Metaphors Matter

By March 31, 2011Uncategorized

Metaphors matter. The fact that someone somewhere choose to model our ubiquitous electronic messaging system after “mail” (i.e., “e-mail”) matters. If they had chosen to model it after a group therapy session (e-therapy?), we’d be living in a much different world. The metaphor of “mailing a letter” makes email easy to understand (for everyone), and it also sets some early, unwritten limitations.

You can also see that metaphors matter in the early history of Twitter. Twitter went outside of a known communications metaphor – and they’ve suffered for it (in terms of people not easily grasping it – “what’s a tweet?”). At the same time, it might also be the most important choice they ever made (in that it doesn’t set early, unwritten limitations on Twitter).

Bottom-line: Metaphors matter.

Here’s the rub: you don’t always *know* that you’re choosing a metaphor to base something on.

Take conferences. In a “conference,” the metaphor is a classroom. We’re supposed to sit passively in our seats, take notes, absorb knowledge and walk out “educated.” Some conferences even give educational credits toward industry certifications. Is the classroom bad? Of course not. Is it a bad metaphor to base a conference on? No, but it does have its limitations. And you can hear that all of the time when you hear folks complain about “format,” or session length, or even speakers. Often what they’re really feeling is that they’re bumping up against the metaphorical limitations of the classroom — and wishing their experience more matched a *different* metaphor.

The next time you walk into a conference setting, you’ll see it. People milling around being nice to each other (“nice” as in “we’re expected to have a certain amount of decorum; this is an educational setting”). Music playing very quietly (if at all), and always the kind of music that people are expected to not like or dislike – just don’t be offended. There are even conferences that *purposefully* limit wifi in the conference sessions because they “want people to pay attention.”

I don’t choose education as a metaphor. I think of conferences as experiential vehicles. I know that the sessions, while important, are really about fostering an experience — one that happens in between sessions, or in the hallway as often as not. I want people to feel energized, upset, disturbed, physically exhausted, motivated, ready to go *do* something when they leave our conferences.

So what’s my metaphor? A rock concert. I want loud music, people interacting with the stage, lighting and production, some level of *theatricality* to the whole event.

At this point, you’re thinking: “Eric, I’ve been to other conferences that have music leading up to a rock star presenter, with lots of stage lighting.” Yep, I know you have. But it’s not the big things that make it work — it’s the original *choice* (or non-choice). Did the organizer choose a rock concert metaphor? Or were they told, “hey make sure the stage is really cool” – and still (often subconsciously) choose the classroom metaphor.

I think you see my point. Metaphors matter. And they matter in the details (not just the lighting).

In the meantime, check out the agenda (which we’re updating weekly), and come join us at Gluecon.