how the internet killed the storyteller. except if maybe it didn’t.



Is the Internet killing storytelling?

Ben Macintyre in The Times says it is:

…we are in state of Continual Partial Attention, too bombarded by snippets and gobbets of information to focus on anything for very long. Microsoft researchers have found that someone distracted by an e-mail message alert takes an average of 24 minutes to return to the same level of concentration.

…the primary victim of this radically reduced attention span: the narrative, the long-form story, the tale. Like some endangered species, the story now needs defending from the threat of extinction in a radically changed and inhospitable digital environment.

This of course raises a vitally important question which Macintyre leaves unaddressed: what kind of endangered species? The emperor penguin (I ‘adopted’ one of those from WWF, by the way, and they sent me a really cute toy stuffed animal)? The tiger? I’m picturing long-form narratives prowling the jungle, or waddling across melting icebergs.

In any case, Edward Champion thinks Macintyre is being an idiot

I could respond to Mr. Macintyre’s foolish article with a vigorous list of items, pointing to such recent projects as Significant Objects, which has featured notable writers creating stories around eBay items, and Electric Literature, recently the subject of a New York Times article. But I think the more important question to ask is how such a yutz could write such an uninformed article.

and questions exactly how MacIntyre is getting — and manipulating — his information:

What Macintyre doesn’t tell you about the study is that these users were also engaged in answering email after the alerts interrupted them. Ten minutes were spent on task switches caused by the alerts, and anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes were spent returning to the disrupted task. But then, if you really needed to concentrate on an important task — particularly one as arduous as storytelling — you would be smart enough to close your email client. Iqbal and Horvitz’s findings are very helpful…but the two researchers are investigating a multitasking environment, which isn’t always applicable to the manner in which people read and write online…

Alas, that would get in the way of Macintyre’s silly generalizations, which don’t even cite the Microsoft Research findings correctly.

although this could be Macintyre’s way of proving his own point: his attention is so splintered that he can’t focus effectively. Poor Macintyre.


Washington Post has a better — and, I think — more accurate take on the relationship between the evolving forms of technology and the evolving forms of storytelling:

…you have to ponder the rise in Japan of “mobile phone novels.” These are novels written on a cellphone keypad. The reader uploads the novel one cellphone screen at a time. The Japanese, always technophiles, find themselves reading their phones the way Westerners used to read the daily newspaper.

There are two ways to look at this situation: One is to make the electronic gadget the star of a heroic tale called The Changing Media. New gadgets can do anything! They can not only put you in touch with friends, they can store your photo album, tell you your longitude and latitude, and write fabulous novels. But another way of describing the situation is to say that you can’t keep a good story down. The story, not the gadget, is what’s irrepressible. So powerful is the story as a way of communicating that it will even sprout in a cellphone.

You can’t kill off storytelling because as human beings we’re too deeply wired that way:

Roughly around the age of 4, psychologists say, the human child develops a “theory of mind.” The child suddenly grasps that other people have feelings, thoughts, just like the child’s own. From this great mental leap comes a secondary, almost accidental talent: We can get inside the heads of people whom we never actually meet except in stories. This is why fiction works. Who says Huck Finn, Pooh or Harry Potter aren’t real? They seem real enough.

Steven Pinker, Harvard’s guru of evolutionary psychology, says our interest in stories comes in part from a “thirst for gossip” — we need insider information about our social world. Narratives give gossip shape and meaning. And stories let us experiment, safely, with novel social arrangements that might otherwise blow up in our face. Think of all the adultery literature. “The Scarlet Letter.” “Madame Bovary.” “Anna Karenina.” Usually someone dies. Don’t try this at home.

Steven Pinker continues to point out why fiction is just too cool:

“Fiction may be, at least in part, a pleasure technology, a co-opting of language and imagery as a virtual reality device which allows a reader to enjoy pleasant hallucinations like exploring interesting territories, conquering enemies, hobnobbing with powerful people and winning attractive mates.”

And although this piece claims that bloggers

aren’t storytellers. They are partisans, ranters, linkers. Bloggers give away their entire plot in the first sentence, or perhaps even in their URL (

the mighty Problogger returns repeatedly to the point that stories are your best communication tool

and advises bloggers on how to use stories and the kinds of stories they can tell

which might demonstrate how blogging itself is evolving into its own form of art.

