The power of slow storytelling is making a comeback.
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.
Yes, some are concerned. Social media pessimists are foreboding the decline of civilisation due to our shorter attention spans and notification addictions.
Everything must be short:
We’re all in a collective hurry and can’t be bothered with too much context. “It’s just the way it is now,” I think.
Overdue for a Counter-Reaction
I grew up on the island of Alnö with about 900 fellow dwellers. I moved away, got my strategic communication and linguistic degrees, and ended up in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.
In Stockholm, I remember being astounded by the impatience of the city slickers; they sighed 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 enough to check my social feeds, calendar, and inbox, read a few headlines and check directions on Google Maps.
In short: We’ve all picked up the pace.
Now, we’re long overdue for a counter-reaction.
Preserving Mental Bandwidth
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.
Marshall McLuhan: “The Medium is the Message”
“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the first chapter of his notable book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.”
Despite being one of the most influential thinkers in media theory, McLuhan’s ideas are often widely misunderstood. “The medium is the message” is no exception.
“The medium is the message” doesn’t imply that content or substance lacks importance, only that the medium in which messages are sent will significantly impact humanity.
McLuhan views mediums as extensions of human physiology. Our ability to build houses extends our human skin, as it protects against the elements. This added layer of protection and physical safety frees up mental bandwidth for human interaction.
So, a house is a medium in McLuhan’s interpretation. All human technologies, down to the campfire, are considered mediums.
“McLuhan’s insight was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. […] McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness.”
Source: Wikipedia 1Marshall McLuhan. (2023, May 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan
According to McLuhan, our ability to create extensions of humanity exponentially impacts our communication more than any message conveyed as a result:
And so on.
Why is McLuhan’s analysis necessary? “The medium is the message” is a stark reminder that a medium’s format (and its limitations) will massively impact human society — and the messages themselves, too.
We often default to seeking meaning in messages but forget to consider the medium’s inherent media logic.
Learn more: Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic
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Dunbar’s Number and Cognitive Limits
150 — Dunbar’s Number
Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, proposed what’s known as “Dunbar’s Number” — a theory suggesting that humans can only comfortably maintain about 150 stable relationships. 2Dunbar, R. I. M. (1998). The social brain hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 6(5), 178 – 190.
This includes family, friends, colleagues, and others with whom a person can keep meaningful contact. Beyond this number, the quality of relationships can diminish due to the limitations in our mental bandwidth. 3Silfwer, J. (2012, April 14). Social Group Sizes (The Social Brain Hypothesis). Doctor Spin | the PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/group-sizes/
“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.”
Source: Wikipedia 4Dunbar’s number. (2023, May 29). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number
According to Dunbar, this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, which constrains our ability to keep track of complex social relationships. 5It’s worth noting that the concept of Dunbar’s Number has been debated and scrutinised within the scientific community.
Learn more: 150 — Dunbar’s Number
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Mental Bandwidth and Narratives
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 to the number of narratives we can stay invested in?
There’s comprehensive scientific support for the idea that we filter all incoming inputs. We discard these inputs or assign them to a few more prominent storylines that we’re already invested in. 6See Leon Festinger’s theory on cognitive dissonance..
The content explosion of available information might negatively affect everything from attention spans to cognitive overloading. Still, the industrial revolution also brought its fair share of less-than-fortunate outcomes.
Remember, our mental bandwidth has remained unchanged for at least 200,000 years. 7If 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 its 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 storytelling spans seasons instead of minutes.
ScreenRant lists 15 reasons why television shows are superior to movies:
I’ve spent many hours following in the footsteps of “The Walking Dead” and its main protagonist, Rick Grimes. As a viewer, I’ve been invested in Rick’s life’s ups and downs (mostly downs) for a long time, but I still have no idea whether he will make it.
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. 8Regarding cinematic universes: It’s commercially clever to develop one particular 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 new worlds through games like “God of War,” “Far Cry,” and “Assassin’s Creed.”
In-game storytelling has seen tremendous development over the last couple of years. Watching social media naturals play their way through a good narrative is immersive and captivating, 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:
Read also: DayZ for Days
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: 9A 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 who don’t write articles that often: 2,000 words are quite a decent length: you’ve barely read 900 words of this article!)
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.
|Marshall McLuhan. (2023, May 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan|
|Dunbar, R. I. M. (1998). The social brain hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 6(5), 178 – 190.|
|Silfwer, J. (2012, April 14). Social Group Sizes (The Social Brain Hypothesis). Doctor Spin | the PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/group-sizes/|
|Dunbar’s number. (2023, May 29). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number|
|It’s worth noting that the concept of Dunbar’s Number has been debated and scrutinised within the scientific community.|
|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.|
|Regarding cinematic universes: It’s commercially clever to develop one particular 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.|