Hanson Hosein is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker, as well as a former war correspondent for NBC News in Iraq. He is currently the director of the Master of Communication in Digital Media program at the University of Washington.
1. What is the elevator speech that you would give to someone to describe your field of study?
For the last fifty or sixty years we perceived communication as a pretty easy endeavor. As long as you had the attention of a mass media institution, you could pretty much get your message out. With the digital age, chaos has come back into the system and things have changed. Now, you’ve got to fight much harder to be understood and to convince many folks. To build trust, you have to think about new digital platforms, you have to think about new ways to connect, and you have to appeal to people emotionally to be able to make that persuasive connection. So that’s what our program is about; we try to train our professionals to think about how to be effective communicators and go about it differently.
2. How might a communication scholar see things like journalism, public relations, and advertising differently than most other educated individuals, and to what extent?
Professionals who are looking at communication have to look at it much more strategically. The immediate knee-jerk reaction would to be to say, “Oh, you know, let’s focus on the technology. Facebook is the latest thing; we have to understand the practices there.” I call that a fool’s errand. It’s an arbitrary simplification that gets you nowhere. What you’ve got to do is think strategically in a way that’s agnostic to the platforms. You have to look at how networks actually form, you have to look at who your influencers are, and you have to look at ways to engage people in a very emotional, non-technology level. Technology is just the enabler; it’s not the reason these things are happening, it’s just facilitating the relationships. So if you’re a professional communicator, you’ve got to think about structure, you’ve got to think about connection, you’ve got to think about motivation, and you’ve got to think about psychology.
3. In what ways have new media changed the scope of what it means to be a modern-day storyteller?
Storytelling is something we’ve been doing since we began communicating. We transmitted really important information among ourselves as human beings and made it memorable. Storytelling got relegated to bedtime stories in the 20th century as mass media set up the co-op for the way we communicated with each other in big ways. Now, technology has all of a sudden allowed for more interpersonal connection across great distances to people we don’t even know very well, so we’re returning to that pre-mass media age again, where we can tell stories, connect with people, and actually get instant feedback. So we’re now accountable again like we were, say, three hundred years ago when we told stories in villages or in community halls or in churches, because of these technologies and social platforms that allow that give-and-take, that back-and-forth. So storytellers have to be accountable. It’s not about creating a great movie and putting it out there and expecting people to passively accept it. They’re going to talk about it, maybe do something about it, and come back at you, and you have to prepare for that connection. If you do it right, it’s actually a great opportunity to build a trusted, sustainable relationship.
4. What are some seemingly significant things you’ve learned throughout the course of your career that have become outdated or irrelevant at this point?
I grew up in a world where the first question of communication was, “Who’s your audience?” It was all about who you were targeting, whether it was in marketing or television news or whatever. I really don’t believe that’s the primary strategic question anymore. I think because technology has made it so inexpensive to communicate, it’s less about “Who’s your audience?” and more “What story do you want to tell?” and “What do you want to engage people with?” And you start with that and you make it as authentic and transparent and persuasive as possible and then you start determining that kind of people that might be attracted to that. Then you can start asking what kind of community you want to build around it. But it has to start first and foremost with that content and story.
5. Who has more influence in the direction media is headed in, content producers or their audiences/consumers?
Cory Doctorow, who is an author and one of the founders of the blog Boing Boing, has an excellent quote. We all like to say content is king; it’s a very nice cliché. He says that content isn’t king, but that conversation is king. Content, and I believe this as well, in this digital age is merely a commodity, a kind of lubrication that gives us something to talk about. This is why you’ve got bands like Radiohead giving away their music and then selling merchandise and tickets to their concerts. Because we’re so flooded with content and it’s so easy to make now and it’s so easy to get it out there, it has become a commodity.
So what’s your business model now? The business model is that stuff that surrounds that content, the conversation that happens around it. For example, I’ve written a book called Storyteller Uprising, and my financial model is not necessarily to make money from the book, but the book is a calling card for credibility. It’s the content that facilities the conversation, whether I’m doing a workshop or a keynote talk, where I get paid for that. So if you think about it that way, it’s really the people who you are engaged with in those conversations that are helping you determine your business model and where you’re going with that. I think if I were to give a simple answer to the question, I’d say that the people you are connecting with are more in charge, rather than the content creator, although you can also impact the direction of those conversations based on the kind of content you put out there.