Platform and Purpose
Participatory Storytelling in a Digital Age
Our history and collective past is rich with examples of storytelling and story-sharing. We, as humans, love to share our stories, to hear and be heard, and will take advantage of any technology to do so. This is as true today as it was centuries ago. Study the history of narrative and you will see it expand with technological advancement from oral tradition, to written word, to digital technologies (Cosco, 2011). Given our history of narrative advancement, Chris Sullivan’s query, “Technology might have made communication easier, but is it killing the art of storytelling?” makes one wonder if, much as our grandparents walked to school in the snow uphill both ways, storytellers, such as Homer (anachronism aside for the sake of argument), perceived the advent of the printing press as the death of their oral traditions (Cosco, 2011).
Rather than perceiving social media as an end, modern writers attempting to reconcile the available technologies within a rich tradition of storytelling leave the impression that “fiction is again expanding its means to process and illustrate the so-called state of the times” (Conchie, 2014). Much as Dickens wrote serialized stories for publication in 19th century papers to anticipatory audiences, authors taking advantage of social media create stories shared in serialized tweets or posts, often to avid followings. As noted by Taylor and Williams (2014), however, a different style has developed where “compression is the key, and modification of the narrative is often required.” For anyone who has read Dickens, short and sweet may actually be a saving grace of storytelling via social media. As an added bonus, the immediacy of these platforms makes “it easy to believe [a story is] really happening in the moment” as “the ordinary suspension of disbelief evaporates” in real time (Conchie, 2014). Further, where oral tradition required the face to face presence of audience and storyteller and written words required the purchase or lend of a text, social media can be accessed by anyone on any Internet-connected device. As stated by Pratten (2011), the “value [of Twitter as a platform] is in the social spread of the story and the building of audiences.” Given this, it seems that social media, instead of killing the story, presents an alternative canvas for the diffusion, reconceptualization, and expansion of participation within modern storytelling (Cosco, 2011).
Twitter as Platform
When an author chooses to present their story in social media, platform becomes a key consideration. As stated by Burns (2010), “platforms become the weapons in one’s storytelling arsenal.” As such, an author must know the unique affordances, strengths and weaknesses, language, and means to interact with audience when selection a platform (Burns, 2010). When an author takes the time to understand the full nature of a platform, they are able to manipulate it in new and creative ways to successfully tell their story. As noted by Pratten (2011), the “key to success with storytelling in any media is to work with the strengths of the platform.”
In “Social Stories: How to use Storytelling on Twitter,” Gini Dietrich (2013) reviews four ways to use Twitter for storytelling “literally—to tell a story, creatively—to tell a story in a new way, consistently—as a way to reinforce your message, and personally—to let your audience get to know you.” Given that traditional stories involved the creation of narrative by a single author delivered in linear progression, it is Dietrich’s (2013) concept of “[telling] a story in a new way” that resonates most in discussions around the medium and Twitterature (yes, that’s a thing). Based on authorial accounts, the most compelling platform-based considerations within Twitter include: the 140-character length limit, the nature of audience interaction, and the ability for a story to unfold in non-linear progression and to incorporate storylines supplemental to the primary account.
The most obvious difference when dealing with Twitter over traditional storytelling is the 140-character limitation per tweet. While such a short length may have sent 19th century authors to an early grave (Dickens, I’m looking at you!), modern authors rise to, and embrace, the challenge. As stated by Meltzer, “My canvas as a novelist is usually 500 pages. Now, I’m supposed to tell a story on what’s pretty much a postage stamp. I do think as an exercise, it’s fascinating, because it really makes you think about what it takes to tell a story” (Martin and Melzer, 2014). Alexander McCall Smith, in a similar take, sees Twitter as a platform that allows “using [just] a few brushstrokes to create a whole world…[telling] a very big story in a few lines” (Taylor and Williams, 2014). The trick in such limited space, it seems, is to create tweets that move the story forward, intrigue the audience, provoke either thought or emotional response, and maintain the element of surprise (Pratten, 2011; Crum, 2015).
Once an audience engages with a story, the unique affordances of Twitter allow for increased interaction with both plot and characters. While the audience can, at the most basic level, retweet, follow, or invite others to share in the story, the real strength of the medium lies in the ability for audience members to actively participate. As stated by Caitlin Burns, “Twitter invites direct response by the audience in a way that other media do not. Twitter breaks the fourth wall by inviting the audience to reply, simply by using the platform” (Johnson, 2011). Beyond their ability to comment, and within the constructs of a crowd-sourced, participatory novel, audience members may also drive the narrative and plot twists as they work in conjunction to create the story (Johnson, 2011).
In line with audience interaction is the notion that Twitter encourages non-linear progression of a story and allows for supplemental storytelling through the manipulation of characters outside of the primary narrative. As noted by Johnson (2011), Twitter creates an ideal environment for audience members to continue the development of characters “outside the direct plot” of the story. Through the creation of character accounts of backstories, audiences participate in “a kind of live theater…ongoing over [a period of time] with interactions among multiple characters, but still within a contained story” (Johnson, 2011). While these character narratives are not explicitly part of the driving story, Pratten (2011) furthers Johnson’s (2011) argument by stating that the supplemental feeds that work with characters should “add value to the core narrative yet at the same time be optionally consumed.” In other words, these supplemental stories and character developments add value to the primary narrative but are not required for enjoyment, understanding, or completion of the story. (For instance, I love the Star Wars movies, but have no interest whatsoever in the expanded universe. Period.)
