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The Stories we will tell ourselves into the future

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Article by Alison Wells © 18 May 2011.
Posted in Guest Blogs ().

Did you hear the one about the

Once upon a time….

In a land, far far away….

The story is beguiling, integral, at the heart of things. We begin at the campfire, we progress to the fireside. We watch the box, we open a book. In this country there is the tradition of intimate tales of the seanchaí, leaning in confidentially to the audience, regaling his listeners with a story that insinuates itself as gospel truth. The immediacy of the tale, the manner of the storyteller, the familiar catchphrases are familiar and appreciated by the audience.

As human beings we are all about narrative. Perhaps this is true of all biological entities, from the moment the amoeba orients itself to its surroundings it is asking ‘what’s going on?’ When we dream we dream in stories, albeit often disjointed and rambling ones but there is always an impetus, a moving forward. We either want something in particular to happen or are fascinated by our dream and what is materializing within in. We are hardwired for plot and to some degree for resolution or at least for reason.

I have a background in communication studies and psychology and a particular interest in social psychology. What I have always found most fascinating is the stories people tell themselves about circumstances and themselves in order to justify their actions (including the horrifying obedience to authority whose consequences were most evident in Nazi Germany) bolster their self-esteem, or maintain their preconceptions. One finding of Attribution theory for instance tells us that we believe that what happens to others depends on their internal personality traits (laziness, naivety, jealously) etc but what happens to us depends on the situation. We are programmed to make sense of things. It makes sense for our physical survival and also from the point of view of ourselves as social beings.

A week ago I was an official tweeter at the excellent Media flash ‘Exploding Media conference on digital media. It was an excellent conference exploring the many emerging elements of digital media and how they are being used to inform, generate interest, and engage readers, viewers, consumers and business people. I won’t be able to mention all the speakers here but please check out the link at the end for more valuable information.

Bill Thompson Head of the BBC Digital Archive (he is overseeing the digital archiving of 27 rooms of BBC archived material) spoke about the place of digital media in our culture. He believes that ‘digitising our stories is as revolutionary as humanity’s first foray into recording stories through the written word’ and that ‘we are as a species dedicated to stories — it’s the way we relate culture’. The provision of material online, the sharing of that material and how we collate and curate it will tell us something about ourselves. As Bill Thompson puts it ‘the story is the thread that makes sense of the world’

Hilary Perkin’s from Channel 4 explained how additional content on programme websites, in the form of tweeting characters, and some User Generated Content (USC) from fans provides a greater engagement for the viewers of programmes like Skins. Viewers of the programme can get involved and become part of the story.

Nathan Hull from Penguin Digital gave a fascinating talk on the ways that books across the board from traditional picture books, to young adult and autobiographies are being digitized using interactive navigation, touchscreen for toddlers and bonus content. As writers we have to become aware of how these elements may be incorporated and this is a whole topic in itself.

Evan Ratcliff told us how he attempted to vanish including digitally for 30 days, having issued a reward for his discovery. He explained how he took on another identity, gained ‘friends’ for this new identity through Facebook and left false digital trails. But of greater significance than the lesson on the digital traces we leave was the compelling story of how people gathered together in online groups and collaborated in order to track him and how he needed to step out of the reality of the world we now live in, in order to ‘hide’.

Roo Reynolds spoke on the Cravendale milk, ‘Cats with Thumbs’ ad campaign that used pre-emptive You tube videos (that went viral) , online material and magazine features to generate huge interest in the campaign before it ran. People shared, commented and generally became engaged in the story of Bertram the Cat and made the ad campaign a huge success, because it was a story and people bought into it.

Fintan O’ Toole from the Irish Times and Sarah McInerney from the Sunday Times were at the conference to speak on Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The debate rose interesting questions about gatekeepers of the information that is used in news. Who is making sense of the world for us? Who is interpreting events and how can those people, including journalists be accountable?

Much of the talk at the conference was about curation. How we are to keep track of what’s important to us in this vast and increasing sea of information? Burt Herman of Storify and Edouard Lambelet of paper.li are providing products that aim to help the user to flag to their followers what is important to them but also to try to tell a story with the information, to make it coherent, to present it in a recognizable and meaningful way.

While we aim to make sense of ‘Exploding Media’, of the new ways that we must engage and relate with each other, how our children live and breath new technology it’s still all about what makes us human. There are broadcasters, film makers, painters, musicians, writers, all dipping into the vast human consciousness the general manifestation of which is culture itself and the specific manifestation of which are the archetypal themes around which every creative work is based

As writers there are ever increasing opportunities for providing content. As savvy authors we need to be aware of the ways in which stories in future may be told using a variety of linear, non-linear and sometimes interactive methods although I believe the linear narrative will persist for some time. As storytellers we can take heart that the story is in intrinsic part of our human make up and we are to some degree the curators of human consciousness. While the mechanism’s change, while human consciousness itself is evolving, the story remains everything.

(Storify tells the story of the Mash Media conference here. Some fascinating and eye opening material It’s well worth a look).


Follow Alison online, on Twitter and on Facebook.

Alison Wells runs the Random Acts of Optimism blog and lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow with her husband and four children. Her short fiction been published in many magazines and online and print anthologies and she has been featured on Sunday Miscellany. Shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, Bridport and Fish Prize's she has just completed a themed short story collection Random Acts of Optimism and a literary novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities. To read Alison's full blog, visit Head Above Water. Find out in her Random Acts of Optimism how she manages to juggle writing, children and life.