Has the Internet Failed as a Storytelling Medium?

I Think So, but There's Hope, Thanks to Three Emerging Tactics

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Reuben Steiger Reuben Steiger
The internet's potential as a storytelling medium is a topic close to my heart for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I care about it because I'm running a company that attempts to use the net to tell stories.

Secondly, I'm having trouble filling an executive creative director position. Many of the likely candidates for this search bring with them impressive resumes from the interactive world. They are familiar with the broad array of technologies and tools that define digital production, but often have gaping holes when it comes to creating compelling narratives as opposed to beautiful websites or effective campaigns.

So let's begin by asking: Just what is a story? This may seem self-evident, but bear with me. Rather than giving my definition, I'll just use the one from Dictionary.com. Story (noun): a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale. Stories also traditionally have a beginning, middle and end as well as a Who, What, Where, When and Why.

Has the internet failed to create stories? I think it has (and often begin my presentations by throwing down this gauntlet). Let me explain.

The internet, since it was opened to the public in the early 1990s, has played host to an astounding variety of stories. The majority of these have been in formats derived from other media -- either prose, animation or video. In the case of prose, the innovation came in the realm of hyperlinking, effectively using the internet to provide deeper insight or back story without derailing the direction of a storyline. When it came to video, once broadband enabled the streaming of pre-existing content a barrage of filmed content sprang forth, leading to battles over DRM and debates over what formats worked best and how to monetize this new distribution channel.

I would argue, however, that neither prose nor video is truly unique. In both cases, the content lives at a dedicated URL, which is nothing more than a digital version of the magazine page or television screen. The big breakthroughs in each case have been innovations that allowed both prose and video to do more than just be played on the net. I would argue that blogs and YouTube are perhaps the killer storytelling apps to date.

In the case of blogs, putting simple publishing tools in the hands of the mainstream allowed a story with millions of authors to emerge. And from the readers' perspectives, this is a very different type of story. We can begin by reading the compelling diary of an individual, deepened and made more interesting by the sites to which the blogger links and the comments left by other readers; this story is an evolving and unpredictable composite. In the case of of YouTube, it's never the individual pieces of content that blow us away, but rather the comprehensiveness of the archive and our ability to jump from one bizarre video to the next, essentially visualizing a stream of consciousness.

If blogs and video-sharing sites represent the web's heritage as a storytelling medium, then how do they fail and how might the future look brighter? I would argue that they fail because they succeed. What I mean is that both work beautifully by being custom-tailored to the short attention span and interconnectedness of the internet. But neither provides the polish and ability to hold a viewer's attention that NBC and Fox's recently launched Hulu.com does.

So what? Well, creating great stories regardless of medium is expensive. This means content creators need seed capital, which can be repaid either by transactional revenues from selling content -- not too effective on the Internet -- or from advertising, which works well. But until the net proves itself able to attract a large audience to great content built expressly for the web, advertisers will continue to be difficult to bring aboard to underwrite that content.

So where are we now? We're at a fascinating point in history where a bold group of content creators, advertisers and digital artists are seeking the Holy Grail of online content: the ability to fund and create large-scale stories that attract and engage large audiences. I would argue that these stories will take one of the following forms (and in many cases, a mix of all three).

Alternate Reality Games: Otherwise known as ARGs, these have become very popular within the past few years. An ARG is a story that draws the audience in through mystery and intrigue and invites them to participate in unearthing clues to solve the puzzle. These ARGs have been sponsored by brands ranging from Audi to McDonald's, along with major movie studios and TV networks. The results have been impressive, but to date the genre has struggled to reach true mainstream appeal because much of the viewing experience requires investing dozens of hours of time.

Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games: Often abbreviated as MMORPGs, these include games like "World of Warcraft." Like ARGs, these games tell stories in a user-driven, first-person manner and are incredibly compelling.

Transmedia Content: This is perhaps the most exciting of all. Transmedia storytelling refers to stories that are told across a broad array of media. A great example is the hit TV show "Heroes," which in addition to its TV broadcast has created as many as 200 websites, most of which allow heavy fan participation and collectively reveal and advance storylines that may not appear in broadcast. The results have been staggering. The web experiences have delivered viewership figures rivaling or in some cases exceeding those on television. A recent Fast Company article gives a deeper look at the breadth of this trend in Hollywood.

Television audiences may shrink, but the desire of consumers to be entertained by stories will not. This leaves those of us interested in telling those stories with a fascinating and inspiring challenge.
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