Friday 09 December 2016

The Art, Death and Rebirth of Storytelling (or, Why I Love Social Media)

If social media is democratising information then the world’s citizenry is the most corrupt electorate we’ve ever known.

Yes, that’s purely there for link bait.

One of the greatest benefits of this beast known as social media is the ability for every participant to have an equal voice. Hooray, we’ve solved the world’s issues. Let’s go to the pub.

Except…we haven’t really. Because (and let’s use the relatively modest population of Facebook as a working example)…if 500 million people all have an equal voice…how do I know which ones to listen to? I only have 1,440 minutes a day to spend worshipping at the social temple. Which sermons should I prioritise?

Well, I guess I selectively screen them, probably along some of the following lines:

-          People I know/like/trust

-          People who are informative (tell me things I wouldn’t otherwise know about)

-          People who are entertaining (if I’m spending my time listening to you bang on about yourself, I want to get something out of it)

This latter group is, unfortunately, where the corruption sets in.

As anyone who’s ever bothered a Chief of Staff at 4pm with a story that isn’t really a story can attest, sometimes people (and organisations) want to say stuff that just isn’t interesting. What happens then is…your press release doesn’t run. And if instead of a CoS you were foolish enough to be pitching to some web-based journalist/blogger, you’ll probably find yourself blacklisted and named-and-shamed on Twitter to boot. Lovely.

The point then is this: as more and more individuals, corporations, NGOs, governments, government departments, despots, cranks, celebrities etc sign up to participate in social media, the competition for audience attention is going to increase exponentially.

Entertainment will attract a premium, and that premium will be audience members.

We will bias towards entertainment over people we know (who are boring), and over people who are informative (and also boring). Especially in this current climate of instant gratification.

And as more and more of us strive to build and maintain an audience, we’re going to have to find newer, cleverer ways of entertaining them, so they don’t jump ship and go listen to someone else instead (and for any digiphiles who want to point out that we can listen to and interact with more people than ever before – yes, you can, but there are still only 1,440 minutes in a day and you have to sleep sometime).

Enter storytelling, the original social medium.

For thousands of years before the written word was invented humans have told stories. The tribal storyteller held a position of honour in every society, because storytelling was intrinsically linked with the tribe’s history, culture and belief structure. Stories covered events of importance to daily life – successful hunts, great battles (usually victories – winners get to write history after all), and the reason behind why all the local beefcakes are werewolves.

Personally, I think this is a Very Good Thing (the storytelling bit, not the werewolves), because once the bulk majority of social media participants have got their blogs set up, with push notifications through Twitter syndicated with Facebook and whatever other status-update-based wonkery they’re connected to, and once we’ve all learned how to embed video (the latest de rigeur it seems), then we’ll all be back at square one, having to compete on the merits of the story, rather than the techno-wizardry of the AB demographic (the only ones who can afford iPads without having to make severe dietary changes like reverting to home brew rather than going to the aforementioned pub).

The challenge then, is for the great and the good to hone the storytelling arts faster, cleaner, and with a greater commitment to truth and transparency than the darker forces that populate the internet.

So, here’s a New Year tribute to the art of spinning a good yarn (yes, that’s where it comes from). It’s probably going to suffer a bit for the next 12 months while we all get over ourselves and start taking the internet for granted in the same way we have done with newspapers and TVs, but sooner or later the phoenix of fables will rise again. In the meantime, here’s a great place to pick up some tips on how to tell better stories yourself.

Happy New Year.

-Grant