Luke Andrews

The future of mobile storytelling

22 August 2020

You can trace a precipitous decline in my blog’s activity since December 2006, when I first created a Twitter account. It’s easy to write a tweet, and when you write a good one, there’s that sweet endorphin rush from likes, retweets and replies. When Twitter is good, it feels like a great party. People make great jokes. You learn new things and meet new people. It’s also how we doomscroll our way through 2020, and it’s the slot machine delivering us pull-to-refresh size servings of outrage, toxicity and abuse.

Since 2011 or so I’ve also used Instagram, which has an altogether different tone. I don’t learn much, but it’s quieter, calmer, and anecdotally at least, seems less hostile to women. It can be vacuous though, and I’d rather not be continually fuelling the Zuckerberg empire through endless ads.

Ever since Instagram shamelessly stole the format of stories from Snapchat though, I’ve found myself drawn to that particular medium. (I’m too old for Snapchat, okay?) In part because the ephemerality invites experimentation, but more because the story creation tool itself is fun.

Obviously photos, videos and the goofy filters and stickers are the core of it, but what I love is the text composer, with its limited yet effective choice of typefaces, and simple formatting options. It reminds me of the text layout tools I fell in love with using HyperCard in the late ’80s on a Mac.

Related to that, I frequently think back to Fish: a tap essay, by the author Robin Sloan, an experiment fusing the mobile tap screen with the slideshow structure of presentation software to convey ideas. It’s odd to me that there are still few tools to make and publish something like this when it’s so engaging.

Part of the reason classic blogs were usurped is that they arrived before smartphones and thus were a product of desktop thinking. Blogs weren’t designed for ubiquitous cameras or the ease of visual manipulation that a touchscreen affords. The webpage canvas was large, with lots of space for text and without any motivation to overlay images or to think in “screenfuls”. At the same time, on a mobile device, longer paragraphs with delicately sprinkled links are ornery to produce and tiresome to consume—our thumbs are too big to tap words to open links. We have gravitated to publishing tools and media optimized for less typing and more showing, all on a tiny canvas. And even if they discourage longer-form text, the constraints can be both appealing and inspiring.

As much as I enjoy Instagram and Twitter, I think these devices we cling so stubbornly in our hands have much more potential to encourage and enrich our storytelling. Vine showed how a simple loop could make short videos interesting. TikTok shows how music augments their creative potential. I have to believe there are other winning recipes of text, images, sound, motion, and interactivity that marry ease of production with the creative potential of constraints. We’ve mastered blasting 140 characters of text and emojis, slapping stickers and labels on filtered photos, and telling jokes in the form of short videos, all in the service of ad revenue. What’s next?