Missing storytelling on the (wrong) way there

By Limor Shiponi

The web is flooded these days with various constellations calling themselves storytelling with an exclamation mark. For the purpose of catching our attention or preferable positioning you’ll find them wrapping the word storytelling with fancy buzz words, fantastic adjectives or cross-breeding desired titles. Reading a wealth of the material, it’s reaching a point where inner contradictions and misuse are overlooked – the more “artistic” it sounds the better, but… it has to do with technology, business or/and marketing for otherwise it’s worth only storytelling.

Just a sample of some twitter love…

After reading and looking for something worthwhile to refer to, I chose “The rise of the corporate transmedia storyteller” by Steve Rubel because it’s plausible – the post, not necessarily the idea. Before I do, here’s a little story:

The king went for a walk into the city. Many people recognized him and greeted him warmly; some brought him baskets with sweet cakes or refreshing drinks that could please every living soul. The king greeted them all and enjoyed every minute. As he got closer to the main square he saw a gathering. People were standing in a tight circle, some of them were sitting on the ground and they all seemed interested in something.

Being curious as he was he approached quickly, stood behind one of the people and tried to understand what was going on. Stretching his neck and standing on the tip of his toes he finally managed to see they were listening to a storyteller. Realizing how attentive the people were, the king was surprised. After the session was over the people broke-off and turned back to their daily endeavors. The king approached the storyteller and asked, “is this how you make you’re living?” “Yes,” answered the storyteller. “It’s not a generous living but I love telling stories to people.”

“Maybe you need to find a way to earn more,” said the king. “People pay what they can which is not much,” replied the teller. “So maybe you need more people to listen to your stories,” added the king.

If you know the original tale and realize my adaptation to the issue this post is dealing with, you know that by the middle of the story the king will be pressing the teller to go digital and transmedia, to invest a lot of money and earn even more. By the end of their small conversation he will picture for the teller the moment of retirement, where he could finally rest and do what he likes – which is being a storyteller in the market square.

Something ridiculous is going on

From where I stand I’d call it – re-brand everything storytelling. It sounds good and you gain the fuzziness of misuse instead of going into the hard labor of recognizing things for what they really are, finding clear definitions. It also hides some intentions which are not so compelling. To my opinion all this racket is not taking knowledge forward. You’ll find my voice embedded into Mr. Rubel’s original post.

Answering to “The Rise of the Corporate Transmedia Storyteller” although no one has asked for it…

“According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, by the end of today the web will fill up with more information than what had existed in entirety prior to 2003. Much of this deluge is being created by ordinary netizens, rather than by corporations. The web has become a raging river filled with tweets, status updates, photos and videos.”

Most of the content is useless. The fact it can be documented so easily forces us to stay with it forever or until something new happens. In addition, our ability to take in content has not changed, the contrary is more common.

“There’s both a positive and negative side to this story. In fact it has spawned a divergent debate of ideas.

Nicholas Carr in his book “The Shallows” argues that the digital deluge is rewiring our brains for less depth. NYU professor Clay Shirky, meanwhile, says in his book Cognitive Surplus that as more of us become content creators rather than consumers, it’s ushering in a new age of enlightenment.”

I agree with Mr. Carr and think Prof. Shirky is missing something important. Content diarrhea is not the same as content creation and technological tools that make it easy to assemble content elements will not necessarily lead to something that balances out an editor’s note.

“Regardless of which side of the debate you buy into, one that sees superficiality rising versus another that envisions a new Renaissance, one thing remains clear. Space on the Internet is infinite. Time and attention, meanwhile, remain finite. Therefore, “Digital Relativity” will become a major challenge.”

It’s not only that time and attention remain finite. Some wired experiences that feel like un-time creep in. If we are talking about storytelling, the physical cannot be neglected. If it is, an important component of what people call “spellbinding” in storytelling is gone and replaced with all kinds of artificial tricks and stunts.

