Storytelling, sense-making

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  • Published 20110906
  • ISBN: 9781921758225
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

NEVER BEFORE IN human history has so much been known about so many by so many.

The social media revolution is less than a decade old, but it already has nearly a billion people in its thrall – men, women and children sharing mundane and intimate details of their lives, capturing the moment and sending it into the ether for others to enjoy, comment on, manipulate, recycle.

The speed of this mass global sharing is also unprecedented – so much to say, so little time, so many voices. The quick repartee once prized on the streets of New York has become a snappy global dialogue, witty, quick, no time to waste.

It took three years for the first billion messages to be sent on Twitter; now a billion messages are being sent every week. The number of people with Facebook accounts is tipping eight hundred million, and the Chinese equivalent Renren claims more than a hundred million. Add in the second-order networks, and one in six people in the world are actively and directly connected.

Make no mistake: this is not a commercial aberration, a fashion that will be gone in a blink. This is revolutionary. It will change the world as we know it, and change countless lives along the way. Like all revolutions it will take a while before the end point is clear, but this epidemic of global connectedness, the sharing of information, the surveillance, the display of wit, wisdom, mundanity and banality, will force changes in social, economic and political relations that we can scarcely imagine.

In his essay for Griffith Review several years ago, ‘The writer in a time of terror’, Frank Moorhouse described the internet as providing an unprecedented mud map of the human mind – every dark corner on display, aggregated and available. Now that the internet has been personalised and populated with the public and secret longings, fears, desires and amusements of so many, the analogy needs to be stretched: social media has become an omniscient psychiatrist’s couch suspended in the cloud.

All the noise, all the chatter, the billions of photos, videos, soundtracks and words provide a cacophonous echo chamber. Putting it all together, trying to find patterns and narrative coherence, is quite a different matter. No time to be bored, little opportunity for reflection to make sense of it all; fleeting impressions, layer on layer of quick impressions, half thoughts and searing insights sweep over us, threatening to drown us. Where does it all go? How do we comprehend it? Is the mind a bottomless pit into which more stuff is constantly poured? Will there be a global shout: Stop, I want to get off, no more, enough already? Or will we just keep mining more and more personal information, hungry to every fleeting perception, every fear and pleasure?


I HAVE NO idea. But I do know that the desire to learn from the stories of others, to make sense of our own lives by delving into the detail of the lives of others, is something that is deeply embedded. Storytelling is the heart and soul of civilisation, the glue that binds people to each other and to place.

Before the social media revolution swept the world memoir was the literary form du jour. Memoirs were the publishers’ form of choice: memoirs of famous people telling the back stories of their lives and those they crossed, memoirs of nobodies with dramatic stories – tragic stories of loss and miraculous stories of survival.

It was such a boom it was scarcely surprising that some of the most striking of these tales became infamous when they were revealed as fabrications which bent the truth – an unforgiveable sin in a genre that purported to be true, to draw its power from the authenticity of the tale. Yet time and again the details in the most profitable ‘memoirs’ were found to be embellished, or completely made up. The trust between author and reader was destroyed, publishers’ reputations were tarnished.

There is a body of sophisticated analysis of this phenomenon – and indeed it is an area worthy of considered study. The difference between memory and documentary evidence, the perspectives of others, the dispassionate analysis of historians and biographers, the assessment of impact: all deserve to be teased out.

At a more prosaic level the memoir boom made many think that anyone could do this. Living an interesting life was just the beginning; writing about it not only helped make sense of it but provided a valuable record. The task of synthesis, providing a narrative structure, making sense of the minutiae and the immediate is what distinguishes these works from daily chatter.

Thanks to the internet it became possible to winkle out the hidden histories of genealogy (the third-biggest area of internet activity, by some counts) and stretch the back story, and the path for the homemade memoir was paved. Thanks to snazzy word processing and design software almost anyone could make a book look good, and the internet stripped self-publishing of its vanity tag. Anyone with the stamina to write their life story could do so and find an audience. Many will sit in boxes in attics and sheds waiting to be discovered, but others will be enduring gifts that bring great joy.


I AM OPTIMISTIC that the collection and aggregation of so much information, so many life stories, will add to the sum of human understanding. It will enrich the virtual world inside our heads. It will make sense of different phases of life, and with some time for reflection help craft a narrative arc of a life.

Martin Amis summed this up beautifully in the opening pages of his most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow (Jonathan Cape, 2010):

This is the way it goes. In your mid-forties you have your first crisis of mortality (death will not ignore me); and ten years later you have the first crisis of age (my body whispers that death is already intrigued by me). But something very interesting happens to you in between.

As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you will sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in: OY!! THAT went a BIT FUCKING QUICK!!!…Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.

While the over-fifties may have more in their past bank to draw on, young people have pasts as well, which are perpetually on display, and sometimes, as in this edition of Griffith REVIEW, make the journey into crafted narratives distilling important moments of a life.

In the social media age we inhabit, however, the boundaries between past and present collapse into a perpetual now. With diaries kept online and shared, added to and annotated, an unprecedentedly rich lode is being preserved in the cloud. Ironically, the permanent present online may become a tool for the future. New generations of biographers, historians and memoirists should, in future, be able to draw on the excessive chat and notation of the twenty-first century to make sense of this cacophonous connected present.

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