I have been thinking about an essay I read that I had originally heard about on NPR called “The Internet is Killing Storytelling” by Ben Macintyre. The essay was referenced by Tina Brown, who runs a news aggregate site called The Daily Beast. The essay argues that with the advent of the internet, we are losing the ability to attend to and create narratives. Macintyre argues that the internet is creating a reader who is only able to attend to a rapid and truncated style of communication – the ultra- soundbites of instant messages, Twitter, etc. Macintyre has a good turn of phrase, stating, “The internet has evolved a new species of ma gpie reader, gathering bright little buttons of knowledge, before hopping on to the next shiny thing.” I liked this metaphor because the process by which I found this essay was evocative of a person finding and passing along shiny bits: written by Ben, found by Tina, discussed by Steve Inskeep, and now I am handing it off to anyone who reads this essay.
“But stories demand time and concentration; the narrative does not simply transmit information, but invites the reader or listener to witness the unfolding of events,” says Ben. I think Ben is a little reactionary. I am guessing folks have been bemoaning the audience’s ability to attend to narrative every time a new form of storytelling emerges. I can imagine bards concernedly talking about the lack of their audience’s ability to attend to their song-stories with the advent of print, and the theatrical folk worrying about the infringement of movies, and the movie folks worrying about TV sit-coms, and so on.
Yes, we seem to be embracing shorter and shorter story forms; but those bits, the shiny bits that Ben discusses, also form a larger mosaic, a larger narrative. And that narrative is one that audience members cobble together independently.
For example, on YouTube, Fred –a kid that looks fourteen but talks in a voice that sounds augmented by a little helium– puts out videos regularly. These silly, short segments are mildly appealing (well, to my kids anyway) and have grown more appealing with each installment, as the audience sees each new release within the context of the previous versions. Then recently, Fred showed up on the television show iCarly. The premise of iCarly includes the main characters’ production of an internet show, also called “iCarly.” This appearance by Fred — whose “real” virtual presence on the real YouTube now collides with the fake virtual internet show “iCarly” on the (real) television show iCarly — adds another dimension to the overall show of Fred. (Okay, take a deep breath. To complicate matters further, now the fake virtual iCarly webisodes show up on YouTube, effectively making them real fake virtual events.)
The point of this example is to illuminate the multiple layers of narrative that the internet enables.
And I also want to give some credit back the audience. My daughter, age 7, enjoyed this segment of iCarly while simultaneously understanding that neither iCarly nor Fred are real people, but rather characters from two different media meeting to tell a story.
So the audience becomes a more active audience, or the medium becomes more “writerly” as some literary theorists might put it (“viewerly”?). Viewers are able to keep multiple story lines moving forward as they pluck and glue together bits from the glittering array of information available. I am not suggesting everyone does this, nor do I think everyone reads long novels, listens to long-format radio programming,, or even, in the days of old, had the patience to sit round a fire listening to the bards (someone had to attend to the children, at the very least). However, instead of only diminishing readers’ ability to listen and attend, perhaps the internet is enabling a much more interactive reader to evolve, a much more participative member in the making and sharing of narrative.