News flash: Storytelling has been co-opted by your nearest marketing department. In several circles it has become the heavy lifting arm of branding responsible for all the necessary work of attracting audience, fostering loyalty and reaching users/customers/stakeholders on that crucial emotional level. Companies develop stories in order to connect with their target groups. Schools and school districts have begun to position their stories among legislatures and policy makers as a means of advocating for programs and funding.
But there is of course more, much more to storytelling than its business potential in a variety of markets. And the rise of social media and digital communication platforms seems to have complicated our understanding and also processing of stories for business, for community, for individual relief or any combination of those possibilities. As humans we are made of stories, regardless of whether we tell them to others or not.
On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mia Steinberg took to Twitter to share some vital thoughts about distinguishing storytelling from testimony.
What struck me about this absolutely instructional thread was how it nudged me to think about how stories work in my own life and whom they serve at any given time. It also made me think about which stories are mine to tell and which ones may not be.
I don’t see myself as much of a storyteller. I enjoy commenting on my observations and drawing connections between other people’s stories. In particular I appreciate the way others use stories to tell us more about ourselves.
My 10 year old and I just finished our read-aloud of RJ Palacio’s Wonder. He loved it! “That’s my favorite book so far,” he said. It surprised him because as he pointed out, “It’s really just about a kid who’s deformed and going to school, but he’s really just a normal kid.” That he found himself teary at the tough parts and jumping out off the sofa to do a victory dance at the happy parts was new for him. After 6 books of Harry Potter and 3 of The Land of Stories, Wonder was the one that took him for a ride he never expected.
My friend, Bill Fitzgerald offered a link to a story that I stopped to read right away and I was captivated. Jaice Singer DuMars describes his difficult childhood that didn’t start off that way and a recovery in high school that allowed him to emerge on the other side of his experiences as a thoughtful, reflective adult. His essay “I am an impostor” tells several stories to convey a message of remarkable humanity and kindness:
I share my story because in my work supporting open source community, I see many people hiding in the shadows of their fear just as I did. They do not want to step into the light because they are afraid they don’t have what it takes, or are not good enough…
When our open source communities focus on technical meritocracy, we are inadvertently creating an environment that promotes exclusion. All of the amazing talents, ideas, and gifts people have to share must find a home, or we are limiting the potential of what we can collectively accomplish.
DuMars uses his own story to build bridges especially to those in the open source community who may know those feelings and circumstances of inadequacy that hold us back from attempting the possible.
Meanwhile, as we hook ourselves up to the steady drip of social media updates, I can imagine that our individual appetites for stories, perhaps even our story metabolisms are undergoing changes which are challenging to recognize, difficult to diagnose. This is where people who help me tune in to the larger narratives in which we all have more than a bit part prove essential. Audrey Watters’ academic background in folklore studies is absolutely integral to the way she shows us and illustrates the stories we are being told about technology and education. Journalist Jordan Shapiro wants to correct our consumption of two popular narratives about the internet being the great social equalizer and that our digital tools are rotting our brains.
And let us not forget the hundreds of stories shared in response to this question posed by Chris G at the close of 2017:
Chris’s tweet received nearly 5000 retweets and 480 direct replies, plus many more responses where his tweet was quoted. Which is to say, people had tons of stories to share about absurd and/or invasive tech platform and product practices.
Then there was this one short tweet reminding me that certain stories become a ticket that must be presented to satisfy the gatekeepers:
Meandering through these examples, I remember that I started with the idea of how stories carry the potential to tell us more about ourselves. Now I see that I’m also thinking about how stories are packaged and delivered; how they reach us and I’m wondering about how these ancillary factors figure in the mix.
From our story appetites to story diets to our story metabolism – that is, how we digest and process the stories we hear, respond to or even internalize – this feels like something we should be looking at in our day-to-day studies of life in progress. Consider, too, the stories we literally are served via algorithms which always learn more about us in the process rather than less. These same algorithms also allow platforms and third party entities to create their own stories about us and our friends, interests, habits and plans – in order to lubricate the economy through piercingly targeted advertising which should lead us from thought bubble to checkout in the space of a few clicks and keystrokes.
Those of us deeply engaged in social media and immersed in digital spaces face enhanced challenges to our understanding and application of story (which sounds very clinical to my ears, but hey). As we’ve learned, just about anything can be weaponized in the attention economy and narratives are no different. Part of me dreads the extra cognitive load of rethinking my story diet and metabolism – paying closer attention to my sources, balancing my intake, noticing immediate and latent effects. At the same time, remaining receptive to the magic that stories can give us – like my son responding to Wonder – that is worth working to preserve.