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Storytelling: From Push to Pull…

Storytelling as a tool for communication has been around since the human race first created a common understanding of sounds, gestures and images. Stories retain their basic elements today; a beginning, a middle and an end. Now there are numerous industries and people who capitalize on story as a way to make money, share ideas, inspire and teach – including ourselves here at AE.

When someone refers to ‘the’ story or ‘a’ story they are often referring to a book, a film, a television show they saw the other day or an anecdote they heard in the bar last night. Yet when we consider how we communicate with each other – everything becomes a story of some form. The concept of the story underpins modern civilisation as a means for comprehension. Business is based on the story of ideas, science is the story of how things work, media is the story of story itself, religion is the story of morality, history is the story of what has come before this story and law is the story of justice.

We use the power of story and telling the story everyday. As individuals we have learnt from a very early age that we can control them: both in how we receive them and how we tell them. But how have they changed from pull to push? This is the concept not just of interacting with story but the deeper context, meaning and relevance we can gain when we pull the story in the direction that resonates most with us.

Social media has made a shift in that we can now act as the ‘pushers’, a once hallowed and guarded domain, and as pushers we can allow for dialogue if we wish but with 1000s of tit bits of content being thrown at us on a daily basis we are likely to ignore what is being presented to us.

We are saturated as ‘story consumers’ with long form, short form and even shorter form versions of tales, that expand and contract in depth through the way we navigate digital and online worlds. Yet despite our infinite capability to delve deeper and discover new details to the stories that engross us we are still operating within a media environment where content is pushed and broadcast at us.

There are now only a handful of scenarios where we truly expect quality from the content pushed to us, and for me one such place is the cinema. In a darkened and hushed surrounding we are presented with immersive (by scale) feature length content which has been a labour of love for hundreds of people with the sole purpose of entertaining. I am not damning brilliant TV or the 30 second video on YouTube that makes you laugh but in each of these cases my immersion is filtered by a conversation with a friend, a new message on my phone or the split screen attention afforded by casual game play on my tablet. The cinema is where we are given the chance to focus, turn off normal distractions and become as close to the narrative as possible. 3D is just another way to bring you in closer (glossing over the economic reasons for it’s current rate of adoption). The lingering problem I have with this rare vestige of distraction free media consumption is control. The story is pushed and when I consider story in a wider historical context this is a recent development in the scale of human communication and interaction. While focussed in my viewing of the story I have lost the option to steer or contribute in real time. If I am talking to you, and regaling the seemingly humorous events of the night before, you have the opportunity to query and, most importantly, drive the story in a direction that interests you – if you are indeed interested in the first place.

It would be easy to say that a ‘digital campfire model’ is the solution to regaining the control over our push-based media society and it currently is being heralded as such inside ideas like transmedia or cross-platform. Yet the majority of the tools used to create these types of experiences are ones that you use in isolation. Blogs are personal thoughts made public not live community, and Facebook provides insight into how your peers feel but only on the very surface level. These experiences (excluding the ARG, which sadly remains the domain the niche enthusiast) do not create human interactions and as we are continually developing our relationship with technology we are decreasing our level of interaction with other people. There is a depth of understanding and shared experience that can only happen when we physically come together, as we do in a cinema auditorium. We are left in a consumer based society which is beginning to consume stories like products and the value that can be released through shared and physical interaction is being lost in an information overload. I am more guilty than most as an advocate for ever expanding digital worlds and interaction but maybe there is a balance. A time and a place for isolation and the same for community.

I feel that the next steps for story telling will be to normalise the adoption of control on every push platform, we should be looking for ways to facilitate real campfire experiences that merge digital connection with physical location. We need to create a common interface and approach that becomes as ubiquitous and as transcendent as conversation. Democracy still rules and so in shared experiences things may not go exactly as we want but that is part of the enjoyment in discovering new things, things that you would not have chosen for yourself when left to your devices.

I can imagine a cinema filled with people sitting down to watch a film where through their physical interaction with what is going in front of them and around them they can shape the narrative and story they experience. Working as a community the audience has the control to determine every dimension of the story within an overarching narrative or story world. Life is not linear and our interests are not always in the main character but their back-story or the town in which the story is taking place. We are explorers and stories help us understand what we discover. I am asking the industry to take a leap and let us, the audience, pull the author to new boundaries. A world is much harder to craft than just one path within it.

We are waiting for the day where we can stand up in a cinema to make all the characters change the direction they are taking, where we can interact with the advert we walk past and contribute our understanding and where we can put our hands up and be counted for what we want. We are making a big ask. We are asking for the democratization of story on a massive scale but in reality we are only asking for a return to the control we had in the past. What is more we can do it now.

[shameless plug] That’s what I call Audience Entertainment