The power of slow storytelling shouldn’t be underestimated.
Must everything be shorter and faster on the internet?
I grew up on an island with about 900 people. As life happened, I got my university degree in strategic communication and ended up in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.
In Stockholm, I remember being astounded by the impatience of the city dwellers; they sighed loudly as they missed their subway ride —even though the next one was in just a few minutes.
Where I came from, buses came by once every hour on workdays.
A city-life decade later I find myself being fully conditioned: I’ve lived in London, New York, and Stockholm.
If I get a five second break today? No problem.
That’s more than enough to check my social feeds and my inbox, read a few headlines and check an address on Google Maps.
In short: I’ve picked up the pace.
Faster and More Bite-Sized Storytelling
The narrative speed has accelerated. News cycles are flashing by. Updates and tweets are blazing by.
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 our notification addictions.
Given my own small-town frame of reference, I’ve been focused on adapting to a faster pace in general.
Everything must be short.
Online videos only have a couple of seconds at most to grab that valuable attention.
Texts must be short and snappy.
Tweets are short by design.
News must be tweaked to fit perfectly into a push notification.
Programmatic ads must be thumb-stoppers.
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.
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 part of me still feel attracted to slow storytelling.
As a long-time fan of Marshall McLuhan’s idea “the medium is the message”, I can’t help but to think that we might have gotten few basic idea wrong.
If 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?
150 — Dunbar’s Number
Most of you know Dunbar’s Number. It’s based on the idea that each and everyone of us has a 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 inputs1. Either we discard these inputs, or we assign them to a few larger storylines that we’re already invested in.
The explosion of available information might have negative consequences on everything from attention spans to cognitive overloading, but the industrial revolution also brought with it its fair share of less-than-fortunate outcomes.
Remember, our mental bandwidth has basically remained the same for at least 200,000 years or more.2
Television Series and Superhero Universes
However, I’m starting to question the validity of this whole minification premise.
A guilty pleasure of mine has been to sneak out late to a local cinema.
But lately, the charm of watching a full-length movie has been rapidly declining; the story arc in a typical two-hour blockbuster is simply too short for me; there’s not enough time to really 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 antiquated). An episode is arguably much shorter than a full-length movie, but the actual storytelling spans across seasons instead of minutes.
There’s no denying the literary quality of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga The Lord of the Rings, but when it comes to silver screen adaptations, it’s tough even for LOTR-director Peter Jackson to compete with the richness of lore in shows like Game of Thrones where the storytelling spans across season after season.
I’ve spent many hours following in the footsteps of 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.
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 adding more depth to their cinematic Marvel universe.
It’s commercially clever to develop one brand audience over time instead of attracting new audiences from scratch with each and every new release.
Video Games as Long-Form Storytelling
A guilty pleasure (or obsession?) of mine is to watch Let’s Play walkthroughs on Youtube.
In-game storytelling has seen such a tremendous development over the last couple of years. It’s so immersive and completely captivating to actually watch a social media natural play their way through a good narrative.
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.
Larger story-driven games might take a skilled player up to 40 hours of active gameplay to get through, especially if he or she’s into exploring and side missions.
The anticipated title Red Dead Redemption 2 comes with an impressive 60+ hour story campaign:
Slow storytelling seems hardwired into the very fabric of gaming.
Long-Form Content in Search Engines
Longer forms have other advantages, too.
If you’re into digital marketing in any shape or form, you’ve probably thought about how to rank on first pages of Google for your chosen keywords.
A study from SerpIQ suggests that 2,450 words is the “sweet spot” for ranking 1-10 on Google:
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:
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, I do think that we might have underestimated our basic human need for depth and context.
Especially in this fast-paced digital universe of ours!
- See for instance cognitive dissonance.
- In fact, our brains are shrinking. Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball. Is there a causal connection between our brains shrinking and civilised life?