Will Social Media kill off the art of storytelling?

13th June 2012

Social interaction and audience involvement with content creation (or storytelling) – be it across live events, television, cinema, theatre etc… is very much in the ascendant, as brands look to more closely engage with their customers. A word of warning though – never confuse ‘crowd sourced content creation’, with the fine art of storytelling. They are two very different things.

Why is storytelling so important? Not only are stories essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world. We weave and seek stories everywhere, from data visualisation to children’s bedtime stories. NB – Worth looking at The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, for a great insight into the anthropological and cultural importance of storytelling.

The history of storytelling, starting with the oral tradition of Homer, has encompassed a disparate range of subjects – including chivalric tales from the medieval ages, religious sermons, nursery rhymes, and even urban rap. The traditional mode of delivery has usually included a person, or people, giving out information and a larger group receiving the information. There is something quite natural and powerful about this process which has stood the test of time. For me, the fact that we all dream in terms of a narrative – or a story, shows just how strongly this concept is ingrained in our psyches

My assertion is that this traditional and intrinsic part of our culture, is under threat from ‘crowd sourced content creation’ ; the impact of which is being accelerated by digital channels and social media in particular.

There is currently a great deal of talk about the importance of storytelling in the area of digital communications. The current ‘excitement’ around digital storytelling , assumes that the digital space will enable people to ‘better’ engage with story lines than was previously the case; for example – the ‘write your own ending’ concept. But this ‘collaborative storytelling’ concept has never really taken off in a mainstream way and is openly dismissed in many quarters; a case in point was the view espoused by the Convergence Panel at the recent Digital Shoreditch (#ds12) event .The simple fact is, that people like being told stories and love the sense of expectation and suspense.

In the world of audience interaction around TV content, Zeebox is a high profile player. Although detailed public numbers are not available, it has claimed considerable success. At Media 360 recently, MEC’s David Fletcher opined that Zeebox ‘is one of the key emerging media technologies and will be a “big” hit in the media market’.

I have to say that I am not sold on Zeebox. I like the additional programme information and links to twitter addresses that are provided, but I am not keen on the constant feed of random twitter comments, which I think, actually detract from the programme being watched. Is this product assisting or detracting from the quality of content being created or the user experience?

Creating great content can be collaborative, but there must be structure. It can be crowd sourced, but it must be curated – someone or some people must pull the diffuse inputs together to achieve clarity and direction. In essence – to transform great ideas into a great story.

The effect of lots of people talking all at once, will not manifest itself as interesting content or end up as a compelling story. Social interaction can provide interesting ancillary commentary, especially around certain types of content (such as water cooler moments) – but it does not and will never, represent a productive channel for creating and telling great stories.

Nick Hammond is founder at The Digital Filter.

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