It’s kind of amazing we know how to abstract at all. It’s an unreasonably effective skill. It enables a high bandwidth way of transmitting information. Learning through demonstration is pretty effective. Learning through symbolic representation even more so.
Consider these words. They’re made up of sounds. The sounds can be strung together to symbolically represent physical things and virtual concepts. We learned how to draw physical representations of physical things. Then the alphabet was invented, letters themselves an innovation because they originally symbolized sounds. The letters have long since drifted from their original sounds. So much so that in English, we cram 48 sounds into 26 letters. The English alphabet is an overloaded abstraction.
Stories too are overloaded abstraction.
There are stories that are supplied to us long before we know what is going on. Later on, when we’re a little bit older, we start to demand that certain stories to be told to us. Later on still, some people learn to hire other people to tell the stories that they personally want supplied. Some people pay money for stories to be told to them. Some people pay with their attention and the opportunity to be told stories that they would not ordinarily seek out. The vast majority of people pay for stories with their attention. There’s a lot of market efficiency there. When we don’t like something, we just don’t pay any attention to it. There’s also a lot of market friction there, especially when we consider just how many people are telling different stories about the same symbols.
Friction may be putting it mildly.
How much conflict and suffering is created by the stories people insist that others believe?
In my lifetime, I really started out with no real choice about the stories I was told. I had to go to those places and listen to the stories, and repeat those stories, as a matter of compliance. Repetition doesn’t guarantee belief, but it does make the belief formation more probable. Repetition with social pressure stacks the odds against an individual. Then I had a choice between three TV channels, a couple magazines, one newspaper, and a few radio stations. Then 500 TV channels and 2 newspapers. Then 500 TV channels and a few million websites, and now, arguably, if every human and organization is a channel of stories, a couple billion. The explosion in choice matters.
In 2018, I asked who you trusted to manage your attention? I asked because our choices were increasingly becoming abstracted, and, it was very much getting directed by what you, yourself, were demanding.
My mental model of the story market is informed by observing just how static, locked-in, or crystallized media preferences, attitudes, and story typology is. Audiences want what they want. Linear TV audiences want what they want just as Subscriber Video On Demand (SVOD) audiences want what they want. There’s a reason why Broadcast Linear TV is dominated by repeated series of repeated stories. There’s a reason why Law and Order, CSI: Las Vegas, and multiple NCIS’s are back. There’s a reason why The Bad Doctor (House) was succeeded by The Good Doctor, why Old Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory) was succeeded by Young Sheldon, and why NCIS succeeded JAG. Chicago Fire. Chicago PD. Chicago Med. Chicago Justice. Broadcast audiences are broadcast audiences and they want what they want. Which is basically the same formulas with slightly different characters retelling the same stories. There’s order in the familiar.
I perceive their aggregate utility function as static. That demand is stable. Stable demand attracts stable supply, which is why you get relatively predictable, non-divergent, content. If you’re happy with broadcast television, you can expect more commercials in between content, and more pop-up banner displays and paid placement within it. There aren’t more of you, so the producers are going to demand more from you to manage the decline of their business.
It may be a blind spot, but I perceive the aggregate utility function of SVOD audiences as dynamic. That demand is unstable. Unstable demand attracts unstable supply, which is why you get relatively unpredictable, divergent, content. The creativity and quality of series varies wildly both across SVOD services and within them. Great SVOD services understand that they operate an audience segment portfolio business (a catalogue business). Some SVOD services don’t get that.
The stories that Broadcast audiences demand and that SVOD audiences demand are not only different, but the creativity they demand is different as well. In between you have Advertising Video On Demand (AVOD). That’s somewhat of a hybrid but not really. The tolerance among broadcast audiences and their relative susceptibility to commercial stories (advertising) is quite a bit different than from SVOD (and…let’s say, the skull and crossbones crew). SVOD offers an enhanced amount of freedom to storytellers and their audiences. They are unbounded from the demands of mass marketers which, because they pay for all of the stories, figure they are entitled to, as stakeholders, to have a say in how and which stories are told. It’s kind of hard to imagine Unilever advertising in between Avenue5, isn’t it? SVOD services must be creative because they have to be. Broadcasters and AVOD’s can’t afford to take such risks because they can’t afford to alienate their (monetary) paying customers.
Next, consider the stories we demand of news outlets. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, around 20% of the population actively concerns itself with becoming informed about current affairs. The vast majority of people are just living their lives and don’t really concern themselves with things they don’t feel they really have the power to change. Many do, however, want to feel something. This has driven a lot of media to appeal to them with stories they want to be told. For as long as there have been printing presses (probably longer) this niche has always been filled. It’s gone by a few different names. I have a memory of one of the first newspapers called the Londons Intelligencer that contained some content that may resemble news, and was chalk full of gossip. There’s always been a demand for those stories and there’s always been a supply for them.
My mental model is informed by observing just how static, locked-in, or crystallized, media preferences, attitudes, and story typology is. It’s on that surface that different publishers have always competed upon. To be rather brutal about this, I don’t believe that most publishers actively modify the fabric, they only respond to latent demand that exists. Stories may ripple through this fabric, but the underlining structure is extremely slow to change. There may be many reasons for this. One the greatest has to do with morality.
Why do we demand the stories we demand? There are several moral frequencies which include: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation . Stories are overloaded with moral symbolism, whether the storyteller knows it or not. Their audiences are always titillated, enraged, and enamoured by the same framework, whether the audience knows it or not.
When a writer tells a story about price gouging during a pandemic, they may be genuinely telling the world that somebody is cheating and that it isn’t fair. The publisher is often actively aware that anger and vengeance cause circulation. Strong emotions are good for business. And, as result of both supply and demand, we end up audience segments who demand to be continuously angry and morally outraged. There is demand for such stories. There has always been demand for those stories.
Radio broadcast, and television broadcast created linear streams of content and almost always contain advertising. A newspaper, to some extent, is a medium closer to AVOD. If you didn’t care about the style section, you didn’t have to sit there and have the style section happen to you the same way that it happens to you during a television news broadcast. You could just throw it out. The experiments with SVOD journalism is nascent because journalists, editors, and their publishers really aren’t catalogue scientists. There continues to be a strong current in all shades of journalism that they get to decide what the public must know. The public continues to direct its attention the way it wants to direct its attention, including turning to non-journalistic standards sources for the stories it wants to be told. There’s a lot of friction on the supply side. There’s a lot of friction within the demand side.
I wonder if we were really conscious of what we were believing when we started believing the stories we were told. The reason for the crystallization of preferences is because of the way our stories were formed, and, I think they are what they are.
Contrary to the story you may have been supplied with repeatedly: a diamond is not forever. Crystals can be melted down and change. It’s kind of amazing we know how to abstract at all, isn’t it?
If you really wanted to, you could change the stories you demand to be told and thereby cause a new supply.
 Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.