Stories-like experiences are now everywhere. But what exactly are they, and why does that matter?
Now that Medium has them too, it’s official: stories are everywhere.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it soon finds a way into accounting or calendaring software (related: what's taking Slack so long?).
At first it was all about Facebook trying to suck the air out of Snapchat. Instagram was surprisingly open in acknowledging their source of inspiration. Like most people, I was skeptical at first: straight-up copying is not the strategy you’d expect from first-tier players (because it rarely works).
Just how wrong I was.
Instagram Stories caught on like wildfire. If their numbers are to be believed, it rivals Snapchat's entire DAU.
Soon enough, even if clunkily, stories popped up in other Facebook products: Whatsapp (noteworthy: not a social network) and even the mothership herself. But it seemed this was just FB playing a heavy-hand to cripple the competitor it fears the most.
And now Medium joins the party. The proliferation of stories-like features is greater than the Snap vs. Facebook feud. The initial context obscured what is becoming more and more apparent: stories aren't a feature, but a format.
If that’s the case, stories will show up all over the place. With time, we should also see UIs that drift away further from the original ones.
Even if you were to ignore implementation differences, their contexts alone points towards a more fundamental idea, a particular kind of experience. It ain’t no Snapchat clone, but a new media format.
If that’s so, what are the defining characteristics of stories?
For starters, it’s all about narrative, that is, storytelling (hence the name). A succession of small, unassuming images that derive their meaning from what came before. That’s why stories are grouped by author, lest they lose their thread; else they would be a feed.
Stories tend to be ephemerous. Much of their appeal lies in being created by several low friction interactions. Unlike other, more complex, temporal formats, such as video or essays, each piece of a story tend to be crafted effortlessly, spontaneously. Its primary goals is to lower expectations implicit in permanent feeds or full-fledged videos.
Stories can be watched passively, much like videos. That’s why you’ll hear them described by “your friend’s tv channel.” But they are interactive, giving users the choice to skip ahead (within the same story) and outward (to the next one). Users control the pace to their attention according to their own engagement and surroundings.
This temporal, yet user-driven, experience might as well be what “interactive television” was all about the whole time. Not the “camera angle” in early DVDs; but stories. In case you missed something you can also step back (again, in both dimensions), although we mostly skip forward.
Coming to think of it, what are Twitter’s Moments if not stories? (the fact that Twitter failed to reach adoption doesn’t matter here).
Stories are videos for the smartphone age. For starters, they forgo the need for audio (a practical impossibility when watching on-the-go). Their conciseness and skipability fits perfectly in a world where small and interrupted interactions are the norm. A short, one-minute video is now too long to watch as you wait in line , hop into your Uber or wait for your friend to reply your last message.
In short: stories are the tailor-made format for the fickle attention span. An audio-free narrative of small, spontaneous, and single-minded tidbits that enable viewers some control of the experience.
What’s the story?
If we are to accept stories as a new format instead of a rip-off, what can we learn?
For starters, by now it should be clear how originality in design is just plain silly. What we want is pioneering of adoption, not of concept.
Further, we should explore the possibility of this being a more common phenomenon. That is, whether we often take things for features, products even, when they are really concepts to be repurposed into a myriad of unrelated domains. We’ve seen this dynamic play out before.
During the mid-2000’s, social networks looked like a well-defined product. But we soon learned this was not the case. Social, more than a product, is a dimension. There's social driving , lodging , video and for FFS even CVs.
Taking this idea further, one can argue that most groundbreaking companies are piggybacking on ideas ripe to be transplanted to new domains. This might be a heuristics for finding new ideas: what can we take from product X into product Y, even when they don’t look like similar at all.
Another hypothesis: stories are bound to be less popular in desktop experiences than mobile ones, as they address the needs of mobile interaction first and foremost. Even in products with meaningful desktop usage should see way less engagement in their stories formats.
And one final provocation: what, if any, influence will the shared experience of stories cast on things like slide presentations, a.k.a powerpoint decks?
Hopefully, I’ll soon find the time to redo this entire idea in a story format.