Social media has evolved into the art of storytelling, and we must all become masters of it.

  • Author: Lauren
  • Lauren Fisher,

We view social media now as an essential form of communication - a new way to stay in touch with people, to share and discover information and to interact with brands and to consume increasingly large amounts of content in concise, compacted ways. But there is another side to social media that we don't often consider, but that is becoming more and more prevalent: its role in the evolution of storytelling.

Throughout nearly every society and stage in history, storytelling has had a crucial role to play. It has been the way in which disparate communities can connect with each other, in which traditions are maintained and how we entertain ourselves. Social media is now at the stage in which we are all becoming expert storytellers, often without knowing it, and developing the skills to tell those stories effectively.

Only now, one thing has changed. Far from storytelling being a way of inventing characters and plots to entertain or teach lessons, we are now the central character of the story, and the stories we create about ourselves online are our crucial social currency and the way in which we connect with others. Our social profiles are actually the stories we create about ourselves. The better the story, the better our experience of social media will be.

The history of storytelling

To understand how this concept can be applied, it's useful to look at the evolution of storytelling and the role in which it's played throughout different societies, as well as the media employed to communicate the story. Storytelling is often thought to have originated in Mesopotamia, where shamans would tell stories orally as a means of teaching and entertaining communities.

Before we had written language, storytelling was told through a combination of drawings, which were often prompters for the storyteller to then bring the story to life through voice, dance or music. When writing was adopted in societies, various forms of media were then used to record these stories, for example etching on bark, or drawing on pottery or bones.

Memory has played a crucial part in storytelling, with the storyteller committing to memory the crucial parts of the story, drummed in through a lifetime of listening to and telling stories, with the human mind in this way becoming the medium through which the story is preserved. This changed once with the arrival of the written language, and has changed significantly again with the advent of digital technology, which has changed the way stories have been preserved and spread.

How this applies to social media

When you look at storytelling in this way and consider the role it played particularly in entertainment and the invention of characters by means of carrying the storyline or moral lesson, it might be difficult to see how this can apply to us today, in social media.

What social media means in the evolution of storytelling however, is that far from storytelling being the reserve of a privileged few in society, who others may look to for entertainment or moral lessons (the role of shamans for example), we are now all storytellers, telling a story about ourselves through social media that plays a crucial role in the way in which others perceive us, but also, interestingly, how our own lives are preserved. Think of your Facebook profile or Twitter account as your section on a cave - your piece of media in which you use a variation of symbols (in this case the letters of the alphabet) to tell your story to others who might find it.

The role of digital technology in storytelling is discussed indepth by Frank Rose, in his book 'The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the way we tell stories'. He explores how the technology we have at hand today - digital technology and the introduction of mass media has changed storytelling to allow it to become more immersive, to employ a combination of text, photo and video in a way that has become participatory.

Perhaps most interestingly, Rose believes that it takes somewhere between 20-30 years for people to really master a new form of media. If you consider the amount of time that social media has really been mainstream, we still have a few years to go in order to become masters of social media. So we are still at the learning stage, discovering the best way to create the best stories and tell them in the most entertaining way. The only difference is that these stories are now about ourselves.

Our story must look beautiful

The visual importance of the stories we tell about ourselves must not be overlooked. We are now amassing such huge amounts of data about ourselves that we need to find a way of accurately distilling this so that crucial information is not lost, but anyone that may land on our social profiles can get a visually appealing insight into ourselves, our stories, while at the same time consuming vast amounts of information that allow them to form an opinion about our lives.

This is where Facebook has a massively important role to play. While heavy users of social media may employ a variety of methods or sites to create our stories: Twitter, blogs, video etc. Facebook is emerging as the near-universal storytelling method, and though it has yet to launch, Timeline is about to change this massively.

When you consider how Timeline works first of all, it is easy to see how it is about to contribute a new way of telling a story about ourselves. While Facebook profiles now are more focused on the immediate content, with a small amount of our histories contained within our stated interests.

Timeline is going to provide people with their own way of creating a complete story about themselves, from birth to the current day. But it is doing it in such a way that is respectful of the way in which social technology functions and the increasingly precious commodity of time that we have. We need a succinct way of consuming the story of an individual. Nicholas Feltron, co-founder of Daytum - a startup acquired by Facebook that looked at ways of displaying personal statistics - was a core member of the development for Facebook and is keenly aware of this fact.

