Magazine article Communication World

Prep Your Story for the 'Timeless Web': In the Future, Every Story Will Need to Have a Beginning, a Middle and a Hyperlink

Magazine article Communication World

Prep Your Story for the 'Timeless Web': In the Future, Every Story Will Need to Have a Beginning, a Middle and a Hyperlink

Article excerpt

I often return to the theme of storytelling because so much of what we do centers on telling stories. We have been trained to think that the stories we create need to adapt to the attention economy: People are too distracted; the Web has turned audiences into content snackers, we are told. Our stories need to cut through the clutter, so we'd better shorten our preambles and jazz up our story lines. Sound familiar?

I don't dispute that there's clutter. But there's another weather condition we storytellers might be flying into. It's the unrelenting jet stream of the link economy. The link what? At the risk of simplifying the concept, let's just say that in the future, every story will need to have a beginning, a middle and a hyperlink.

Many people ignore the link economy because they believe they are only responsible for producing content. It's someone else's job to distribute it. This "content is king" thinking is not completely off the mark, but it's too vague, and implies that any content is terrific. It is why we hear such requests as, "Could you just throw some ideas together for our newsletter?" or "I need a few quick sentences from your PR folks to update our Facebook fan page." Such staccato signals of constant information don't really build an ongoing story. It's time to stop thinking of ourselves as content machines and instead think of our roles as link machines. That's what the Web's architecture was intended to be--intensely hyperlinked.


Here's an assignment: First, if you have not already done so, go author and edit a Wikipedia entry. It's hyperlink heaven in there. Sure, the entries have to be "neutral"--dry, really--to survive. But wikis teach us that in this information-obese, context-hungry world, hyperlinks are like super-nutrients. Dave Weinberger, in his book Everything Is Miscellaneous, notes how a page in Wikipedia is not something that even exists. It is instead dynamically created to have the look and feel of a page, a collection of elements supplied by multiple servers at the moment it is needed--that is, a collection of hyperlinked content.

Framing a story that is dynamically pulled together by hyperlinks forces you to think about the broader universe in which your story will live. Before hyperlinks, any story could be a mash-up of fact and fiction. Today, as job seekers are well aware, any little white lie, any scurrilous claim, gets found out. A candidate's life story, her CV, has to line up with the larger, hyperlinked storyboard that lives in the cloud. Likewise, an organization's brand story is pulled up from a myriad of sources (servers), its links curated by millions of customers, suppliers, product reviewers and more.

"Try to win the story," advises Matt Thompson, editorial product manager at National Public Radio in the U.S. When I asked him about this new format of storytelling, he noted how news is "transitioning from an area of niche into an area of networks." Thompson represents a handful of journalists who have been critiquing the practice of telling stories through the filters of "recency" and "immediacy." Our stories, he says, should be obsessive about context. In his recommendation to journalists, he suggests that they "aim to produce a work of journalism so excellent it'll get passed around for weeks," even if it means creating the story as "a nicely packaged collection, a wiki, or something else you devise. …

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