Maintaining Original Format
According to Martin and Melzer (2014), a story must embrace the medium in which it is created. To some this means limiting oneself to the culture, affordances, and structure of the platform (Twitter’s 140-character limit and use of hashtags, as example), while, to others, this means keeping and presenting the story in its original environment. Both Burns (2010) and Johnson (2011) believe that compiling a story outside of its original medium misses the point of selecting a specific storytelling medium. That said, Johnson (2011) does acknowledge that the timing of interactions and multiple feeds in Twitter can present a barrier to audience participation in an ongoing story and suggests the possibility of an external website to “catch people up and bring them into the current part of the story.” While discussion clearly exists around the use of external sites for ease of audience access and decisions to turn tweeted stories into print editions, the literature seems to indicate a preference for keeping and presenting a story within its original medium. As Burns (2010) rather succinctly states, “If you need a separate site with a different format to present what is intended for one medium, what is being missed?”
The Supplemental “Re” Concept
Writing is one of the most intensely personal things we do. Regardless of what drives us to write, we are sharing a part of ourselves (whether our thoughts, fears, creativity, pain, or love) with the reader. When we give voices to our words or put them on paper, we provide a glimpse into to our inner selves and create something new…something permanent. We cannot reclaim the love letter dropped in the mail before we lost our nerve, rescind the angry email we pounded out before we took the time to cool off, or take back the thing we said that the wrong person overheard.
Knowing this, whether I am penning a letter to a friend, typing a referenced and cited paper for class, or jotting down a creative story for fun, I have a plan. I think through what I want to say, making notes so I won’t forget the concepts I need to develop. I write the words, let them sit, and revisit them often, adding where necessary and callously cutting that which no longer fits. I spend the weeks before papers are due planning them in my head. As I write this post, I have my notes from the articles I read on the bottom right of my screen, a section where I jotted down random thoughts about the intersections between story and articles above, and the left of my screen is covered by the document I am working in now which is an amalgamation of plan, outline, and fragmented thoughts yet to find a home.
You can imagine my frustration, then, about a story told by a group of individuals with different experiences informing their voices and different agendas guiding their narrative. While I enjoyed seeing the progression of Re’s story and participating in the creative process that brought it to life, it drove me crazy when a thought was left dangling in the story, a character suddenly appeared with no explanation or backstory, and there was no conclusion (satisfying or otherwise) to the story in sight. When I think of the stories I love, it is the author’s ability to create a complete world with transportative power that draws me in. Something about an author creating a world, fully formed, apart from our own, entrances me and beckons my escape.
It is this concept of completeness and the affordances of Twitter discussed above, that most informed my creative approach to the story. Much as we created in Re a character whose story is fragmented due to the 140-character limit, we created a character who clearly struggles with the fragmentation of her own life story. She vacillates, throughout the story, between struggling to remember and struggling to forget her past. She is, in many ways, on a voyage of pain and discovery where knowledge comes to her in small varied bursts. Knowing this, I wanted to create a concept that respected the original intent and platform of the story (by staying within the 140-character limit), maintained the fragmented perception of her world, and fulfilled my need to have a more complete backstory. Although I considered several mechanisms, the one that made the most sense was to conceptualize the book owned by Re as a journal where she records the fragmented dreams, memories, and scraps she uses to piece together her story. While I posted the original content to Twitter in an account I created for Re (@fragmentRe), the journal is presented below using Storify for cohesion and ease of access. If you prefer the original medium and platform, the account is public. Please know this does not represent what I would see as the entire journal; rather it represents a sampling of backstory that would be fun to further develop or throw into the Twitterverse to see what happens. NOTE: If the images, which I love, aren’t showing up, please be sure to check it in Twitter…
Burns, C. (2010, May 10). Twitter fiction. Moxie Dot. [Web log]. Retrieved from https://www.moxiedot.com/2010/05/twitter-fiction/
Burton, S.J. (2016, October 22). Fragmented sky. [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/shanjeniah/30478293545
Conchie, A. (2014, March 21). Twitter Fiction Festival: How technology is changing the face of fiction. Melville House. [Web log]. Retrieved from https://www.mhpbooks.com/twitter-fiction-festival-how-technology-is-changing-the-face-of-fiction/
Cosco, A. (2011, April 6). “I challenge you to tell a great story on Twitter”—Is it possible? AdWeek. [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.adweek.com/digital/i-challenge-you-to-tell-a-great-story-on-twitter-is-it-possible/?red=st
Crum, M. (2015, May 7). Twitter fiction reveals the power of very, very short stories. Huffington Post. [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/07/twitter-fiction_n_7205686.html
Dietrich, G. (2013, June 18). Social stories: How to use storytelling on Twitter. Social Media Today. [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.socialmediatoday.com/content/social-stories-how-use-storytelling-twitter
Johnson, L.J.W. (2011, March 8). Twitter storytelling. Silverstring Media. [Web log]. Retrieved from http://silverstringmedia.com/memory-insufficient-old/2011/03/08/twitter-storytelling
Martin, R. & Meltzer, B. (2014, March 16). Authors tighten up their stories for Twitter Fiction Festival. National Public Radio. [Interview]. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/03/16/290615041/authors-tighten-up-their-stories-for-twitter-fiction-festival
Pratten, R. (2011, March 10). Using Twitter for storytelling. Transmedia Storyteller. [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.tstoryteller.com/using-twitter-for-storytelling
Shea, S. (n.d.). The collective boutique. The Collective. [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.collectiveboutique.net/index.html
Taylor, A. & Williams, M. (2014, September 20). Alexander McCall Smith on the art of Twitter fiction. ABC Radio Nation. [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/beta-nav/alexander-mccall-smith-on-the-art-of-twitter-fiction/5777056