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The Storytelling Species
Storytelling

The Storytelling Species

Our brains evolved to tell stories tens of thousands of years ago. What happens when storytelling becomes digital?
By Alice Treasure
14th Nov 2022

On 21st May 2016, a small group of protestors gathered on the streets of Houston, Texas to take part in a ‘Stop Islamization of Texas’ rally. The event was created by the Facebook group Heart of Texas, and attendees were told to “bring along your firearms, concealed or not!”

Across the street, protesters from a different Facebook page, United Muslims of America, heard news of the anti-Muslim demonstration and set up a counter-protest. Divided by Travis Street and Houston Police, the two groups shouted at each other across cordons, waved flags and eventually went home without any escalation. 

But despite the seemingly limited consequences of the day, there was something odd about both groups. Organisers of the rally were nowhere to be seen. There were no representatives from Heart of Texas available for comment to the press. An attendee later complained, “Heart of Texas promoted this event but we didn’t see one of them.”

When asked, protestors had no idea who had actually organised the event. All they had was access to a Facebook page that seemed to be made by someone who shared their view of the world. 

In reality, the organisers of both Facebook groups would have had a hard time attending the rally in Houston, because they weren’t in America at all – they were in St. Petersburg.

Perceiving the world in story exposes “just how porous the boundary really is between the stories that surround us and the story that is us.”

Will Storr

Both groups were part of the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 Presidential Election in the USA. They were just two of nearly 500 Facebook groups created by Russia; they boasted a collective membership of 550,000 and amassed more than 8 million likes and 10 million shares

The rally, and subsequent realisation of the origins of the Facebook groups, was a stark revelation of the power that online storytelling can have over the real world. 

Technology has reshaped many aspects of our world, and the way that we communicate may be the thing that has changed the most. But in order to understand the impact that the digital age is having on how we tell our stories, we first need to understand why humans bother telling stories at all. 

Storytelling and the self 

Will Storr, award-winning journalist and author of The Science of Storytelling, has spent decades researching the link between our storytelling brains and our identities – including the impact of where we were born. 

Unlike Eastern collectivism, much of Western society is built upon the belief that the individual is key. In traditional Eastern society, the shared narrative is around the collective whole. Each individual is playing their part in a bigger picture. This is in stark contrast to the individualism of the West. We operate in a “freedom-fetishizing, I-focused, individualist” world, according to Storr, that began in Greece 2,500 years ago. 

Our evolved nature to perceive the world in story exposes “just how porous the boundary really is between the stories that surround us and the story that is us,” Storr observes. And that’s exactly why our entire identities are so susceptible to the power of storytelling – something that is only exaggerated by technology. 

“I think social media has been an additional antagonist to narcissism,” he says. “You’re playing a status game of perfectionist presentation where everyone’s at their most beautiful and talented and most wonderful.”

How does a brain that evolved to tell stories tens of thousands of years ago cope when storytelling becomes digital?

Our entire identities are predicated on a narrative that we spin about our own lives. At points, we’re the hero, or the victim, or we’ve triumphantly overcome that obstacle, or have been worn down by a particularly antagonistic character. And we do it so convincingly, that we rarely realise we are continuously generating a story inside our heads, Storr argues. 

“When we process the world, we experience it as a story. But what changes is the definition of what the hero – us – should be like,” Storr explains. “And whatever that cultural standard of the hero is, we are programmed to pursue.” 

Our desire to meet the standard of a culturally shaped ‘ideal’ means that stories have a potent power to shape individual and group identities – both for good and bad. But how does a brain that evolved to tell stories tens of thousands of years ago cope when storytelling becomes digital? 

Viral perfectionism

Our inner narrative is a continuously unfolding tale, and much like any other story, the protagonist is subject to challenges, adversity, growth and change. This journey of inner transformation and reflection has been skilfully dissected by Joseph Campbell in The Hero’s Journey: “The journey of the hero is about the courage to seek the depths; the image of creative rebirth; the eternal cycle of change within us; the uncanny discovery that the seeker is the mystery which the seeker seeks to know.”

If the stories we tell about ourselves signify inner transformation, the digital age of storytelling has brought with it a new journey: one of outer transformation. For centuries individuals were reliant on a journalist, author, gossip or friend to tell their stories, but today social media has put them in control. 

“I remember thinking it would be the worst thing in the world if anyone knew I was 13.”

Many people have used this opportunity to display a different version of themselves – younger, slimmer, prettier, richer, healthier, quite literally filtered – to receive validation. 

Jenna, who works for children’s mental health charity Place2Be, made a Twitter account as a 13-year-old and began posting about vintage fashion, old music and 60s subcultures – topics that she felt no one understood at school. 

“I remember thinking it would be the worst thing in the world if anyone knew I was 13. I wanted to come across as 25. And I did pretty well – no one would have known I was as young as I was.” 

Twitter became a space where Jenna could build a different version of herself through the narrative she carved out of her teenage life. She gained several thousand followers, but when, at 16, the boy she fancied circulated screenshots of her tweets around her school, the illusion was shattered. 

“You’re playing a status game of perfectionist presentation where everyone’s at their most beautiful and talented and most wonderful.”

