Has Passive Storytelling Reached the End of the Road?

Passive storytelling has been around since the dawn of time. It will likely continue to exist until the end of time too, as humans have exhibited the trait across generations and cultures without fail. Storytelling exists today in many forms, and it is in that sense that modern passive storytelling (where the audience merely listens or watches) may be reaching the end of its long dominance of the entertainment business.

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An excellent article in the Washington Post recently explores the life of a fairly average (if affluent) thirteen year old, and it makes for fascinating reading. Far from it for me to be an old fart at 31, I am nonetheless over the hill as far as any kid or teenager is concerned. Yet the article drove an even bigger point home: storytelling means something completely different to me than to the kid in the piece.

For her, the omnipresence of the mobile phone or tablet meant that the way she connects with her peers, and indeed, consumes content, is radically different than any generation that has come before. This isn’t in terms of the genre or style either. Those have remained much the same, or have evolved at no greater a rate than they have in other periods of radical change. No, what’s fundamentally different are reasons she and kids of her age are consuming content and how they are doing so.

The first, most prominent change is that YouTube and the internet in general is the primary source by far. The data to be gleaned from this is in terms of composition, and genre. Composition, because the videos are short, to the point, and can be viewed quickly during stolen moments during the day such as a car ride home, or while waiting for someone or something. The second is genre, and the kid in the article viewed a lot of videos on YouTube, but a significant number were not mere entertainment pieces, but rather ‘star’ videos that pander to the camera as much as any reality TV contestant.

Noticeably absent from the article? Netflix. The media darling and radically successful company is not mentioned once. Neither is television (or TV.) An oversight on the part of the author? Perhaps, but when was the last time you read an article on the life and times of being a teenager and not seen television being mentioned? Clearly it was not worth discussing as much as YouTube.

While certainly not indicative of a forthcoming tsunami, there is something to be said for how attitudes and practices have changed in recent times. On the one hand are the production and distribution platforms and the rise of YouTube and Netflix as both creators of content, and distributors as well. Those shifts have been seismic, and have caught plenty of established companies off-guard. On the other hand, has been the shifts in viewing habits of a specific demographic: kids.

Kids are at the bleeding edge of consumption because they are growing up in a world where the latest production and distribution caused by the recent disruption are in full force. For them, all content is on-demand, and they are unable to comprehend that they may have to wait for something to become available. In other words, if they can’t get it now, it isn’t worth pursuing.

Without getting into that topic, it’s worth noting that the YouTube’s constant stream of fresh content combined with its always-available nature makes for strong appeal among young consumers. The various personalities and shows that the platform is stocked with, merely give it the cultural gravitas to woo the audience, and that it does.

Lastly, it isn’t all about the content. As the Post article discusses, instant gratification isn’t the only thing that kids desire, but instant validation from their peers. Yes, there is a reason that Instagram, Snapchat, et al are popular. They provide frictionless tools for users to broadcast details of their lives, and receive feedback almost immediately. Negative feedback is actively suppressed, and anything that could be construed as having a negative influence is either kept private or avoided altogether. Relating that to content, it isn’t necessarily what you are watching, but whether it will inspire the equivalent of a virtual thumbs up from your friends followers.

At the moment, content producers are only barely becoming comfortable with the new reality that they must connect with their fanbase in order to survive. Marketing departments and agencies have long seeked to create (superficial or otherwise) connections with fans in order to sell things, but now the relationships cannot be taken for granted, they have to be built. The problem is that storytelling does not enjoy the same degree of connection that many YouTubers proclaim to have with their viewers.

And that’s rather worrying. Accepting the presumption that current events are part of a larger trend and not merely a fad, it’s easy to predict that as users spend greater amounts of time consuming content in an necessarily interactive way, they will be spending less in more traditional ways. Storytelling is one of the most traditional ways, and although it can hold its own compared to other forms of entertainment, or even alternative activities, it is nonetheless at a disadvantage.

Remember when we would all be engaged in social TV? Watching together and interacting via Twittter on the second screen was a fine thought, but ultimately proved to be a fad. Live events haven’t exactly been a stellar substitute either. Sure they get the ratings, but for kids, anything live is about the actual physical experience, and doing so with friends.

