Monday, February 13, 2012

Stories. The next big online meme?

I have become a big fan of Jonathan Harris. Harris is emerging as the father of online storytelling as a new important meme.

While Harris has been bringing the online story meme to life for several years, 2012 will be the year that storytelling emerges as a dominant trend. The user generated content boom that we’ve experienced in the last decade is a potent pre-cursor to story telling. We have been well trained and conditioned to express ourselves through posting text, pictures and video. You may in fact think that what we are doing today on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, our blogs and the incredible plethora of places where we can post, re-post, like and poke is in fact story telling. It is not.
What is the story behind this photograph? Where was it taken? Who are the people?
How did they end up there? How can we bring the stories behind our posts to life?
Stories are different than posts.  A post surely can tell a story, but usually does not. Likewise, while a good picture can tell a thousand words, most pictures don’t alone tell a story. Posts may be entertaining or informative expressing emotion or knowledge or both, but that does not make them stories. The narrative form – aka stories – requires structure that most posts don’t have. Wikipedia summarizes what defines a story as follows:

Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters and narrative point of view.

Storytelling requires more deliberation than most of us do today when posting to Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter. That, of course, takes work on behalf of the storyteller. Which leads to the inevitable question: Why now?

I think the story meme is emerging for three reasons:

First, on the demand side of the equation, people are looking for more meaning and engagement. We’re getting overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time by the onslaught of short-form text and visual popcorn in the form of stylized photos and videos of “cute cats”. Lack of context and meaning is resulting in a crappy signal to noise ratio.

Second, on the platform side pervasive means of distribution and identity management are now in place. We’ve all – or at lease 850 million of us, and growing – voted for Facebook as the platform for sharing and expressing ourselves. We can all have an instant audience with no effort. Number one – information overload – is nevertheless causing that audience to tire. We want more than cute cats. We are looking for greater personal relevance, authenticity and meaning.

Third and last, miniaturization is the word. Enabling technologies, exemplified by mobile and increasingly wearable sensors are making it easier than ever to capture and record our lives. Moreover these technologies are also allowing for the automatic creation of richer context. For instance, pictures are moving from simply being rows of colored dots, to becoming rich contextual objects that know where they were taken, know who is in the photo, know the weather, and much more. This rich context is creating new opportunities to simplify and facilitate storytelling.

Our desire for more context and meaning, a free channel of distribution with built in modes of feedback and reinforcement and pervasive access to technologies that create rich context has made the time right. The time is ripe for online storytelling to emerge.

There are a number of interesting and fun examples of online storytelling. A dominant theme is the use of time to automatically create a pseudo-narrative structure. I call this the "story of my life” model. Timelines help people remember their own stories more than actually tell them. Facebook recently introduce a timeline feature that does more to trigger memories and personal stories than help tell them. In the same camp is Memolane, small company and service that also uses time to automatically gather and chronologically organize your posts across a multitude of online services.

Timehop is also worth a brief mention as a fun and innovative way to take a daily walk down memory lane. It sends you a daily emails telling you what you were saying and doing exactly one year ago.

Yet, the two services that best exemplify the new storytelling meme are Cowbird and Kickstarter. While very different, they are my two favorite online applications right now and both are about storytelling.

Kickstarter lets you post a pitch and crowd source money for a business idea, art project or anything that you can convince an audience to shell out a few bucks to support. A great pitch uses classic narrative structure. The site is in my opinion all about telling memorable stories. The better the story, the better the chance that someone will want to support the project you're pitching.

Last and certainly not least I return to Jonathan Harris. Cowbird, his latest creation is a wonderful place for people to tell and explore stories. The application and website is very simple and very powerful. A story on Cowbird is picture with text and / or a soundtrack. They enforce a simple aesthetic. They encourage people to pick keywords to describe their stories in order to create connections and facilitate discovery. They have created something they call “sagas”, presumably after the old-Norse, that are collections of crowd sourced stories around a topic. The two currently active sagas are Occupy and First Loves. You are encouraged to add your personal stories to be included in the saga. Cowbird stories are public for anyone to experience by default (with a private option as well).  And not everyone can join Cowbird. To get an invitation you must apply and share why you will be interested in telling stories. I love this site. They are on to something very deep and interesting.

Stories are integral to how we think, learn and remember. A lot of evidence indicates that we are naturally predisposed towards storytelling. The web is finally getting to a place where stories can be created and live alongside the enormous onslaught of posts we are subjected to every day. The emergence of the online story meme is making the Internet a more human, more honest and more poetic place.