Storytelling is a behavior that is unique to our species, and while every generation has added to our collective narrative, we now have more ways of sharing our ideas and experiences than ever before.
Storytelling is one of the things that defines us as human: as well as being the difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom, stories help us understand ourselves, the world we live in, and our history. People have a need to tell their stories, no matter where they fall on the spectrum between fiction and non-fiction.
However, the way we tell those stories depends on the technology and materials we have available, and in turn influences the kinds of stories we end up telling: think about the differences between stories told through cave drawings versus the kinds told on fan fiction sites in chat rooms across the net. There are scores of research on the anthropological significance of stories to human development, whether passed down through oral tradition, illuminated manuscripts, mass-printed books, or digital media, and those studies all acknowledge one thing: storytelling is essential to our way of life.
Stories Throughout History
It’s hard to tell exactly when we started telling stories, as the practice predates any kind of writing system. Storytelling wasn’t just entertainment, but a way of sharing history and spiritual knowledge. Before writing was developed, we were already using illustration as a memory aid for oral historians to bring stories to life. Rock paintings that were used for this purpose survive today, and they give us an idea of the what was sacred to the people of that time.
As writing systems were developed around the world, stories would begin to be captured for posterity. Early writings gave us insight into how people thought and lived with vastly more detail and precision compared to their pictorial predecessors. Still, widespread distribution and consumption of written stories had to wait until the rise of mass media, which induced general literacy. Once adopted, these technologies meant that stories could travel the world, allowing different communities and cultures to learn about each other without meeting. Many studies posit that reading fiction increases empathy and one study showed that those who read Harry Potter displayed “improved attitudes towards stigmatized groups.”
The spread of the internet has only increased our exposure to new and different cultures and radically disrupted how we tell stories. Social media has made it possible for us to tell our stories in more ways than ever before and to find a worldwide audience. Stories that would only have been shared between friends and family through word of mouth are now being made more widely available through social networks; this has seen an interesting transformation of privacy and identity, as one’s “public” self is made for an audience, which provides feedback, potentially cruelly unfiltered. The ever-present feedback system has inevitably changed the way we interact with and relate to each other, not to mention how we process the information on social media channels.
Our Stories, Ourselves
Before the internet, public figures relied on fair coverage from news providers — if they could get it in the first place. Now, everybody, no matter how well-known or obscure, can broadcast their thoughts and feelings first hand.We’ve cut out the middleman, so to speak, and there’s no longer a “gatekeeper” to whom thoughts and feelings must be defended. The flip side of this, however, is a lack of verifiability: while a newspaper won’t print allegations unless they’re reasonably sure they’re true, an individual has much less incentive to check his or her facts. Of course, a publication’s dedication to the truth does not render them impartial: all news providers are biased to some extent, some more so than others.
While discovering how true events and issues are is as tricky as ever, self-publishing has never been easier. This has led to an explosion of people wanting to share their stories, whether via video, long form essays, or Snapchat stories. There’s a bewildering array of content to sift through, but there’s also more variety than ever before. Niche markets have far more diversity, and social sharing serves as a quality filter. Amazing content can now achieve grassroots popularity more easily than ever before.
This democratization effect means that among the voices clamoring for our attention, the loudest are our peers’. It’s no longer possible for any one entity to completely dominate the discussion. One example of this is online product reviews: Amazon’s success is due, at least partly, to the fact that when considering a product, customers can get feedback from real people who have bought and used the product for themselves, rather than reading mass media reviews that are vetted by the company itself.
Furthermore, democratization allows people to challenge monolithic ideas promulgated by mass media. Responding to the largely white, able-bodied, and thin standard of beauty, the Tumblr Stop Hating Your Body is a community for self-love, acceptance and empowerment. The power of more universal representation is also evident in some of these body-positive social media trends, and the magnitude of their success has transformed the beauty and fashion industry.
I Told It My Way
More of us are telling our stories in more ways. On top of the story-sharing capabilities of the internet, other technological advances have made many other types of media, which previously required costly equipment and extensive training, accessible to ordinary people. Today’s amateur photographers and filmmakers can practice their craft and find their niche relatively easily– any smartphone can capture high-quality video, and editing software is simply a download away. Who knows how many great stories were never told because somebody lived in a place and time where getting started simply wasn’t feasible?
Certainly the changes to our society and storytelling behaviors haven’t pleased everyone: with increased openness comes a total availability of our personal information and opinions— including to those who may not have our best interests in mind. Also, despite the efforts of Stop Hating Your Body and others, young people today feel under even more pressure to present a perfect appearance to the world. Living our lives can sometimes take a back seat to curating a story where we appear in the best possible light to our audience.
Today’s storytellers have many more options at their disposal than cave painters who lived thousands of years ago, or even writers and artists twenty or thirty years ago. However, the urge to tell our stories has always been part of what it means to be human. Our society may seem radically different from how it was before the internet and associated technologies, but the real change is how we tell our stories, not our motivation to do so. These new technologies simply continue to form narrative twists in the overarching story that we’re all a part of, like a plot twist in each new chapter. In the future, it’s certain that we’ll still be telling stories, but how we’ll tell them is impossible to predict.