July 20th, 2012
Offline Storytelling for Online Scanners
Are you a headlines person? You know, the kind who reads the first few chapters of business books on Google and then move onto the next? Are you probably going to scan through this post for bolded phrases and numbered lists and then retweet it before really digging into the details?
Don’t worry. Me too. And although it’s embarrassing to admit that I’d sometimes prefer to know a little about a lot than become an expert, I’m starting to discover the good side of life as a Scanner. More on that later, if you make it that far.
Of course it’s the Internet’s fault. Everyone agrees: the digital world is changing the physical one. The time we spend on our devices is affecting our brains and our behavior. The big debate in 2008 was whether that change is bad or simply different.
A more recent conversation in the same realm has been about digital’s effect on visual elements in the world. Cue coined term and widely discussed SXSW panel: The New Aesthetic, which is about visual cues inspired by the digital world. But when will the new aesthetic simply become THE aesthetic. At some point, those digitally-inspired cues will lose their metaphorical meanings once they become commonplace to the younger generation. In simpler terms: I doubt my future kids will realize the significance of pixelated camouflage because that’s just how camo will be to them.
Similarly, will lack of full attention become the norm rather than a hotly debated concern? I am listening to the History.com video I just linked above with one headphone in while writing this very sentence. There are teachers who assign the CliffsNotes. How many other tabs have you checked on your browser since opening this page? Will multi-tasking even be a concept 30 years from now, or just the way we live?
Given this possibly terrifying and probably inevitable reality, how do we tell stories for Scanners?
We are constantly discussing the best ways to tell stories for the work we do at Big Spaceship. Most of what we do can be classified as digital – which means we’re telling stories in the very environment that has spawned so many Scanners. Our stories live in a “place” that cannot be measured or contained…in formats where just one tap of a finger can lead you either deeper into the story or away from it completely…and in networks designed so that they cannot really exist without the participation of others.
Because of this, I think that Storytellers in the real world can use solutions that were created for the digital world to make an impact.
This occurred to me after a recent hour-long visit to the MET on a rainy Sunday. I caught the last day of “The Stein Collect” exhibit, which featured the works owned by one of Paris’ most important patron families of modern art. I know almost nothing about art history. Which leads us to the first lesson.
1. Assume we know nothing.
We’ve done our fair share of kids brands recently. And we’ve learned that thinking about design and UX in the context of people who don’t have experience bias or assumptions leads to doing things a little differently. Sorting out what is naturally intuitive vs. what is familiar because it was learned is a big part of it. Instinct becomes hugely important. It works the same way with storytelling for Scanners. Assume they know nothing. The one art history class I took in college meant I recognized Woman with a Hat when I saw it, but I didn’t remember that it was a controversial piece at the time.
When we tell stories online, we give people options. Read this 140 characters and be done, or click the link to get more. Scroll through this web site in 60 seconds, or watch every video to get all the details. Lots of digital storytelling has to do with signposting.
Back to the MET: A running timeline to refer to as needed with key art movements and happenings would’ve helped me better understand the significance. Turns out that Woman with a Hat was bought, in part, to shock stuffy art critics and inspire lively debate.
A series of small, specific anecdotes like this left me walking away from the exhibit with a positive vision of a quirky family who chose an alternative lifestyle that led to the world’s knowledge and appreciation of new forms of art. Enter the next lesson.
2. Say the same things lots of times, but in different ways.
I can’t claim this is a purely digital learning. As far as the repetition part goes, any media planner will tell you that a TV commercial needs to be seen more than once to be remembered. But what we have learned in online storytelling is that a series of small interactions can be even more powerful than the high impact solutions that can be so tempting and exciting.
We’re a fan of Little Bets. The idea of iteration is great as a model for how we work but also as a model for how to communicate with people in a way that actually makes a difference. Here’s a pro of being a Scanner: pattern recognition skills. Because we are constantly browsing, we start to notice the things that are bubbling up over and over again. Although people may only see a small piece brand’s content here and there within the feed of their Facebook or Twitter feed rather than every single post, they still pick up on the general sentiment, tone and purpose of the messages over time.
So rather than telling Scanners the same thing over and over again, tell us something that’ll inspire the same feeling in 10 different small ways and at 10 different moments. The MET did a decent job of this. By including quotes and anecdotes to surround the facts and art, in a quick 1 hour stroll of a huge exhibit I understood the Steins-as-progressive-risk-taking-art-heroes angle they were going for. But I didn’t learn until today that Gertrude Stein was a lesbian who wrote one of the first coming out stories. Why not? Next lesson.
3. Use visual shortcuts.
The information overload of the web forces us to lean heavily something very basic in storytelling: visuals. I will spare you non-Scanners the time by not belaboring the ‘picture is worth 1000 words’ lecture and just say that my infographic-trained mind wished there was a huge, visual family tree of the Steins at the very beginning of the exhibit.
And while more showing and less telling would’ve been great, there are times when even that is not enough to get through to a Scanner. Last lesson…
4. Involve us, and we’ll understand. (Chinese proverbs ftw)
A week later I read this New Yorker post, calling out the MET on what may be a questionable representation of Gertrude Stein’s story as it relates to Nazi collaboration. All of this was completely lost on me at the time of the exhibit, and I was kind of bummed that I missed out on such a shocking twist in the story. It seems that the MET couldn’t decide whether to gloss over the controversy (their story was not about that after all), or to be very clear about the facts (because they have a commitment to the truth as a big cultural organization). But as a Scanner, I probably could’ve missed it either way.
The beauty of digital storytelling is that it’s not a one-way street. Creating alternative worlds through interaction is something that happens every day in digital storytelling. Allow people to explore the story however they want and shape it themselves. Don’t worry so much about right or wrong.
The MET didn’t have to have to take a strong political stance. In fact, it could’ve been presented as a question to the viewer: How did Gertrude Stein’s alleged wartime activities affect your interpretation of the art she was collecting at the time? A question directed at me is something that would’ve stopped the scanning long enough to sink in.
There are inevitably many other behaviors offline storytellers can borrow from how we act online. Searching. Sharing. Filtering. Following.
We think it would be very interesting to see museums, clothing stores and even restaurant menus experiment with how they communicate based on those behaviors, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on it.