Holding The Campfire Flashlight

giving consideration to the role of content creation

A few weeks ago when I was giving a presentation, I pitched the concept that some web content needed to be more narrative driven. The idea that somehow the organization should ground itself in communicating a story. Then in a flash I had one of those Ebeneezer Scrooge moments. You know, when you sort of step outside of yourself and observe the situation as a spectator. As the ghost of hipster present and I peered through the window he asked me, “Do you really buy into all that? The trendy idea that we are all some form of a storyteller.”

On a scale of technical language to buzzword nonsense, the concept of story has admittedly been pushed to an extreme. At the risk of adding to the static I thought I might as well throw my two cents in the ring. To start, I completely understand the frustration with using the line, “I am a storyteller.” In some ways, it’s like that song you dig, but then you hear it so much on the radio you start not to enjoy it anymore. To make matters worse, at least ten of your least favorite friends on social media post videos of themselves singing covers. At any rate, yes, I know it’s a bit overused. People write the phrase into bios, advertisements, articles, and everything else under the sun. Some time ago I saw an interview with Stefan Sagmeister who while venting about the subject said he met a roller coaster designer who even called himself a storyteller. But just because something has been overused does’nt mean it can’t still work well in moderation.

The idea of storytelling isn’t a new thing. Ancient societies used storytelling as a didactic tool for instilling shared values into their culture. Take for example Homeric epics unfolding pictures of heroes rising to bravery or falling from grace as examples to follow or avoid. In a religious sense the Torah, held sacred by both Jews and Christians, tell a range of stories that espouse topics of mankind’s origins and the darkness of human behavior. Larger narratives allow people both past and present to gather around broad trajectories which span beyond their immediate circumstances attaching themselves to transcendent ideals.

And at the same time, contemporary psychologist explain personality as a story that we tell ourselves on a daily basis as we go about our lives. When we wake up in the morning our choices are determined by an ever growing list of memories that we quietly recount in the background of our minds. This ongoing story reminds us that we have certain preferences, traits, and beliefs.

Jean Francois Lyotard coined the term metanarrative to frame how these types of overarching stories relate to us. For Lyotard, the paradigm of metanarrative works to explain existential questions. As a consequence metanarratives are often contentiously debated because of their ability to shape people’s thinking. Political conservatives build the metanarrative of America as a nation built on religious principles, a story that the liberal base in no way shares. As a result, candidates develop immensely contrasting rhetoric with sharp points of departure, all based in channeling the intentions of the same founding fathers.

Ultimately, story is closely tied to identity either culturally or individually. They give us visions of who we are, and who we hope to be. As designers or communicators, maybe we should see this as a healthy amount of responsibility. When you create an artifact that delivers a story in some way, however small, you are questioning how the viewer sees and understands themselves, in the way that you have fashioned or curated.

Is everyone a storyteller? Does everyone have a story? If we equate story with identity, the answer is yes. I think the larger question is one of value. What stories should we share, celebrate, or impose on others? When we type the phrase “I am a storyteller” in the bio of our web platform of choice, we raise our hand to hold the campfire flashlight. But would we be so eager if there was a heavier responsibility attached to the title?