A Story With No End

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How would you feel about reading an article in your local newspaper that never ended?

It seems like the latest buzz is all about creating content (books, magazine or newspaper articles) that never end. Well, I shouldn’t say "never," but the power of these online publishing tools does create a world where articles, books and whatever can be constantly updated in an iterative fashion. From one side of the coin, this has to be one of the coolest innovations in publishing that we’ve seen in a very long time. Imagine the breaking news of a tornado and being able to see and follow how the story unfolds and get updated in real-time. It also speaks volumes to the power of correcting errors or clarify points of confusion. On the other side of the coin, who has the time for this type of consumption? What are the odds that a consumer is going to come back and check for updates and then be able to remember what was updated since the last time they were there.

It all seems a little overwhelming.

Yes, we want to ensure that our stories are accurate and up-to-date. No, we don’t want to create a world where the story keeps changing every two minutes and it becomes hard to know/remember what you read last. The filters are not perfect and neither is the formatting. I have yet to see a news outlet or a Blog create a design/layout that makes the consumption of content that is constantly changing both pleasing to the eye and understandable at a quick glance. Having a little sentence that simply states, "last updated" with a date and time stamp doesn’t cut it.

Design is the problem.

That’s not true, either. Design isn’t the problem… design is the solution. The challenge is that we haven’t seen a compelling design that has then been applied universally so that readers can feel like they are truly part of the story. Not to get into Storytelling 101, but a great story has a beginning, middle and an end. If we can’t clearly define those parts or if we start mucking around with them, odds are we’re going to create more confusion than value… and that’s the bigger opportunity here. Instead of constantly and iteratively updating and changing a story, why not create newer pieces of content and link them together and make it much easier for readers to flow through the stories separately?

Media as a process.

I’m as excited about the new opportunities as the next Twitter junkie, but this idea that books, magazine articles or newspaper stories never end is stressing me out. I feel like I have to digitally lug around all of this content and wait to be pinged for the latest tweaks, corrections and additions. Why? Is this a better consumer experience? Are we really appealing to new and interesting consumers with this or pandering to our own self-involved desires and beliefs that this is what the people really want? I don’t know about you, but I’m fine with books ending and I enjoy the satisfaction of finishing a nice piece of long-form content (either online or in print) without the need to come back to it as the writer’s process or whims continue to unfold. Perhaps we need to better define this new consumer and figure out who wants that much interaction with their media versus those who want their content to be brilliant, to be brief and to be gone.

What do you think?


  1. I agree that it might sound overwhelming Mitch, but it sounds to me there’s a lot of good that could come out of it. Do you have any examples to share?
    for some reason, I got reminded of something picasso said, but I agree there alot of useless art(s) and books… out there aswell:
    To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.

  2. There’s always a danger in chasing change, the new, for its own sake.
    We have the tools, but that doesn’t mean we have to use them in every situation. There’s nothing wrong with completing a story, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, or a piece of art. The threads that trail behind can be gathered into a new idea, and I think that new piece will be the stronger for it.
    Interaction through technology and social media is supposed to make for a richer experience. Can that happen if viewers, listeners and users don’t get the chance to take a breath and process (or simply enjoy) it?
    That said, you’re right – there’s not just one solution. The iteration junkies can be just as satisfied as those who prefer a little more structure. And hopefully both solutions can be brilliantly designed.

  3. I think you hit on something that resides in a lot of us. All of this chatter and discussion and back-and-forth on the web seems super engaging, but the constant morphing of the original idea (through seemingly endless comments, etc) renders the original piece as nearly obsolete.
    We are conditioned to think of art as a complete piece. It can stand against others. Against others in other centuries. We can evaluate F. Scott Fitzgerald versus JD Salinger. We have their works that live on. However, now we have annotated works that never get ultimately published. They simply are bound to the eternal cutting room floor.
    I choose to think of this as discourse versus art. The web, in my opinion, is better at the former and not the latter. Whether we lament that (as I often do) seems to be the subjectivity of it all.

  4. That is so true, Mitch. The constant updates and the neverending story sure sounds overwhelming. It kind of creates an incomplete information for us. One thing I learned before I became a bestselling author and long before Inc Magazine voted my company as one of the fastest growing companies is creating clear and concise content is the right way.

  5. I enjoyed reading your thoughts as well at the other comments. I have to say I agree with you, I find it a bit disconcerting that a work is never finished. I love the Picasso quote that the first comment used, but I have to think, perhaps incorrectly, that Picasso meant that the individual artist would continue to work on his/her piece, not have others contribute to it which I find is one byproduct of so many cooks in the kitchen. Thanks for making me think of this.

  6. The reality is we choose to engage when we want, how we want, where we want. This is a good thing. We should not allow dictatorships to ruin our interactions and on-line experiences. The beautify of all of this connectivity we are fully empowering the user. Scary for production companies and broadcasters because they have never had to deal with this issue. Keep Leading Mitch!

