“I Challenge You To Tell A Great Story on Twitter” — Is It Possible?

“I challenge you to tell a great story on Twitter.”  The challenger: Chris Sullivan of MYNorthwest.com. In his recent article, “The Art of Storytelling in a World of Technology,” Sullivan wonders if technology has impeded our ability to tell stories, to grab readers and immerse them in narrative:  “Technology might have made communication easier, but is it killing the art of story telling?” he asks.

To find his answer, Sullivan turns to professional storyteller Anne Rutherford. Rutherford, a Portland native, says that the art of storytelling isn’t lost, only misplaced; she tells Sullivan that we, as humans, are hard-wired to respond to story, only we’re currently lacking the opportunities to be in situations where stories can be told: “Whatever [your] age, whatever [the] circumstance, if it’s a good story and it’s well told, [..] we have the ability to respond to that. However, what I think we’re losing is the opportunity to be in those situations.”

“Those situations” Rutherford is referring to are those gatherings around campfires or even water-coolers, places that have become the cultural setting for story. Sullivan worries that we’re so immersed in digital realities that our storytelling muscles have weakened. With today’s technology, it’s true that most of us spend less time conversing face-to-face and more time communicating through interfaces, but I wonder if that means, as Sullivan’s article suggests, that storytelling has “lost” its opportunity.

It is my argument that social media makes story-telling even more possible today than in earlier years. While I’d agree with Sullivan that we’re not sharing stories in the same manner as we used to, I’d suggest that Story itself is an evolving beast, something that grows and mutates with time. Throughout history, storytelling forms have changed with technology— from oral traditions, to the printed word, to most recently digital media—but the elements of narrative can be detected throughout, as Story manages to creep its way into every linguistic or visual expression.

With tweets limited to 140 characters or less, it may seem like there’s no room for storytelling on Twitter, as story requires character development, plot, setting, etc., but we need to keep in mind that while storytelling styles change, Story itself is immortal; As Robert McKee says in his seminal text, Story, “The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression” (Story, 4, my emphasis).

As McKee suggests, story is both universal while also being “culturally specific” —meaning that it not only captures something essentially human, but also adjusts to the social expressions available at the time. (Neanderthals painted on the walls; we tweet. And if you’re tweeting, you’re a story teller too—though you may not even know it.)

If we’re the social media generation, it’s not that we’re losing the opportunity for story, it’s that we’re telling our stories differently. We need to recognize how authors engage with social media as story. At The Social Times, our story is the story of social media; we’re interested in the characters, settings, and plots unfolding in our online worlds. As Sullivan’s article evidences, there’s a cultural pessimism about social media: while many recognize the internet as a potent tool for communication, others worry that new communications technologies (Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, etc.) have eroded our old ones, and that digital discourses have robbed us of our ability to talk to one another.

But is social media really a bankrupt form of communication? As someone involved in social media story telling, I see more opportunities for online authorship than in any other media. Let’s take Twitter for example— one of the newest story-telling platforms of our age. At worst, Twitter is just a cultural wasteland where we dump or verbal garbage, but at best, it’s a ripe tool for social narrative, a fertile frontier for those brave enough to pioneer it.

While many use Twitter for shamelessly meaningless updates (“just toasted some bread” and “just buttered my toast”) others engage with Twitter is more meaningful ways. In a recent article, I wrote about a professor by the name of Dan Sinker. Sinker created a Twitter account under the name @MayorEmanuel at a time when a man by the name of Rahm Emmanuel was actually running for mayor of Chicago. The fake Twitter account recieved a small following overnight, and by one week into the real mayor’s campaign, the fake @MayorEmanuel  had more Twitter followers than the real Rahm Emmanuel.

@MayorEmanuel authored elaborate and detailed stories in a series of tweets—all 140 characters or less. Sinker sustained his audience by telling a layered narrative involving five fantastical characters, including duck named Quaxelrod and a dog named Hambone. His story got so much media attention that Stephen Colbert asked Sinker to be a guest on his show, and Simon Publishing groups offered Sinker a publishing contract.

Sinker exemplifies how the creative class can engage with social media spaces like Twitter in innovative ways. What’s more, his overnight success demonstrates how audiences across the blogosphere are still receptive to story, and that the art of storytelling is more alive than ever.That Sinker’s tweets are being translated into print form demonstrates that Twitter itself is a storytelling tool.

But is Dan Sinker an exception to the rule? Perhaps—but perhaps not for long. It may be that few people regard Twitter as a platform for storytelling, but more users like Sinker are beginning to recognize social media’s potential for story.

Facebook is another example of storytelling at its finest. Each day, we log into our Facebook accounts to participate in the telling of our own story. Whether we realize it or not, each time we comment on a friend’s photo or post a link on their Facebook wall, we’re mapping our digital stories and tracking online footprints across the digital world.

There’s a growing market for online services that print your Facebook feed, with Yearly Leaf and JotJournal being two examples. This impetus towards tangible hard-copy records of our digital lives testifies to the fact that social spaces like Facebook have become our public diaries. We want to print them and hold them because we’re familiar with the printed form, and I’d argue we’re anxious over the fact that we store our identities online rather than in hard-copy format because we’re transitioning between our cultural-specific form of expression. We’re hungry for storytelling forms that make sense to us.

At the same time, if a Facebook feed can be converted into a printed diary, or a series of tweets like Dan Sinker’s @MayorEmanuel can be translated and published, or a blog like Salem Pax’s can be formatted into a book (The Baghdad Blog) then this demonstrates how social media does not usurp or undercut story, but instead, it provides story with more manifestations.

Story is a chameleon. Like a  chameleon, sometimes Story’s form is apparent, while other times, its camouflaged. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, story is alive and well in the age of social media; it’s that  shape-shifting lizard just beyond your homepage.

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