Why Complex Storytelling Is Thriving In A Digital Age

Nicholas Thompson
Nov 22, 2016 · 4 min read

You may have heard that complex storytelling is dying these days. It’s not true! Here’s an essay I performed not so long ago for The News Hour explaining why it’s thriving.

This post was selected by the editors of Context as one of the best posts about the marketing and advertising published on Medium in 2016.

The word “story” is a shortening of the word “history,” and derives from the work of Herodotus 2500 years ago. He wanted people to understand the collision between the Greek and Persian worlds, and he wanted people to enjoy reading what he wrote. The first paragraph of the first book describes money, sex, violence, and kidnapping.

For most of human history, storytelling helped humans survive. The societies that first learned to write kept better records, planned their expeditions more carefully, and described the faraway lands they would soon plunder. Meanwhile, technology enabled storytelling. Sharing stories is easier when you can write them down, or when you print and bind them.

Now, however, as you may have heard, storytelling is under threat. The Internet is shortening our attention spans, distracting us, and, quite possibly, muddling the structure of our brains. I started writing long magazine stories about fifteen years ago, right about when one of the main publishers of long magazine stories, Rolling Stone, declared it was abandoning them. “I don’t think people have time to sit down and read,” the editor declared. And that was before Twitter!

In 2008, Nicholas Carr published his seminal essay “Is Google Making us Stupid.” People he argued, had lost the ability to read deeply. We could only skim, bouncing between hyperlinks, distracted by bleeps. He bemoaned the fact the New York Times had started to publish more and more news capsules. Carr later expanded his article into a book making the same argument, but more intensely. He called it “The Shallows.”

Since then, you might think, the argument has been vindicated. Look at the Internet: it’s plagued by short, shallow rewrites of gibberish. We buy books, but we don’t read them. Five years from now, something will have been invented that makes Tweets seem long and ponderous.

But, actually, look more closely. The New York Times did start publishing additional news capsules back then, but ever since it has shifted huge amounts of energy to long-form journalism, ideally with immersive multimedia graphics. Even the criminals in this tale, The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, have started doing their own long-formpublishing. Rolling Stone is back in it, for better or for worse. Facebook increased the character limit for status updates from 160 to 420 in 2009, and then to 60,000 in 2011. Google promotes stories it considers “In Depth.” The New Yorker continues to run long stories every week; likely the best-read piece in the history of the magazine’s Web site is a 24,000 word-long piece on Scientology. The editors of Longform.org gets traffic referrals from the dating site OK Cupid, meaning that people are listing their love of the site on their profiles.

Meanwhile, television, over the past fifteen years, has evolved toward almost endless and overwhelming complexity. The shows that defined the 60s, 70s, and 80s — Cheers, The Simpsons or Seinfeld — are cream cheese bagels compared to the full meals offered by the Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones. And I should add that the latter series is of course based upon a series of books, written by George R. R. Martin, that cumulatively run about five thousand pages. Depth and complexity is doing well in spoken-form too, as shown last year by the success of the twelve-part murder investigation called Serial.

So what’s happening? Technology takes our time away, but it also gives it back. Our smartphones, our computers, our connection speeds make it possible to process and absorb ever more information. We have near infinite memories. It has become easier to write, and it has become easier to read. There’s something deeply human about storytelling: it’s part of how we learn language as babies, and it’s part of how we come to understand our world as adults.

The intelligence of humans is best thought of as the combination of ourselves and our machines. And looked at this way, you realize we’re becoming smarter and smarter every day. We don’t have as much free time as we used to, and the Internet has created all kinds of terrible habits. (Just try to avoid checking your e-mail when this ends.) But complexity surrounds us and beckons us. It’s hard not to think that Herodotus would be proud.

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