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The Secret to Web Success: Story.


Published October 10, 2008 at 2:34 p.m.

I tell this to my film students all the time. You can have great special effects, great cinematography, dynamic action sequences, beautiful costumes, and big explosions, but your film will still be crap if you don't have a good story. In fact, the reverse is also true. All of those other elements can be sub par and if your story is compelling, your film will be good.

It turns out this same maxim holds true for all narrative media, including the web.

Jeff Simmermon, of the fantastic culture blog And I Am Not Lying (for real), recently attended the NYC O'Reilly Web 2.0 conference and shared some of his insights, which I found to be strikingly similar to what I am constantly telling my film students...

There were a lot of people asking “how can I leverage the power of Web 2.0 community to ‘go viral’ and drive traffic to my market share, incentivizing revenue generation through targeted content promotion?”

Nobody asked “how can I make content that’s actually good?”

I’d like to focus on that a little bit.

In the new social media landscape (that’s a triple word score on the jargon board) popularity beats quality every time. Popularity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But popularity without quality is kind of pointless. It’s the difference between the Beatles and Milli Vanilli.

Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed referred to the “Bored at Work Network” in his presentation about viral Internet hits this week. He’s right: the Internet exists to entertain people who are dicking around at work. We’ve all sleepwalked our way through a day, clicking for the thing that makes our brains squirt a little pleasure hormone and shoot us closer to quitting time. Sometimes we shop online, sometimes we look at our friends’ pictures. But mostly we’re looking for a vicarious thrill. The modern workplace has evolved way past the actual Wild West, and all that’s left is telling stories around the campfire.

Being the first person to retell a great story by someone else carries a certain thrill, sure. But coming up with the story yourself is a million times cooler. Almost every Internet mega-hit is an escapist thrill that tells a story we can identify with. It’s either something we wish we’d said, something we wish we’d done, or a story we wish we’d lived. Any bozo can bang out a bunch of geek-themed top ten lists and pay Diggers to promote them. Finding and telling a good story is really, really hard, but so much longer-lasting. If you’re doing it for yourself, for your own artistic benefit, it’s the only way to go. And if you’re doing it for a brand or for your company, it’s gonna stick a lot longer than some dumb Facebook app or agency-sponsored Digg promotion. People know the difference.