The “New” Old Role of Story in Today’s Connected World
Article by Kevin Mowrer
Story is in the word History
For a moment, let’s hop into the way-back machine and travel back in time to a group of Neolithic hunters sitting around a campfire enjoying the warmth, each others company, and some meat from an unfortunate but tasty game animal. Around the fire sits or runs the tribe’s children, their parents, maybe even grandparents in a generational nightly gathering. Members of other tribes, travelers, hunting consortiums and traders, are also invited to join that campfire as they come and go through the tribe’s daily life. Interesting contrast to today’s interactions yes? Three generations and friends coming together on a nightly basis to tell stories to one another and socially interact to keep the tribe healthy and prosperous. This was the norm, practiced across the globe wherever pockets of humanity existed. They had no TV, no internet, no telephony, no platform games, no motion pictures, no DVD, VOD, Podcasting, Radio, or personal IM'ing. The “entertainment” was those who were seated and each person would have contributed something over time to the culture and life-guiding stories around the campfire. They are no different in mental capacity from us and science/psychology tells us that their emotional relationships and development needs were the exactly the same as well. They needed each other to survive and prosper, and millions of years of human development placed in them/us the need for a social exchange of ideas, knowledge and meaning to advance. It’s called social reciprocity, the exchange of knowledge, information, and value for the good of all. It’s how we learn to become better, more successful, human beings. Beyond the exchange of knowledge-as-story, the campfire was also the social tumbler within which the sharp edges of ideas, individuals and groups, got rounded off just enough to make us all work together as a unit, a self-selecting, inclusive and fluid, social group. Story and how it’s shared, was and is, at the very center of what makes us human and what has empowered us to advance and evolve in every way. Without it we are tiny pockets of knowledge doomed to repeat the same mistakes and misunderstandings each generation. Story is humanity, humanity is story.
The growing pains of closed systems
Our modern fractionalizing of generations and tribes has grown to its present state in a mere blink of an eye in human history terms. In less than a hundred years our communication technology explosion has enabled countless pods of social exclusivity such as the secret lives of teens that flash between their closed micro-communities completely untouched and unaffected by other teens, adults, or their younger siblings. There are whole legions of blackberry-addicted adults from individual companies and corporations whose knowledge and behavior cultures are unique, unshared and even fiercely protected. These behavior cultures and expectations sweep into every corner of our lives and hijack our time and mindshare from our family and community.
This exclusivity of perspective, knowledge and culture has even created and grown an entertainment industry that is deeply fractionalized into specific media such at TV, Motion Picture, Video Games and more. It’s not that these different media shouldn’t exist or even prosper separately. There are sound and proven business principals that have shaped this approach. It’s more that each media, as a whole, has forgotten that they are part of a much-expanded campfire. A campfire that is supposed to be about the tribe sitting around it, about their involvement and participation, about returning that value to them and in return, they give new value and knowledge back.
It is the fundamental difference between a closed system and an open system. Modern media is largely a closed system with media execs, concerned about the profit dynamics and “trends” in their category, rewarding and greenlighting content and product made exclusively for their corporate needs. Since one of the great truths in life is “that you always get the behavior you incentivize for", this behavior by the gatekeepers of content distribution shapes whole rosters of creators, studios, and dependent businesses/cultures who focus entirely on what is needed to place their work rather than fullness of what the property can mean to the audience. Keep in mind that corporations aren’t human beings. They are quarterly profit driven institutions and this creates substantially different behaviors and decision-making.
It now also takes years to master the specific skills needed to create and produce each of these different categories of entertainment. A kid off the street could never hope to share his or her story with the intimidating hurdles of training, skill, track record and gatekeepers blocking the road. Not like a campfire at all is it? It’s not an open system reflecting that we all have inside of us the capacity to participate in learning our part in the growth and passing on of the story. That’s not to say that the experts at making these various media expressions aren’t putting out some breathtakingly powerful and relevant stories. No, indeed one could argue that we are seeing some of the finest entertainment ever hitting TV, Motion Picture and so on.
More to the point is the fact that there is a vast sea of human beings who have been put in the role of spectator versus contributor. The tribe’s/audience’s need to participate and contribute is strongly evidenced by the growth of clubs and societies around certain stories (like Star Wars) where the audience has adopted the IP and shaped their activities as a community around expanding, and even living, the IP as an experience for themselves. They are contributing in the best ways they can manage and enriching their time together as a community and their daily lives using the empowerment within the story but adding their own as well.
The Step change is here!
Anyone working in any form of video or gaming media will tell you that things are changing so fast, in terms of how to reach out to the audience, that standard industry wisdom and approaches are falling away like leaves in autumn. The audience can now find and share content of all forms from almost anywhere and at a moments notice. The content itself is convulsively working to reshape itself into rapid-fire emerging new formats such as webisodes, short-form weblets, casual online gaming and many more.
Perhaps the most profound change is the rise of the voice of the audience. Communities from every corner of the demographic charts are finding each other online and exchanging everything! Ideas, likes and dislikes, personal information, products, their own homegrown bits of entertainment and yes…stories, stories, stories. They are self-selecting (there’s that phrase again) based on the stories that have meaning and empowerment for them and most folks playing across these media forms are involved in many different micro-communities.
Now, instead of isolated spectators, our ideas and interest are moving as quickly as if we sat around that campfire eons ago and shared them with the folks whom have important things in common with us. In fact, we get to spend time at many different campfires all in a single day!
We, the audience, have become the connective tissue bringing together what used to be isolated, gatekeeper controlled, specific interests.
What does this mean and what is the opportunity?
To us here at the Story Hat, this means that open architecture storytelling is here (whether we want to admit it or not). The audience has gotten a big taste of what it means to contribute and they want more, a lot more. The tidal wave of human story and talent is just beginning to wake up. How stories will be created, shaped, formatted and dynamically moved to market, is evolving at lightning speed. No one of us is clairvoyant or omniscient enough to predict where and how this sea of humanity and human stories/meaning will drive every aspect of the changing world of entertainment. The answers lie within the audience itself and will be revealed only to those who are willing to create and service ways for the audience to dynamically contribute to, and be part of the story. For us here at the Story Hat, we believe it’s time again for the campfire. For an open system, within the Story Hat, that comes to it’s seat at the gathering with great skills but an open mind and willingness to share knowledge and ideas even with those who are naïve in skill and abilities.
It is our honor, as professional story makers and tellers, to bring stories that we believe are relevant and meaningful to the marketplace. It is our belief that open-architecture and audience inclusion/involvement, in new ways throughout the process of creating and making, are both possible and critical to the entire act of storytelling from creation through to full realization and distribution in this new technology enabled communication environment. It requires a kind of trust and fearlessness in the audience to believe that they/we (because we are audience as well) are more than spectators and that they will surprise even the most experienced amongst us with clarity, perspective and community creativity if we simply find the ways to include them/us. There are few rules and incredible opportunities but the sea change is the connectedness and newfound voice of the audience itself.
You can only create for a community when you are part of it yourself.
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