Stickiness, Sesame Street and Storytelling

4 minute read

Much like every other child of my generation that grew up in this hemisphere, Sesame Street was unbelievable formative. Not just educationally, but also in terms of constructing a worldview for an entire generation of a friendly, helpful and interesting universe (rather than the one Fox News seems to be constructing based on hyper-competitive, fearful, violence that rewards stupidity and bigotry).

So, I’m reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell at the moment, which is absolutely fascinating and insightful in its characterization of word of mouth epidemics, fads, and other social “flash fire” phenomenon. I cottoned on to it in doing background reading on the DeanSpace software and the Dean campaign phenomenon in the run-up to the last democratic candidate nomination.

Anyhow, Gladwell uses Sesame Street and other Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) productions as an examination of the concept of stickiness in these social epidemics and fads which separates that which is simply background clutter and advertising to those bizarre events that seemingly spread like pandemics.

Personally, I was unaware to the degree to which Sesame Street was heavily engineered to appeal to children just thinking it was a phenom like Dr. Seuss or the like which had an unexpected, immediate appeal to which children glommed.

But virtually every third episode was tested start to finish with a device called a Distractor to determine what children watched (in 7 sec increments no less) and then later they were tested to see what they retained in terms of the material being presented. Quite fascinating what a little panel research did in this degree for instance (I was totally shocked at the degree of testing done actually).

For example, in the original pilots of the show, psychologists had advised it was unwise to mix reality elements like the adults and fantasy ones like the muppets in the show together which led to these peaks where kids were interested by the puppets but dropped off completely when the adults came in to discuss issues. Can you imagine Sesame Street now without muppets interacting with the real life characters ?

The section is a bit of a fascinating read on how television, which has always been thought of as a low involvement medium was reverse engineered in order to make sure kids had a high degree of stickiness and got involved with Sesame Street showings. For instance, kids do not do well with puns and wordplay generally so things that were geared towards adults to keep them interested (as research had shown that lower income families tended not to be interested in the education of their children and this was seen as a way to assist that) . Children also often deal with things through mutual exclusivity which means that having 2 names for something can confuse them at least in terms of how they learn.

Another thing was that segments were geared towards 3 min optimal intervals as it was felt that commercials were very effective in terms of conveying messages (this was, after all the hey day of Madison Avenue advertising). However, subsequent

The final analysis though showed that kids interest was held by things they understood but that they looked away when things became confusing or they were unable to be engaged.

Personally, I found it quite interesting. So, when Nickolodeon decided to try and build on the capabilities of Sesame Street with the apparently unbelievably successful Blues’ Clues (which I have not seen, BTW - anyone got a torrent, I’m intrigued now) the first thing they did was knock out the idea of the 3 mins and go for a full half hour long narrative. The interesting thing about these stories is that they are exactly that, storytelling that conveys knowledge. Much as one would expect people to learn better.

They’ve also provided ample opportuntiies to allow participation to make sure children that watch the show are engaged which not only allows them to acquire knowledge but to demonstrate it.

In any case, it fits in rather interestingly with ideas I have about knowledge actually being conveyed by storytelling rather than any other medium. And also with the course I took on Anthropology and Art earlier in the year which taught me some fascinating concepts about storytelling and cultural learning.

One of the most important findings about stickiness though is the matter of engagement which means having people personally involved in active in what they are doing. It’s an interesting comment on why some things work well on television and the web and others don’t and something I’m trying to integrate into the pro bono work I’m doing now. That is, don’t build a web site or a content management system, build a community. Build something that engages and involves and make it sticky. Commitment is sticky. Merely publishing content is not.

So, of course, the idea here is to figure out how to apply these same involvement concepts to creating stickiness for web communities in the charitable or activism field.

Oh, and, um… C is for cookie…

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