Clarissa – or rather Pamela ­– explains it all: what businesses can learn about storytelling’s future from its past

“The post came six times a day and people discussed Pamela at a LiveJournal rate.” With this reference to the enthusiastic spread of correspondence about Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel across 18th-century Britain – doubtless today we’d talk about it going viral – Lydia Nicholas, Senior Researcher at Nesta (the UK’s innovation charity), introduced a panel discussion on the future of storytelling at FutureFest 2016. Having taken place in September at London’s Tobacco Dock, FutureFest is Nesta’s two-day flagship festival of futuristic ideas.

To re-cap, Pamela is an 18th-century novel written by Samuel Richardson as a series of letters, musing on everything from feminine masquerade to social rebellion. Richardson’s work played a major part in establishing the novel as a popular literary form. After all, this is the person who wrote Clarissa, the longest novel written originally in the English language, brimming with confessions courtesy of its similar epistolary form and dialectical tension.

The novel itself was accompanied by a letter-writing frenzy, as fervent fans wrote to each other incessantly to discuss the latest developments in the letters of Pamela. Parallels between readers’ consumption of Pamela and the voracious appetite for content from members of the LiveJournal fanfiction community suggest that the public’s appetite for stories hasn’t diminished. Instead, just the delivery methods that have changed.

The 'Imagine' room at FutureFest 2016, where 'The future of storytelling' panel took place

The 'Imagine' room at FutureFest 2016, where 'The future of storytelling' panel took place

Now, of course, social media means storytelling can be genuinely instant. Evolving in part out of the limitations of LiveJournal and Fanfiction.net, the likes of Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, and Instagram have provided users with unprecedented access to storytelling – whether as creators, consumers, or participants in wider conversations. Meanwhile, the rise of first the boxset, then Netflix and other streaming services, implies that contemporary audiences are every bit as enthusiastic about episodic and interactive storytelling as their 18th-century counterparts. On top of all this, increasing access to content and making it easier for like-minded fans to find and interact with one another has seen ‘real life’ events catering to previously niche interests grow in size and number.

The greatest lesson for businesses from the evolution of storytelling is the importance of harnessing genuine engagement – from companies trying to tell their corporate story to brands seeking to attract new customers. In the modern world, we’re confronted with so many opportunities to interact with brands, and so much noise, that the concept of ‘engagement’ often loses its core purpose: to interact with an audience on their own terms. In doing so, businesses are able to establish an authentic connection with their audience. This is so important because time is an increasingly stretched – and therefore valuable – commodity, with brands constantly having to compete with the next piece of diverting digital content. Ironically, ubiquitous connectivity is reducing opportunities for businesses to connect emotionally.

Ultimately, it’s critical to make an emotional connection with an audience; by striking an emotional chord with someone, they’re more likely to build an affinity with a company. Digital media knows no boundaries; as Twitter’s ongoing struggle to police discriminatory and bullying behaviour on its platform has shown, combined with Facebook’s fake news crisis, this is certainly not always a good thing. Still, the language of technology is universal, and so its power to engage on a global scale should be harnessed appropriately.

— By Isabelle Dann (Twitter: @izzydann)