Storytelling in the past looked and worked very differently to the way that it does today. But what can be learnt from history as we look to the future of storytelling?
When we look back to our literal caveman days of storytelling, we can describe them as intrinsically passive experiences. There was the teller, and there was the listener. The listener listened, and that was all. This relationship held true even in more modern times despite the births of thrilling technologies. Like fires, when audiences eventually gathered around radios and congregated within theatres, here too, there was a teller (the broadcaster or the screen) and the listener. The listener did just one thing: listen. However, when we look back now, we can witness a change in dynamics that have taken place over the last few decades. Slowly but surely, the listener has been reaching towards a state where they are becoming more and more like a teller. The audience is gaining unprecedented control, which we must consider.
The first swell of new power took place on our television screens. During the proliferation of reality television in the 1980s, audiences observed the opportunity to insert themselves within the entertainment that the masses consumed. With shows like COPS and Donahue, and later The Real World in the early 1990s, we discovered that each of us could embrace a rare and fleeting 15-minutes of fame. It was an awakening experience and a tip toe into the voyeurism that we all partake in today. No longer were audiences watching fictionalised characters, but rather each other. The audience became the star of the story and no longer just the listener.
Some years later, supplementing Reality TV, a new behaviour cemented itself within entertainment norms. It was the power of the home vote. With shows like America’s Got Talent and The Voice, not only were audience members becoming the stars of the show, but now they were becoming the directors of the story. From early listeners, audiences matured into the stars and directors. A notable early example of such directorial power was when hoards of voters in the early 2000s advanced the questionable Sanjaya Malakar of American Idol to the top, tormenting the country while simultaneously entertaining themselves. Power had evidently been handed over to the audience.
The second major swell which gave control to audiences took place online. With the expansion of social networks and Web 2.0 platforms, entertainment began to flourish outside the confines of their scheduled time slots and into public, ever-lasting online discussion. Now, a show or film never really ends thanks to audiences. With shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Mad Men in the 2000s and 2010s, audiences controlled and perpetuated their stories with online theories, fan-fiction, memes, recaps, praise and criticism. This manner of inclusion can even be spotted in sporting entertainment. One example was NBA’s #NBARapidReplay, where the NBA tweeted big plays or controversial calls going into commercial break so audiences could discuss them in real-time. From listener to star to director, with new platforms audiences spawned themselves the role as contributors.
While mild, extraneous online contribution has occurred for as long as such platforms existed, the intent of such contributions have been increasing in significance. Stories are becoming progressively immersive both physically and literally. Virtual Reality is a quintessential example, paving the way for audiences to develop their own enveloping stories first-hand. For shows like Making a Murderer and Serial, we’ve witnessed the audience heighten stories to realms outside their original intentions and back into real worlds. The listener who became the star, director and contributor, has begun to engage with stories in drastic means.
So where to now? As we’ve seen, audiences are taking on more profound roles within our relationship to entertainment and stories. How exhaustive will these roles become, who knows? Looking down the pipeline though, we can gain some insights. Projects like BBC’s “Visual Perceptive Media” are customising a viewer’s experience based upon one’s demographics, mood and interests. Imagine cuts and music tailored just for you.
HBO’s Mosaic Project is working on an interactive film where viewers can choose their own adventure from their living room. Just another example of extreme participation is the 2016 film Late Shift, which allowed audiences to vote on character decisions from a complimentary app within theatres. By looking at our past and how far we’ve come, we’re not far from even more impactful entertainment decisions. The concept of crowdsourcing your NFL team’s next play may not be too far away.*
This newfound swell and trend of participation is evident in other forms of stories such as our news. With Snapchat or Twitter curating user-generated content to inform the masses, the Boston Bombing’s suspect hunt on Reddit, and the 2016 US Election and the role of shared material, audiences are now officially no longer just listening, but participating wholeheartedly.
The original teller-listener relationship has frayed as the roles blurred over time. As the saying goes, “With great power, comes great responsibility”, and we now must ask ourselves, are we ready for such control?
*(Note: Since writing this piece, it has been reported that an indoor Utah football team, The Screaming Eagles, is actually already crowdsourcing their team decisions from an app which has determined plays, uniforms and even concession items.)