The storytellers of the 21th Century

What is a story in the twenty-first century? One could argue that it is the same as it has been since forever. A concatenation of events told by a storyteller to an audience, be it of just one person or of as many as we can imagine. I must say, however, that stories and storytelling in the twenty-first century come with minor changes that, ultimately, shape an entirely new way to receive, create, and understand stories. 

The art of storytelling has been perfected over the centuries; as with all types of arts, a technique proper to it was developed, and the idea of the storyteller as a sort of “professional” became common knowledge. Throughout the years, storytelling has become an increasingly bigger industry, from bards to writers, journalists to movie directors, and so on. Stories are a product that never goes away, but the tools we use to tell them have been changing with the emergence of new technologies. Some may say that the twenty-first century has only brought new technologies with it, and yet, this assumption fails to see the significant impact of web 2.0 –mainly through social media– on the traditional storytelling industry. 

Web 2.0 creates a new digital space for interaction and participation between users. Consequently, social media was born: Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Instagram, and recently TikTok, have taken over our digital space to the degree that we can connect to any of these apps whenever we want. And what are we consuming every time we open one of these social media? Mostly, other people’s posts, or the ones we ourselves create –entries about ourselves, little stories of our life that we share with others. 

Social media brings a new space for the unprofessional storyteller; consequently, Digital Storytelling becomes a new way to democratize the industries of stories reserved for professionals. It is not that in the past we (nonprofessionals) didn’t create stories –I’m pretty sure that almost in every house, there is at least one homemade video or even a manuscript, perhaps and old, cringy, forgotten diary. But now, these stories that used to be private are open to a broader audience; everyone’s story is to be heard. 

Some people, or even you, reading this blog, may argue that social media is not a space for storytelling in the deeper sense, but only for shallowing purposes like showing off a new car or an “amazing” life. That’s something that I can’t entirely deny. Social media is not a sacred space in itself where were everyone becomes a storyteller of their own lives. Still, it is its potential that changes the way we understand storytelling in the twenty-first century, and which is impossible to find in the past. In his widely celebrated comedy special Inside, Bo Burnham shows a fantastic example of this potential in his song “White Woman’s Instagram.” 

The song is an open parody of the stereotype of a white woman’s Instagram and their “typically” content. The music video is set on a frame size that imitates a cellphone screen, and Burnham represents the white woman in several stereotypical sequences and motifs, a few of which go by:

“An open window

A novel, a couple holding hands

An avocado

A poem written in the sand

Fresh fallen snow on the ground

A golden retriever in a flower crown

Is this heaven?

Or is it just a

White woman

A white woman’s Instagram”

Yet, by 2:25 minutes into the song, the lyrics and tone changes. The white woman impersonated by Burnham creates a post dedicated to her deceased mother, telling her (and her followers) everything she has done and struggled with in the past ten years since her death. At the same time, the size of the video grows wider because her Instagram, at that moment, becomes so much more than just a digital space to publish pretty photos of her life. Instead, it turns into a space of grief and intimacy where she can share her story with us. At that moment, she becomes a storyteller and we her audience.

Even if just a parody, Burnham couldn’t overlook the potential of social media as a space for intimate storytelling. I’m sure that in the future, new scholars from the digital humanities will talk about how web 2.0 changed the way we understand storytelling by giving space to the unprofessional storyteller to broader audiences.  

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