The Lack of Problems is a Problem

One of the formative experiences of my working life was Disney’s 1982 motion picture, Tron, the first motion picture in history to use CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) as a way to build a world. I was the unit publicist on the film, which meant I managed (with a lot of help from Disney’s great PR team) all its media and PR from pre-production through its premiere. I supervised the Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for the Rolling Stone cover of Jeff Bridges. I wrote the book, The Art of Tron, and produced and wrote the TV documentary, Computers Are People, Too, which Vice called “The Trippiest Movie About Computers Ever.”

Yesterday, Donna Pahel, my partner in 21 Day Story, and I were on a call with someone who has been disappointed by the experiences she and her colleagues have had with virtual events over the past year. “Our Chief Revenue Officer, who I report to, is telling us the driver of growth for our company over the next five years will be in developing communities. Basically, our competitors offer the same products and services we do. You look at their website — not that different from ours. If I read their strategy papers, I probably could not tell them apart from our own. How we set ourselves apart is with our communities. These virtual events aren’t doing it. Of all the things people have tried over the past year, the only thing that’s worked is Clubhouse, and there’s no foreseeable way to monetize it.”

The caller and I had both recently attended an elaborate virtual event sponsored by her company, set in a computer-generated world that was navigable, like Second Life…or Tron!

“Did it work for you?” I ask her.

“Not really,” she says. When two people are physically in a space together and a hundred are virtual, those two people connect in a meaningful way. The hundred miss out one way or another. We need to re-invent conferences,” she sighs.

Let’s say we are at the beginning of a process for re-inventing conferences as gatherings in cyberspace, or hybrids between virtual and physical space. In this, or any re-creative process, what matters — “the mattering,” Dr. Anete Camille Strand, one of the world’s leading authorities on quantum storytelling, calls it — is a set of differences between the current state of things and a desired future state. “The founding differences,” she calls this framing.

Dr. Strand calls the space of this difference-noting “The Between.” All of the actions that matter — i.e. that are material to the desired change — happen in The Between. What might be the founding differences between virtual conferences that are community-killers and those that succeed in building communities?

I tell our caller that I felt as if our recent virtual conference experience was like a trip into the world of Tron. Tron came true,” I say, a quote I hereby admit I stole from the film’s director, Steven Lisberger.

Without having an answer in mind, I ask, “What are the differences between the cyberspace of the virtual conference we attended, and the CGI world of Tron? Why did the conference feel flat and forgettable, and the film is still lively within a global community, and spinning out sequels, theme park rides, games and animated TV series?”

It took them ten years, but Pixar, Inspired by “Tron” and supported by Steve Jobs, solved the problem of how to make CGI animated films, while Disney Animation, until “Frozen” in 2013, lagged behind. The upside for Pixar between 1995–2010: $5 billion in boxoffice from 2010. Disney bought them for $7.4 billion in 2006 and ceded control of their board to Jobs.

Before I’ve even finished asking the question, it becomes rhetorical. I have an answer —

“The film is about solving problems — dramatic problems about theft of intellectual properties, competitive problems on the game grid, romantic problems…the problem of getting the film made attracted everyone in the world at that time who was interested in using computers for the arts. One reason virtual conferences aren’t building communities is that they’re not solving meaningful problems.”

In the Before Times, the ‘problem’ conferences solved was providing space for people to tout their products. We sat through presentations like they were spiels for Lake Havasu time shares, it was the price we paid for golfing with friends, great meals with customers, memorable hallway encounters, bonding with our teams, and swimming with dolphins while friends back in Syracuse were freezing their asses off and two of our three children were sick with the flu. Totally worth it.

If you want to build communities, design your gatherings like a Tron — who will win the competitions? Who will walk away with the valuable IP? Who will fall in love? If you design it, communities will come.