Linear Narrative

Seth Godin has got me thinking again.  His post The extraordinary revolution of media choice makes this claim:

The idea that someone can program our consumption is becoming obsolete, and fast. The front page of the paper disappears in a digital world, where there is no front page — merely the page I got to by clicking on a link from a friend. The tenth minute of a sitcom isn’t necessarily the part that comes after the ninth minute, and in fact, I might never even get to minute nine.

Does that make sense?

Seems to me that it conflates two very different things.  A newspaper was never a linear narrative: it was always what the Free Software Foundation calls a “mere aggregation” — an unordered collection of essentially independent stories.  So it makes perfect sense that in the Internet era we’re in the process of discarding the very static notion of a single front page, chosen by editors to be the best match for a typical reader.  It’s much more rational that my entry to a given news site should be a set of headlines of stories relevant to me; or, much more often, a single specific story that I’ve jumped to from elsewhere.

But that isn’t at all true of a sitcom, or of almost any TV programme, movie or book.  Each minute follows on from the next.   That’s because they follow a linear narrative; or, as we used to say, they tell a story.  (Exceptions include sketch shows and clip shows; but they are exceptions.)

In The Lodger, for example, the Doctor turns up unexpectedly to take the spare room in Craig’s flat.  Then he sees the nature of Craig and Sophie’s relationship; then he starts to investigate the upstairs flat; therefore the three of them go upstairs and confront the alien; then the Doctor makes Craig and Sophie see the nature of their relationship; therefore the alien is defeated.  I get very worried when I read people — especially clever people like Seth Godin — talk as though that sequence is arbitrary, as though we can random-access the content and expect to get any sense of what it was that the programme makers created.

So, folks: yes, we live in a world where we can consume media in different ways from the traditional ones.  But the supremacy of story in the past was not an artifact of bandwidth limitations or technological barriers.  It was because stories are good.  We love them.  We’re wired to love them.  Let’s not forget that now we live in the Shiny Digital Future.


13 responses to “Linear Narrative

  1. I didn’t extrapolate his article the way you did, I don’t think he’s saying that stories are dead. There are many channels of content out there with linear narratives. But now, more than ever, a person can flip through channels at every bored moment. Especially for commercial-driven content this changes the dynamic.

    This doesn’t mean linear narratives are dead. This means that in order for your linear narrative to be seen and grab market share, you have to be able, at any given moment, to grab and hold the attention of anyone who comes flipping through. This changes the pacing and style appreciably. (e.g. last week I was flipping between a sports match, a Penn & Teller episode, and a sitcom re-run without missing much of any of them or catching any commercials. In response, products are woven right into the narratives).

    Sure people who are already committed will sit down and watch a good story through. But it’s getting the commitment that’s hard; it was much easier (for the producers) when there was less content.

    Slightly ironically for this blog, I discovered the Doctor in just such a bored channel-flipping moment 30 years ago: “boring, boring, bor… a girl in a skimpy caveman outfit being chased by guards with laser guns??? Whoa.”

  2. Also, check YouTube, where mere moments of TV are frequently displayed. Sure, you might watch an entire episode of something, but you’re just as likely to come across a six-second Simpsons clip:

    Some things demand our attention, but an awful lot of media is take in in snippets, passed around, and remixed.

  3. I agree with @squidfood. In my interpretation of the article, the bottom line is that you have to create good content to engage the audience. For example, after some recomendations and catching not that good pieces on TV, I only decided to finally give a shot to “How I Met Your Mother” when I got to these bits through this article

    I couldn’t agree more when he says that “the only thing that’s scarce is attention”. And that is very important to us, bloggers and application developers, because it doesn’t only mean that we have to create good content, it also means that we better make it look good. I see this with myself. The quantity of information available to process every day just from feeds and twitter is so huge that, except for what I know for sure that I want to read, half of the time I close articles without even starting to read if they don’t look good (somehow highlighted main concepts, bullet points, images…)

  4. I have to say I worry about the comments I’m seeing here. Don’t you guys watch movies? Read novels? Did you happen to stumble across the passage where Glorfindel carries Frodo across the ford to Rivendell, and decide you may as well read on through to the end of Lord of the Rings?