  7. I like the freedom of choice that comes with a constant flow of new information. This is the reason there are 6 books on my nightstand – I don’t know until I open one which one I feel like reading.
    The constantly updated story is why Google alerts and RSS feeds exist, isn’t it? Instead of trying to keep track, I invite into my inbox those items of interest (and remove them just as quickly when they fall off in value).
    Yes, there is far too much information out there but we are blessed with many options to choose how much and which ones we will consume on any given day.

  8. No immediate examples come to mind, but you see things like Storify and how the New Tork Times updates their articles and it all seems a little… never-ending. While I can manage it, I wonder how many true readers and news consumers will embrace this?

  9. This is, ultimately, why I grapple with comments on my Blog. I often find that the discourse forgoes the whole point of the Blog in the first place and takes the reader on a different journey. This doesn’t make it bad, it just weakens the core idea’s ability to truly spread.

  10. …and this goes back to the core idea. These publishers (and this includes publishers like us – of Blogs, etc…) need a better way to deliver our messages. Right now, it seems like traditional structures for very non-traditional publishing.

  11. I agree and yes, RSS and notifications are decent filters, but take the stack of books on your nightstand: you read a few chapters in one book, move on to another then a week later you find out that the first book has been updated (including one of the chapters you have already read)… it can become a little confusing and daunting. I wonder if I can ever be that organized/interested?

  12. Television series and soap operas’ never-ending stories have no appeal to me in books. Also, I would not like to write a never-ending story. I usually read two books in rotation depending on my mood, a fiction and a nonfiction. I enjoy the finality.

  13. Very good post Mitch
    If nothing is ever finished, how do we know when to walk away and move to something else? To close a book and move to another? And this is both as a reader, and a writer.

  14. In the current news cycle, the story never really ends anyway.
    We have the initial news, the response, the talking heads analyzing, and the story, if big enough, unfolds over time.
    There’s no end to the story, just the end of the reporting.
    Where content creators have gotten hung up is on the process of content creation. Creating a blog post, seeing those 500-1000 words as a codification of their thoughts on a subject, never to be revised or revisited.
    This drive to produce “evergreen” content is completely ridiculous, because all of these posts are, at the very least, ephemeral on arrival.
    The larger opportunity here is to show the iteration as part of the story, and to use that as part of the frame of the story.
    There is also the opportunity to link in not just your thoughts on a piece of content, but others as well. That’s exciting stuff.
    I think there’s also a channel issue. Microblogs might be the future of blogging, but we will still need analysis and context, which might be better delivered as a newsletter, blog post, article, or as a curated post on something like Storify.
    I’m excited about where content is going.

  15. I’ve had a Storify account but really haven’t used it, I just got an email from them too and quickly checked it out. It looks to me like they are more on the discourse path, rather than focusing on the subject, author interacting with their audience and reworking it back into the core ideas, some sort of active learning is what I would find on the positive side, the discourse path sounds like the library of babel route in my understanding of storify at this stage leading to handful of crazy librarians running around burning books, kind of like my morning ritual deleting emails and most social media feeds these days… as for what art is I stay with picasso, nature and so forth.
    on a side note: for comparing art against art, people against people, I find it destructive to the (truly creative) mind, it’s the type of mind that has been trained to be competitive in the wrong way to say the least… one side effect that comes to mind is that you end up creating a panel of internal and/or external judges that kill creativity in it’s inception.

  16. So many great points and additions in your thoughts, Justin… thank you.
    “There’s no end to the story, just the end of the reporting.”
    That sounds interesting, but I struggle with how a reader can embrace this and derive value from it as they struggle with mass amounts of content everywhere.

  17. What I meant for the most part by the Picasso quote and what he refers to it by killing it’s soul in simpler terms perhaps would be using a metaphor or a tesseract instead of linear logic going from A-B and it’s done there you have it. If the artist or the writer thinks of their work in the later format they become more and more still and idle or at least I would argue. It has the same effect on the audience and the art, the artist would be closer to the ranks of Pindar’s automatons(and production factories, maybe abit too much but that’s the best metaphor I could come up with at this hour). Take the movie K-Pax or Inception and how it made your mind work in different directions, as opposed to gone with the wind, literally! I do not think too many chefs is a good idea either at least for books and movies, at the end of the day there is one chef, the author that decides how to go about the update or collaborate with more people… updates to one chapter of a book is something you would weigh the value if it is in your -I don’t know- top 3 subjects. It’s a question of the value the update creates (I would not read a Jules Verne Story again in 10 years just because he changed 10% of it, unless I’m crazy about the book) but if it’s an article on a specific let’s say trade policy and the comments or the interactions on a forum leads to improvements of our understanding of it or even better policy change, then great. Of course you will get to a point when making change is possible but the value coming from those activities or changes are not substantial enough that you would consider valuable(I’m sure there are exceptions but limit yourself to 3 subjects). Then you will delete subscription or discontinue engagement to that book, movie or activity, and maybe keep it in your favorites if you think you might go back to it later down the road. I’m sure my argument is still full of holes so please share your point views. Thanks

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