The minification of the media landscape might be an illusion.
I grew up on an island in a small Swedish town with about 900 people. As life happened, I got my university degree in strategic communication and ended up in Stockholm. I remember being astounded by the impatience of the city dwellers; they sighed loudly as they missed their subway ride even though the next one was in just a few minutes. Where I was from, buses stopped by once an hour. In rush traffic.
In Stockholm, I saw men and women in their cars creeping forward a few inches — only to pick up their books for a few seconds, just right before putting them down again to shave yet another inch off their daily commute. “I love to read for sure,” I thought, “but I require at least half an hour to enjoy a good book.”
A Pavlovian decade later I find myself being conditioned in much the same city-dwelling way. I’ve lived in London, New York, and Stockholm during the transformative ‘digital first’ years and there’s been no escaping the tides. A five second break? That’s more than enough for me to check my feeds and still be good to go with a second or two to spare.
The general narrative of our fast-paced media landscape has since lingered. Twenty-four seven news cycles and bite-sized advertising masquerading as entertainment are coming at us like a furious swarm of moths clouding the sky. Concerned alarmists are using stressed-out journalists1 to forebode the decline of civilisation due to shorter attention spans and various notification addictions. Given my own small-town framework of reference, I’ve been buying into the idea of the accelerating minification of media:
Everything must be short. Online videos only have a couple of seconds at most to grab that valuable attention. Texts must be short and snappy. Tweets are short by design. News must be tweaked to fit perfectly into a push notification. False clarity trumps necessary complexity in this wired world of ours. We’re all in a collective hurry and we can’t be bothered with too much context. Click, click.
However, I’m starting to question the validity of this basic premise.
A guilty pleasure of mine has been to sneak out late to a local cinema. The quality of the movie doesn’t matter as long I have the entire first row of seats to myself. But the charm of watching any movie has been rapidly declining; the story arc in a typical two hour blockbuster is simply too short; there’s not enough time to really get to know and understand the characters of the movie and the suspension of disbelief suffers from being forcefully paced.
This is, in my case, thanks to Netflix.
I don’t watch Netflix for their assortment of movies, I rather binge on their television shows (albeit that “television” sounds a bit antiquated). An episode is arguably much shorter than a full-length movie, but the actual storytelling spans across seasons instead of minutes. There’s no denying the literary quality of J.R.R. Toklien’s epic saga The Lord of the Rings, but when it comes to silver screen adaptations, it’s tough even for LOTR-director Peter Jackson to compete with the richness of lore in the Game of Thrones series as it spans across season after season.
I’ve spent many hours following in the footsteps of Walking Dead’s main protagonist, Rick Grimes. As a viewer, I’ve been invested in the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Rick’s life for a long time, but I have still no idea of whether he’s going to make it or not.
And, it seems like Hollywood’s really catching on. I can appreciate how Marvel’s connecting typical blockbuster-length movies together to create longer arcs for their characters and adding more depth to their cinematic Marvel universe. It’s commercially clever to develop one brand audience over time instead of attracting new audiences from scratch with each and every new release.
Another guilty pleasure (or obsession?) of mine is to watch Let’s Play walkthroughs on Youtube. In-game storytelling has seen such a tremendous development over the last couple of years. It’s so immersive and completely captivating to actually watch someone else play their way through a good narrative. I’ve been at the edge of my seat through games like The Last of Us, Detroit Become Human, and Uncharted. I’ve discovered whole new worlds through games like God of War, Far Cry, and Assassin’s Creed.
Larger story-driven games might take a skilled player up to 40 hours of active gameplay to get through, especially if he or she’s into exploring and side missions. The anticipated title Red Dead Redemption 2 comes with an impressive 60+ hour story campaign:
It makes sense for commercial interests to prolong people’s enjoyment, for sure. But that might not be the only reason. Long-arc storytelling seems hardwired into the very fabric of social media:
What would be the surest determinant of whether or not a vlogger will get 300,000 views on Youtube? Well, the best way to make sure is to see if that vlogger’s last upload (and the one before that) got 300,000 views. It’s never been about independent uploads or posts in social media — it’s all about an influencer and the trust being accumulated within a specific audience over time. What maybe you and I would consider to be a “huge viral hit” is a regular Tuesday for storytellers like Felix “Pewdiepie” Kjellgren.
And you don’t have to be a social media natural, either. No-one could have escaped the massive onslaught of messages bombarding us concerning Donald Trump’s US presidency. (I recently wrote about peak populism in How to Fight Populism.) But to most of us, it’s not all about one of his recent tweets or one of his latest public speech gone wrong. Donald Trump is just one single ongoing story. He might be one of the most powerful individuals in the world right now, but not even a publicity machine like Trump gets to occupy more than one slot in people’s minds.
Longer forms have other advantages, too. If you’re into digital marketing in any shape or form, you’ve probably thought about how to rank on first pages of Google for your keywords. A study from SerpIQ suggests that 2,450 words is the “sweet spot” for ranking 1-10 on Google:
A study by Moz indicates that long-form blog posts tend to do better not only in search rankings, but in social media as well:
And for those of you who don’t write articles that often: 2,000 words is a decent length! (I’m at 900 words at this point in this article.) I’m not suggesting that longer is always better in every way, however, I do think that we might have underestimated our basic human need for depth and context. Especially in this fast-paced digital universe of ours.
The explosion of available information will most likely have some negative consequences on everything from attention spans to cognitive overloading, but the industrial revolution also brought with it its fair share of less-than-fortunate outcomes. Still, few of us would like to revert to a pre-industrial society without any modern day advancements in human rights, medical science, and democracy.
Thus, we shouldn’t fear ‘digital first’ — despite any unwanted side-effects.
The number of media channels have exploded, yes, but our mental bandwidth has basically remained the same for at least 200,000 years or more2. If Dunbar’s number dictates the optimal number of personal relationships in a group, why can’t we assume that there’s also a cognitive limit for the number of narratives we’re able to stay invested in?
There’s wide scientific support for the idea that we filter all incoming inputs3. Either we discard these inputs, or we assign them to a few larger storylines we’re already invested in.
As a long-time fan of Marshall McLuhan’s idea “the medium is the message”, I can’t help but to think that we might have gotten the basic idea wrong: Maybe a status update on Facebook isn’t a “story”? Maybe your entire Facebook-feed, to you, is just one big story altogether? A brand might be trying to convey many different marketing messages via many different campaigns, but when it comes down to it, the brand’s still being perceived as one singular long-form arc by the public. It’s contrarian, but not irrational.
Your brand is the story. The medium is the story. You are the story, whether you miss your subway train or not.
We just need to tell longer stories.
- Now, there’s an irony if I ever saw one.
- If anything, our brains are shrinking. Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball.
- See for instance cognitive dissonance.