Feltron wanted to find a way to allow people to express themselves online in a way that was visually appealing but also effective in the amount of information conveyed. You can see this thought process in action through his annual Feltron reports, where he uses new ways of communicating a vast amount of statistics. His most recent report, from 2010, chronicles the life of his late father: Gordon Feltron. Looking through the report, it is easy to see how it is one of the most beautiful ways of telling a story, and how that thinking has carried over into Timeline.

Why our story must have talkability

For any story that has been told, throughout any age, it has been necessary for the listener/reader/viewer to be invested in the character. If the story is to truly function as it should, it will involve the receiver in a deep level of immersion that allows them to suspend disbelief or at least feel for the characters in a very real way. Far from being a loose concept, this actually comes down to science. When we are invested in a good story, our brains release oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, which allow us to feel a sense of reward. In short, a good story can have a profound effect on our person and our brains.

Now the stories that we tell about ourselves online, if they are really to be successful and achieve what we want them to (more friends, more respect, higher social currency), must encourage a sense of emotion in the reader - they must see themselves in our events in order to trigger the chemical reaction that is necessary for good storytelling. We must do this by involving those around us in the stories that we tell, instead of restricting the stories to ourselves. So we upload pictures of friends, share links, tag friends in posts and tweets.

In a very real sense, we allow the 'receiver' of the story to become part of the story itself. Imagine the chemical reaction that this triggers in the brain.  With social media this is again exaggerated even further; we are not just an unknown character in  a story but a friend or online companion. Therefore the investment is higher, meaning the need to please is too.

Why our story must be living

Social media has meant that a story is not just created and told, but that it is living and constantly evolving both as we tell it and as it received. In this way it differs uniquely from other, traditional forms of storytelling. While at every point throughout the history of storytelling there has indeed been a point of interpretation that comes into play when a story is retold, social media is unique in that this interpretation comes at the point that the story is created.

And in many cases, this feedback is visible in the original, in the form of a comment on a Facebook photo or update for example. Here, the interpretations impact the original. There is no 'pure' unadulterated version of the story, but it is constantly living. We respond to this in different ways and through different media. The interpretation can happen across multiple channels, where we are required to adopt different forms of feedback or alterations. Something as mundane as the title of a photo, the location it's tagged in. All are constantly feeding into the 'original' version of the story.

And so too, we must be adept at mastering different forms of storytelling, sometimes telling the same version of a story one way in a blog post, another through photo, another in a micro form through a tweet for example. At every point in which we do this we create another, differing layer to the story. The story of ourselves lives across many channels, with many points for interaction and interpretation. The story becomes deeper than ever before because it lives in so many different forms than it ever has before.

And furthermore, these forms are becoming ever more permanent. While the stories told in illustrations in caves are vulnerable to natural destruction through decay, online technology has meant that our stories can be preserved more perfectly. Of course, there is no physical copy that is not vulnerable to destruction, but they are becoming more and more protected, as the forms of media proliferate.

Why brands must tell stories

Brands have always had to tell stories as a means of engaging consumers. This can be seen most starkly in the creation of the soap opera. Though today it is seen purely as an entertainment form, it was of course created by soap companies such as Procter & Gamble in the 1930s as a means of creating a narrative around their products that could be told effectively to housewives, in short 15 minute segments that built week on week.

This has served brands well up until now - storytelling is the central part of good advertising, creating a mini plot in which we become invested. Now however, with social media, there is a difference; these stories are becoming increasingly less fictional. Their stories must involve real people and largely, these people are ourselves. There are many examples of successful social media campaigns where the user becomes a central part of the story.

This can be taken literally, such as hotels.com - who created a unique way for you to become a 3D member of a video story, or with the likes of Old Spice, who created personalised content for consumer online. This is a fundamental change in storytelling through social media. Where once the drawings on caves were of 'mystical' characters whose identities no doubt changed through the years, the stories now are about ourselves, whether we are the producer or the receiver.

Those brands or individuals that are succeeding the most in social media are those that are able to tell the best stories through digital means, in the most interesting ways. Some people understand this better than others. Some for example understand the need to constantly create new 'chapters' in the story, to use social media constantly to share and create information so that our own personal timelines or stories consistently grow and provide entertainment.

Not only building up a more complete history of ourselves, but a more adept form of entertainment at the time. In just a few years, we will have mastered the art of social media and that means we will have become masters of storytelling. The consequences of this for society are wide-reaching and most importantly, fundamental for connecting societies and individuals in a completely new way.