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What's the Right Storytelling Platform for Your Pictures? 10 Questions to Help You Choose

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This post is part of a series called The New Photo Essay.
Make a Photo Story With Atavist: Long Form Visual Narrative

We’re a storytelling species. I don’t know if other animals share stories in a way unknown to us, but we humans have been doing it pretty well since we began walking upright. Cave paintings—arguably our first evidence of storytelling—date back almost 40,000 years. Most religious principles are taught with stories. We inform each other and attempt to understand other cultures and events by sharing stories. Whether it’s cave art, cuneiform tablets, scrolls, pamphlets, books, glossy magazines, newspapers, or broadcasts, we cluster our information for sharing as stories.

Cave Art Lascaux Caves France
The earliest discovered cave art dates back to about 32,000 BCE. This art in Lascaux Caves, France is approximately 17,300 years old. Photograph by Jack Versloot (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The landscape for stories has changed over the last decade. Technology and social media have provided us with new platforms for storytelling. We don’t receive stories from authenticated sources as much now as we did over the last century. Established newspapers and magazine journalists are no longer our primary storytellers. Rather, we—millions of individuals speaking as individuals—initiate threads of information, which are collected together and knit into stories as we meet in social media.

This new platform for storytelling correlates to an increasing social interest in the nature and purpose of storytelling. Businesses, charities, and social movements are increasingly making deliberate use of storytelling to advance their causes. On a personal level, we are increasingly turning to social media and Internet-connected apps to build and share stories. Sharing a package of newly printed photos with a friend over coffee has been replaced by organized packages of text, photos, and video shared by Internet with friends and anyone else who is interested in looking.

The change—as with all changes—has both good and bad consequences. Photojournalists are being laid off and print publications are declining. But the vast reach of Internet-sourced stories, told to individuals using visually rich electronics, is igniting previously unseen engagement with stories told as mixed visual and textual narratives. Internet-based storytelling platforms provide photojournalists with new opportunities for sharing their news, photographers with new opportunities to profile their work, and all people with new opportunities to self-publish their personal stories.

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” —Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

The question is no longer what will replace oral or printed storytelling, but do we want to use this emerging Internet-based storytelling platform, and if so, on which stage?

Should You Self-Publish Your Stories?

More people—professional photographers, hobbyist photographers, and family record keepers—elect to tell their stories on Internet-based self-publishing platforms. Facebook is the easiest, most accessible and widely-used personal communications platform. Judging by the number of personal stories, complete with photographs and videos, shared on Facebook, we’ve got a lot to say. Facebook is also, now, among the most limiting storytelling platforms. Take a look at some of the newer purpose-driven self-publishing platforms and you’ll find a lot of people saying what they want to say with creativity and control. Contributors range from high-profile photojournalists such as Steve McCurry to unknown neighbours telling the story of their vacation travels.

Cemetery headstones
Cemeteries are filled with stories, carved into stone to be shared for generations. Photograph by Dawn Oosterhoff.

However, just because many are doing it doesn’t mean that you should do it. Before uploading your images and adding text for all to see—Oh, how heady is that?—consider the following.

Question One: Why Do You Want to Self-Publish Your Story?

There are many reasons to participate in Internet-based storytelling:

  • To generate leads or promote your business activities
  • To increase your social media following
  • To share your experiences, big and small, with a limited or expanded audience
  • To exercise your creativity in new ways

There are also reasons to be cautious about participating in Internet-based storytelling.

Self-publishing will increase your visibility in one way or another, but it also may make your work more visible than you intend. Consider who will see your stories and how they might respond to them. Also consider the impact of widely sharing creations that you might intend to one day sell as limited editions, licensed work, or with exclusive publishing rights. Remember that in any event, once your material is out there on the Internet, it’s out. You may remove your story at some point, but Internet trails can last a very long time.

As well, while self-publishing may increase your visibility, the increase may only be a minor or short-lived bump. If you’re keen to participate in Internet-based storytelling, you may not mind—and even enjoy—putting in time and energy to learn the basics and refine your craft. But if your time is limited, you might get better return on your efforts with other marketing or self-promotion practices.

Question Two: Is This a Personal Art Project or Do You Intend to Profit From Your Story?

Self-publishing stories may generate leads and attract clients, but it may also preclude you from publishing your work in other forums. Many publishers don’t want used news; they want first, and sometimes exclusive, rights to material. Your self-published story may have caught an editor’s attention, but it’s now old news.

