And That's How You Narrate a Story

Fans of Arrested Development (like me) are counting down the days until the May 26 release, on Netflix, of all 15 episodes of Season 4 all at once.  It is an unprecedented move and has engendered a lot of discussion about business models and advertising strategies - is it dumb to not slowly dole out the precious content and thus maximize advertising potential, or is it indicative of a new viewing paradigm that churns through entire seasons over a long weekend?

This reminds me of a central point in Stephen Johnson's brilliant book,"Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter."  Johnson reminds us of the characteristics of how we used to watch shows - one episode at a time, no reruns, no syndication.  This meant scripts had to be mind-numbingly simple: if you miss the joke, you never have a second chance to get it.

Nowadays, you can watch multiple episodes - even entire seasons - in one happy binge.  You can also rewind, discuss on social media, and get tons of extras on websites and DVDs.  Accordingly, writers can create incredibly complex layers to their stories: inside jokes within inside jokes, setting up a gag several episodes in advance, and back stories so rich that they probably warrant their own show. 

I would argue that our lives have followed a similar arc.  Think of how hyper-connected we are thanks to social media.  I am not necessarily saying that we are more connected than before - one can argue that we are less - but that we are in touch with one another much more frequently than ever.  Mostly through Facebook, but also through other social media sites, we consume each others' lives on an almost daily basis: pictures of kids, accounts of nights out on the town, announcements of major business decisions.

Over time, our images of others (and, in turn, their images of us) are formed by millions of tiny data points.  Think about it this way: my interactions with undergrad classmates five years after we all graduated (i.e. in the late 1990's) were characterized by infrequent phone calls and in-person meetings, whereas my interactions with grad classmates five years after we all graduated (i.e. this decade) have been characterized by thousands of tweets, photos, pokes, and messages.  It's a fascinating shift in the way we connect, share, and influence. 

If we seek to be influential, whether for social or cultural or political or religious or moral reasons, it is a wonderful and thought-provoking time.  We can be multi-layered, complex, and deep in the way we convey ourselves and our messages.  We may not have a multi-million dollar contract with Netflix or employ dozens of whip-smart writers, but we can be just as interesting, in much more interesting ways than even ten years ago.

I like Stephen Johnson's book because it's so common to hear people say how pop culture has dumbed as down, and how we are more disconnected to one another.  Whether or not that is true in the aggregate, for each of us we can still choose to connect with and influence others.  And we have so many and varied ways to do so. 

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