Storytelling: Stories by You, for Me, to Us
As a child, I spent countless summer nights in the humid and sticky weather on the terrace in my grandparents’ house. Under the stars, my grandfather took me along with the Mughals as they invaded the Indian subcontinent, I lived a day in the Indus Valley Civilization with fellow Harrapans, and I WAS Rani Lakshmibai.
Storytelling has been around for centuries, playing a fundamental role in the lives of humanity. It all started 40,000 years ago, with an ancient hunter who drew a picture of a bison on a cave wall to tells others about food opportunities in the neighbouring vicinity. This is the most basic example of passing information. His method of storytelling was visual, personal, and relevant.
40,000 years later, I argue that the same three characteristics of storytelling and its efficiency are desired. Modern society’s constant compulsion to ensure a built-in cellular device as a bodily extension is the next evolutionary step is proof of the ‘visual’. The ‘relevant’ has been alive for many years through traditional journalistic media, broadcasting outlets, and lately the internet, of course. But the ‘personal’…. Ah, the personal feel to our stories is something we lack a bit.
Traditionally, storytelling occurs through books, movies, or radio shows. Reporting occurs through television, newspapers, and radio. All one-sided mediums. Mediums where stories are told AT you, not with you.
In today’s tumultuous political, sociocultural, and economic environment with booming growth and development, public sense of entitlement runs high. With personalization a tap away, no one wants to be spoken AT. How dare they?!
A study in Psychological Science spanning 78 countries globally suggests that people across the globe are becoming more individualistic over time. This reinforces the need, expectation, and importance of the ‘personal’ piece of storytelling, which traditional mediums reporting do not amply provide. Sprinkle in a lack of trust in big news media outlets to the mix, and you add to the trouble. A 2018 survey conducted by The Knight Foundation found that 69% of American adult respondents say their trust in news media outlets has decreased in the past decade. This distrust was found to be largely based in matters surrounding accuracy and bias of the outlet.
From this disgruntlement, the world leveraged one of the most spectacular gifts it has received — the internet. The advent of the internet (global internet use has doubled in the past decade) has given individual creators access to larger audiences — to whom they can author their own narratives and consume the individual narratives of others like them, thereby cutting out the middle man of ‘selecting a lucky hopeful whose narrative will be told’. People now have the choice and ability to tell their own story themselves, and no longer need to wait around for others to DECIDE if their story should be told.
Traditional sources have tried to include such an offering through opinion pieces, using their publication as a digital platform for commissioned pieces and ‘community posts’. While this is a noble effort that many people use, it is arguably easier for users to publish and consume through dedicated and customizable platforms for this purpose. Oftentimes the actual debates and conversations occur in the comments section of such posts. Personally, if only I had a dollar for every time I headed straight for the comments section to see what the public is saying and talking about instead of clicking to read what the article’s author said. The ‘personal’ matters more — what do people like me who aren’t associated with this story have to say about it? WHY should I care?
We’re shifting towards a storytelling space where stories and news are not just told AT us. They are told BY us FOR us TO us, through the rise of mediums like blogging/vlogging, influencers, independent writing, creative methods like photography projects, music videos, explainers, memes, social media groups, comment threads, and memes. Real-estate for such stories is readily available by way of platforms such as Medium, YouTube, Blogger or WordPress, Instagram, and social media.
In 2017, 87% of mobile internet users used social networks. 45% of adults in the United States use social media as a source of news. The number of bloggers in the US alone is projected to reach 31.7 million by 2020. 1.9 billion logged-in users visit YouTube every month. This doesn’t even begin to account for the extent of its reach to non-logged in users. 50 million users have created content for YouTube. YouTube reaches more American adults till age 34 than any TV network does.
The aforementioned statistics are just a glimpse into the power of user-generated content and consumption. In stark contrast, only 5% of US consumers reported reading print or digital magazines daily. In 2017, magazine retail sales revenue from newsstands had more than halved compared to 2007. Paid circulation of newspapers in the US also almost halved from approximately 50 million in 2007 to 30 million in 2017. Only 15% of US consumers reported reading print or digital newspapers daily. The graph below indicates that a significant percentage of US adults perceive fake news as an issue through the traditional mediums of TV, radio, and newspapers, subsequently leading to distrust in such media.
