Life as an Open Story

This is a weekly column written by Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson, two filmmakers and film professors who are wondering where modern storytelling is heading.

I’ve been thinking about the number of people who are streaming their lives as open stories over the web. All these personal narratives are unfolding by short sentences or photos or blog entries on sites like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr. How does this proliferation of millions of bite-size stories affect the way we generally experience, understand and create story and our life?

Big questions. I surely don’t have all the answers but let’s look at “geriatric1927” on YouTube. It’s Peter Oakley, a pensioner from England, who made his debut in 2006 and has since become a major YouTube star with more than 47,000 regular subscribers. His first video, book ended with blues music, has been viewed about 3 million times! In looking through his stuff I was taken by the fact that so many YouTubers respond to his posts, either in writing or with video, creating an endless chain letter of intertwined personal stories riffing around a theme.

For example if you look at his post Response to Cookalong the Geriatric Way, you’ll see that he is actually responding to Gordon Ramsey’s Cookalong Challenge (a chef and TV personality with a YouTube channel). Peter’s “geriatric” approach to cooking primarily involves a bit of humor, a glass of wine and a microwave. Also this video inspired responses of its own… including Cooking with Jon – a young man making a strange looking desert out of 3 packaged ingredients.

I wonder if part of our fascination with these tiny (sometimes mundane) episodes of people doing what they do is not about what’s actually there… but what’s missing. Suspense is created by the sheer shortness of it… and as we ponder why today’s photo on Flickr is melancholy and yesterday’s was goofily happy, we anticipate what might come next. I’ve been talking about suspense a lot in one of my classes and reminding my students that suspense fuels stories, whether thrillers, romantic comedies or documentaries. As long as we wonder what will happen next, we are engaged… we are imagining… and in a sense we are participating, even collaborating, with the story. This is addictive whether on the level of a Hitchcock masterpiece or perhaps even in the trickle of updates on a Facebook page.

And what about the truly collaborative open stories? Will we see more of these in the future? One that I love just by the sheer variety of people and their creative ingenuity is Google’s Collaborative Video… a true video chain letter (complete with envelope) passed through impossible time and space…. over high peaks, underwater, through people’s heads and more. I know it was a promotional stunt but… watch it below.