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The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories

Frank Rose

(W. W. Norton & Company; US: Jan 2011)

Remember when the Choose Your Own Adventure Series seemed really cool and interactive? We’ve come a long way since then.


From cave drawings to television shows, stories have always been a part of human existence. But perhaps in no other time is the genre of storytelling changing so quickly as in today’s internet driven digital society.


In 2006, Henry Jenkins’ ground breaking book Convergence Culture with its theories about participatory culture, world building, and nonlinear storytelling began to explore the changing face of communication and narrative. Now a mere five years later, the entire landscape of storytelling seems to be changing once again.


For those of us trying to keep up (or make sense of) this new (and sometimes strange) world of storytelling, enter Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. There are plenty of reasons why it’s called “a field guide to the visionaries—and the fans—who are reinventing the art of storytelling”.


Make no mistake—stories are thriving in this digital age: “Under its [the Net’s] influence, a new type of narrative is emerging—one that’s told through many media at once in a way that’s nonlinear, that’s participatory, and often gamelike, and that’s designed above all to be immersive”. Immersive seems to be the key word (as title suggests). Long gone are the days when “there was no role for the consumer except to consume” and now even the ever popular (and perhaps overused) term new media may be becoming passé. 


The Art of Immersion explains how many of the most popular or successful stories in the 21st century are “‘deep media’; stories that are not just entertaining, but immersive, taking you deeper than an hour-long TV drama or a two-hour movie or a 30-second spot will permit. This new mode of storytelling is transforming not just entertainment…but also advertising…and autobiography.”  And chances are, whether it was from a film, a television show, or advertisement, many of us have already been “immersed”.


Fans of Lost, The Dark Knight, and Chuck most likely have participated in this “deep media” storytelling. Everyone who received an email from humanresources@whysoserious.com because they “had applied to serve as henchmen of Batman’s perpetual nemesis, the Joker” has been immersed. Anyone who followed “Save Chuck” on Twitter or ate at Subway to help save Chuck has been immersed. Perhaps even those who have read Charles Dickens have been immersed.


Rose places most of the book in the 21st century, but he does look back as well. He notes “But if stories themselves are universal, the way we tell them changes with the technology at hand. Every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative” and spends a good portion of a chapter on Charles Dickens and his serial novels. Much like hyperlinks, Twitter, and video games, “serialization changed the structure of stories. Dickens fashioned tales with cliff-hanger endings… More significant, however, was the way he improvised in response to his readers’ reactions.”


Dickens appeared quite willing to give up some control of his stories, and Rose suggests that the notion of control is also central to more modern stories. But not all storytellers have been willing to relinquish, or even share, this control. After all, “The fundamental premise of broadcast television was the ability to control viewers”, but this control “began eroding with the VCR” and was “blasted away entirely by the Web”.


What about the people or organizations who have trouble with this concept—such as what happened with Warner Brothers when it started sending cease-and-desist letters to kids who posted Harry Potter fan fiction online? “For entertainment corporations, the lesson should be obvious: don’t threaten a bunch of Web-savvy teens who’ve done nothing wrong. The bigger lesson is, don’t attack the audience for trying to connect with a story you hold the rights to.”


Rose also shows what happens when someone goes too far in the other direction; deep media and immersive storytelling shouldn’t mean “that the storyteller has to abdicate responsibility” as the interactive films I’m Your Man and Mr. Payback illustrate. For these films, the movie theaters were equipped with “pistol grips in the armrests” that viewers used to “vote” on the plot. Mr. Payback “got scathing reviews (‘moronic and offensive,’ Robert Ebert declared in one of his kinder moments)” and another reviewer compared it to “Smell-O-Vision, the technology that for a few brief moments in 1960 promised to revolutionize motion pictures in an equally misguided way”.


Rose also tackles the notion that hyperlinks and Google are making us stupid. He agrees that “hyperlinks, and electronic media in general, do change the way we read and the way we think” but asks are they, as some such as Nicholas Carr (author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) suggest, “Swiss-cheesing” our brains? Most likely not. Instead Rose reminds “This is why, when books threatened to make us stupid 2,400 years ago, we responded not by abandoning books, but by redefining ‘stupid’”.


Perhaps we’ll redefine ‘stupid’ again, but Rose admits “We stand now at the intersection of lure and blur. The future beckons, but we’re only partway through inventing. We can see the outlines of a new art form, but its grammar is as tenuous and elusive as the grammar of cinema a century ago.”


Another area of uncharted territory: how these new storytelling formats will change the space between the public and the private self:


“For most of the twentieth century, there were two quite distinct modes of storytelling: the personal and the professional…But where once there was a divide, now there’s a blur. Blogger, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter—each one of them encourages us to express ourselves in a way that’s neither slickly professional nor purely off-the-cuff.”


Perhaps the only thing we do know is that we’ll keep telling stories in every sort of imaginable format (and probably in some formats that have not yet been imagined) and that Rose’s book tells the story of storytelling amazingly well. With too many examples to cite and too many ideas to summarize, Rose not only examines the changing world of storytelling, but connects it to technology, communication, business, and history.  He reminds us that stories are culturally significant and that they way we tell them says a great deal about our societies and ourselves.

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