Storytelling is essentially the conveying of events in words, sounds and/or images, often by improvisation or embellishment. It’s the passing on of information, albeit in a more florid way and it’s an intrinsic part of human culture and human nature to share ideas, learnings and stories, but has the way in which we tell stories changed much over the past 200,000 years?
One of the most ancient art-forms, oral storytelling has a long and honourable history. Stories were passed on by word of mouth, taking many forms including songs, poetry, chants, dance, theatrical displays and so on. We have an obsession with narrative, and this is a characteristic in every culture. Epics such as the Odyssey, Beowulf, and indeed most of the Bible were passed along orally at first.
Writing seems to have been invented in two separate places, Mesopotamia around 3200 BC and Mesoamerica around 600 BC. It allowed for stories to be recorded and collated, probably preventing what we could call ‘Chinese whispers’. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, storytellers would roam the countryside, collecting the stories of the people. We see this in the works of The Brothers Grimm. Our passion for narrative remained true.
With the invention of the printing press around 1440, stories could now not only be recorded, but circulated more easily, without the storyteller being present. This allowed rapid socio-cultural development. By 1500, printing presses in Western Europe had already produced twenty million books.
At this point, storytelling belonged to writers and collectors. The stories remained stories about other people, either fictional or newsworthy, but nevertheless, for the layman, the realm of the narrative belonged to someone else.
The digital revolution began in the late 1950s, and fundamentally change society with the development of the personal computer. The key thing about the proliferation of personal computers is that it created connections, and just like the roaming storytellers, information (stories) could now be shared with more people.
And so began social media. Yes, as far back as the 80s, there was social media. It started with the Bulletin Board System which were online meeting places that allowed users to communicate, download files and games and post messages to other users. CompuServe also allowed members to share files and access news and events, and send e-mail, a technology that was new for the masses.
As the internet has evolved, with AOL, Yahoo, Amazon and Google, so too did methods of storytelling. Now almost anyone, anywhere could create a story to share online. Evolution continued, and connection methods and platforms increased, from Classroom.com to the annoying SixDegrees.com and onto MySpace, Bebo and Facebook.
With the proliferation of channels you get the proliferation of stories. Twitter lets you broadcast every thought, Instagram every meal, and Facebook… everything… and the stories grow.
But what does this mean? This clutter of stories and information? It means that real stories can get lost. That epics are no longer of interest, and visuals need to be intrinsically looped into your story to grab any attention. It seems like we’ve come a full loop. Social media is essentially oral tradition mixed with some cave painting. Is that a bad thing? No, but we just need to remember that at our core, we still need a good narrative.