At MPRM Communications, we are privileged to work with some amazing storytellers, from independent filmmakers to entrepreneurs who set out to change the world. But just like the proverbial shoemaker’s children who go without shoes, they often need help in crafting their own stories. Because it is our business, we are also keen observers of other practitioners of the art of storytelling, whether in service of an issue, business, promotion or simply to entertain. What I plan to undertake is a weekly look at the different ways storytelling can be used from transporting audiences to motivating change to building a business or creating awareness.
While anyone can tell a story, not everyone can tell a good one. More important, until recently it was difficult to share the story because gatekeepers — editors, publishers, studios, networks, record labels, and the like — held the keys to distribution or what we now call sharing. The rise of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok not only turned entire industries upside down, they also opened doors for message sharing by the masses.
This has led to talented artists reaching an audience by engaging with them directly, a class of influencers who have changed the face of marketing, not to mention enabling friends and family to stay in touch. Conversely it has been used to spread disinformation in service of conspiracy theories, radicalized extremists and driven wedges between the body politic by serving up an algorithmic driven stream of imbalanced information.
The Social Dilemma, a documentary we helped to launch on Netflix, is an excellent example of storytelling in service of an issue. Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski used a mix of experts, a fictionalized family as well as animated sequences to get to the root of the problem — manipulating user behavior by using predictive artificial intelligence and monetizing the user by selling their data. His use of the family not only shed light on the potential for addictive behavior but on mental health as well. While industry experts provided powerful arguments, the animation made the dangers easy to comprehend. In addition to addressing possible solutions, news coverage in outlets as varied as The Wrap, IndieWire, Vulture, The Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, and Refinery29 amplified the issues raised in the film and stimulated dialogue between those who have long recognized the problem and those who are just now becoming aware. Through the use of interesting storytelling devices, The Social Dilemma presented a complicated and emerging issue that is continuing to evolve in an easily digestible way.
With increased industry regulation of social media platforms and potential legislation, as seen by partisan questioning at the Senate hearing, not to mention a presidential election looming, Big Tech is aggressively moving to seize control of its own story. Both Facebook and Twitter have proactively taken down false statements related to Covid and the election and both are committed to taking down false claims about election results. Facing pushback from users they have also moved to amend their policies on what is allowed on their platforms and have had to defend their position when removing or flagging posts (or not). It will be telling to see how successful Twitter and Facebook are at navigating the post election outcomes. And as the New York Times reported this week, there is still a gatekeeper role for mainstream media.
With social media providing a stage for us all to tell our own stories, it is important to understand its strengths and weaknesses, and use it wisely. It is also our responsibility to consider the credibility of the information being shared. If it’s too good or too bad to be true, it probably isn’t.