[This post is the second in a series from new media artist Peggy Nelson considering the impact of technology on narrative. Nelson’s work includes a barcode narrative, a PowerPoint essay, Twitter novels and a host of exciting new ways of looking at the idea of story. —Ed. ]
No one, it seems, has time to read an article, never mind a book. Books, like fine art before them, have receded from the intuitive routine of everyday life. These days, we have to make a differentiated, focused effort to concentrate on reading. Like art set aside in a gallery or museum that requires a special visit, now books too require a special gallery of attention in your mind. You must set aside time, and set aside space, and of course set aside the Internet so you can’t just check your messages or update Twitter in between chapters. Or — who are we kidding? — in between pages. We’re getting our entertainment — or news, or information, or even our meditative moments — here and there, interspersed throughout the day, while doing other things.
Our short attention spans provoke much lamentation, but it’s really nothing new. According to a PBS documentary on vaudeville, an act was viable if it could manage to keep the audience’s attention for three minutes. Three minutes!! That’s a span we can understand — approximately the length of the average YouTube video, or a popular song.
People have been complaining about the speed and fragmentation of modern life since well before there was a “modern” to complain about. And now that we’ve become modern, or even post-, it’s faster and more fragmentary than anyone anticipated, and looks to be going ever further in that direction.
But maybe this is not bad. This is not good versus evil going 40 rounds for the title. This, I would suggest, is something more neutral. Fragmentation and absorption are models of interaction. And like all models they invite other perspectives.
For example, consider a book, back in the day when we had time for them. A nice, long book with hundreds of pages, one so good you don’t want it to end. You are completely immersed, looking forward to the end of the day when you can lose yourself in it again, staying up past your bedtime for just a few more pages. Good, right? Our lost Eden, right? But now consider: what may be absorption and focus from one angle could be irresponsible escapism from another. What are you doing with yourself while reading that book? Hiding from your surroundings, spending hours of time alone and immobile, emerging to measure real things in your life by the imaginary story? Replace “book” with “Internet” and this looks a lot like addiction.
Now consider a Facebook game like FarmVille, Twitter novels like @ARTGatz or my own @adelehugo, or a film or series broken up into short segments, such as the YouTube comedy series The Guild, perfect for viewing in a corner of your screen at work. What may be fragmentary and distracted frittering from one point of view might also be a way to integrate the experience of art into everyday life. When traveling I have seen microfilms in subway cars. The tiny TV screens in taxis show local news and weather updates, although they are heavily bracketed by advertising. Their problem is not that they are short but that they are using most of that minute or two to “sell” us.
I’m not advocating a complete replacement of long with short, nor am I claiming, with Pangloss, that “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” I don’t think that bullet points are or should be a substitute for an in-depth story. But I am saying these are models of interaction, and there’s always more than one way to look at, and use, a model.
In addition, there’s often a future concealed within the fragment. For example, take FarmVille: You check in every day for weeks, maybe months, as you tend your virtual 2.5D farm with your friends. It’s not a narrative, but it provides a location for a tentative community. Or consider what happens as you follow a Twitter feed: it accumulates over time to a portrait of an individual, and occasionally, may even develop into a relationship. Short pieces may be grouped in series and provide a long-form in aggregate; and they may be stepping stones to an eventual community or relationship, in which new stories are built on and relate to a shared history of previous ones.
Some good examples of short-form nonfiction series include The New York Times’ One in 8 Million project, The Globe and Mail’s “Behind the Veil,” Sundance Channel’s documentary shorts, or the short investigative clips on Current TV.
Online spaces are often considered in opposition to real-life communities, and suffer in the comparison. But it’s not so much that online community should be measured as a poor substitute for something more “real” – it is more that we use every space in which we interact as a location for community, and we use every available technology to do it – whether that technology is bricks and mortar, the Internet, the printed page or even language itself. The larger context for narrative includes not just the stories, or the tellers, but of course the listeners. Ideally, a story finds or activates a large audience engaged with the issues; in an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Jane Goodall touches on the importance of storytelling in changing both attitudes and behaviors.
So it’s not a single story we need to be looking at – it’s related stories, too, as well as the places where stories are collected and accessed. And we need to look at how people are using those places, and how we might better activate the narrative potential of all user behaviors, including some that may not seem to be directly relevant.
In other words, small increments, doled out consistently over long periods of time, can accumulate to — in *some cases — significance. Of course this does not happen with every interaction, every storyline, or every online experience. But it is happening. Within our short attention span theater we may be building long-term networks—and rehearsing new models for long-form storytelling.
[This post is an expanded version of a piece Nelson originally wrote for HiLobrow.com. For related thinking, read HiLobrow editor Matthew Battles’ look at how the Internet influences the way we read and learn, published in a series over at Nieman Lab.]