“Taken in context, when you do the math it’s easy to see that it’s going to be harder than ever to reach people. On the one hand, social networking sites like Facebook consolidate audiences. (The average user spends five hours/month on the site.) On the other hand, social media is forcing us to make hard choices every day – Bieber vs brands, Forbes vs families, business vs. babies.”

Mr. Rubel, I appreciate you writing the above since we are pushing ourselves in very weird directions. My question is – what for?

“The new law of digital relativity (e.g. the relationship between time and space) means the end of scarcity. This was the currency that, for years, powered marketing budgets, filled media coffers and drove the information economy. Now that scarcity is gone, however, we will need to adopt a new set of skills.”

I’m not sure scarcity is gone. There are more channels but are there more creativity and talent? More understanding and attentiveness? The skill of a storyteller is in mastering the ability to tell stories, not the ability to master platforms or bypass time-zones.

“Enter the Transmedia Storyteller.

Even though millions of us are now content producers in some form or another, the reality is there’s still chasm when it comes to quality. There’s art and there’s junk. Audiences want art.

To stand out today it’s critical that businesses create content. Activating your cadre of internal subject matter experts is the surest path to visibility. According to the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, the public is increasingly relying on subject matter experts as trusted authorities. And many businesses are beginning to do just that, especially on LinkedIn and Twitter.”

Well, they need to create good content, compelling content, relevant, interesting and useful for more reasons than a bottom line. Besides, what is the bottom line in storytelling? Visibility? Maybe of the story, the experience ignited in the imagination by great storytelling not by crowding the screen. That’s not visibility in storytelling.

“The reality is, however, that organizations need to do more than just unleash their subject matter experts en masse. They need to activate them in multiple channels at once and equip them in how to create a compelling narrative – an emerging set of skills called Transmedia Storytelling.”

Nothing new here except for the fact organizations should have been doing this for years by now. Subject matter experts are not necessarily the right choice. They may know the “right” content but I’m not at all sure about their storytelling skills and in storytelling content is only part of the picture.

Now we get to follow into Wikipedia…

From Wikipedia: “In Transmedia storytelling, content becomes invasive and fully permeates the audience’s lifestyle.”

Storytelling is not invasive and should never be. Fully permeating the audience’s lifestyle sounds to me like using force. If force is used it most probably carries an unbalanced intention by a few.

“A transmedia project develops storytelling across multiple forms of media in order to have different “entry points” in the story; entry-points with a unique and independent lifespan but with a definite role in the big narrative scheme.”

Again – nothing new. Storytelling taps into parts of the narrative we already own and raises our curiosity to search for more parts. That’s how we learn. The only difference is that here – someone is trying to engineer the process, carrying a greedy intention. Not my harsh words, it’s written in Wikipedia, see for yourself –

“The Labyrinth Project’s Marsha Kinder calls them “commercial transmedia superstructures” in her 1991 book Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She goes on to say “transmedia intertextuality works to position consumers as powerful players while disavowing commercial manipulation.”

Wow, without even disavowing commercial manipulation.

“In 2003, then MIT media studies professor, Henry Jenkins used the term in his MIT Technology Review article, “Transmedia Storytelling,” where he reflected Kinder’s assumption, via analysis of mass-market entertainment, that the coordinated use of storytelling across platforms can make the characters more compelling.”

If you can’t create compelling characters by word of mouth, more platforms are not going to help you; you’ll just amplify the problem.

“Under the mentorship of Kinder, Stephen Dinehart, used transmedia storytelling as a development methodology, creating the term transmedial play and the VUP (viewer/user/player). In the paper “Transmedial Play” he relates trandsmedia storytelling to Richard Wagner’s concept of “the total artwork” or “Gesamtkunstwerk”. Dinehart goes on to suggest that unlike crossmedia projects of the past, in which IP crosses the media divide for purely product line diversification (merchandising), ‘true’ transmedia is designed in preproduction with the intent of immersion rather than simply rehashing IP in post for maximum ROI.

Minute! (isn’t it compelling content?)

