Whose Story Is It, Anyway?

I’ve posted elsewhere before about Snapchat's Our Story feature and how it enables complex storytelling and creativity. By allowing users to tag their Story submissions, multiple perspectives can be synthesized into unique coverage of events and locations. It’s powerful - but it’s flawed.

Of course, anyone who follows an Our Story only sees a curated selection of snaps. If you film yourself at a particular event and tag your Story submission, you’re most likely not going to make it into the public feed.

If you want to be part of the story, you’ll need to meet at least one of the criteria below (note that I’ve developed this list empirically by watching lots of Our Stories):

  • Be young and very attractive.
  • Be located behind or near a celebrity / sports figure.
  • Be extremely energetic while filming the climax of an event.

Unsurprising, but it’s clear that this is not an exhaustive list of perspectives. The fact is that Our Story is really just one person’s story: whoever is curating the feed for the sake of the event narrative.

So who is that person?

According to the job description posted by Snapchat for a Content Analyst, it’s someone who is:

  • A passionate storyteller
  • Familiar with music artists, trends, internet memes, and popular slang
  • An advocate for free expression who isn’t easily offended
  • Has the ability to remain objective and neutral while evaluating potentially controversial content

The third bullet intrigues me most. The way I understand things, it’s only important that the content analyst is an advocate for free expression in so much as it enables them to do their job effectively. When creating Our Stories, they aren’t expected to be impartial or omniscient. They just need to be tolerant.

There’s an artistic analogy here that helps me visualize what’s really happening. The Content Analyst’s work is much like that of a painter who uses a palette comprised of crowdsourced faces, emotions, and movements to depict a particular microcosm of culture.

And we, the users, must remember that we do not hold the brush or even see the canvas.We are simply the colors.

To continue the metaphor: it makes sense that the colors that get chosen are the most vibrant, or the most beautiful, or perhaps above all the ones that fit well next to each other.

As they are currently produced, Our Stories do not have room for dissension, or conversation and response, or debate. They’re not Hardball; They’re the Truman Show with a single producer and millions of actors, all desperate for screen time. They are just one person’s story told by many faces.

Our Story can be so much more.

Our Story is clever, and it’s monetizable. Smiling young people and unfiltered video build trust in the viewer. Peeking in on a Story is a very different experience than watching a promotional short or traditional news media coverage. It feels honest, even when it’s clearly marked as sponsorship.

Our Story has one strong limitation - real narratives do not have neat beginnings, middles, and ends. They are continuous and they are evolving and they do not lend themselves to summarization. The centralized curation approach to Our Stories ignores this for the sake of creating something more interpretable and palatable - for obvious marketability reasons.

But I see a power in this medium beyond what can generate revenue for the platform. It is the power to give a real face and voice to the public - and not just what a Content Analyst chooses to show. It is the power to create something very honest. Snapchat’s platform already allows us to create content that is visually striking, native to mobile, and easy to share.

For those people who are not beautiful vibrant colors, most do not have the means or desire to maintain a YouTube channel or Twitter presence. But some of them have waited their whole lives to tell their stories, and they know that no amount of Content Analysts are going to accurately portray their version of reality. They will, as always, have to create that story for themselves.

So what versions of Our Story might actually be our story?

I don’t think anyone has a complete solution. Snapchat has shown a great willingness to test and iterate, so I’d like to see them use this portion of their product to try other approaches to collaborative content. Some of my brainstorms:

  • Crowd-curated: top submissions are chosen by popular vote or chosen by users that are elected by popular vote. (This might be most useful for campuses, workplaces, and urban activists.) These submissions / users reset on a regular basis.
  • Unfiltered: all tagged submissions are entered into a continuous feed automatically that maxes out at a given length. Submissions reaching a certain number of total views or downvotes (left-swipes?) are removed form the feed.
  • Responsive: different users are shown different versions of Our Story dependent on location, previous interactions, friends submitting similarly tagged content, etc. (This possibility fascinates me completely and, for all I know, has already been implemented to some extent.)
  • Independent channel: a single entity conducts individual interviews to crowdsource perspectives (like many media channels such as Verge are doing on Snapchat).

To again state the obvious, Snapchat is young - it was founded seven years after Facebook and five years after Twitter, and it’s just starting to find a fit in a changing media and communication landscape. This isn’t supposed to be solved yet.

Then again, solving Our Story is crucial. Snapchat’s power has always had roots in its feeling of authenticity. Our friends don’t touch themselves up or self-edit and they feel free to express themselves fully knowing their emotions and perspectives don’t stay on their permanent record.

With the right approach, Our Story can build on this authenticity instead of undermining it. But only if it’s truly Ours - not Theirs.