Will Storr

“It made me realise the gap between who I was online and in real life. I hadn’t been communicating very truthfully on Twitter, even though I’d never technically lied. I’d wished away a normal 13-year-old’s life.” 

Many people used social media to tell a story about themselves that they wish was true – some innocently, like Jenna. But countless others, like the Russian organisers of the Texas rallies, have far more nefarious aims when it comes to fiction online. 

And the practice of curating a story of ourselves online is not just a personal pursuit anymore – it’s become professional. The influencer marketing industry grew to $13.8 billion in 2021 and it’s no longer just beauty, fashion or fitness brands that utilise the power of influencer storytelling. Companies including Peugeot, Sony and Pepsi have all invested in influencer collaborations, along with fintech companies like ICIC, HDFC Bank and Axis Bank

Ellie, an account manager at brand agency Outfts, secures collaborations between companies and influencers. “It’s definitely about perfection. People can be something online that they actually aren’t in real life.” 

But if the digital world is diverting all of our attention towards curating our own perfect narrative, there is little time left to listen to the stories that other people are telling.

“The future will be shaped less by the facts than by a war of rival storytellers.”

Jonathan Gottschall, The Story Paradox

Echo chambers make it tempting to look for evidence that confirms the existing story that we’ve got about the world around us, and wilfully ignore anything contradictory – regardless of whether it is ‘true’ or not – just like the American protestors who took to the streets based on Russian social media posts. 

In a digital age where the concept of truth itself is being questioned, storytelling is the new medium of power. Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Story Paradox, summarises that “the future will be shaped less by the facts than by a war of rival storytellers.” 

Whoever can tell the right stories to the right people will wield a new method of control in the real world. Russia was able to sow the seeds of division and protest from halfway across the world with a single narrative. But how can we harness the power of storytelling for good? 

The power of story 

Just as stories can divide us, they have also been uniting us for thousands of years.

In the Grotte de la Mouthe cave, in southern France, more than 200 prehistoric engravings and paintings of bison, horses, deer, and wolves adorn the walls. The art, created by our ancestors over a thousand generations ago, was studied closely by Fordham University professor Edward Wachtel through digital images, and raised confusing questions. 

Though we don’t gather in caves by firelight anymore, we’re still a species that seeks out meaning through stories.

Why were so many of the paintings partially obscured by vertical lines? And why did many of the figures and animals have multiple limbs, or two heads? 

It wasn’t until Wachtel visited the cave in person that he realised the vertical lines weren’t mistakes or ancient graffiti. Neither were the figures with extra limbs clumsy errors or unfinished work. 

Guided by a flickering gas lamp that mimicked the firelight that our ancestors would have painted by, something extraordinary started to happen in front of Wachtel. The paintings that he had spent hours studying as static photos began to move. 

Under the flickering light of a real flame, two heads of grazing ibex became an animal looking for predators. The mammoth no longer had three trunks, but was swinging its trunk back and forth. The vertical lines weren’t mistakes, but grasslands, brambles and plants behind which figures danced and moved. What Wachtel could experience by firelight that digital lighting could not illuminate, was the moving picture-show that prehistoric humans created in the depths of the caves. 

Storytelling like these cave paintings initially evolved as a method of connection and communication. Research shows that higher levels of storytelling leads to higher levels of cooperation, equality, empathy and innovation in a community. And though we don’t gather in caves by firelight anymore, we’re still a species that seeks out meaning through stories.

Changing the world 

US-based organisation StoryCorps has a mission to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” In 2018, they launched the One Small Step project to foster meaningful connections across political divides. Since its launch, over 3000 individuals have participated in conversations with people who have very different political views. But the topic of their conversation is not to debate politics: it’s to understand each other as people. 

StoryCorps is not alone in their use of technology to connect people through stories. Will, 25, is a Content Producer at StoriBoard, an app that allows users to record and upload a difficult or painful experience in order to help others who are facing similar adversity.  

“The stories that you tell yourself don’t always have to just be about you,” Will says. “Telling stories to other people can be empowering – for some people, it’s not just about feeling seen or validated. It’s also about making something tangible that can help others.” 

“One of our contributors uses his difficult experience of foster care to inspire young people in similar situations to achieve what they want. He’s made his personal story become a collective narrative, rather than just individual.”

The Facebook groups responsible for the rally in Texas were not just organising an event – they were telling two different stories about the world that were powerful enough for people to take to the streets in order to protect the story that they believed in.

The power of storytelling to connect people and transcend differences is huge – but it needs to be harnessed in a positive way. Storr points to this potential: “The world is full of evidence. If you’re looking for something in the world, you’re going to find it. If people carry around negative, defensive narratives in their head, that’s the story they will find themselves in. But it also works the other way around.” 

The Facebook groups responsible for the rally in Texas were not just organising an event – they were telling two different stories about the world that were powerful enough for people to take to the streets in order to protect the story that they believed in. Technology has in many ways created a dangerous landscape for storytelling, magnifying their potency and reach. But it has also provided an incredible gift: a way to connect more people and share more stories than ever before. 

In the face of division, polarisation and uncertainty, succumbing to the comfort of a single-minded story about ourselves is tempting. But in the end, we will be defined by the story that involves us all.