Frank Rose on Internet Narratives

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Intro. [Recording date: November 23, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is November 23rd, 2021, and my guest is author, Frank Rose. He’s Faculty Director of Columbia University’s Executive Education Seminar Strategic Storytelling, and heads the Digital Dozen Awards Program at Columbia’s Digital Storytelling Lab. This is Frank’s second appearance on the program. He was here in October of 2011–long time ago–discussing his book, The Art of Immersion.

Our topic for today is his new book, The Sea We Swim In. Frank, welcome back to EconTalk.

Frank Rose: Thank you, Russ. Great to be here.


Russ Roberts: What is the sea we swim in, and why is that the title of your book?

Frank Rose: Well, the sea we swim in, in this case, is stories. And, I was–the title was inspired by a quote from Jerome Bruner, the psychologist who was one of the most influential people in his field in the 20th century. He was a leader of the revolt against behaviorism in the 1950s. He’s one of the founders of cognitive psychology. And, in the mid-1980s, he started getting more and more interested in stories.

And, he wrote a book which was called Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, which was largely about the idea that stories constitutes a distinct line of thought, a distinct mode of thought, and one that is so ubiquitous, that surrounds us so much, that we don’t even see it. As he said, ‘As the fish in the proverb doesn’t understand what water is, so we don’t understand that we live in a sea of stories.’

Russ Roberts: I very much think that’s true. In fact, I believe that much of our reality is the stories we tell ourselves. They’re not bedtime stories and they’re not necessarily the plots of movies, but they are stories, nonetheless. Narrative is a crucial part of our human experience. But, it’s interesting to me: I didn’t notice it until I thought about immersion, your first book, The Art of Immersion. Both of them have a water motif. Is that deliberate or coincidence?

Frank Rose: No, that’s entirely coincidence. In fact, I’m not sure I even quite recognized it until just now.

Russ Roberts: Okay.


Russ Roberts: Let’s start off talking about Internet storytelling, because your first book was really about how the Internet opened up a whole new form of narrative for people. How much has changed since that first book, in your view? It’s been 10 years, which is like a century of Internet time. How has the narrative–use of the internet for narrative purposes–changed?

Frank Rose: Well, a key point of the book was that every time there’s a new communications medium that comes along, it takes people 20, 30, 40 years–however long–to figure out what to do with it, to develop a form of narrative that is native to that medium. You saw it with movies: The motion picture camera was invented around 1890 and it was nonetheless the mid-19-teens before you regularly had feature-length films with stars that used all of the techniques that we now associate with the grammar of cinema–like cuts, pan, stage and so forth.

Of course, another decade after that, before you had sound.

What’s happening with the Internet is analogous, except it’s more complicated because the technology keeps rushing ahead. When I wrote The Art of Immersion, at that point, Virtual Reality [VR] was still something that was remembered from the early 1990s when Jaron Lanier had his lab and everybody got excited about that. Just a couple of years after it came out, VR became a whole big thing again in an entirely new form with the launch of Oculus and so forth.

So, there are multiple kinds of storytelling that have been emerging. For example, podcasts. Podcasts were–I think they were around in 2011, but they certainly weren’t, you know, as ubiquitous as they are today.

So, I think what’s happening is that we are continuing to find new means of storytelling, that–means that are native to the Internet. And, it’s going to be quite a while before we really, you know, settle down into a, you know, regular format.

Number one, I don’t think there will be just one format. And number two, we’ll have to see what the proverbial metaverse does for us. Not at all clear at this point.


Russ Roberts: I was talking to someone recently about the radio program The Shadow, which I knew from my childhood–my dad had told me about it. On some late night drives, even as an adult, I would find The Shadow being replayed over AM radio [amplitude modulation radio] as I was going ‘cross country.

Now, going ‘cross country, of course, a lot of people listen to podcasts, they also listen to books on tape–clearly a mistake when you could listen to a podcast. But–I’m kidding. But, what’s interesting, I didn’t think about it, the rise of the long-form multiple-episode podcast, like Serial, which I think was one of the first crime, lengthy, multiple-episode series. It’s kind of just going back to The Shadow, except that you could listen to it when you wanted to.

They’re always looking for sound effects and other ways to make it more than just listening. When they call a guest, they interview someone, you’ll hear the phone ringing. Podcasts do those kind of things. Those are primitive shoutouts to the early days of radio; and of course, podcasting is just really radio with different delivery [system?]. It’s just audio, which is what radio is. Anyway, I hadn’t thought about that.