Similarly, if you provide stories online for free—storytelling platforms don’t pay you for your work and some require that you pay to post your work—editors and publishers may well expect you to provide those and other stories to them for free as well.

The Boyhood of Raleigh Sir John Everett Millais
A seafarer tells young boys the story of what happened out at sea. Sir John Everett Millais, The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870) via Tate Museum (Public Domain).

Where Should You Self-Publish Your Stories?

If you decide that you do want to self-publish your story on an Internet-based platform, you then have to decide which platform you’ll use. The same features may be offered by more than one option, but each platform will handle in its own way. Choosing a platform is somewhat like choosing a new camera: you need to think about what features and functions you want, then test your choices to assess the fit and form for you.

And that leads me to an advisory note. In doing my research, I found I really had to hunt and poke around to get information about a platform without first signing up and creating an account. The general assumption seems to be either people don’t mind creating accounts and abandoning them if the platform doesn’t work for them, or people don’t need information and details up front, but only in context, once in the process.

That said, to help you assess functions and features, consider the next questions. I haven't caught every platform or feature—things on the Internet change too fast for that to be even possible—but I will have provided you with a start.

Question Three: Who Is Your Audience?

In my mind, the first and most important question to ask anytime you are preparing content for someone else to view is, whom do you intend to share your stories with?

Consider how your audience accesses the Internet and uses social media. Are they novice users with only a desktop computer? If so, they are likely to be frustrated by platforms that are built primarily for viewing on a smartphone. Conversely, if your audience is young and hip with smartphones replete with every social media app available, they will be frustrated with platforms that don’t resize for different devices.

Will your users need to sign up for a membership or purchase an app in order to see your work? This will be a non-issue if you’re planning to primarily share your content with a community sharing the same platform. However, if you’re targeting a general audience or potential clients, they may balk at having to commit to any platform just to check out your work. A need to sign up for a membership or install even a free app will also add another step between you and your audience. In this age of short time opportunities, any additional layer between you and your audience decreases your reach and your effectiveness.

Think about how your audience will view your work once they have accessed it. Will your audience be viewing your content on a small, low-resolution screen or on a large, high-resolution television? How much time will your audience have to view your content? If your audience consists of busy people with just minutes to spare, they are not going to take the time to read text-heavy content with only a few images. Conversely, an audience with slow Internet or low-resolution monitors are going to be frustrated by content that is heavy with high-resolution images. And if your audience will be viewing your content on large monitors or televisions, avoid storytelling platforms that compress your images to deliver low-resolution versions.

Rosetta Stone detail
The Rosetta Stone (housed in the British Museum) was key to unlocking stories of generations past. Photograph by Cristian Bortes (CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Question Four: What Company Will You Keep?

Thinking about your audience for a storytelling platform is also a question of checking out the company you keep. Some platforms are for both professional and casual users. Stories about the kids at the cottage live side by side with stories about the breakdown of a city neighbourhood. Other platforms target photographers—especially well-known, professional photographers—or are decidedly oriented toward family and friends.

If you’re planning to share stories about your recent cycling trip on a winery tour in France with family and friends, you’ll want to avoid storytelling platforms that profile charitable organizations and social causes. On the other hand, if you’re planning to use images and text to encourage people to contribute to land preservation for a community park, you’ll want to avoid platforms that feature social chit-chat with stories about dogs’ noses and paws. And if you’re intending to profile your work as an artist to entice potential clients to consider hiring you, you’ll want to avoid platforms largely populated with mixed quality media and narratives.

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” ―Ursula K. Le Guin, novelist

Storytelling platforms also seem to attract like-minded participants, which tends to give some platforms a social or political orientation. That may not matter to you, but if you’re using a story to raise your profile for business, you’ll want to check out the storytelling neighbourhood before building on your platform of choice. To get a feeling for the storytelling neighbourhood, take a broad look at the stories featured on the homepage of the platform. Take some time to review a few of the stories hosted past the homepage of the platform. The platform’s “About Us” information will also provide some clues about the users the host is attracting.

Illuminated manuscript and painted wall frescoes
Stories are commonly used to share philosophies and religious tenets. Photograph by Dawn Oosterhoff.

Question Five: How Do You Want to Combine Images, Videos, and Text in Telling Your Story?

Established photo-sharing websites such as Instagram are primarily designed for sharing single images. Some websites, such as Facebook, allow you to share a small album of images, but your control over how the images are presented is limited. Storytelling platforms are relatively complex and allow the user to take more control over how the material is presented; however, the amount of control and what you control varies site to site.

