Story Fragmentation: Does it Inhibit Storytelling or Merely Change It?

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In his Digital Storytelling Cookbook, Joe Lambert talks about today’s “story fragments:”

…we are bombarded with millions of indigestible, literally unmemorable, story fragments every time we pick up a phone, bump into a friend, watch TV, listen to the radio, read a book or a newspaper, or browse the Web. We cannot process these into epigrams, recite and retain them, and so they become a jumble of fragments that actually inhibit our ability to construct a coherent story.

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That passage was cited by Matthew Stringer. In his Nerd Acumen blog, Stringer agrees that “this saturation [of fragments] has stunted our storytelling capabilities.”

Kelli Lawless also worries, though in a very different context. Lawless blogs about dating and mating in America and notes that she recently asked her network:




Has anyone else noticed a change in the nature of storytelling (and communication) since our culture has adopted texting, IM and short media?

Lawless reported that her respondents cited “Sesame Street attention-span shrinkage” and “our inability to just sit and ‘Be’ — un-distracted by all the stimuli surrounding us,” among other comments she received.

She ends her blog entry by asking: “Are you a frustrated and mute storyteller, or do you just collect drinking friends and wait till the liquor is flowing before launching into your tale?”

I come down on the optimistic side of this conversation. Yes, the information overload is distracting. Yes, attention spans have shortened dramatically. But the same technological and cultural forces that have spawned this fragmentation have also given us new and unprecedented tools for telling, sharing, and enjoying stories.

Yes, storytelling in changing. The good news is that many more people are now telling their stories. A huge number of those stories may be tiny fragments (say, 140 characters long). But I do not believe humans will ever lose the ability to engage with a story of any length that is well-told. And the tiny fragments make the audience hunger for more. Witness what has happened since Facebook enabled commenting on peoples’ status updates. Commenters ask to learn more of the story. Sometimes the teller obliges in satisfying fashion; sometimes not. But how many of these people would have been storytellers at all if not for tools like Facebook and Twitter?

4 Comments

I share your optimism : people like Dave Snowden and Shwan Callahan encourage expression of story fragments which they call anecdotes (to sum it up, even if it’s more complex, because it’s the kind of raw material they use to make sense of complex matters through elaborated and specific techniques.

Annette Simmons on March 1, 2009 6:19 PM

I’m in another conversation about twitter and egofarts on facebook titled “Debatable” . Story is so important in dialogue …but I don’t think we can evaluate the impact of fragmentation outside of a larger purpose- for me, more Big T Truth revealed and used in decision making. Stories are the best way I know to include ambiguities about humanity and the paradoxes of reality so we don’t come up with “rational” solutions that should work but don’t. Also - it might be helpful to consider fragments in a particular context…maybe healthcare, or terrorism. Both of which I think are distorted by fragmented stories. Maybe we should tap into the literature on “dialogue” popular around the time of Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. My own book A Safe Place for Dangerous Truths tracked “bad habits” that deteriorated dialogue - there was a chapter on story in the context of “productive dialogue.” I’m interested in identifying behaviors (fragmented stories being ONE for sure) that sacrifice common good for personal gain — ego, partisanship, etc.attempt.

What do you think?

Thanks, Annette (and by the way, apologies for this belated response to your thoughtful comments), I’m interested in learning more about considering fragments in the specific contexts you cite — healthcare and terrorism. I think I know what you mean but would love to hear more if you care to expound.

Very interesting thoughts on dialogue; I need to read your earlier book.

Your final comment: “I’m interested in identifying behaviors (fragmented stories being ONE for sure) that sacrifice common good for personal gain — ego, partisanship, etc. attempt,” really reminds me of what’s going on on Twitter right now. If ever there was a mechanism that opens the door to sacrificing common good for personal gain, it’s Twitter. I’ve been categorizing the kinds of content people “tweet:”

  1. Reports on mundane, daily activities, e.g., “Just ate soup for lunch.” These possibly contribute to the common good because they allow people to share common experiences. We feel connected because we can relate to the experiences. These work especially well if they are clever and engaging — the way your Facebook status updates often are, Annette (and I don’t know if you also synch those updates with Twitter.) On the other hand, keeping up with all these everyday activities can be a time-waster, which is perhaps not for the common good.
  2. Sharing interesting information, such as links to Web sites, and offering opinions of, say, movies, TV shows, politics. Can serve the common good by exposing people to content they would not otherwise know about or helping shape their own opinions — but again, a potentially time-swallowing black hole.
  3. Self-promotion, boasting, and downright selling stuff. There’s a bit of a sense in the Twitterverse at the moment that you’re an idiot if you don’t self-promote, and lord knows, I’m as guilty of it as the next person. But does it in any way serve the common good?

Great comments! Thanks again!

Thanks, Stephane. A lot of the story fragments I had in mind when I wrote this entry are too small to even be considered anecdotes; yet I still feel at some level they represent an unprecedented universal participation in storytelling.

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