Frank Rose: Yeah, no, exactly. One thing that fascinates me about podcasts and VR is that, throughout the last, say, 150 years, at least, the tendency with technology has been to create forms of storytelling–or give rise to, I should say–forms of storytelling that provide more and more detail and leave less and less to the imagination.

Obviously, in the early 19th century, you had novels, and before that, even. Then you had cycloramas in the post-Civil war period in the United States, where people would go to see dramatic reconstructions, almost, of Civil War battles and even the crucifixion. And then you had movies. Suddenly, with the rise of movies, the emergence of movies, cycloramas looked kind of tawdry and cheap, and they were completely abandoned. And then, of course, you had radio, and then you had television.

And, what is happening with VR seems to be kind of the ultimate extension of that, providing more and more detail, leaving less and less to the imagination of the audience. And yet, podcasting is exactly the opposite. So, I think I’m fascinated by the fact–and when you think about it, I’m not terribly surprised by the fact that these two things are happening at the same time.

Russ Roberts: Well, the rise of visual media–movies, the bingeable miniseries on Netflix or Amazon Prime–there is a certain laziness to that, compared to a book–and even to an audio–because you’re seeing it all. In theory, there’s nothing left to the imagination.

But, of course, there are ways to use imagination in visual storytelling. I remember, I think it’s in M, Peter Lorre does something horrific to somebody; and it’s off camera, and it’s left to the imagination. That was an early way that people did that.

But, you could argue that in modern times, people just–they want it easy. They don’t want to have to work at trying to figure out what’s going on. As you point out in your book, a number of modern storytelling–Pulp Fiction, the movie, Christopher Nolan’s movies–they’re often so convoluted in the narrative style that the viewer has plenty to do.

They invite multiple–just like as books do, and sometimes podcasts–they invite multiple listening because you want to think about it some more or try to figure out something that you didn’t notice the first time. So, it’s–I think it’s this question about how much work you have to do, it’s a feature and a bug for different people at different times. Sometimes you just want to lay back and be entertained, and other times, you want to be immersed in something that’s very thought provoking. So, I think it makes sense that they’re both happening at the same time.

Frank Rose: Yeah, I agree.


Russ Roberts: Now, a lot of your book–a chunk of your book is about advertising and the way that companies tell their story in the 21st century. I’ve been intrigued by this for a while, maybe even talked about it on EconTalk. Some of the best storytellers in the world today are ad agencies that are telling stories in very modern lengths–60 seconds. Sometimes you get a trailer, actually–of a movie, it’s a story in and of itself. Sometimes you don’t need to see the movie after you’ve watched the trailer. But, it’s a two-and-a-half minute exposition.

How has–why has narrative become so ubiquitous in advertising? My father would say, ‘I don’t get that ad.’ And of course, sometimes you’re not supposed to: It’s just a story sometimes. Or, it’s a story where the product is embedded.

But, it’s clear to me that what you identified back in 2011 and what you talk about in this new book is a very, very powerful theme in advertising, especially storytelling is memorable, can create an emotional connection. What’s happening there, and how is it changing advertising?

Frank Rose: Well, as you say, storytelling is memorable. And in one of his books, Roger Schank, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, writes that ‘Human memory is story-based.’ That’s because, I think, stories give us a sort of emotional hook. You know–that’s how we remember things. That’s what prompts us to remember things. We can memorize the state capitals, but it’s not going to stay with us very long.

And that’s, I think, the problem with data and the challenge of using data to tell stories.

In terms of advertising–I mean, it’s a great question, and there are several things that are happening here. One is: The demise of interruptive advertising. People just don’t want it. They never did want it. But, until fairly recently they didn’t have any choice. You had to, you know, sit back and watch TV [television], through the ads, even though everybody knew that you weren’t actually sitting back and watching the ads. You were going to the refrigerator; you were going to the bathroom; whatever.

This was an open secret, but never acknowledged by the industry.

Firstly, the emergence of the remote for TVs–this began to change. Then, you had–in the early Internet era–you had the rise of services that–you know, streaming services and so forth that enabled you, at least theoretically, to jump through the ads. You know, network executives went nuts. I’m talking obviously about TiVo and things like that. Network executives went nuts even as they themselves were using these devices.

