Social Media Is Killing Storytelling

The obsessive documentation of social media outlets is eliminating the need to tell stories at all, Mike Sorenson writes.

As the first anniversary of my dad’s passing approaches, I think of the incredible stories he used to tell my sister and me about his childhood. Not incredible in a “Big Fish,” tall tale kind of way—he was just a gifted storyteller who enjoyed regaling us with the things he had done or things that had happened to him when he was a kid.

One of my favorites was the story of him and his friend blowing up someone’s mailbox with cherry bombs after he had failed to pay my dad, the paperboy, for his newspaper on time. Each time he would begin that one my mom would playfully chastise him for planting unsavory ideas in my head that would surely lead to my eventual imprisonment. Another favorite was the later story of how he met my mom while working at a machine shop one hot summer and how she had rebuffed his repeated advances before giving in and agreeing to one date. I would listen to these stories over and over, never growing tired of them. I’m sure he left out plenty of the more sordid details to avoid seriously damaging my impressionable young mind, and I thank him. But, still, if he were here today I would ask him to tell them one more time, and he would begin before I finished asking.

Now I have a son of my own, and it got me thinking how technology is changing the way we construct our legacies. No longer are we reliant on our faulty memories to recall the stories of our youth—they’re well documented through series of Facebook status updates. We don’t have to describe in great detail the trips we have taken and the wonders of the world that we have seen. Photographs of them are neatly categorized into albums on our Flickr accounts. The bloggers among us have even further documented our lives, each day and event being carefully tattooed—in prose, if we’re lucky—onto the immortal flesh of the Internet.

I’m not sure how I feel about this complete and thorough logging of our lives. In a way it is fun to be able to go back and relive each event with unprecedented accuracy, but I have plenty of stories and photos that I won’t want my son to see for the next 18 years, if ever. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it’s the truth. Yes, I could keep my son from ever seeing my Facebook page or looking through my photo albums to avoid awkward questions.

“Daddy, why are you sleeping on a table in this picture?”

But it’s more than that. It’s a fundamental change in the way we recant our personal histories. We now have access to total recall. We engage with these social networking tools so regularly that our memories seem to never become distant. They are no longer misty watercolor images painted in the back of our minds but HD movies (sometimes literally) playing in our heads. They’re also playing on our computer screens.

♦◊♦

I think I have seen one photo of me as a newborn, maybe two. They’re the old square format with an off-white border and everything looks like it has a greenish-yellow tint to it. Compare that to the entire digital album of photos of my son from immediately following his removal from my wife’s uterus to the time we brought him home, every detail crisp and clean for all of eternity. There is another album of pictures taken by a professional photographer of him at one week old. Another at three months. You get the idea. Social media and technology have thrown gasoline onto the fire of obsessive documentation. We snap photos on our smart phones (sometimes after ill-advised levels of alcohol consumption) and immediately post them online or text them to our friends. Not exactly the days of the Fotomat where you would pick up your envelope of developed pictures a week after dropping of the roll of film.

“Daddy, what is film?” I can hear it now.

It’s not even just our lives that we’re flooded with. I know more about the lives of my Facebook friends than is remotely necessary. I can tell you what one of my “friends” had for dinner last night. I haven’t seen or talked to that person for more than a year.

My page says I have more than 250 friends. That’s a lie.

I know that this technology is optional and I could simply choose not to be a part of the social media revolution, but that isn’t a realistic solution in today’s world. The social media revolution isn’t going anywhere but forward, and you have to either hop on the train or find yourself crushed beneath it.

But I can’t help but feeling like all of this has taken away the magic of (if not the entire need for) storytelling. When I see friends now we have so much less to talk about, regardless of how long it may have been—Twitter and Facebook bombard me with their daily goings-on, and it feels we no longer need to get caught up.

“So … I saw you had tuna casserole last week. How’d that work out for you?”

Sure, I can make up stories or embellish true ones for my son, but it doesn’t feel the same. My dad’s stories were great because he was telling them as he remembered them. They meant something to him and that translated into the telling of them. He was personally transported back in time to a specific moment in his life with each tale. I don’t get to travel back—I don’t need to. Facebook now tells me what my status was exactly one year ago every single day! It makes it a little hard for the edges of those memories to ever really yellow with age.

I hope my son will someday enjoy my stories. I have some good ones. I do feel a bit lucky that at least this technological explosion is quite recent and the stories from my youth remain at the mercy of my recollection. My son will never have that experience. I have stories from as recently as five or six years ago that I love to tell, simply because there are no pictures of them. There were no Facebook updates written or blog entries posted. Just the people that were there and me, exchanging our different takes on the events. That’s what makes storytelling great.

