So it happens that just now I got to read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. It’s a must read for anyone who is trying to figure out what’s happening in mass media, that’s for sure. For me, reading the book was a double-layer experience; the second layer dealing with figuring out something about the way many people wish to perceive storytelling today.
Storytelling is NOT part of mass media. It never was and will never be for a very simple reason – it doesn’t scale. If it’s about “telling” it’s about the physical world, using spoken words in the face of others, being influenced by their presence (read: multi-layered reciprocal real time experience). You can’t duplicate storytellers to make more money; you can only charge more per event – if someone is willing to pay.
Surrounded by an industrial mindset and thoughts about scales and riches, storytellers are trying to cope because no – no one is willing to pay more per storytelling event. Some time ago an American storyteller told me “if you don’t have a CD, a book or some other product to sell, over here you are nobody”.
On the contrary to mass media…
Storytelling enjoys the blessings of the local, the regional and does not see them as a limitation or a curse. It celebrates fragmentation and niches, it was never part of the hit culture, there are no God-like storytelling figures (although plenty of Gods are mentioned in the texts), no blockbusters. The best test of quality in storytelling is not box-office gross. If that was true most storytelling festivals would not exist.
Storytelling niches are defined by geography and interest alike and the entire art-form is about a sort of ‘long tail’ to start with. We enjoy unlimited shelf-space because we are oral and the true roots of this phenomena don’t go back to the 19th century and the first giant centralized warehouses as claims Anderson about mass media but to the human brain’s capabilities. No storytelling supermarkets thank you, no credit cards and no cultural obesity.
What went wrong with the perception of storytelling?
The industrial revolution and the way many of us have come to appreciate things and think about them as worth our while. Notice the language “the world’s best” “top” “leading” “cutting edge” “state of the art” “most” “#1” and all the rest. That’s hit-culture language and besides other things it indicates the need of means to get there and the required caliber of earnings to stay there. The richer, the truer. We storytellers don’t even want to get there. We can’t even measure in that language because it’s not relevant to our art.
Even long tail language isn’t that relevant to storytelling when it comes to measurement because there is a limitation to what I’ll call here ‘noise to market’ when people are actually sitting in front of you. Stashing a bad track living on some remote database is very different than stashing a performer in action. We can’t afford to be in that situation so we need to be way better than average.
Democracy and art
Anderson speaks about democratizing the means of production and distribution. Well, storytelling was always democratic and democracy is about the rule of the mass to start with. If a storyteller is not doing a good job, believe me, the mass will acknowledge that in a few short moments… talking about means of production and distribution – tell stories, tell them all around. No one has ever stopped anyone from doing that unless living under a regime afraid of free thought and expression. Even then – people tell stories and those around hear them. We don’t tell globally in any case, we are about local, remember?
The noise to market evolutionary “storytelling” tools
All things calling themselves storytelling tools besides the oral form – scale. From a hit-culture and long-tale culture points of view, that’s a blessing. The hit culture thinks about efficiency, distribution and revenue margins and the long-tail culture thinks about exactly the same only with a different business model and more decentralized style. Is it really so? I’m not sure. Long tail earnings do lean on capabilities kept for those with means to create large systems and filtering – not me or most of you, what?
All those tools are about getting noise to market and keeping it there forever. They don’t demonstrate the democratization of storytelling but rather the shortest possible way to craft and distribute a story (in the better cases) – by anyone with access to the tools. No one is putting any of the outcomes to the test of quality or value these days. Instead we get a lousy explanation that can be generalized in “whatever I think storytelling is, it is”. Instead of looking at the quality of the outcome they are praising production and distribution, creating shorter noise to market paths and calling it “freedom of expression”. None of that is storytelling but they insist it is.
What’s with the word storytelling that everyone wants to use?
It has a ‘sexy’ factor. It sounds interpersonal and soft, it sounds once upon a time and it sounds comforting like tasty foods. But hey, if you are calling the outcome of an iPhone app storytelling and insist on it being more evolutionary than the art of a storyteller we (storytellers) don’t like it. We don’t “produce” and we don’t produce “products”. The reciprocal nature of our art cannot and need not be compared to share buttons because they don’t create the same effect or anything close to it. A kid playing with an iPad story-something software is not a storyteller not only because he is not using the necessary skills and creating a storytelling outcome, but also and mainly because he doesn’t have the emotional capacity to create an ongoing reciprocal event of the story kind. Besides, what’s the rush? Why do kids have to get noise to market in any case? What’s so great about that?
In the storytelling kingdoms, storytellers need to be skilled because otherwise their partners aka listeners and stories will not be able to perform their part or enjoy the event; stories have to be worth many people’s while and listeners represent the power of democracy not through standardized rating systems. The storytelling experience is way more intricate than “positive” “negative” and “neutral”.
The good news?
As goes the famous story – “this too shall pass” and for a very simple reason all this “evolutionary storytelling” is neglecting: the ruling factor in storytelling (i.e. the pain/delight “button” marketers are looking for) is not freedom of expression or the shortest noise to market path. What is it? sorry, I’m not a bottom line kind of person when it comes to storytelling. Go really find out.