The reinvention of storytelling

Every now and then I’m asked about why we should reinvent the way we plan, produce and present our digital narratives. Why should we have to change the way of doing things that have been working for so long? Who wants to have their nonfiction pieces filled with bells and whistles, video and audio slideshows, that clog the reading of a story?

I try to explain that reading will not go away, that text is the best medium (medium as in the singular of media, in multimedia) for such a great part of our storytelling. This is also the case with acting on stage, which is such a great medium to present visual storytelling on theaters.

Nevertheless, there’s a catch here.

Almost every new medium started out with the repurposing of old media practices. On the first printed books, some white space was kept, on the pages, so that illustrators could draw initial caps on it. Early radio shows weren’t more than theater shows aired to people’s home sets. Early TV shows where just mere radio shows with pictures, filmed with stationary cameras, since producers didn’t know what could be done with motion to improve the medium’s storytelling.

On his book I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works, Nick Bilton states about this subject: “There’s an all too human tendency to believe that what we know and experience now is the way it will and always should be”. He adds “The business of storytelling is doing the same thing with the Internet. We’re taking our existing content and simply aggregating it to the Web; we’re filming radio shows”.

What history can teach us is that almost all new media not only didn’t replaced old media, but it also went on to invent its’ own language and paradigms.

On Inventing the Medium, Janet H. Murray writes: “The agenda for filmmakers in the beginning of the twentieth century was not to get better and better at photographing plays, but to figure out how to use the camera and the plasticity of film to invent movies”.

With the latest maturation of the web, which jump started with the help of the tablet launch, we’re on the tipping point for reinventing our narratives and quit the habit of repurposing old media practices on digital. We need to do this because, as Janet H. Murray so simply puts it: “There is no such thing as content without form”.

And the form is changing with the medium. Right now, we’re witnessing the mixing of television and newspapers, with the latest starting to produce great video content for their websites. But even this isn’t all that is needed. We can expect more mixing in the future.

In the end, what we must answer is the question “With all these multimedia tools at my disposal right now, what can I use that best serves my storytelling on digital platforms?”

Human beings are hard wired to tell stories. It’s an evolutionary need for the survival of our species. What we tend to forget is that text itself, but also pictorial representations of the world, are a human invention. In that sense, video, audio and graphics are also communication tools invented by us. And just as with text, our brains learned to use these tools for our own profit.

It makes perfect sense, historically and cognitively, to incorporate all of these new digital enabled communication tools in our storytelling. One century ago, the usage of photography on our printed nonfiction was just as ‘revolutionary’, as today’s mixture of text with video and audio can be.

Another question we need to answer: “How can I fully engage with the digital readers”.

Nick Bilton writes: “Great storytelling, incisive reporting, and thoughtful editing will still prevail—but they will need to be presented to you and me in a different form to go beyond mere information.”, he then adds: “But there’s one other thing I discovered the next-generation consumer will pay for online: better experiences, which often grow out of better storytelling.”

As media professionals, we can wait for the rise of this new storytelling method (and it will happen) or we can jump-start it right now. What we need is to view our community storytelling experiments like the primordial soup, where life itself began through the trial and error of combining different elements.

Steve Johnson, on his book Where good Ideas Come From, contributes to the understanding of how we can fast-forward our collective learning: “If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” More: “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.” Finally: “It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network”.

Do I think that we have already a good example of what the future of digital storytelling will be like? No, I don’t. But I do believe that experiments like The New York Times One Year At War are on the right track. Also worth mentioning are France24 story Rape in Congo and CNN Slavery’s Last Stronghold.

MediaStorm, a digital narratives studio, is also producing great online nonfiction. The story A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan is a visual and audio masterpiece, an important testimonial to the storytelling power of photo and audio mixed together. Maggie Steber’s documentary work here is just superb.

Do I think that the solutions I present for redesigning digital narratives  are the future of digital storytelling? No, I don’t. They are just but an excuse to try to start the discussion and experimentation needed to get us somewhere.

What I know is that an ever growing group of clever people are thinking and experimenting with various multimedia tools and that, eventually, some kind of foundation for digital narratives will arise. As Steve Johnson tells us: “Call it the 10/10 rule: a decade to build the new platform, and a decade for it to find a mass audience”; but more than a decade has already passed since the boom of the World Wide Web!

Janet H. Murray, when writing about the reinvention of digital media, has focused her attention on the challenges the newspaper industry is facing: “A paper newspaper is a well-established template that we know how to map to cognitive schema so that we can take in the multiple stories it is telling us through media conventions like headlines, columns, and lead paragraphs. The templates of online news can potentially contain much more information-moving images, original documents, previous stories, interactive visualizations, reader comments, recommendation systems-but we have yet to establish a stable media form comparable to the paper newspaper. Creating the templates and conventions that will organize this expanded universe of news reporting is an ongoing collective task for digital designers.”

On his side, Nick Bilton leaves no place for soft words on the future of the news media publishing: “This new way of consuming information and storytelling online doesn’t bode well for individuals or companies that create mediocre content and cookie-cutter storytelling”; even if he ends with an essential piece of forecasting for a business that is struggling so much with economic problems: “Long-form content will not disappear even if we consume it in forms different from paper, even if it comes with embedded videos or with sensors and augmentation as part of the narrative. And people will still pay for all these forms, with significant and meaningful content as a crucial part of that experience”.

As a final though, I defend that traditional media publishers must take this chance to pursuit, in full speed, the objective of developing the basis for the next step of storytelling. Traditionally we’ve been slow followers of digital innovation and it has showed on our business results. It’s time to grab the steering wheel again and be on the front line of the reinvention of a medium that has been part of our DNA for so long: nonfiction long-form narrative.

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