Dissertation defense by Sarah Beth Nelson

February 11, 2019 1:00 pm
Phillips Hall, room 220

Sarah Beth Nelson’s dissertation is titled: “Coming Out of Our Shells: Safety and Vulnerability in Reality Storytelling.” In it, she takes an ethnographic approach to explore an Atlanta, Georgia example of the modern storytelling movement called “reality storytelling.” 


Reality storytelling shows are a growing phenomenon across the United States. These shows often take place monthly in bars. Ordinary people volunteer to tell brief, possibly edgy, personal stories, relating to the theme of the evening. This type of communication presents a unique opportunity for studying embodied information practices. The field of LIS tends to conceptualize information as an object, and discusses information separately from the bodies that create, communicate, and share it. Returning bodies to the discussion deepens our understanding of information and information practices. Seeking to better understand the reality storytelling phenomenon and embodied information practices, I undertook an ethnographic study of a particular reality storytelling show. Carapace occurs once a month in Atlanta, Georgia. I began with the question: How does the Carapace community negotiate the making of meaning? This question was crafted to guide my understanding of the community and their information practices. I attended six Carapace shows over seven months and conducted 18 interviews. I performed as a storyteller at some, but not all, of the shows I attended. I found that many of the practices at Carapace focus on creating a safe space for personal storytelling. Tellers are meant to feel safe to share any story they may wish to tell. Audience members are made to feel safe enough to take the risk of hearing any story. These safeties largely fall into two categories: “the water is fine,” and “it’s okay to stay in your shell.” Organizers and community members try to make the environment generally pleasant. However, because not everything feels comfortable for everyone there, and because some things are out of their control, they also provide safety by allowing attendees to retreat into the “shells.” This usually takes the form of partially, or completely, disengaging (e.g., avoiding eye contact, leaving the room). Carapace attendees simultaneously manage which stimuli from their environment they wish to allow or block, while managing their personal performances, to control the information they are giving away about themselves. I see this as a nuanced version of information avoidance I call “stimulus management,” combined with impression management. When attendees choose to “come out of their shells” they experience moments of connection. The message at the heart of the Carapace experience is “you are not alone.”