The history of storytelling is an epic tale of technological revolution. Each major communications invention is a transcendent extension of the storyteller and the invented medium. (The medium is the message.) The domains of history, epistemology, anthropology, linguistics, cosmology, and other sciences pay homage to this idea. Such domains are also a tale about how mythology developed through semiotics. The back story usually hinges on long-lost civilizations and oral or written evidence or tradition. But ancient history is vague where individual storytellers are concerned.
Modern milestones may at first seem more obvious.
The first go-to is movable type. The conversation? Johannes Gutenberg’s press catalyzed a sweeping revolution. The contrast between world of scribe to print is monumental. The book (and its various forms), it is told, is our first modern disruptive invention, a technological extension of story, and an extension of time and space for European societies (and beyond). So monumental is this invention, in fact, we compare the Internet to Gutenberg’s press, ad nauseam.
Just the same, this superhighway of information ushered in dispensation and renaissance, giving way to a flourishing of storytelling in music, sculpture, painting, drama, opera, as well as religion, science, politics, and the humanities.
Through time, each major medium brings its own kind of seismic disruption, followed soon enough, if not immediately, by a new form of storytelling. With the newspaper came the column and the comic. The gramophone, phonograph, microphone, and radio brought us into a new age of oral storytelling. With the photographic image and video came the monument of cinematic production and temples of film.
On and on, the tales we tell.
At a certain point, the timeline of invention becomes nearly impossible to follow because of an exponential proliferation in media by way of electronics, computers, and the Internet.
In some ways, the Internet is a dramatically different beast than its technological predecessors. This isn’t to say there isn’t room for invention—in fact, the opposite. The potential for innovation is staggering. It is in essence “God’s Sandbox” (or Pandora’s?) to the world—a place of eternal ideological, cosmological, and mythological possibility, not to mention practical application. This isn’t “getting ahead of one’s self” via talk of Singularity or Utopia. Rather, it is the atomic extension of man in electronic form, made organic through “the Internet of Things.” As mentioned previously, the Internet introduced a shift so seismic that many compare it to the time of Gutenberg and the European Renaissance of the 14th–17th centuries.
In some ways the Internet is the ultimate storyteller’s tool—because it represents just about everything. For example, it is a convergence of nearly all prior mediums, at least in one form or another.
In the last few years, there have been a number of prominent storytelling projects come online. These projects range in scope from game-like transmedia sites for movies (such as Disney Studios Find Your Way to Oz, to experimental music videos (Arcade Fire’s latest and spellbinding Just a Reflektor), to interactive web documentaries (Clouds Over Cuba and The New York Times’s Snow Fall). In fact, companies and KickStarter projects with new ideas and technologies around storytelling are cropping up in greater and sundry places.
But here’s a problem for a multifaceted diamond. The Internet is still developing as a storyteller tool. It is fledgling, and too much experiment can detract from narrative. Alternately, as proven through blogging and social media, the Internet reaches all across the world—and everyone can produce content. Anyone can produce and promote the next great work.
In 2012 and 2013, I lead the web development effort for Hollow, an interactive participatory documentary. Hollow, directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon*, explores the issues of small-town America through the voices of people living in McDowell County, W.Va. The website employs advanced technology, but the team’s constant goal was to maintain narrative and reach a target audience of limited connectivity without letting the technology run amok or steal the show.
Before climbing onto the project, Hollow’s producer Nathaniel Hansen and I had for a couple years asked ourselves a question, roughly: is it even possible to produce interactive online cinematic content that maintains strong narrative and is as engaging as traditional forms of media? Our assumption was that “interactive storytelling” on the web is like the wild west of non-fiction filmmaking, with very few rules, artists working to stake their claim, and unlimited virtual land up for grabs. Yes, the technology is young, but it’s also a blank canvas, with endless possibilities. Further, because the Internet connects both individuals and technology across time and space, there’s a contextualized “hyper” element that no other medium can employ as cosmically among disparate communities and storytellers.
The Internet is still maturing as a tool for storytellers. There are no simple names to explain the medium. The buzzwords are typically a mouthful, including (but certainly not limited to) “augmented reality,” “transmedia,” “interactive storytelling,” “cloud filmmaking,” and sometimes even longer garble.
Contrast with established technologies. “Audio” and “video” are both extensions of Latin words, “to hear” and “to see.” “Film” comes from the technique of applying a layer to a medium. “Cinema,” an invented word, comes from a Greek word for movement. The word “opera” still means today, roughly, a “work” or “composition” in Italian. The derivation of “play” is more obvious as is, but “drama” derives from the Greek for “perform.” All short words. Nobody says in the colloquial “a product of Gutenberg’s press” when referring to a book.
Perhaps we’ll never go beyond “interactive storytelling,” but I’d like to think the medium will mature into something beyond mere paradigms. In some ways, due to the monstrous nature of the web, we may always be inventing and evolving in how we tell stories online. “Blog,” “podcast,” or “meme” are only the opening scene. It will be interesting to see what names stick as the medium matures.
One thing is certain. Storytelling is forever changed by the Internet. In some ways, this magical medium is an extension of everything ever produced, every story ever told. The Internet does not exist in a vacuum. Its bits, clickers, and protons are all extensions of the human experience. In essence, the Internet is the Next Great Story.
*Hollow team members also include: Jeff Soyk (Art Director/Designer and Architect), Tricia Fulks (Associate Producer and Researcher), Russell Goldenberg (Interactive Developer), Sarah Ginsburg (Editor), Kerrin Sheldon (Editor), and Billy Wirasnik (Sound Designer).