And, so, you know–as I say, a couple of things are happening here. One of them is that if you need to–you know, if you’re in a battle for attention, one of the best ways to get somebody’s attention is to hook them with a story. And, it’s well-known that we are in a battle for attention that’s been increasingly hard for, you know, decades. Herbert Simon, at the end of the 1960s, wrote about this–wrote about or spoke, I should say, spoke about what’s now considered or called the ‘attention economy’. But, it’s only gotten worse, much worse since his time.

And, so, there’s that.

The other thing is, of course, stories are entertaining. So, if you want somebody to, like, pay attention to you, one thing you have to do is entertain them.

And another thing is: there’s been a growing realization, because of a lot of work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, that when we tell people to buy something, you know, it doesn’t work. You know, it just doesn’t. You know: this has been derided, and by people at the Advertising Research Foundation, as the input/output model of advertising. You know, like: You pour some facts into the viewer’s head or the listener’s head, and that comes out as a purchase.

It’s ridiculous. And, I mean, this is a philosophy that goes back to the very early 1960s, late 1950s with Rosser Reeves, who was the head of the Ted Bates Advertising Agency at that time and wrote a book called Reality in Advertising, in which he argued for the Unique Selling Proposition, the USP–the idea that every product had to have some reason to buy it.

And you had to–as an advertiser, your job was to find out what that reason was and shout it out to the world.

He made merciless fun of brands like Coca-Cola for not, you know, doing this. As it happens, Coke was doing fine at time and has continued to do so. You know. So, it really comes down, I think, to entertainment and to memory–hooking people with an emotional memory, an emotional delivery that sticks in their minds.


Russ Roberts: And, you say in your book–you don’t say both these things at the same time–but you effectively say what Ed Leamer has said on this program, and in his book on Macroeconomics: ‘Man is a storytelling, pattern-seeking animal.’ And pattern-seeking–storytelling is a form of pattern seeking. It’s trying to make coherent in your mind a set of events that may or may not go together. When they do, though, it becomes, as you say, much easier to remember. And it’s more compelling.

I like to argue–with no facts whatsoever–that our brain is probably designed for listening to stories. It’s certainly not designed for watching movies. It could be coincidentally good at it, but if anything, we evolved to hear stories around the campfire and at the bedside. It’s the nature of most of human history. It would not be unsurprising [surprising?] if our brains were wired that way.

Let’s talk about some brands that you talk about in the book. I’m a little bit perplexed by this, but there’s a rise of products, where the story is not so much, let’s say–Coca Cola is a very good storytelling brand. Budweiser is a very good storytelling brand, as you point out in the book, I’m sure it sells product, but it certainly does remind people that the ad exists, if nothing else.

But, a lot of these new products that are out, that are basically internet-marketed, are stories about the founders, and their narrative of how they got interested in changing, say, the shaving business, or the shirt business, or the you-name-it business. And I find that fascinating. I personally am not a millennial, as everyone knows who listens to this program, but the implication of your book is that there are a lot of millennials who relate to this more than, say, my generation: that they want to know what the founders had in mind and their journey.

And the founders use that. I get emails from some products that I buy from the founders as if we have a personal relationship. They really ‘appreciate that I bought their shirt.’ And, they’re not just the corporate appreciation, but the founder, the director of marketing: he only uses his first name. What’s going on there?

Frank Rose: Yeah. That’s a fascinating development. Well, you know, it was over 10 years ago that Simon Sinek had a bestseller that was called, Start with Why. The point of which was–

Russ Roberts: Start with ‘Why?’–the question.

Frank Rose: Yes, Start with Why. The point that he was trying to make was that people don’t care quite so much of what you do as why you do it. That’s what differentiates you from everybody else. And, I thought that was a really major insight.

It’s certainly in line with what you’re talking about here. I think that millennials in particular, and I’m certainly not one either, but it seems pretty apparent that they are not, and younger people in general are not so much interested in going to advertising or any form of corporate communication to find out information about the products. If you want to find out information about a dishwasher, a car, a vacuum cleaner, whatever, there’s no end of it available online. You can Google it and you’ll have hundreds of thousands of results in a fraction of a second.

So, what is interesting to people is: Who is behind this and why are they doing it? I think that’s really what’s at issue here.

I think a contributing factor is that these are all direct-to-consumer brands. Direct-to-consumer really wasn’t possible until around 2010, 2011. Suddenly, it’s not only possible but has become ubiquitous. When you have a direct-to-consumer brand, it means, of course, there’s no middleman, which is great. But also, there’s no shelf space: there’s no way to reach people except through videos online, that sort of thing, through your website, through the packaging on your products.