Content producers have summarily failed to grapple with what these audience shifts mean for the long term. You can ignore the fact about how many scripted shows there are being made at the moment. That is yet another statistic that is indicative of a fad and that too will come to pass sooner rather than later.

Films are not immune either. Robust box office numbers are contrasted with declining admissions; people simply aren’t going to the cinema for a passive experience, and while more immersive efforts are thrown about now and again, 3-D isn’t drawing anyone in any more, and has done little to stop the overall slide.

So if kids today are looking for a different type of content, for different reasons, and strictly passive, then what are producers to do? The answer may lie in the distinct problem that the author has with all to much content at the moment: he’s easily bored.

Yes, that’s right. Gripping Netflix drama Narcos? Boring! House of Cards? Boring! Breaking Bad? Boring!

Chances are, if it’s a TV show (or even a film) and it hasn’t grabbed me immediately, I get bored and start checking my phone for greater stimulation while the episode plays in the background. I don’t miss anything important, but I can happily amuse myself during the slower parts or dialogue scenes.

Passive storytelling in and of itself is not boring, but given the immense amount of active stimulation that kids receive these days, they are losing the internal stimulation on which storytelling depends upon. Few people continue to watch a show they hate, but it’s less because they have more important things to do, and more because their internal motivation to continue loses out to the rational reason that they could be doing something more productive, or at least watching something more interesting.

To tie everything together, passive storytelling will not be enough on its own. Going forward, it will also need to satisfy the audiences appetite for a connected relationship, and provide tools of some kind that allows them to receive the validation they feel they require from their peers.

We already witness this kind of behaviour in the committed fans of various bands, comic books, and so on. Now imagine that while not everyone is a fan, they are broadcasting as if they are. Storytelling will become less passive because it has to in order to survive.

This, in a way, will cause it to lose its innocence. No longer will it simply be about telling a story to enlighten, or entertain, or even to educate. There will instead be an agenda, and it will be difficult if not impossible to enjoy the content on its own merits.

In that sense, passive storytelling as we know it is on its way out as a dominant force in the entertainment business.

4 Comments on “Has Passive Storytelling Reached the End of the Road?

  1. Remember the proverbial discussion about a recent movie around the watercooler? How about running commentary like MST3K or Elvira? All that’s changed is the discussion aspect has overtaken the content in level of importance. That’s why review and reaction videos are so popular on Youtube. The mindshare of the meta-discussion has become the main attraction. But at its core, you still have to have watched the thing being discussed.

    Personally, I find Reaction videos sad, because basically what they broadcast is how our social life needs to be mediated through a screen rather than anyone having any real face-time with another human being. But that’s the world we’re living in and kids don’t seem to understand how sad it really is.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFLGlULNGNc

    • Good points GS. They could also be contrasted with fan culture, wherein there are similar meta-discussions surrounding the content, while at the same time fans maintain extremely potent connections and adherences to the content itself.

      Insofar as fandoms represent almost the polar opposite of casual viewers, the problem of watching out of a desire for gratification from others remains however.

  2. I agree that passive storytelling on its own may not be enough, but I think that one virtue of passive storytelling should be pointed out. As these kids get older, spending the energy on more interactive entertainment can be tiresome. Passive entertainment where the visual and aural experience is handed to you requires a minimal amount of processing after a day of classes or work. I personally don’t watch Netflix or TV, but YouTube provides the entertainment I need after school/work, when I can’t be bothered to play games like I used to or interact with other human beings. Might just be me though.

    • I certainly agree, however it would be curious to know whether kids today consider it tiresome. My hunch is that without considerable experience of the alternative (and certainly, this depends on the attitudes and actions of the parents), they may not realise the energy-sapping nature of screen time.

      It’s been reported that adults who average more than 8 hours of screen time a day experience what is known as ‘tired all the time’ syndrome. Would kids whose energy levels are naturally higher, be aware that they are suffering from this, or would they merely accept it as a natural part of life? That’s a tricky question, but it is certainly one I would be curious to learn the answer to.

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