Experience Stacks, movie stars, and the problem with Facebook
How we experience the work of movies stars is different than how we experience the work of actors, and that difference also helps to understand what we lose when we spend a lot of time on Facebook.
By Brad Berens
The job of an actor and the job of a movie star are similar — they overlap — but they are not the same. The actor helps to tell a convincing story, and we forget that it’s an actor pretending to be somebody else. The movie star never lets us forget that we’ve seen that star pretending to be other people at other times.
Sam Rockwell is a terrific actor: for years I did not recognize him from role to role, only to sit up in my seat (“That guy??”) as the end credits unspooled. Tom Cruise is a movie star. Yes, he is also a talented actor who has been nominated for and won many awards, but you never forget that you’re watching Tom Cruise… even when he is buried in makeup and a fat suit like he was as Hollywood agent Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder (right).
Actors and movie stars create different kinds of immersion that ask us, the viewers, to perform different kinds of cognitive work. With the actor, we are immersed in the story. With the movie star, we move back and forth between being immersed in the story and being immersed in the telling of that story.
Another way of putting this is that the Experience Stack an actor helps us to create is different than the Experience Stack that a movie star helps us to create.
Brief Definition: an Experience Stack is the customer-facing counterpart of a company’s Tech Stack. A Tech Stack is the combo-platter of software and hardware the company uses to create, manage, and track its products. An Experience Stack is the combo-platter of all the activities customers do over time with and around the things companies make. Customers improvisationally shift from context to context during any given experience, which is one of the key differences between analog (human) thinking and algorithmic (AI) thinking. It is easiest to see Experience Stacks with narrative products like movies and television, but customers generate Experience Stacks with all products.
Why is it that after I watch a movie for two hours I feel pretty good about myself, but after I scroll through Facebook for two hours I feel pretty bad about myself? In both cases I’m entertaining myself, taking a break. I’m not working. This is recreation. I could even argue that spending two hours on Facebook is more socially positive than watching a movie because on Facebook I’m engaging with other people, commenting, supporting. But that’s not how it feels.
The Experience Stack we build up around a movie star works the way rhyme in poetry works. There is nothing inherently related about the words “love” and “dove” or “ambition” and “suspicion,” but when those words come at the ends of lines of poetry that are near each other, we presume relationships among the words and then generate meanings for those relationships that we attribute to the poem or the poet.*
Likewise, there’s nothing inherently related about the fact that Natalie Portman played Padmé in three Star Wars movies and Jane Foster in three Thor movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but we can’t stop comparing.
Celebrity journalism, People magazine, and TV talk shows exist to help us build our Experience Stacks around movie and TV stars.** After all, on the surface it’s ridiculous for otherwise sensible viewers to pay rapt attention to what actors have to say about their roles when, as actors playing parts, onscreen they are saying words written by other people. If we cared about what was going through Jane Foster’s head during a particular moment of Thor: Love and Thunder, then we’d ask the writers, Taika Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, not the interpreting actress.
For the returning viewer who has seen both a) a lot of MCU movies and b) a lot of Natalie Portman movies, watching “Thor: Love and Thunder” those two different sets of movie experiences merge into an Experience Stack. We can both qualitatively and quantitatively distinguish among different folk’s different Experience Stacks, as I did with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in my previous column.
Which brings me to Facebook.***
Why is it that after I watch a movie for two hours I feel pretty good about myself, but after I scroll through Facebook for two hours I feel pretty bad about myself?
In both cases I’m entertaining myself, taking a break. I’m not working. This is recreation.
I could even argue that spending two hours on Facebook is more socially positive than watching a movie because on Facebook I’m engaging with other people, commenting, supporting.
But that’s not how it feels.
Watching a movie or a TV show, particularly when it’s something in a series and/or when I recognize some of the actors, feels additive. I’m growing my expertise on a topic or a narrative world, even if that expertise has no particular economic value. The reason that fans are fans is because over time their Experience Stacks amplify the pleasures they get from individual experiences. Even if you hated the latest installment in a given franchise, you are still building your Experience Stack by watching it, so it’s not all bad.
Facebook is celebrity journalism without the movies and TV shows. The ephemerality of Facebook works against building an Experience Stack with anything other than Facebook itself.
If I post something (a picture, a link to an article, a joke, how I’m doing at that moment), then over the course of the next few hours or days I will see reactions to my post, some substantial and some just emojis. But the half life of those reactions is short—measured in hours or days. Even if I get into a spirited conversation with friends who disagree (like Joey D and Kevin H), the never-ending hurricane of posts washes away this conversation along with all the others.
Experience Stacks require persistence in order to grow.
According to its corporate website, Facebook’s mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
How’s that working out?
Facebook is a moral challenge for our species not just because Facebook’s algorithms reward anger over love, division over unity, and what’s bad over what’s good. In addition, Facebook also privileges the new over the old, the ephemeral over the lasting, and hot takes over actual interaction.
I think a lot about Experience Stacks because they help me to see how we construct our experiences in real time, how and why my experiences are different than yours, but also how and why they are the same.
We have evolved to notice difference effortlessly. We must struggle to see our common bonds.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
* My thinking about how we generate meaning about narratives, and then attribute that meaning to the narrative creators, is indebted to Donald Davidson’s 1978 article “What Metaphors Mean.”
** Yes, of course on the company side these things exist to generate lots of attention so that people will tune in, subscribe, buy tickets, etc. I’m talking here about how customers use these things to build their individual Experience Stacks.
*** It is true that Facebook specifically is not the same as social media in general, and that other social media services have problems when it comes to fomenting division, anger, and negativity. However, as the most powerful and successful collection of social media services (parent company Meta also owns Instagram), and as the company most closely associated with disinformation, Cambridge Analytica, and more, I am comfortable focusing on Facebook in this piece.
See all columns from the Center.
August 10, 2022