Story Hackers

Video via hackshackers.com

For years I’ve been talking about stories and storytelling. For years people have rolled their eyes and reminded me that storytelling is for kids. Okay, that’s not quite true. I’ve managed to win over a few along the way who’re willing to admit that stories and storytelling are among the most vital building blocks of community, of education, of entertainment, of marketing, of sales… Especially in the last few years. Finally folks seem interested in storytelling. Storytelling is cool! This makes cocktail parties a little more exciting for me, and it encourages me to explore further, question more, dream bigger.

This morning I woke up thinking about the intersection of storytelling and technology. My mind was racing. My rumination included various dissimilar but related ingredients including:

  • Intersect – a site where people can share stories and chart them by time and place to see where their paths might cross.
  • Storify – a next-generation storytelling platform that lets you build stories from social media.
  • Hacks/Hackers – “a network of people interested in Web/digital application development and technology innovation supporting the mission and goals of journalism.”
  • Paper.li – a newspaper-style interface for curating and accessing Twitter content.
  • Apture – a tool enabling readers to search and explore rich content and media from the web without even leaving the page
  • Mrs. Farnsworth – A.R. Gurney’s comedy in which I’ve been playing the part of Gordon Bell.

On the one hand, last night I performed in Mrs. Farnthsworth at the Old Mill Studio in Elizabethtown. Community theater. Amateur. Fun. Short run. We started out at BlueSeed in Saranac Lake and we head up to SUNY Plattsburgh later this week. The show dishes up plenty of political snarkiness and the audience is the final judge of what is true and what is fabrication. This Thursday and Friday you can judge Mrs. Farnsworth for yourself.

I haven’t acted in a few years, and my first inclination was to decline when I was approached last winter. But then I read the play. And I reconsidered. Not because of the politics. Not even because of the uncanny coincidence that my character was also a creative writing teacher. Two stronger reasons compelled me, a longstanding fascination with acting as a form of storytelling and the notion that remembering how a play is produced (as seen from the inside out) might serve to make me a better president of the Depot Theatre board. I’ll weigh in again on this once we conclude our run.

Last night was our fourth performance of six. Not out best. That was Friday. We really aced it on Friday. Actors were at the top of their game, and the packed audience didn’t miss a beat. Such fun. Virtual reality in the oldest sense! It’s a quirky play, especially fun for me to play Gordon since I’m both a teacher and a writer. Reminded me of moments in the classroom when a lesson was really humming along, students were totally in the zone and ideas were popping. An amazing experience. Addictive. Just ask a teacher. It also reminded me that my first moment in a classroom was storytelling… But that tale for another day.

On the other hand, I spent yesterday experimenting with Intersect’s story sharing platform, and urging Storify to let me “alpha preview” their storytelling platform. Both services offer so much promise! I really enjoy the stripped down simplicity of Intersect, but I’m fascinated with the curatorial potential of Storify. Both platforms are still mere glimmers of what they might become, not exactly prenatal, but early, early in their development. That said, these two technologies offer two of the essentail ingredients for the future of journalism: intersection and curating. I don’t just mean sharing content easily and across multiple platforms. I don’t just mean offering a clumsy threaded link list to interested story followers. I mean that convergence of these two platforms could literally reinvent journalism, collaborative, real time reporting and storytelling.

Stories, by their very nature are rhizomic. Instead of simply converting traditional print journalism and storytelling to digital (most of what the large media outlets have undertaken so far), the future isn’t flat. Nor is it linear. Nor is it ever in final format. The future is fluid. Information is viral, mutable, shareable. Collaboration is critical. Content affinity is critical. Similar and/or complementary content must connect. And as the massive proliferation of content overwhelms us, curating and aggregating and reviewing/commenting and fact checking become essential. Information strata and intertextuality and multimodal media must interlink, be sortable, trackable. Trying to flatten this future model of journalism, of storytelling into one dimensional print interface will not only be more and more challenging, it will also be less and less necessary, less and less desirable.

Although it’s a somewhat restricted example of the sort of story aggregation and curatorship that could be possible with next generation tools, Tim Carmody’s (@tcarmody on Twitter) “Lobbying for Followers on Twitter: A Love Story” offers an amusing and powerful example of where we’re headed. Add video, audio, slide shows, comments, forums, etc. to the equation, and it’s staggering what you wind up with. How will we navigate, sort, verify, absorb, enjoy this new content interface? Verdict’s still out, but I can’t wait to begin experimenting.

Which takes me back to the video and to Tristan Harris, the CEO of Apture, who waxes enthusiastic but befuddled about the need for a convergence in technology and storytelling:

“You need people from a computational background and from a storytelling background to be able to satisfy the interest of say a publisher who is trying to tell stories and the people who consume information while also satisfying the… and leveraging, I guess, the technology of the medium itself that let’s us do innovative things that we couldn’t do before.”

Yes, we need those people. And we need them to imagine and build and support the next generation of storytelling tools. In the mean time, I’m going to keep exploring their efforts while telling my own stories. And I’m going to continue enjoying the fact that folks finally know (and care) what I’m talking about at cocktail parties!

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