Why 'Stories' Took Over Your Smartphone
The format, made popular by Snapchat and Instagram, is the native genre of glass rectangles.
Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, made a remarkable announcement during a keynote at the company’s big conference this week: “The increase in the Stories format,” he explained, “is on a path to surpass feeds as the primary way people share things with their friends sometime next year.”
This caught me off guard. I have been ignoring Stories for years, deeming it a trifle for young people. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, added Stories in 2016, essentially copying it from Snapchat, which inaugurated the format. Facebook itself added the feature in 2017, and WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook, has a similar feature called Statuses.
“Story” is a terrible name for this feature, because it’s so broad as to descend into meaninglessness. In ordinary parlance, a story is a generic name for a narrative account of something. But a Story, of the Instagram and Snapchat sort, is something much more specific. It’s a collection of images and short videos, with optional overlays and effects, that a user can add to over time, but which disappears after 24 hours. Users view a Story in sequence, either waiting out a programmed delay between images or manually advancing to the next.
That’s about the most bizarrely precise definition of “story” I’ve ever heard. But even if Stories aren’t really stories, they deserve careful attention, especially given Cox’s warning. Like them or hate them, Stories might be the first true smartphone media format. And that might mean that they will become the dominant format of the future.
For 25 years after the web commercialized, the things people made online—for home pages, blogs, and eventually social-media sites—happened separately from the devices used to view and interact with that material after publication. A photograph would have to be scanned and uploaded, for example. Text, too, would often be authored somewhere else, then uploaded or emailed.
Eventually, services like Facebook and Twitter tied composition to the platform on which it would be shared. But even then, the process involves translation. When Facebook’s post field asks, “What’s on your mind?” the poster must review their world, process it, and then transform it into writing, video, or sound.
But since 2007, people have been filtering their lives through the window of the smartphone. That name is vestigial now, because it’s only incidental that an iPhone or a Pixel is a telephone. Instead, it’s a frame that surrounds everything that is possible and knowable. A rectangle, as I’ve started calling it.
The rectangle now frames experience. Information is rectangle-shaped, retrieved from searches in Google or apps or voice assistants. Personal communication comes in the form of a list of bubbles spilling down a rectangle. The physical world can be accessed by a map scaled to the boundaries of the rectangle, which can also provide way-finding through it. Music, movies, and television appear on these screens, and increasingly there alone. The rectangle is also an imaging device, capable of capturing a view of the world in front of it and the operator behind it.
Media formats—the actual things people create, use, and share—have been adapting to the smartphone as a platform for both authoring and display. But they’ve been remarkably slow. The 16:9 aspect ratio of most phones makes it easy to watch movies and television, but it also creates a tension between the “natural” way to hold the phone—upright—and the sideways format. The camera continued to produce native images and movies in a 4:3 aspect ratio, that of a pre-HD television.
Instagram offered the first strong signal that these holdovers of prior media were insufficient. To obviate the need to chose an orientation for photos, Instagram pictures are square, recalling the six-by-six-centimeter negatives of medium-format cameras, like the Hasselblad. But this move, along with its simulated-film filters, ties the service to the long lineage of fine-art photography. Why do you think Stephen Shore likes the service so much?
Not so, a Story. It is composed in the heretofore ghastly 9:16 aspect ratio. This is an unholy view, like a widescreen television on its side. But it’s also the standard view of the smartphone display. Taking a photo or video in this orientation clearly and quickly signals that the rectangle is its source.
It’s not just photos, either. Screenshots from the apps where people spend more and more of their time, in messaging conversations, for example, also take this shape. In fact, this tendency drove one of Facebook’s newly announced features: a software integration for Stories that would allow direct posting from an app. A song playing in Spotify, for example, will be able to be inserted into a Story natively, with a link back to the track in question.
Stories is not a technology, nor is it a feature. It is a media format, or even a genre, in the way that a magazine or a murder mystery or a 30-minute television program is. This is also why it’s a little silly to worry about who “copied” Stories from whom, since the whole point of formats and genres is to develop independent of single tools of creation and dissemination. The different styles of Story illustrate the form’s broad uses. On Snapchat, Stories are more informal, making use of the face-filters and geotags common to that platform. On Instagram, filters and Boomerangs and neon text and the like are more frequently used, as that platform’s heavily composed manner warrants.
And that’s also why “Story” is such a terrible name for this format. Contemporary culture’s obsession with storytelling runs so deep, everything has become framed as storytelling, even when it’s clearly not. Most Stories are not storytelling. They are sequenced, which is one of the definitions of narration: an account of events. But sequence is not sufficient to create narrative, and many Stories feel like random collections of unrelated materials. Most of the ones I see on Facebook and Instagram are one- or two-image sequences, hardly enough to play out a day-in-the-life, let alone a moment, anymore.
They are chains of vignettes, as seen through the frame of the smartphone’s rectangle. Moving rectangles, maybe we should call them instead, after moving images, another name for the category that contains film, television, video, and the like.
This category error makes it easy to misunderstand, overlook, or dismiss Stories. Writing at BuzzFeed recently, Katie Notopoulos lamented the rise of Stories, arguing that it’s suffocating the feed. “Our feeds have grown stale,” Notopoulos writes, “littered with ads and celebrities and influencers: people who are still posting actively, professionally, obligatorily.”
What Notopoulos might be feeling is the dissonance of feed-life giving way to Story-life online. The “Story” part—the 24-hour narrative sequence comprised of individual images and moving images—is far less important than the mobile-native format. Every time I look at a Story I feel dissociated, as if I’m looking at something that almost makes sense but yet eludes it. Then again, I don’t really use these services, so I asked my son, an experienced Snapchat and Instagram user, to tell me what I was doing wrong.
“I think disassociation is sort of the point,” he said. “It’s the same reason people go to Coachella just to take photos of themselves there all day.” The liveness of smartphone-authorship, combined with the ephemerality of the Story format, makes it a catalog of the experience of holding and looking through a rectangle almost all the time.
This makes me think of a famous definition of photography by the prolific 20th-century street photographer Garry Winogrand: “A still photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera ‘saw’ a piece of time and space.” Likewise, a Story is the illusion of what your smartphone saw. Or better, of what the hybrid you-and-your-smartphone saw—as if there was a you without a smartphone, anymore.
Once again, there are different versions of that phenomenon. The Instagram version, as my son concluded, is “about pretending you’re living a lifestyle that is so exclusive you can only get a glimpse into it for a few hours before it disappears.” On Snapchat, it’s mostly a series of personal moments for your friends. Facebook wants to develop more of these styles of moving rectangle. Cox even mentioned a few during the keynote: letting groups of soccer parents create a collaborative story, or helping friends construct a record of events, like at a concert. These examples are social, which is no surprise for Facebook. But you can also imagine many others as the shift from images to rectangled images proceeds.
“Photography is not about the thing photographed,” Winogrand once said. “It is about how that thing looks photographed.” And likewise, a Story is not about the things sequenced in the story. It is about how those things look through the sensors and software of a smartphone. It’s a dubious sensation, to stare down the barrel of that future. On the one hand, the smartphone is clearly popular and important enough to overthrow its ancestors, replacing them while incorporating the DNA of their media. But on the other hand, the smartphone can already feel like an oppressive, hazardous window onto the world.
No matter how you feel about the matter, it’s easy to guess what Facebook thinks: If that future is likely, or even just possible, better to design for it than to miss the boat. As my colleague Alexis Madrigal recently put it, “Facebook wants to be the identity layer of everything as the company accelerates the merging of our digital and physical selves.” And the growth in Stories, Cox concluded during the keynote, “is really insane.”