While traditional media outlets have larger budgets at their disposal, initial investment to publicize stories online is minimal and affordable. Personally speaking, I haven’t read a newspaper in 4 years. I am not uninformed of current events but have found alternative news and storytelling sources.
Reality series’ such as Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj or The Daily Show with Trevor Noah are classic examples of comedians informing and influencing public opinion about current events. While these shows present facts, they also present the opinions of their respective hosts, which adds a personal touch by leveraging accessible and mouldable platforms to storytell as they like.
Music videos play a crucial part in socio-cultural storytelling. Upon release, Childish Gambino’s Oscar-winning music video ‘This is America’ skyrocketed in popularity, boasting over 525 million hits. The iconic video demonstrates subtle and intricate visual storytelling and commentary tackling mass shootings, gun violence, and racism in America. Logic’s song ‘1–800–273–8255’ and its music video tell the story of a boy struggling with his sexuality and suicidal thoughts. The title is the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which saw a 27% increase in calls received in the 3 months following the release of the song, generating positive social impact. Music videos such as Clean Bandit’s ‘Symphony’ and Alessia Cara’s ‘Here’ navigate storylines of grief and discomfort in unfamiliar settings, respectively, both emotions that many have faced. On a lighter note, the music video of The Chainsmokers’ hit-single ‘#Selfie’ featured an overarching storyline of a girl’s banter while clubbing, but also several crowd-sourced selfies.
Vloggers and Influencers also play a large part in storytelling to today’s consumers, by telling us the stories we WANT to hear through non-traditional means. Since we’re invested in them, they shape our stories and lives — from the things we buy, the way we dress, the way we move in the world and interact with it. They include audiences as a part of their storytelling process through Instagram lives, using the ‘Ask Questions’ feature on Instagram where consumers can send in questions, or the polling feature in Instagram stories. In fact, many influencers allow their audiences to dictate their day-to-day choice making using these features. Often times, audience members will leave comments about content they want to see, which allows them to curate the stories they WANT to be told.
The trend of the ‘Draw my Life’ template allowed people to visually tell their own stories. Social experiment videos are an interesting way to provide information through real people and faces associated with an opinion, rather than impersonal statistics. Audiences do not necessarily need elaborate storytelling or fanfare to appreciate the crux of an opinion. The TEDx template is easily imitable and allows for storytelling easily, where consumers can tell and listen to stories of their interest.
Independent photography projects such as the Humans of New York, Humans of Bombay and similar projects across the globe are revered storytelling methods bringing and uniting people together. In times of uncertainty and hefty turmoil at the larger worldview, showcasing such personalized, individual, and relatable stories of people remind audiences about life at its basic, grassroots level.
Many brands have caught on and utilize user-generated content (UGC) as marketing material to tell the brand’s story. Fenty Beauty is a prime example of leveraging UGC through re-posts and takeovers on its Instagram account. By pushing such content, the brand does not tell people how they SHOULD look (like traditional advertising previously has), but rather encourages users to be creative, and publicizing this creativity, thereby increasing the relatability and demand for the brand and its story. Coca Cola’s Hello Happiness Phone Booth and Small World machines express the story of real people and the real experiences of a reality experienced by many.
All of the creators discussed above are not traditionally associated with the field of journalism nor reflect its perceived image as they are not professionally inclined towards the subject. They are outsiders to the industry of storytelling. This allows their audiences to connect with them on an engaging level: “You’re someone with an opinion, you’re just like me. You don’t make my news complicated or mind-boggling to consume. You display facts in a relatable and personal way. I like that.”
Consumers crave the authenticity of someone like them — outsiders to traditional methods of storytelling and reporting. There is a perceived level of mutual understanding and trust FELT even if it may not necessarily exist. Stories and news are tackled and discussed in a way that news dissemination and storytelling is now a two-way conversation. Individuals own the stories they tell and consume. No longer are news broadcasting organizations gate-keepers of their stories.
At the end of the day, it’s all about having an opinion or a story to share. The fact that I have the power and ability to publish and share this very essay with the world in a few clicks is proof that there’s a storyteller in all of us. The main difference is that there is no one other than me who decides or controls whether or not my story gets told. As MSL London’s ‘The Story of Storytelling’ eloquently puts it, “In an age of ever-increasing noise, in which we send a billion tweets a week, read around 10 megabytes of material a day, hear 400 megabytes a day, and see 1 MB of information every second, attention is worth more than ever before and nothing holds attention like a great story.”
So, got a story for us?