Scattered thoughts on storytelling, digital engagement, and standing out on the web
In preparation for my paper at the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities 2012 Conference I’ve been thinking about the role storytelling plays in engaging the public in a digital world. My undergraduate advisor always used to stress that it is important to “kill your darlings.” By this he meant that a key to good writing is the ability to cut things that aren’t working, even if you are fond of them.
The following represents one such dead darling. Next to none of this will appear in my paper, but writing it was an important step in my writing process. Since my talk is rather short (only 10 minutes), it was necessary for me to write a lengthy, somewhat rambling, piece on the importance of storytelling before I could write something more focused.
I’ve been trying to rethink my academic work-flow. After reading time and again how important it is to write daily, I’ve been making an effort to write for at least 30 minutes each day. This has really changed the way I work. Previously when I was a deadline writer, I was reluctant to kill my darlings since I often didn’t have the time to rewrite large passages. By increases the volume and frequency of my writing, the thought of scrapping something that isn’t working and starting again isn’t as onerous as it once was.
Since the conference is exactly one week away, I’d love to hear your feedback on these somewhat scattered thoughts of mine. Please enjoy my stream of consciousness regarding storytelling, digital engagement, and standing out on the web.
We live in a busy age. With this single, tiny object [my smart phone] I can access virtually any form of entertainment I can think of. Do I want to read a book? Amazon.com has 1,340,561 of them. Listen to music? iTunes has more than 6 million to choose from. Watch a movie? Netflix has more than 52 thousand. With nothing more than a smartphone, I have access to enough movies, music, and books to occupy me for several hundred lifetimes – and that’s not even counting blogs, podcasts, video games, viral videos, websites, and every flavour of pornography my deviant mind can imagine.
The plethora of entertainment is a Darwinian nightmare. In a survival of the fittest, how do you compete with near infinite competition? For those, like myself, who desire to share the humanities with a general public, this poses an even greater challenge – in a world with limitless amounts of dessert, how do you get people to eat their vegetables?
But none of this is news to you. People have long been decrying the public’s disinterest in the humanities. People, it is thought, want entertainment, not education.
Question: which of the two videos has more hits on Youtube. Video #1 comes from the popular reality show America’s Got Talent and features a young man whose talent consists of being hit in the testicles with little to no apparent pain. Video #2 is a critical examination of traditional Western methods of education by an academic named Ken Robinson.
Given the point of my talk, it shouldn’t surprise you that Video #2 is the winner, with 3.78 million views, to Horse’s 1.8 million. People hunger for information. But they hunger for engaging information.
Note, however, that I stress engaging; pure information is not inherently interesting. I don’t know how many people in this room have heard of the literary genre of hyperrealism. If you haven’t, it’s for good reason — it’s boring. Hyperrealist authors are dedicated to removing the myriad tropes and plot contrivances that consume other literary genres, in an attempt to present an accurate depiction of a fictional reality. Allow me to read you brief quote from the well-known hyperrealist novel New Grub Streetby George Gissing:
“As the Milvains sat down to breakfast the clock of Wattleborough parish
church struck eight; it was two miles away, but the strokes were borne
very distinctly on the west wind this autumn morning. Jasper, listening
before he cracked an egg, remarked with cheerfulness:
‘There’s a man being hanged in London at this moment.’”
Sounds like an intriguing start for a novel. Immediately the mind asks, “who is being hanged?” “Why?” “How are the Milvains connected to the hanging?” Since this is a hyperrealist novel, I can assure you, the Milvains are not connected to the hanging. Nothing of note happens. There is no drama, no intrigue, none of the events one would expect to occur happen in a story.
While reading this novel is certainly informing, it presents an faithful portrayal of nineteenth-century London, but it is not engaging. Reading this novel is the literary equivalent to eating one’s vegetables.
Now, what does any of this have to do with the digital humanities? The digital humanities offer us an unprecedented opportunity not only to change how we practice our respective disciplines, but how we disseminate our work. Every researcher with an internet connection can share his or her work with an audience of millions in an instant.
But, there’s a catch. While you’re trying to make your voice heard, so is literally every other person with an internet connection. According to current estimates, 30.2% of the world’s population has access to the internet – that’s over 2.1 billion people. In the United States alone there are 31 million people with blogs. Over 72 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube every minute. Every minute of the day tens of millions of people are creating their own content and uploading it to the web.
How can you make your voice rise above the crowd? The answer is deceptively simple – tell a story.
I lied, it’s not that simple, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. The Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference (better known as the TED (Conference)) is an example of how storytelling can be used to share well-researched information while engaging the public. Since June 2006, TED has made all of its talks available for free online and these videos have been viewed more than 500 million times. These talks, given by people ranging from celebrities, to politicians, to scientists, to humanists, cover a breadth of topics with a surprising amount of depth – far from the mindless entertainment which many accuse the public of being solely interested in.
In other words, not have has TED gotten people to eat their vegetables, they’ve succeeded in getting people to ask for seconds.
I am of the opinion that much of TED’s success stems from three factors – quantity of information, quality of storytelling, and availability of content.
People hunger for knowledge. Just as you can’t be too rich or too pretty, there’s no such thing as knowing too much. TED succeeds because they share an astonishing amount of content with their audience. People have diverse tastes. By offering talks on subjects ranging from technology, to design, to science, to business, to politics, to art, to history, TED has something for everyone. They offer a quantity of information that is second to none.
At this point I realized how much I was rambling and decided to refocus my efforts. I’m considerable happier with my new draft and look forward to sharing the final product with you.