“In transmedia storytelling the viewer/user/player (VUP) transforms the story via his or her own natural cognitive psychological abilities, and enables the Artwork to surpass medium. It is in transmedial play that the ultimate story agency, and decentralized authorship can be realized. Thus the VUP becomes the true producer of the Artwork. The Artist authored transmedia elements act a story guide for the inherently narratological nature of the human mind to become thought, both conscious and subconscious, in the imagination of the VUP.

Discussing storytelling, it would be nice to use language people can understand. In other words: The real story happens in the listener’s imagination and nowhere else. Therefore in storytelling no one owns the act. It is a mutual effort between teller, story and listener and they are interdependent. No centralized authorship exists in storytelling in the first place. Each of the partners involved crafts their own story according to their momentary needs and relevancy. The word transmedia adds nothing new except from the word transmedia.

“In his book Convergence Culture, Jenkins further describes transmedia storytelling as storytelling across multiple forms of media with each element making distinctive contributions to a fan’s understanding of the story world. By using different media formats, transmedia creates “entrypoints” through which consumers can become immersed in a story world. The aim of this immersion is decentralized authorship, or transmedial play as defined by Dinehart. Transmedia Storyteller Jeff Gomez defines it as “the art of conveying messages themes or storylines to mass audiences through the artful and well planned use of multiple media platforms.”

Now, if we already know storytelling can do all the above much better than transmedia storytelling, why bother?

Back to Rubel: “Transmedia Storytelling doesn’t need to be fancy. It can be executed with low budget tools. However, it does need to be thought through. It requires that a business’ subject matter experts know how to simultaneously tell good stories and to do so using text, video, audio and images depending on the venue.

Transmedia storytelling is the future of marketing.”

Whoops – here is the answer. Bother because it might make you rich – just like the king suggested. Causing some damages to humanity on the way is only a side – effect. Cellular phones and smoking are much more dangerous to your health, imagination not included, nor freedom of spirit.

“And those who can span across formats and share their expertise will stand out in an age of Digital Relativity. There’s a first-mover advantage here. However, it remains to be seen who will grab the ring.”

Good question the last one, but a little too late. In fact, about 10,000 years late.

9 thoughts on “Missing storytelling on the (wrong) way there”

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  4. Oh, so many kings and queens and so many shiny, shiny suits…

    I’m sure there’s some interesting stuff happening somewhere in there – important to distinguish between those who do, and those who spew bullshit-laden faux-academic theories to try and explain it/lend it a spurious legitimacy/sell it to anyone and everyone.

    I’d like to think there’s a baby/bathwater dilemma here, but maybe I’m being naeive ?

    1. Wish I could be so expressive in English 🙂 I don’t know what a baby/bathwater dilemma is but I can see some.

      1. Sorry Limor, rude of me to be so colloquial – I was referring to an english proverb which simply says ‘careful you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’ We take infant safety seriously over here 🙂

        1. Thanks for clarifying. The same expression exists in Hebrew so now I understand what you meant before.

          1. Veering off track a little, can’t help wondering how many of these expressions originally reflected on actual experience – it’s a striking enough image that if it ever actually happened you can understand why people might remember it.

            We’re so eager to find other types of meaning in stories (well, in almost everything, when you get right down to it) that it’s easy to forget that ‘don’t go into the woods’ once meant exactly that. Isn’t it interesting that this literal layer of meaning is, in a lot of ways, the hardest for us to apprehend?

          2. Your comment reminds me that I want to write a post named ‘Oh, those where the old ways. It’s the new ways now” which is a line from a story I’ve heard many years ago from David Campbell (Scotland). In a different place on this blog I described this phenomena as rebranding everything to storytelling. On the deeper level its people grabbing onto something totally new to themselves and making their own ‘sense’ out of it through their perspective without ever stopping to ask themselves if there might be someone who already knows quite a lot about this isuue they can learn from. You see this happening all over the place, not only in storytelling.

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