The fact that, I think people are increasingly–I’m not sure if ‘suspicious’ is exactly the word, but not taken with corporate lingo, corporate communication. They’d much rather have it from–at least, appear to come from an individual.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That ‘why’ part–you use the example of Warby Parker, the eye glass chain–not chain, brand–something of a chain now. You know: the struggle of the founders to enter this giant marketplace where they’re just a little David to the Goliath of the existing competitors, or Harry’s Shave Club, which–neither of which, by the way, are sponsors of EconTalk. We take no money from them. I’m just mentioning it. They’re taking on Gillette. It’s interesting that–I just care if they shave well, or if the glasses are attractive, but you’re suggesting that people actually care about the journey of how the founders came into the experience.

Frank Rose: Yeah. Clearly they do. That certainly seems to be what’s happening. One of the reasons for this, I think, is that, certainly in the case of Warby Parker and Harry’s, a key selling point of these products is that they’re inexpensive by comparison with what you would get if you walked into a regular eyeglasses store, or if you bought Gillette razor blades and razors and so forth.

Therefore, it becomes kind of imperative to explain why they’re inexpensive and why they can be inexpensive and yet as good or better than the products that you’re used to. So, a big part of the origin story, certainly for these two brands, is about just that.

In the case of Warby Parker, it was: One of the four founders–these were four guys at Wharton at the time–one of them was getting off an airplane in Chiang Mai in Thailand, and realized that he’d left his $700 pair of Prada sunglasses in the seatback in front of him. By then it was too late to go get it back. And, so, the more they studied the situation, the more they realized that the entire eyeglasses industry was dominated by this Italian company, Luxottica, which controlled pretty much every aspect of the business and therefore was able to charge quite inflated prices for things. So, that became a key part of their origin story. It wasn’t just about them, it was also about Luxottica.

Sort of the same with Harry’s and Gillette.

So, there’s a sense in which all of these origin stories, they tie, in a more or less subtle way, to the basic sales proposition, which is: This is what we have to offer, and this is why it’s cheap.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it’s: ‘We don’t have a warehouse,’ or ‘we don’t have a display lot,’ and ‘we pass the savings on to you.’

Russ Roberts: Could be true, but sometimes it’s not, it’s just, as you say, it’s a way to try to justify what they hope is an attractive product at a reasonable price.


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about movie franchises for a minute. You write about in the book Star Wars, Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings, of course, began as a book franchise, not as a movie, became a movie.

You point out in a rather lovely way, that long before those two iconic names, there was Sherlock Holmes; and that Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill them off and failed because people were so eager for the next episode.

So, just talk about that generally. I think, the long-form story of which Sherlock Holmes is an example: They were short stories, but we were always eager as the reader to hear the next one, if you were a contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle at the time.

There are so many TV miniseries where you feel that, ‘Okay, after the second or third season, they’re done; and now I’m in a soap opera: they’re going to jerk me around as a viewer, and they’ve run out of new ideas.’ And I usually bail at that point. But, people like that: they like to know that there’s another episode coming eventually.

They run, many times, I think, for longer than they should, if they wanted to be a well-rounded story. A lot of the times they just don’t care. They’re just going to keep entertaining you for a while. And we’ll talk about endings in a minute. But, just talk about that phenomenon, generally, and the idea of this episodic, long-form story–Chapter X of Star Wars or the next Marvel movie–they’re all this ongoing franchise.

Frank Rose: Yes. Again, a couple of things going on there, and I think this is really a fascinating development. Part of it is that we like to immerse ourselves in stories. I wrote about that, of course, in The Art of Immersion. But, I look at it in a bit more detail, actually, in this book, in The Sea We Swim In. What’s happening is, again, it’s something that we’ve always wanted to do–to throw ourselves into the world of the story, if it’s a story that matters to us, if it’s a story that really appeals to us or speaks to us in some relatively deep fashion.

And so, given that, why would you want the story to end? Also, when you have stories that do come to an end, after a very long period–Lost, being a classic example, another example being Game of Thrones–it’s all too easy to screw up.

You can screw up the ending apparently very, very easily. And, both of those franchises–both of those television series–did, in a way that left a lot of their fans pretty unhappy. So, in a way, it’s almost better if you can avoid coming to an end or at least coming to a final end. It’s like the Star Wars franchise, each of the movies tells its own story, but then there’s an ongoing story with that.

