Why storytelling matters

Storytelling, as a medium, is (seemingly) timeless. The first cave paintings emerged 40,000 years ago in Southern Europe. Ever since, humans have been documenting our world using the forms most readily available: stone, parchment, tablet, canvas, film, video, and now…pixels? What began as an oral storytelling culture has evolved, with language, to include visual and material objects. Text, type, art, symbol, and icons constitute our ever-changing library of meaning-making. What a bountiful spread!

Storytelling matters because stories explain our relationships, both with ourselves and with others. Stories allow us to understand the world: the rich tapestry of colors, sounds and shapes of the physical world, as well as the fantastical, dream-like qualities of the worlds inside our own heads. Life is made of cells, atoms and particles, which are also stories. Each part exists because we have a story to tell around its existence. Every death, birth, creation of new or recycling of old is just another story to share and to remember.

What does that mean for the digital age? Jonah Sachs calls it the “digitoral” era – the rise of digital storytelling, where sites like Facebook and Twiter (even TED) have attempted to recreate the Roman fora, the town square, the campfire. Facebook is the absolute monarch of the digitoral era; instead of tyrannical rule over its subjects, though, it commodifies them. A post about a sip of coffee is worth $4. Your story is now theirs. The social contract consists of giving and getting. You give, they get. You get a little too, but not forever. They own your story. Why? Because their own story depends on it.

In this new era of storytelling, whose story is it anyway? Whose story is being told?

Recently, I’ve been reading Studs Terkel, the master of oral history and ethnographic storytelling, and wonder what he would think of this new era. Instead of live tweeting American Idol, or the latest gadget’s release event, what if we live tweeted someone’s memoir? Or a book we’re reading? Or a conversation we had with someone, years ago?

In-depth ethnographic books like Race, or Behind the Beautiful Forevers, or human-interest documentaries on the unfortunate, are not self-produced works of art. These are stories that have been compiled, edited, and filtered by the author or director– not the subject. The subject is really the object, in traditional storytelling parameters.

Have we begun to invert the subject/object relationship through the rise of social media? One’s story need not have a listener to be told, nor a production team to package it. It need not even be curated as a worthwhile story. Look around, these stories are what sell: cheap, and in the millions, these mass-produced stories make ad executives at Facebook and other social networks rich. And again, who benefits?

At the core, humans want stories to be simple, evocative, to elicit empathy, to depict the human experience. Storytelling is an art, but are we all artists now? A Facebook post is by nature, devoid of context. Unlike a diary or journal, Facebook is outward-facing – the audience silently receives an update, and whether they “like” it or not, it’s there. Meaning cannot easily be derived from this 2D representation of thought. We write into the abyss, hoping someone understands our story, but the medium is already complicating itself. The story has all of a sudden become far less simple than the campfire days, when eager listeners gathered around for a few solid minutes of undistracted wonder. These stories have been stripped of intention, of meaning, and are raw bursts of thought. Collectively, this makes for a lot of anger, frustration, and sadness. Can we find the themes that matter?

Storytelling is a rich and important facet of life. In a way, I argue that it is life. We are nothing without our stories. Technology has captured and monetized our stories through film, TV, radio, and print, for generations. The internet medium, however, is borderless: we are no longer hemmed in by physical constraints of old media, yet the inward/outward and subject/object fuzziness makes for a complicated and messy situation.

Where do I start, and you begin? I’ll read Death of the Author and get back to you.


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