The power of slow storytelling is back.
Must everything be shorter and faster on the internet?
It seems as if slow storytelling is making a comeback. Longer television shows, longer games, longer YouTube videos, longer tweets, longer blog articles, longer everything.
The Paradigm of Fast Storytelling
The narrative speed has accelerated. News cycles are flashing by. Updates and tweets are blazing by. Social media is turning into show business.
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.
Everything must be short.
- Online videos must be thumb-stoppers.
- Texts must be short and snappy.
- Tweets are short by design.
- News must fit into a push notification.
- Programmatic ads must scream.
We’re all in a collective hurry, and we just can’t be bothered with too much context. “It’s just the way it is now,” I think to myself.
Overdue for a Counter-Reaction
I grew up on the island of Alnö with about 900 fellow dwellers. I moved away, got my degrees in strategic communication and linguistics, and ended up in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.
In Stockholm, I remember being astounded by the impatience of the city slickers; they sighed loudly as they missed their subway ride—even though the next one was in just a few minutes.
On Alnö, buses came by once every hour on weekdays.
A city-life decade later, having lived in Stockholm, London, and New York, I find myself being immersed in this Pavlovian conditioning.
A five-second break today? No problem. That’s more than enough to check my social feeds, calendar, and inbox, read a few headlines and check directions on Google Maps.
In short: I’ve picked up the pace.
Obviously, we’re long overdue for a counter-reaction.
Preserving Mental Bandwidth
Recently, I’ve been trying to form an opinion on where I stand. A part of me loves the accessibility and the speed of new information. Another aspect of me still feels attracted to slow storytelling.
As a long-time fan of Marshall McLuhan’s idea “the medium is the message” I can’t help but think that we might have gotten a few basic ideas wrong.
Suppose 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?
Most of you know Dunbar’s Number. It’s based on the idea that every one of us has limited social bandwidth.
“Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. […] No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.”
Learn more about Dunbar’s number.
There’s wide scientific support for the idea that we filter all incoming inputs. Either we discard these inputs or assign them to a few larger storylines that we’re already invested in. 1See Leon Festinger’s theory on cognitive dissonance..
The explosion of available information might negatively affect everything from attention spans to cognitive overloading. Still, the industrial revolution also brought with it its fair share of less-than-fortunate outcomes.
Remember, our mental bandwidth has remained the same for at least 200,000 years or more. 2If 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 centimetres to 1,350 ccs, losing a chunk the size of a … Continue reading
Television Series and Superhero Universes
Lately, the charm of watching a full-length movie has been rapidly declining; the story arc in a typical two-hour blockbuster is too short for me; there’s not enough time to 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 binge on their television shows (albeit that “television” sounds a bit old-fashioned). An episode is arguably much shorter than a full-length movie, but the actual storytelling spans seasons instead of minutes.
ScreeRant lists 15 reasons why television shows are superior to movies:
- More character growth.
- Not restricted to one theme.
- New characters.
- Bite-sized snippets.
- Longer runtime.
- Room to adapt and change.
- Infinite possibilities.
- Less rating restrictions.
- For a specific audience.
- More time to digest.
- Room for more complex stories.
- An addictive hobby or pastime.
- We’re still in the golden age.
- More control from creators.
I’ve spent many hours following in the footsteps of the 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.
There’s no denying the literary quality of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga, The Lord of the Rings. Still, when it comes to silver screen adaptations, it’s tough for LOTR-director Peter Jackson to compete with the richness of lore in shows like Game of Thrones, where the storytelling spans season after season.
And, it seems like moviemakers are catching on, too.
See how Marvel’s stringing typical blockbuster-length movies together to create longer arcs for their characters and add more depth to their cinematic Marvel universe. 3Regarding cinematic universes: It’s commercially clever to develop one singular brand audience over time instead of attracting new audiences from scratch with each new release.
Games as Long-Form Storytelling
My guilty pleasure (or obsession?) is to watch Let’s Play walkthroughs on Youtube.
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.
In-game storytelling has seen such a tremendous development over the last couple of years. It’s immersive and captivating to watch a social media natural play their way through a good narrative. Even if you don’t play these games yourself.
More giant story-driven games might take a skilled player up to 40 hours of active gameplay to get through, especially if they are into exploring and side missions.
For instance, the anticipated title Red Dead Redemption 2 delivers an impressive 60+ hour story campaign:
Long-Form Content in Search Engines
Longer forms have other advantages, too.
If you’re into digital marketing or communications, you’ve probably thought about how to rank on the first pages of Google’s SERP (search engine results page) for your keywords.
A study by SerpIQ suggests that 2,450 words are the “sweet spot” for ranking 1-10 on Google: 4A study by Moz indicates that long-form blog posts tend to do better not only in search rankings but in social media as well.
Also, according to Hubspot, you get more backlinks as well:
And for those of you who don’t write articles that often: 2,000 words is quite a decent length—you’ve only read 900 words of this article so far!
I’m not suggesting that longer is always better in every way. However, we might have underestimated our basic human need for depth and context.
Especially in this fast-paced digital-first landscape.
|See Leon Festinger’s theory on cognitive dissonance.|
|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 centimetres to 1,350 ccs, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball. Just saying.|
|Regarding cinematic universes: It’s commercially clever to develop one singular brand audience over time instead of attracting new audiences from scratch with each new release.|
|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.|