What’s the Story?

Read any good stories lately? Maybe not, but Facebook thinks you read a lot of them—thousands, in fact—though “reading” may not be the term to describe what you’re doing.

I check Facebook with an unseemly regularity. I’m not sure what I check it for, though a lot of my academic friends have accounts, and a good thing, too.

If they didn’t I’d miss out on many important things. Their locations at airports. Pictures of sunsets. Kids in costumes. Cats (not in costume—costumed animals are almost always dogs). HuffPo repostings. A variegated display of political outrage. Birthday wishes. Plus the occasional announcement of a forthcoming lecture.

I don’t object to any of this. Facebook isn’t a news ticker; it’s more like a grocery store or one of those sushi bars with little dishes on conveyor belts.

Facebook knows I don’t have to take everything, or read everything. No one will hold me responsible for knowing about Fluffy or about the best grandkids ever or the details of a recipe from Calabria. I can pick what I want to read.

Forgive me, my fellow posters. You give so much. I don’t read everything you put up, but we’re still FB friends. When I need a cat picture I stop and look at a cat picture. That is all.
But I’m struck by what Facebook thinks you’re posting.

A little box at the top of my Facebook account reads “10+ new stories.” These aren’t just random brain droppings, as the literary theorist George Carlin could have put it, but stories.

In what sense are these stories?

Wondering just why a Facebook posting might count as a story, I turn to my iPod  where, through the magic of  iTunes, I am able to store hundreds of songs.

My iPod collection is due for a purge, but the designated survivors will include Ella Fitzgerald’s  Songbook albums, the late Beethoven sonatas, and a couple of operas. The “Hammerklavier” is, by this logic of genre, composed of four songs, though outside of Apple-think they’re called movements. Lohengrin is a romantic German opera in three acts. To my iPod, though, it’s just three songs by Richard Wagner.

In what sense are these songs?

In The Pirates of Penzance the plucky Mabel urges men on to battle, promising that they will be immortalized “in song and story.” Once upon a time, the phrase “song and story” offered a vision of fame based on endless narrative retellings, both with and without musical accompaniment.

The phrase “song and story” feels old now, so old-fashioned, in fact, that it would be surprising to find it in an essay where it wasn’t being used with some sort of irony.

My story and song  examples aren’t really mysteries. Story sounds nicer than entry, and song sounds nicer than cut. But there are other processes at work, of which these are merely symptoms.

Social media and the digitization of everything, including music, are busily reshaping language. But are they reinventing genre, too? I think we know the answer is yes.

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