No. Well, not that I’m aware of. But what a story that would be. Newsroom bosses the world over would eat their own children to be able to run with that one.
Because it’s all about the story – or is it?
Is it really? What about: 'It's all about the facts'?
In the world of twinstant media, the attention economy, infotainment, lifecasting, status updates, reality schmoltz, ‘news-as-it-happens’ journalism and so on, the mantra of the many has become ‘it’s all about the story’. The wretched things are everywhere.
And so on. We’ve become obsessed with stories. And I don’t just mean a ripping good yarn (we’ve always been fixated with these) – I mean the actual artefact of ‘story’ itself. A narrative device, that in it’s most rudimentary and common form involves a beginning (the set-up or situation), a middle (the complication / conflict) and an end (the resolution). And it’s spreading. You can’t interact with any organisation these days without someone popping up dutifully and wanting to impart their organisation’s story.
Has our obsession with this artefact lead many to turn unrelated events, unrelated information and unrelated people into stories, when really they are just that: a series of unrelated things? The two are not the same.
Cover your mouth while reading
Can anyone remember Swine Flu? It’s so last week. Or is it the week before? Who cares! If you follow the arc of that story (quickly fading from the headlines of all our major dailies) you would feel that the story is already over. It’s gone. It’s run its course and has effectively been ‘resolved’. Classic storytelling. Wildly inaccurate and horribly irresponsible journalism in many cases, but classic storytelling nonetheless.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reported recently (20 May 2009) that “41 countries have officially reported 10,423 cases of influenza A(H1N1) infection, including 80 deaths”. New Zealand was listed as having reported 9 laboratory confirmed cases with no deaths (a poor effort). But it feels boring. Swine Flu. Give me something new to work with – I’m bored just writing about it.
However, from a pure storytelling perspective the latest statistics could actually make for far more gruesome and fatalistic headlines than the initial reporting. Imagine if this is where the story had started:
WORLD ON ALERT: DEADLY SWINE FLU GOES GLOBAL – THOUSANDS ALREADY INFECTED!
You could go so many (more dramatic) places with this as your set-up. But we don’t see this headline, and we’re not going to see it any time soon because the story, the artefact, has been used up. We need a new one. Or so the ‘profits of doom’ would dictate.
BREAKING NEWS: Japanese PM, Taro Aso, dismisses allegations that the government has inflamed swine flu panic.
Do long stories have a short time left?
Rather obviously, the interactive technology most of us carry around with us gives us the power to throw our stories onto the ever-growing heap of digital stories on the Internet and beyond. However, this fact, coupled with the desire for more stories, more updates and more ‘angles’ can make the whole noisy key-party completely inaudible.
Many have already debated the value, quality and accuracy of this citizen-generated monster. The general theme of this argument is: ‘your average punter is dumb – so their opinion (story) doesn’t matter’. I don’t agree with this, but there’s a grumpy army of academics and ‘commentators’ who have lamented the ‘democratisation of information’, the explosion of social media and the so-called dumbing-down of society as a result.
HURRY! Look at everything, all the time, all at once, with everyone else and you’ll know . . . everything? Or nothing?
Gaylene Preston is a talented New Zealand documentary maker and storyteller who has voiced concerns of a different kind, but still related to the impact of technology on storytelling.
This from an interview with her in 2008 in response a world “bristling with electronic media”:
“I worry we are losing this very important basic human brain-stem thing - we’re not sitting around sharing great big long stories while we eat and drink and laugh together. Cinema is becoming almost the last bastion of long form storytelling communally shared.”
Personally, I don’t think we are losing anything. We are gaining a hell of a lot of options in the ‘short form’ storytelling format afforded by the tools and networks of the digital generation.
And yes, there’s lots of hand-wringing about Facebook and Twitter blah, blah, blah, but really, these are just inoffensive, playful and sometimes useful social tools (they are not necessities; nor do they foreshadow the end of civilization) – and maybe they’ll actually sharpen and hone our storytelling skills.
