Every once in a while, I come across some creative project that sets my brain absolutely on fire. Jon Bois published 17776 today and it immediately ignited every last cortex I’ve got.
I’ve been a fan of Bois for years. it started when my brother-in-law introduced me to Breaking Madden, which is ostensibly about football and maybe also video games but ends up being a bizarre hilarious experiment that was as much a piece of comedy or storytelling as it was anything else. He kept doing stuff that was funnier and weirder, but 17776 is a whole new ballgame.
I won’t say anything about its actual content, partially because I don’t want to spoil anyone, but mostly because what’s so incredibly brilliant about it to me goes beyond the content. It’s about how the story is told, and where it’s being told.
SBNation is a sports website. Most of the things on SBNation are very straightforward blog posts and articles about sports. Some of the stuff is quite creative and funny, but nothing I’ve seen matches 17776 for sheer boldness. It left me gobsmacked, not just because of Bois’s talent as a writer but because it was published in such an unlikely place, not in the sense that SBNation is a bad publication, but in the sense that this is not the kind of content one expects to find on a sports website.
Because, on its surface, 17776 is bad content. It’s weird, it’s long, it demands attention. It’s not skimmable. In the age of virality, this is the kind of that would probably get laughed out of most pitch meetings, if anyone even had the courage to bring it up in a pitch meeting. Going purely off of the established rules of Good Internet Content, this should not even exist.
But it does, and the reason for that — at least in my mind — is that our ideas of what constitutes Bad Content are stupid and short-sighted.
When I was in college, I took a class about the history of the technology of writing. We covered everything from the days before written language was invented up through the present day. One of the major topics of conversation was how the proliferation of literacy affected human thought. Our brains changed as we became able to write. The way we interacted with information changed. And our storytelling changed. Epic poems that were once recited from memory by bards were written down and studied. On the last day of class, we had a discussion about how modern technology could influence our brains in the future.
I’ve always been profoundly annoyed by people who bemoan the omnipresence of computers and phones. People who think that no one is reading just because they aren’t reading physical books. People who think that physical books are the pinnacle of storytelling, and that anything else in any other medium is, by nature, inferior. Don’t get me wrong, I love books. I adore them wholeheartedly. What bothers me is not that I think books suck, it’s that I think people are being incredibly narrow-minded when they dismiss ‘technology’ and assume that its increasing presence will lead to the death of intellectualism and culture. For one thing, written language is itself a technology, as are books. Cuneiform tablets are as much a technology as the Amazon Kindle. But when we behave as though we’re living through the dying gasp of intellectualism and culture and storytelling and writing, we’re not giving the human mind enough credit. We’re not giving the human imagination enough credit.
We’ve never been good at predicting what the seismic shifts in our culture will be. When written language was first invented, it was used mostly for clerical purposes. People wrote down laws, ship manifestos, medical documentation, and what basically amounted to receipts. No one thought it would be used to write Harry Potter. When SBNation first started, I’m sure no one thought it would be used to write 17776. The point is that technology is developing too fast for anyone to be able to predict what the next dominant form or medium will be. Everyone’s pivoting to video and debating about long-form or short-form. Everyone’s mad about listicles and Twitter.
But we’re missing the forest for the trees. The internet, phones, sports blogs, these are all just vessels. They’re neutral. As long as there are good storytellers, there will be good stories. What matters is embracing whatever story breaks the mold and letting it be told however it should be told. We aren’t going to be able to predict what that will look like. (Don’t trust people who say they can. They’ll be wrong in a year.) What we can do is pay attention to things that come along that are brilliant and weird and could only exist in this medium. Stories that can only be told in the ways that they’re told.
What sets my brain so absolutely on fire about 17776 is exactly that. It looks at the medium and the tools available and it takes perfect advantage of all of them to tell a story that’s just plain good. It’s bold and risky. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It made me laugh out of sheer surprise (and then later with good and funny jokes). Bois is an incredible storyteller, and his editors and SBNation as a whole should be lauded for letting him make what he made. More platforms should be given to things like this, regardless of whether or not a CMO thinks they could go viral.
Virality isn’t the point. Storytelling is.