Joseph Sunny
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Why media formats (like Snapchat Stories ...

Why media formats (like Snapchat Stories and TikTok music videos) become hits?

Oct 22, 2020

Why media formats (like Snapchat Stories and TikTok music videos) become hits?

On September 23rd, Pinterest officially launched a new feature called Story Pins to make it easier for Pinterest creators to “share their talent, passions and creativity”. A day later on September 24th, LinkedIn announced Stories to provide their users “a more human way of sharing”. And with those two releases, an important milestone happened: every single one of the Top 8 most popular social platforms in the US now offer their own version of Stories. That would be YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter, and WhatsApp all providing their users a similar vertical media format for telling a narrative using a collection of images, videos, and overlay text optimized for vertical phone orientation.

Example Stories from the Top 8 social platforms

It’s fitting that nearly 7 years to the day when Snapchat first introduced Stories on October 3rd, 2013, the format has now been embraced by all the major social platforms across hundreds of millions of people in the US. While there may not be a single social platform that’s won over all users, there’s apparently a single media format that’s won over all social platforms.

Goldilocks Format

Why does any media format become a dominant format? What makes a media format go from “introduction to creators” to “widely used by creators”? It comes down to two things: simplicity and storytelling.

For a media format to be widely adopted, it’s important for it to be easy to create content with. Similarly, it helps if that format can be used to tell rich, complex narratives. So more simplicity and more storytelling leads to a more valuable and popular media format. But here’s the rub: simplicity and storytelling are inversely correlated. The more storytelling capabilities you want out of your media format, the more complex the media format inevitably becomes.

To illustrate the relationship between simplicity and storytelling, I’ve created the below 2x2 Media Format Map:

Media formats end up trading off simplicity for storytelling and vice versa as more storytelling requires more complexity, and more simplicity limits storytelling abilities. But the media format remains valuable as long as it can manage this tradeoff and offer creators some combination of easy creation or powerful narratives. Media formats that are both difficult to make and limited in storytelling abilities (i.e. the bottom left quadrant outside the gray band) don’t last long. Similarly, media formats that are both simple to make and powerful storytelling tools (i.e. the top right quadrant outside the gray band) don’t really exist. You can’t expect to have it all.

Now if you plot all the mainstream media formats into the Format Map, it might look something like this:

VR, books, and longform video are hard to create media formats but provide rich storytelling capabilities. Conversely, shortform text and photos are much easier to create but limited in the types of narratives they can be used to tell.

So then where does the Stories format lie on the Format Map? Roughly in the middle, which is a large part of its genius. Stories are a perfect compromise of ease of creation and richness of resulting media narrative. In other words, Stories are easy enough for lots of people to create with, yet provide enough functionality such that the resulting media creations are interesting and compelling.

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