Online Storytelling: Story vs Meta-Story

There is something that has been gnawing at me for several months now. I’ve been suffering from a bout of cognitive dissonance ever since I attended the Book Passage Travel Writing Conference last August. I sat in on the sessions by Spud Hilton, the travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. During his 4-day sessions, one of the points he brought up was that the story “is not about you”.

I think he makes a valid point. If you are writing about the Russian winter, then the story is about the Russian winter. He backed this up by confirming what I’ve been saying for years; no one reads the byline on articles. No one knows or remembers who wrote anything.

Online, however, people often do remember who wrote something. They follow individuals on Twitter and subscriber to the blogs of particular individuals. There are many individuals who have personal followings larger than some media outlets. Online it seems, personality isn’t only important, it is really important.

So how do you resolve these two seemingly contradictory things? Just because you read something in pixels instead of ink doesn’t mean that the rules of telling a good story have changed. Likewise, the tendency of people to follow individuals online should be obvious to everyone.

The answer lies in understanding the difference between a story and a meta-story.

Most readers have no idea what they are getting when they receive a new issue of a magazine or a newspaper. They didn’t subscribe because there was an article on a particular subject scheduled at some point in the future. They subscribed because the publication made a promise as to what it was it was about.

National Geographic is different than People Magazine. Most people would call this branding. It is the implicit promise of what you are going to get in the future. I can be almost 100% certain that the article about ivory poaching will appear in National Geographic and the one about Kim Kardashian’s baby will appear in People.

In a publication, people are interchangeable. Most people have no clue who the editor or publisher is of any magazine they subscribe to. Even if they see a byline on an article, they have no idea who the person is or what their back story is. Moreover, if that person is a freelance writer, there is no way they can follow that person to read more of them even if they wanted to.

Online, that all changes.

If someone reads a post from me on my blog, they can easily find out more about me. They can read articles on similar subjects that I’ve written about. They can see my face and hear my voice.

When you read an article in a travel magazine, you usually have no idea how experienced a traveler the writer is. On my site, you can see a full list of every place I’ve ever been.

The decision to follow someone online is similar to the decision to subscribe to a magazine or newspaper except instead of the promise of a brand, there is a meta-story.

Meta-story is the term I’m using instead of brand to describe individuals. The idea of a brand really doesn’t apply to people, despite the attempts of social media gurus to apply it. A meta-story is exactly what it implies. It is the backstory to you and your life. It is the collection of your values, priorities, personality and history that makes you who you are. Meta-story is a rather vague term that can apply to any number of things, all of which result in a reader wanting to hear more from that person in the future.

The resolution to the conflict I described above is in understanding the nature of a story vs. a meta-story and the difference between playing the role of writer vs. that of publisher.

Individuals have followings online because of their meta-stories. What makes a good story, however, hasn’t changed.

We have all read articles online that did not result in following the author to read the next thing they published. Being a good storyteller and having a good meta-story are two different things.

I’m sure that the vast majority of the people who follow me do so because of my meta-story. A guy who travels around the world full time is inherently interesting. That doesn’t necessarily make me a good storyteller, however. I’ve had to work hard to become a better photographer and I’m still working at becoming a better writer.

Likewise, being a good storyteller doesn’t mean you have a compelling meta-story. There are plenty of good writers I’ve met who provide no compelling reason for people to follow them. Even if there is a compelling meta-story, a vehicle has to be in place for people to discover it. A byline just doesn’t cut it anymore.

A good story isn’t about the writer, but a good meta-story is.

Good storytelling hasn’t changed, but publishing has. A good story can bring people in and a good meta-story can keep them coming back.

By Gary

3 dimples. 7 continents. 130 countries.

2 replies on “Online Storytelling: Story vs Meta-Story”

It was a very interesting article. Currently I am also learning to be a good story-teller, but I do not like to share a lot about myself.. it is rather cultural. So comes the struggle and a lot of learning, how one can be interesting through the stories without the need to tell to the world whether I have a younger brother, or my favorite subject was geography at school 🙂


Thanks for sharing this. As I read this, I found myself wondering if too often am writing two meta-stories.

Hi, I’m Dave and I did this. Instead of: Hi, I’m Dave, let me tell you about this.

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