Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tom Burket - Story Skills: Generational Throwback Time

Tom Burket is a writer at Haberman, a full-service marketing agency based in Minneapolis that tells the stories of pioneers making a difference in the world. He majored in English and is the classmate you remember from middle school who liked diagramming sentences. Nine of the ten last books he purchased were nonfiction. The tenth was a Star Wars Force Awakens prequel. Twitter: @tomburket. Snapchat: tomburket.

On a national tour in November 2014 to promote his latest book The Peripheral, author William Gibson visited the Twin Cities. He read a brief passage from his book and concluded with a Q&A. The evening passed quickly, yet one of his comments remains fresh in my mind and helps me think about storytelling from a generational perspective. And surprisingly, right now it has everything to do with the likes of Snapchat and Facebook Live.

Gibson is the author of a more than ten books plus dozens of short stories and articles. Responding to a question about his writing career — largely in science fiction — Gibson said his roots as a writer began in his earliest days of childhood because of where and when he grew up. He said, to paraphrase the author, that the place and time mattered because the older generations in his life were skilled at communicating through stories. In fact, he noted that was their default way of communicating. It was tradition still going strong, according to Gibson, in the parts of South Carolina and Virginia where he lived as a boy in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Skilled at communicating through stories. As soon as he said it, Gibson made me recall my own early years. My grandparents and the older adults of their generation seemed to have a story for every occasion. My parents, aunts, and uncles fully participated in the story-swapping that accompanied family get-togethers. Gibson’s remarks struck a familiar chord, but he also went on to say he thought the world had changed, largely due to technology and the pervasiveness of mass media in the latter half of the 20th century. He felt like a lot had changed just in his generation.

What’s happening now? What about the newest generation coming of age today? Two of its teenaged members are my kids, and I see twin forces in their lives that point to a new way of communicating that might in fact be a throwback to the past. As smartphones have grown more powerful and high-speed connectivity has become more available, new frontiers are opening. On this landscape, short-term and live-streaming video is telling the story.

This trend moves well beyond carefully curated, reverse chronological streams of photos and words. It’s all about what’s happening now. If it’s filtered, it’s filtered on the fly. What one person captures and broadcasts blends with what other people are capturing and broadcasting. Often, it’s mapped to specific places.

To me, the new story emerging contains within it the perspectives — literally, the perspectives — of everyone who’s participating. Some events and observations will be remembered. Much will be forgotten. But when the ephemera of the live stream evaporates in the heat of the next big thing, what will remain are the feelings and emotions that will continue to shape our individual and collective narratives – perhaps even for generations to come as it’s retold.

Joan Didion said we tell ourselves stories to live. Members of the newest generation — like many before it — are telling themselves lots of stories right now using the tools of the age. It’s not mass media. The potential is mass awakening.

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