I’m writing this from iMedia’s Driving Interactive Summit on interactive auto marketing in Newport, CA. Yesterday, during the opening panel I posed a question about how big auto makers can and should deal with negative user-generated content. I phrased it something like this: “When you’re dealing with ordinary folks online, sometimes they love you and sometimes they grab their pitchforks and torches and head for the town square.”
The panelists had a series of interesting and useful answers, but one sub-event that struck me was that ALL of them quoted the words “pitchforks and torches” while answering. In formulating my question, I had unexpectedly created a mimi-meme that was sticky enough to infect the rest of that conversation.
A meme is an idea that easily translates from one mind to another or many others (see this Wikipedia entry).
But how and why had my casual turn of phrase proved sticky? It’s hardly an original metaphor– in fact, it’s a cliche from any Frankenstein movie.
Puzzling this later, I realized that the power of that turn of phrase lay in what I DIDN’T do… I didn’t close the metaphor for the audience. I didn’t, in other words, say, “… and sometimes they grab their pitchforks and torches and head for the town square to chase the monster to a barn and burn it down.”
Instead, by holding back, by letting everybody in the room MAKE the association with the Frankenstein story rather than merely receive it, I asked their brains to create a meaning, to close the loop, and that proved more powerful rhetorically.
I should hasten to point out that this is not a new insight. The poet Keats argued that this sort of “negative capability” as THE thing that made Shakespeare great. Shakespeare, Keats argued, was “content with half knowledge,” and therefore could easily remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He didn’t close narratives, metaphors and the like. Instead, he let his audience do it for themselves.
As a writer, editor and speaker I need to keep this in mind: letting the reader MAKE connections rather than receive them is a powerful communications strategy. However, online this is a problem because doing so flies in the face of the commonly understood best online writing practices of laying it all on the table.
I’ll keep noodling this. In the meantime, here’s a good post on closure and hypertexts from Christy Dena.