For a man who speaks so eloquently in off-the-cuff remarks, Ken Burns’ response to a question about social media and web communications initially came off as kind of pithy.
Burns’ reply, which I heard in person during last month’s Bryan Series lecture in Greensboro, was the kind of curmudgeon dismissal you’d expect from someone who traffics in documentaries lasting 10 hours or more. In so many words, he described how the length constraints of digital communications get in the way of meaningful thought and dialogue. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially trumped the value of detailed, comprehensive projects as more vital than ever in an age when content is chopped up into smaller and smaller pieces.
But then he trotted out an old cliché, one that (whether he realized it or not) subverted his entire previous argument.
“There’s nothing new under the sun.”
Burns employed that chestnut in briefly describing that new media wasn’t really changing what people want to read, hear, and share. We still gravitate towards stories that feature rich characters and touch upon big themes. No matter what format we use to communicate, the attributes of good content are a constant.
On to the next question.
I doubt that Burns, a man who champions the longest of long-form storytelling, really takes much interest (or even sees much value) in communicating through new media. But the company that’s provided a platform for his work has no such reservations.
Check out PBS’ web portal for The National Parks, the six-part documentary series Burns lectured about during his appearance in Greensboro. Whereas Burns tells his story with a linear delivery, PBS invites and facilitates exploration of the content that’s as open-ended as the national parks themselves. You can navigate this series by its parks, by its people, or by its history. Video clips are contained to a few minutes; text to a single web-page; photos to small galleries.
Does a viewer miss out consuming the story in this manner? From a pure content perspective, not really. All the key people, places, and events are all here. And the format’s flexibility enables even deeper information than the documentary for those truley invested in the subject.
What is missing is the context and linear narrative of the long-form documentary that’s so effective in sparking initial interest. So it’s a mistake to just carve up all long-form content into bite-sized chunks, organize the pieces, and let the viewer explore on their own. But it’s also a mistake to assume that the constraints of the web limit the information being conveyed. In many ways, you can share more information via a website than you ever could via a single documentary. New media allows us to tell more stories, and reach more people, than previously possible.
Whether or not the information sticks, and whether or not it sparks action, is another challenge altogether. That all comes down to great storytelling. And great storytelling, as Burns will eloquently preach when prompted, is universal.