commitment in the ecological community are told widely). Another perspective on story contents can be gained from the concept of ‘data trajectory’ (Strauss, 1985). Some stories relate to the field or data collection experience, the resultant dataset or project of which it is part, as well as to technical and general administrative infrastructures. Valuable stories circulate throughout the trajectory at times crossing organizational boundaries and providing an ongoing story re-use.
Genre analysis holds the promise of building rich resources for archiving and collecting stories. The following genres are available cultural resources within the LTER organization for developing a shared organizational culture and for passing on central collective insights: idealized story (here’s a script for how LTER/technology works/should work); the good old days (when the full quorum of site representatives fit around a single table); the bad old days (when no-one understood information management); transformation experience (the paradigm shift); the epiphany (when we all understood that content could be divorced from representation so could start climate database work); highly telegraphic story (when one work or graphic representation tells the whole story).
Science traditionally delivers its results through scientific journal articles. In addition, LTER sites produce ‘nugget stories’ of their most important scientific results, milestones of selected events, and newsletters of current activities while some sites have had their histories written. Although meetings take place regularly and make use of the break-out format, it is not necessarily a format that facilitates storytelling. Essentially storytelling happens ‘in the margins’: during breaks, meals and informal gatherings. This approach does not support storytelling but gives it a serendipitous position assuming that the capture and production of stories is simple and straightforward. The hope that stories can be collected automatically and placed within a linear structure such as milestones or timelines is found in both science and business organizations.
A face-to-face storytelling event always involves at minimum two active agents and occasionally may develop into an even larger group interactive process. The human storyteller is able to take into account the audience and adjust the story accordingly. Developing an in-depth understanding of traditional ways of storytelling is an important part of the use effort since design should be based upon this understanding. Furthermore, there are additional design considerations when the audience turns into a ‘user’, such as media type, the appropriateness of the story genre, and the amount of effort required from the audience.
The role of storytelling in support of organizational communication is well recognized (e.g. Denning, 2001). However, stories and their use raise complex issues with respect to both the stories themselves and the design of a system that can exploit the use of the stories.
Limitations of stories
There are very few studies that address narrative practices in relation to the everyday technical work. A notable exception by Orr (1996) describes how storytelling is an integral part of photocopier repair technicians’ work. Descriptions about malfunctions and ingenious diagnoses of implausible problems are shared in assisting one another in mending the machines.
In our work we have come across fewer stories about actual, technical data practices than anticipated. We see at least two reasons for this. The distributedness of the network raises the complex question of how to do ethnographic fieldwork of a network. For instance, individual data managers are located each at a different site so storytelling practices about data work within this community have not developed through everyday contact. To gather story materials and to gain understanding of storytelling practices, we have carried out participant observation in a variety of situations where LTER participants have gotten together, for instance, at different kinds of meetings and workshops, and we have conducted interviews with scientists, information managers, technicians, graduate students, administrators and temporary personnel. We have had less opportunity to observe the everyday working at different sites. In interview situations taking place outside of the habitual workplace, it is difficult for the interviewee to recall stories about the data practices because they are so tacit and contextually bound.
Secondly, the kinds of data stories we have heard are of events or situations that are somehow unusual, remarkable or extraordinary. Stories of everyday technical aspects of data work may be lacking due to data-work being considered something so mundane, even boring that it would be “oddly inappropriate for an experienced worker to tell another experienced worker a story about daily routine” (Linde, in press). Yet it is just this tacit knowledge and contextual understanding that is essential for the analysis and design of ‘narrative knowledge management systems’ (ibid).
When we think of the future narrative knowledge management system, we must think of both the ‘obvious’ stories and also those that illustrate everyday practice. This provides a partial answer to the question “what are the stories that are important to keep?” One way to gain more understanding of narrative practices in everyday work is to do additional fieldwork focused on this question. Another, more interventive way to ‘bring stories out of the margins’ would be to facilitate situations where stories can be told. Stories can be evoked using both social and technical approaches. One possible social approach from Participatory Design involves bringing together a group of people around a common interest as a shared object and to voice their experiences through sharing stories. A framework of existing stories may be a prompt for missing stories. Technical solutions could involve creating synchronous digital environments or asynchronous systems with preserved stories.
An example of a difficult story genre to support
As collaborators work together, the stories become short-handed and highly telegraphic. As an example, a short-hand reference to ‘Bill’s figure’ reminds LTER information managers about the often-told story of the data decay process and their central mission to preserve data for the long-term.
As the LTER participants have worked together closely over the past twenty years and more, there have grown up a rich collection of stories that can be referred to telegraphically. At issue here is the question of the possibility of creating intimacy over a distributed network. How can stories be represented in such a way that they can be easily shared and economically described? How can newcomers to the network develop an understanding of the shared story base?
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[*] Position paper for Storytelling and Collaborative
Activities Workshop at CSCW’02 (Computer
Supported Cooperative Work Nov 16-20, 2002)