Some platforms, for example, embed video with YouTube and Vimeo whereas other sites offer a seamless integration that plays video within your story structure. Some platforms are built primarily for text with options to add illustrative photos whereas other sites are built primarily for photos with options to add explanatory text. To determine what you need, think about what media you intend to use to tell your stories and prioritize the features you want to use.

A crew filming Charlton Heston in the movie Julius Caeser
Making a story about a story. Crew filming the 1950 movie Julius Caesar, starring Charlton Heston. Photograph by Chalmers Butterfield (CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Question Six: Are You Willing to Pay for Hosting?

Many storytelling platforms are free. They generate revenue through advertising, a partnered e-zine publication, or alliance with a larger brand. Other platforms offer limited use for free and require that you pay for anything more. If you opt for a free storytelling platform, consider your comfort level with the site’s revenue generating model. If you’re willing to pay for hosting, review the pricing options and opt-out features, and consider the return on your investment. A small monthly fee may seem attractive but not if your goal is to increase your web presence and the platform doesn’t offer site analytics.

Question Seven: Is Your Priority Social Capital, Artistic Product, or Profile?

No one says you can’t have it all, but storytelling platforms have their own priorities. Some platforms put their energy into helping users be found. These platforms tend to have good search features on their sites and be plugged into Internet-wide search engines. They may offer analytics and options for linking your story to other social media accounts.

Other platforms prioritize the quality of content. They may invite well-known photographers to contribute stories, maintain a feed of site-selected stories, or feature selected stories in an e-zine. If your intent is to market your story or raise interest in purchasing similar stories, you’ll want to choose a storytelling platform that attracts a regular trail of professional photographers and editors, features curated content, or has a rating system.

BBC Newsroom British House London England
We inform each other about cultures and events through the news. BBC News Room, Broadcasting House, London, England. Photograph by Deskana (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Question Eight: How Much Design Control Do You Want—Or Not Want?

Some of us are great with photographs and words, but are frustrated by Internet-based programming options. Others may be equally frustrated by the limitations of modular or drag-and-drop web design. Be certain to have a good look at the backend of your chosen storytelling platform before committing hours to a frustrating design experience. Regardless of your web designing experience, be sure to check out the range of design options offered by the platform. Some platforms offer very limited design options. Others offer design options only as packages, meaning you have a choice between a few packages and each package comes complete with set fonts, background colour, and page layout. This may be a relief or annoying, depending upon your needs and expectations.

Question Nine: What Kind of Help Does the Platform Offer?

In my research, I didn’t find any of the storytelling platforms difficult to use. In fact, most seemed very simple, but then I seem to have a lucky, intuitive sense for these things. You may not.

Before you commit to a platform, look for the help menu, blog, or list of frequently asked questions. Is any of it easy to find? Is the content searchable? Is there a users’ forum? If you’re a “dive in and make it work” kind of person, none of this may matter. However, if you’re most successful when you have a manual for reference, you’ll be frustrated if every option requires an in-depth search for guidance. If you’re a novice user of self-designed web platforms, you may also want to determine what, if any, one-on-one help is available to users.

Question Ten: What Are You Committing To?

Read the terms and guidelines. I know it’s boring reading, but this is your work you’re putting up on a platform maintained by an organization that has its own needs. Overall, I was impressed with how the various platforms strived to make the terms and guidelines approachable and understandable, so you won’t find the research too onerous.

You want to be clear about who owns your work once it is posted. What can be done with your work and by whom? Can it be redistributed by the hosting organization? If redistributed with credit, is this a bonus for you? What happens with your work when you delete it or close your account?

While reading the terms and guidelines, measure your content against the platform’s publishing guidelines. Some platforms, for example, offer an option to mark your story as “mature content” if your story contains nudes. Other platforms will not allow posting of even the most artistic nude photographs. Some platforms also make it clear that they will remove content that is discriminatory or fails in another way to meet the platform’s social ideology.

Tell Your Story

Telling stories—however you tell your stories—can be a way to connect with others, a means of influencing change, or a method of educating, but in all cases, telling stories stretches something within ourselves. If you decide to explore storytelling using an Internet-based platform, start your search by reading review articles listing the top ten or twelve or twenty storytelling platforms. When you’ve narrowed down your list, use the questions above to determine which platform is the best one for you.

I do hope you will explore storytelling in your own way. Earlier in this series we looked at how to create a story with Atavist, and in the rest of the series we'll continue to explore new and exciting options. If you are exploring new frontiers in visual storytelling in a way that involves sharing with others, do tell us about it and add a link in the comments below.

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