    People who only snack don’t get nourished. A healthy diet contains actual meals.

  5. The thing is, it’s not an either/or. When I’m deep in a movie or novel, I’m in it deeply for hours/days. That’s a fair percentage of time. But there’s also a fair percentage spent browsing headlines, channel flipping, etc. And I can actually partition the time better now (“I’ve downloaded this and can watch it later”) and of course, the 15min newspaper-break-at-work is now an internet break, with the whole host of entertainments available.

    So, my “committed quality time for stories” actually improves. I can be more choosy, but there’s more clamoring to be chosen. And there’s a whole host of movies – stories – out there that I don’t need to see (or at least, have low priority on my list) that I’ve picked up as random quotes, Reddit memes and so on. A fragmented cultural literacy made of an ever-expanding collection of the tenth minute of sitcoms that I’ll never watch.

    And I just need to point out that your metaphor is actually another example! Best thing that happened to my health is when my doctor recommended going from traditional three full meals to three much, much lighter meals but with a selection of in-between (albeit healthy) snacks.

  6. “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff”
    The Doctor

  7. I think there’s a bit of a US/UK divide here. US TV is so full of commercials it’s not experienced in any kind of a linear way *anyway*, but as brief five-minute excerpts in a sea of commercials.

  8. I think there’s a bit of a US/UK divide here.

    Oh, what an interesting insight! I bet you’re right. My family and I watch very nearly all our TV on DVDs, downloads and iPlayer, so when a few nights ago we watched E.T. on commercial television, the boys were outraged at having to sit through, or at least do something else while ignoring, the adverts. Maybe our approach is becoming more common on both sides of the Atlantic, and we are headed for a period where people become more able to engage long-term with a sustained narrative.

  9. On the newspaper side, the front page hasn’t gone, it’s moved to the side bar. I suspect that people involved in analysing the flow through news sites have a different view about whether consumption can still be programmed.

  10. I think Seth has some point, but he’s over-generalizing and reaching to make it seem more dramatic. Article writers often do that because they are vying with all those other sparkle-y websites for your precious attention.

    People snack and they eat full meals. Certain shows (mostly comedies like the Simpsons mentioned above) lend themselves well to sampling. Others don’t.

    The lowest common denominator will always be just exactly that: low and common. But it doesn’t mean there’s any reason to start predicting the death of all culture or whatever. I mean–the death of all culture could happen one day, but what I know is: people, usually intellectuals, have been predicting the death of culture or humanity or whatever based on whatever trends were current in the culture at the time for so long as people have been capable of writing things down. Once upon a time, folks said the motion picture would kill the novel. And so on.

    Tech changes. Culture changes. We move on. Sure, it could be the case that one of these days, it’s one change too many, but you cannot accurately predict that in advance. You can only note that it happened several years after it’s already over with. That is assuming there’s anyone left to read the blog. ;-)

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  11. I think there’s a bit of a US/UK divide here.

    Oh, what an interesting insight! I bet you’re right. My family and I watch very nearly all our TV on DVDs, downloads and iPlayer,

    And Americans don’t? Everyone I know in my generation (mid-30s) and younger watches TV primarily delivered over the ‘net. The next largest share of the TV attention market (for us) is TV on DVD. Actually watching something at the moment it airs–and therefore being subject to commercials–is reserved for the best shows and the most committed fans. And even people who really love a particular show are, IME, just as likely to save up and watch several episodes on a weekend instead of getting them dribbled out one at a time on broadcast.

    My guess is that watching broadcast TV with commercials vs some kind of streaming or DVD breaks down far more heavily on generational lines than on national ones, at least between the US and UK.

  12. Oh, what an interesting insight! I bet you’re right. My family and I watch very nearly all our TV on DVDs, downloads and iPlayer,

    And Americans don’t?

    Blame my formatting. There is an invisible paragraph break between “I bet you’re right” (end of one thought) and “My family and I” (start of the next).

  13. Pingback: Misunderstanding natural monopoly | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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