Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Storytelling, or Something

Warning: Disjointed rant about journalism and new technology ahead. Proceed with caution.

It's been a couple of months since I joined Twitter, and I will admit--I still don't really understand it. I mean, I get it--sometimes it can be fun to devise a 140-character quip, and on occasion it transmits interesting information in my direction, as it did this afternoon, when Michael Kruse passed along this excellent Washington Post piece--irony alert!--on the long-term narrative story and its struggle for survival in the (gag) Age of Twitter. And in the story, Joel Achenbach quotes Dave Barry, whose work in the 1980's is the reason many of us now find ourselves stranded in this drowning business in the first place, and Barry, as he often did back then between jokes about exploding cows, manages to sum up my feelings in a single sentence. "You can't really read Twitters," Barry says, and it's true; my Twitter feed is just a random collection of musings and links, but it doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't tell a story. It doesn't even reunite me with a mosaic of my past relationships, like Facebook. It just spits information and one-liners in my general direction. It's like reading a 600-page book composed entirely of non-sequiturs. It just gives me another reason to not work and to stare at my IPhone while watching television (the one place where narrative storytelling seems to be getting sharper).

There's a story in this month's Wired magazine about Twitter, and in it, one of the company's founders essentially admits that he has no idea what Twitter is supposed to be. Let me repeat that: He's the founder of the trendiest company on the Internet, and he has no idea what his company is supposed to be. That's where we are; no one has any idea of anything, and yet we are continually convinced that this is our future. But how the hell do we know what our future is if the people running our lives don't even know what it is they're giving us? Aren't we all just guessing at this point? And isn't Achenbach correct--wouldn't people rather engage with a story rather than a collection of random elements?

Recently, Joe Posnanski linked to an enhanced, interactive version of his Sports Illustrated story on Joe Paterno; it was kind of cool, all that secondary information presented in a snappy format, but I'll be honest--I couldn't even figure out how to access the original piece. It wasn't a reading experience. It was something else altogether, a (sometimes distracting) mosaic of elements that may have a place in our future, but couldn't even come close to replicating Posnanski's original piece. It was a lot of sound and fury, but I'm not sure what it signified. Maybe nothing at all.

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