"What?!" I hear the letter-writers howl with intelligent rage from the drawing rooms of their leafy suburbs. Am I drunk? No, but this guy probably was. Consider:
Long before the days and nights and white noise of Twitter (way back in the 1920s), Ernest Hemingway rather boldly wagered that he could tell a story in just six words.
What a confident chap. And highly talented.
Here’s what he came up with:
For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.
That is really very good. Like any good tale the intrigue and ‘story’ goes far beyond the raw elements and prompts the reader to ask so much more than what s/he is initially presented with. It remains unresolved.
> Whose baby?
> Why are they selling the shoes?
> Is the baby still alive?
> Or was it adopted?
> Has the baby been born?
> Who are the parents?
> And so on...
All in six words. And for all you Twitterholics out there, that’s just 33 characters. Imagine what he could’ve done with a whopping 140?
Hemingway won the bet by the way. And ten smackers for his efforts.
So short stories have been around for ever. And so have long stories. Nothing new here. Move along. It’s the rate of story churn that is new. Today’s media porn is tomorrow’s media yawn.
But, but, but ... isn’t (new) media hype destroying the truth?
Not really. Platforms for hype are proliferating, but hype itself is not new.
At least we now have the tools to debate and challenge what was previously accepted as the status quo.
Consider Exhibit A:
55 years ago, New Zealand was plunged into a state of moral hysteria as sensationalist newspaper reports featured proceedings from the Magistrate’s Court in Lower Hutt (why is it always Lower Hutt?) that involved lurid tales of teenage sex and steamy deviancy in the suburbs.
So much so that it resulted in a ministerial enquiry would you believe?
This from the Mazengarb Report of 1954 (also called: Report of the Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents):
“The police investigations revealed a shocking degree of immoral conduct which spread into sexual orgies perpetrated in several private homes during the absence of parents, and in several second rate Hutt Valley theatres, where familiarity between youths and girls was rife and commonplace.”
‘Second rate’. I love it. The Mazengarb Report was delivered free to all New Zealand families (300,000) receiving the family benefit.
All from a little media beat-up.
1950s NZ: Teenage sex in the suburbs. Half a century later teens opted for the safer option and started poking each other on Facebook instead.
Platforms for hype
So, hype ain’t new and now there are a lot more ways to shout than ever before. Anyone can do it. * YELLS ON BLOG WITH DOUBLE EXCLAMATION!! * See.
But (finally), what about the artefact of the story? Why has this poor little puppy been appropriated by everyone?
A poor little puppy.
Because ‘story’ works. Stories are more compelling than events and more interesting than facts. They turn individuals into characters. And they create a kind of meaningful momentum that demands human attention. It all sounds horribly fluffy – like something you’d expect to hear at a creative retreat in Aro Valley while the organic bamboo wind chimes coo softly in the breeze outside. But it’s also horribly accurate.
In our job, we don't mind the fluff (boss approaches wielding shotgun). As creators of interactive media, we consider storytelling to be a vital component of nearly everything we do. And that’s all well and good.
But is this legitimate or is it a fad? Can you have too much story? Do you need one? Do all websites need a back-story? What’s the story on the ‘contact us’ page? Does an e-commerce interface really have a story to tell? Does a registration page need to have a story?
Maybe not in isolation but there should always be some sense of continuity in what you’re trying to communicate. Some connection to the mothership: the story.
Otherwise, everything would look and feel like Windows. Websites would all be one-page forms. Nobody would ever argue. And life would be dull.
So is it really all about the story? Well, in the business of interactive media, it’s a pretty good place to start. Get the story right and it can take you a long way. You may not even be able to always see it, click it, watch it, hear it, touch it or even read it, but it should be there as the backbone to your project. (Relational database developer puts head through screen at this point.)
How do we actually use them in our work? Can I provide some concrete examples?
Yep, I can - but that’s another story altogether.
Afterword: looking up at this lengthy tome maybe the whole 140 character format has merit.