This has to do also with the rise of what’s called the story world. It used to be the setting. We just had a setting for a story, and that was fine, and we watched or read or whatever. We imagined ourselves in this place, but nobody thought too much about it.

But, with the rise of neuroscience and the gradual understanding–or seeming understanding, at least–that we process stories by literally imagining ourselves within the world where the story is happening by identifying with one of the main characters, by imaginatively projecting ourself into the story, this idea of the setting doesn’t really satisfy anymore. It’s more than a setting: It’s a whole world that people want to throw themselves into, if your story is going to be successful.

Although this has become more prevalent in the digital era, certainly, as you say, with Sherlock Holmes, there’s nothing all that new about it. Sherlock Holmes was an extreme example, but even after Conan Doyle died in, I think, 1930 or so, there arose these clubs in London and New York and elsewhere, which promoted the fiction that these stories were true: that Sherlock Holmes actually existed, and that Arthur Conan Doyle was merely his literary agent.

Everybody knew that this was not the case, but they proceeded anyway, with sort of a wink. And, this is the birth of a really obsessive kind of fandom, which we now see all around us. But, with Sherlock Holmes, it was still new.

Russ Roberts: And of course, you can always tell a new Sherlock Holmes story–maybe not legally: I don’t know who owns the rights to it. But, what’s interesting about what you’re saying–I never thought about it–is that these characters, they do exist. They’re fictional, but they exist. And they’re immortal, many of them. Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman’s series, Sherlock, is a magnificent bit of visual storytelling using a modern version with some modern overlay, visual overlay, of Sherlock’s genius on-screen. And it’s just lovely. It’s very, very well done.

But, I think what’s interesting is that–I didn’t watch Friends. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a whole episode of it. And I wasn’t a Seinfeld fan. But, these TV series, which are sort of the predecessors of, say, the Netflix series that are so high end–you know, they’re your friends. They’re the people you hang out with on Tuesday night or whatever it was on.

And, the reason they’re compelling is that we know their character. Right? We know–there’s a lot of things that make them interesting, but their distinctiveness is part of what makes it compelling. We expect certain things from certain of the characters, and when they surprise us–which they sometimes do for different reasons, in terms of enhancing the plot or the intrigue–it’s just like one of our regular friends doing it.

But, I want to talk about it. So, we hang out with them, and we miss them. And, when the show goes off the air, we watch the reruns. And I’m on my second or third time through Shtisel. The characters there I thought were so well done, I don’t mind hearing again what they said. I don’t remember them that well. It’s kind of like when you have a reunion with a friend you haven’t seen in a few years: they tell you a story that they told you before, but you don’t remember it that well, and you like them, so you don’t mind hearing them again. It’s kind of comforting. It’s like bedtime stories that we hear over and over again.


Russ Roberts: But, I want to talk about endings. I had Paul Bloom on the program recently, and he talked about how endings are different than beginnings. That, a period of suffering that is redeemed at the end by exuberant joy, say, is very different than a lot of joy that ends in suffering. We like the ending typically to be a good ending. There’s a redemptive piece to that. And it’s part of our mind organizing around stories. We can’t just say, ‘Well, it was half–half of it was good, half of it was bad.’ We want the half that’s good to be at the end. We don’t want it to be at the beginning. We care about the narrative arc of life and in stories as well.

I’m fascinated by this idea that these franchises–that were extraordinary, like Lost or Game of Thrones, neither, which I saw, by the way: I think I saw the first episode of Lost–that people feel like, ‘How’d you do that to–why did you end it so badly?’ In contrast to a show like The Americans, that you mention, which ends magnificently, in my mind, as a story that’s very powerful.

You know, part of the reason we want to watch these ongoing ones, is not just we want to hang with our friends, we want to know how it turns out. We have this curiosity. And I think that’s part of the reason that endings are so important. I am bewildered that shows struggle to end. Do they just run out of ideas? Are they bored, the writers? It’s such a huge opportunity. For me, the ending of a book is enormously important. Why would you not savor and try to perfect the ending of your series? What’s going on there?

Frank Rose: Yeah. That’s a very good question, and frankly, I don’t know. I don’t think the show-runners do either, which is probably why the ending wasn’t successful. But–

Russ Roberts: Good one.

Frank Rose: With Lost, you can see the problem. You’ve–

Russ Roberts: Well, that’s true. No spoilers here, but there’s a mystery at the heart of it that doesn’t maybe hold together so well, so it kind of stuck. [More to come, 36:02]

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