The ‘Story’ — the new format — Part 2

AUGUST 5TH, 2016 — POST 214

With Instagram’s “borrowing” of Snapchat’s “Stories” feature on the grounds that a ‘Story’ is a format, it’s worthwhile to penetrate exactly what is specific about the Story. As I wrote yesterday, a useful place to begin understanding the specific character of the Story is how Ben Thompson of Stratechery describes it:

“It was and remains a killer concept: television for mobile in which users are the star of their own show”

The comparison with television is apt, especially if we limit “television” to its traditional scope — broadcast once: if missed, forever missed — even though this scope has been widening since the popular adoption of the VCR. To talk of Stories as televisual is to attempt to capture their ephemerality. Stories are understood to be so widely embraced because, unlike almost every other internet-supported media, they “disappear” after a certain period of time.

The ephemerality of a Story is tied to a temporal window: a Story is comprised only of the last 24 hours of a user’s input. In this sense, the comparison with early TV can be stretched a little further — the Story has a temporally unified audience. The notion of temporal unification of audiences of early television often collapses into a discussion of synchrony.

We can think of a piece of television programming — say a live evening news broadcast — as itself a temporal object, similar to a watch: it can serve as a marker of time’s passage. If an audience is then required to view a temporal object all at the same time (by the fact of it being live), there is an argument to be made that this audience becomes synchronised. It is this synchrony that many thought the VCR could disrupt, allowing mass temporal objects to be made personal in their recording and viewing outside of a broadcast schedule.

For the Story, there is no viewing context outside of the “broadcast schedule”. It is distinctly old school. But to try to talk about a Story’s audience as synchronised when viewing feels wrong — a Story is a viewer’s own to play, skip, and swipe away when they feel. Temporal unification of an audience is then loose, liquid — viewer time is not synchronised but not entirely each individual’s own. This might seem a trivial distinction to make but it exposes the character of the Story as something entirely new. It is not the live event — an internet-infused media Frankenstein’s monster like the Democratic National Convention or Super Bowl. Nor is the Story lurking in the archive — yours to find when you want like Stranger Things or The Twilight Zone. In its both live and archival and neither.

For this reason, locating the Story within the framework of happened/happening is complicated. And this only gets worse when a Story can consist of a combination of still and moving images: annotated, drawn on, filtered, or presented just as they were shot. Each one of these media, taken by itself, is fertile ground for discovering its own temporal character. And yet, taken all together, it’s too much to consider. Does the still carry with it an inherent “happened”, conditioned from an understanding of still film photography, when it’s presented covered in colourful hand-drawn lines or a “12m ago” notice in the top corner?

The second part of Thompson’s characterisation — that “users are the stars of their own show” — is perhaps the most powerful when taken in concert with the complex temporal character of the Story. Users are empowered to transcribe their own time in a Story. And whilst the potency for audience sync is diluted in comparison to live streaming, the power in aggregate — that a Story is like a game of keepy uppy, keep posting and it keeps going — to transcribe user time to an audience is overwhelming. And furthermore, most of the audience will too have their own story. Even a small group of friends creating Stories and viewing each other’s is a tightly woven temporal tapestry in which each user contributes to and orbits something like a “group time”.

Robinson Meyer, in his piece on Instagram’s Stories, spoke to the conversational usage of social media that the Story serves as an emblem of. Nodding to Xiao Mina, Meyer sees the Story as social media being used “not to document the world, but to discuss it.” If my account has any strength (and the more I write the less I’m convinced of this) it would allow us to understand what exactly is being discussed. The fundamental subject of conversation is each user’s own time. The manifest content of a Story is “This thing happened/is happening to me. Here, look at it.” But when those images are funnelled through the distinctly charactered network, the latent content of a conversation can’t help but be “Here’s how time is passing for me.”

Welp. I think we’re all glad that’s over.

If you enjoyed this, please take the time to recommend, respond, and share this piece wherever you think people will enjoy it. All of these actions not only help this piece to be read but also let me know what kinds of things to focus on in my daily writing.

Thanks, I really appreciate it.