This Study Confirms Everything You Suspected About Facebook

Are we becoming bad storytellers?

As a little girl, I remember my grandpa telling me vivid stories about his life: the war, old friends, fishing trips. His tales materialized in my head from nothing more than words. I used them to interpret, imagine, and reconstruct the events for my own understanding. Yet today, words are only part of the storytelling equation.

Humans have the innate gift of language and storytelling. Stories allow us relay important information quickly. More importantly, they help us organize and make sense of the world around us. We still love to share and tell our stories. However, in the age of new media their composition has changed. “We expect more from technology and less from each other,” explained psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle in her 2012 TED talk. Our decline in storytelling is also hurting the connections we form with each other.

Most smartphones enable anyone to instantly capture a photo, video, or audio recording. These have become powerful tools in re-telling our stories and experiences. As an example, look at how popular and invaluable the iReporter role has become in news media. Now anyone in the right place at the right time (or wrong place at the wrong time) can report breaking news.

From breaking news to what you had for lunch, social media channels have taken advantage of this ability by adapting their platforms to incorporate more pictures and videos. But can pictures replace words?

A new study suggests they can’t. Researchers at the University of Birmingham surveyed 500 Facebook users and found that frequently posting pictures of events can have a negative impact on real-life relationships. It seems posting pictures on Facebook may not be the best way to share stories. Perhaps it’s because the distance between imagining the story and seeing the actual experience has collapsed.

In addition, our fleeting attention spans probably aren’t helping. More often than not, in-person conversations take place while both parties stay glued to their screens. Getting our attention, or at least getting us to look up from our phones, comes with the expectation that we’re going to be shown something better, more important, on another screen.

Moreover, our text communication via Facebook, Twitter, and SMS is not only short, but also required to be so. Expressing opinions and sharing thoughts becomes soundbites, and the meat of the story is sacrificed. I understand the desire to omit needless words, but are these platforms hurting our ability to construct narratives and share personal stories?

Have we begun to use new media as a crutch to tell our stories? Have we come to expect a picture or a video to accompany a story? Are these tools distracting or enhancing our stories?

Of course there’s no way to quantify if we really are using technology to tell our stories for us. Yet, anecdotally it seems to ring true. There’s no reason to believe that we have become less imaginative or articulate. Yet, the ease with which technology allows us to share stories with minimal mental effort is somewhat alarming. It’s not that we aren’t capable of great storytelling, it’s that we’re no longer required to use those skills on a regular basis. We’re out of practice.

Perhaps storytelling will become a lost art, left only to journalists and authors. Or perhaps it will come to mean something entire new altogether. But what do we lose when we’re no longer required to listen to and interpret a story but instead just consume it through pictures and video?