Photo ‘Playingwithbrushes’/Flickr

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About Mike Sorenson

Mike Sorenson is a creative director living in the Midwest with his beautiful wife and son. Writing has always been a part of his job, but has recently become a bigger part of his other life too. You can follow him on twitter @dzyneguru - if you're into that sort of thing.

Comments

  1. Interesting take.

    Frankly I don’t see social media negatively affecting storytelling at all. Good storytellers are good storytellers. Whether that means in print or in person, they will continue to hone their craft. I think the reason you feel like storytelling is being strangled is because social media gives everyone a platform to express themselves. And let’s face it, not everyone is a storyteller.

    That means you’ve got the Facebook dinner updates and “Melanie is at the mall buying dresses” information you don’t care about. But make no mistake, the storytellers are still out there. Even in social media.

    You just have to sort through a bunch of other crap to find them.

    • Mike Sorenson says:

      Thanks for the feedback! I like your point about there being a way to tell stories within social media, that’s very true. It’s just not the same to me as the way my dad used to do it.

      And, to be clear, I’m not saying that there are no good storytellers, I just feel like the demand for that skill is being strangled by the onslaught of social media outlets. I know several excellent storytellers but I get glimpses of their stories before they get a chance to tell them in the old-fashioned, sit around the dinner table format. They can still tell them (and tell them well), but the experience is definitely affected by today’s technology – IMHO.

  2. Thanks for writing this article Mike and helping us think better about our storytelling. I think storytelling is here to stay (I’m a storyteller and business consultant) and I do think there is great confusion in the marketplace today between information/opinion/conversation sharing and storytelling. It boils down to 2 things: 1) confusion about storytelling from people not trained in storytelling; and 2) not knowing how best to evoke stories from others in order to cut through the clutter of information and connect at the heart level.

    I think the more we can advocate for great storytelling and educate people along the way, we’ll experience more of it. I like the points you raise and have brought your article into my curated content, along with a review. You can see it here at http://www.scoop.it/t/just-story-it.

    Many thanks again for providing great thoughts to chew on.
    Karen

    • Mike Sorenson says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback (and link) Karen, it is much appreciated. The title is obviously hyperbole – storytelling will never really die – but I feel that it has been dramatically changed. Yes, there will still be situations where you’ll hear (or tell) a great story, but they are too few and far between thanks to the wonders of modern technology and social media. It’s become a world of constant spoilers.

  3. Hi Mike,

    Nice article. I am in favor of any conversation that causes us to examine these types of things.
    But, do not throw out the baby with the bath water. Yes, thanks to FB and blogs, we now have an archive of daily experiences but our memories are still, “misty watercolor images painted in the back of our minds…”. One does not cancel out the other. And, in group settings, I have overheard the mention of a particular status update become the springboard for an enthusiastic telling of the full story.

    For almost 70 years we have sat idly by, drooling, and mind numb, while the TV Networks pump their (emphasis on ‘their’) stories into the mind of the general public. If TV did not kill storytelling, nothing will.

    As a professional, full time, traveling storyteller, recording artist, small business owner and story coach to corporate and non-profits, I see social media as just another spoke on the wheel of storytelling. The hub (eye to eye fully fleshed storytelling) will never be replaced by a spoke. Two very different purposes.

    Keep up the good work!
    Kim

  4. Mike, I don’t think social media is storytelling at all, at least, not the kind of storytelling I’m used to. Short comments on what’s up in your life don’t qualify as story to me, just keeping up with folks vs really communicating. I like connecting with people the FB way, esp since I rarely have time to visit. The FB timeline is more like a datebook to hold documentation of events and thoughts (important or not) so you can use it to write your memoir (I work to encourage life writing). Now, blogs are another story, often real stories worth saving and having the family read again and again. As a lifewriting enthusiast, I’m all for that.

    • Mike Sorenson says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Linda! I guess the title should be ‘Social media has changed storytelling’ – but it doesn’t have the same impact. I am not questioning the benefits of social media outlets – I realize they have a lot of positives. I just feel like it has changed storytelling at a fundamental level – for me. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion and I appreciate you taking the time to share it here.

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  3. [...] Social Media is Killing Storytelling on the Good Men Project. Why tell stories when you can just read Facebook updates? Will we tell our children stories from our lives, or will we just let them read them on the internet? [...]

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