I would certainly like to think so.


Meanwhile, if you’re engrossed in your own long-form narrative thanks to the happy madness known as NANOWRIMO, Bookoven shows you how you can create your own little online network to help you polish as you go:

The beauty of it is: they don’t have to read the whole chapter or the whole book! Just random sentences. If you have 15 people helping you, they just need to edit 10 sentences a day; 10 people just need to edit 15 sentences. So you don’t need to be (too) embarrassed by your unpolished prose.

And given the surprising power of our social networks it’s to the benefit of any writer to harness the power of Twitter.

For those who are afraid of it, or don’t understand it, Novelr helps show the way and Inky Girl (possibly one of my favorite writing sites EVER) offers this great beginner’s guide to twitter. Meanwhile Mike’s Writing Workshop points out how you can tweet your way to a writing job.

So maybe what the Internet is really doing, as Seth Godin tells us, is forcing storytellers to be fabulous… which would seem like a good life philosophy in general.

Besides, “we experience our lives in narrative form,” says novelist Jonathan Franzen. “If you can’t order things in a narrative fashion, your life is a chaotic bowl of mush.”

And we are each and every one of us a unique goddamn snowflake, people.

Go forth.

Tell your story.

Be fabulous.

Nov 8, 2009

4 comments · Add Yours

With all the hype about lost attention spans, I’m really happy that you presented this information. While long-form may not be for everyone, it never really was an “all or nothing” medium. I think that the MS Email “recovery time” is interesting, but not sure how accurate it is. How, exactly, did MS researchers determine concentration levels before and after an email? Were the employees playing chess, putting together puzzles or involved in a rousing game of Where’s Waldo? How much concentration, exactly, does it take transfer a memo from email form on to company letterhead. Were the subjects involved with in-depth analyses of economic trends during the Truman Administration or were they performing a rote activity? Each activity has it’s own level of intensity, so I would think that the levels of concentration would vary. Not to mention environmental factors such as mental health, the state of the subject’s relationship (did they get in a fight before work) or enough sleep the night before…blah blah blah. I am being facetious, but those really are factors that can affect concentration levels. If the employees get an email, read it, discuss with others, walk to the vending machine, and then return to the task at hand, I could see the 23-minute rule come into affect. Offices are prisons anyway…any excuse to get out is a good one.

A lot of good “short” things have come out of this social media and online growth. For instance, the, Micro-fiction, Micro-blogging, href=””>, 12-second videos on Twitter,, YouTube short films, etc. Short attention spans have been “under investigation” for decades, originally blamed on TV more than anything due to it’s inherent qualities of sight, sound, and motion that combined to deliver a story with punch. How many times have you walked into a room talking about something only to be shushed by others watching TV? (A personal pet peeve-I cannot stand it that people find a TV show more important that a human being–How Rude!)

Okay. I’ve wandered too much. Thanks for the information. Great read, and obviously a topic that twitched a nerve deep inside…



Yeah – the article bugged me too.

What I find amazing is that Mr Macintyre is soo out of touch that he simply falls into an ‘internet is evil’ argument without considering the case for narrative online at all. We are living through such a rich time for storytelling, gameplaying and communication that one would have thought any journalist with two brain cells to rub together couldn’t have put such a one dimensional article together.

Sounds to me like Ben Macintyre is one of the old guard of print journalists terrified into spitting bile at a new world he doesn’t understand or fit into.



The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.


I think that’s the way of it — every time there’s change, it brings with it the legions who say it’s the end of the world. People just don’t accept change — until they do.

If I agree with Ben on anything, it might be that yes, the long-form narrative might not work onscreen THE SAME WAY IT DOES IN PRINT. It might have to be visually structured a little differently, not in order to adjust to people’s so-called shortened attention spans but to the way people tend to read onscreen.

And just because people have more choices at any given moment doesn’t mean they have shortened attention spans. It does mean they have less inclination to finish reading your piece if you’re boring the hell out of them.

Entertain them, engage them, and they stay with you for hours.



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