The Biggest Front Porch

The medium changes the way we tell our stories

April 20, 2010

Joseph Janes

There are few pleasures in life as rewarding as being in the presence of a great storyteller—an opportunity I get every year when the University of Washington SLIS hosts the Spencer Shaw Lecture, in honor of our beloved emeritus faculty member. This year’s treat was Patricia McKissack, whose talk was titled “On the Front Porch of My Mind.”

Her love for storytelling started on a (real) front porch where, as a girl, she would sit with family and neighbors, gathering to quilt or shell peas, sharing and passing down stories and along the way building a sense of community and togetherness that’s easy to envy.

Style without substance

I was ruminating on this the other day when I was whizzing through the Thursday style section of the New York Times. In between the incredibly superficial and largely useless advice (apparently linen for men is in this summer; I’ll have to get right on that, as soon as I find someone to follow me around with a hand steamer all day), there were several articles that reflected the times we live in:

  • Couples who fight by trading passive-aggressive—or worse—status updates on Facebook (ick);
  • A movement among young Jewish professionals to promote (via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube) a National Day of Unplugging, encouraging people to turn off all their electronic devices for the Sabbath;
  • A feature piece on the former editor of the defunct Jane magazine, who now edits Yahoo’s website for women called Shine, which is about to get some competition in the form of a rival site from MSN;
  • And, on the back page, the potential drawbacks of texting or chatting while exercising; the distraction can help to pass the time, though leaning forward might diminish the value of the workout.

These made up at least half the section, which demonstrates either that the Times was hard up for copy that week, or that our notion of “lifestyle” is now inextricably digital in nature. Probably both. And I didn’t even include the column musing on the inability of just getting lost in a GPS world.

Picture yourself as a little girl on that front porch, stitching and listening, shucking and absorbing, and then, one day, tentatively, shyly, trepidatiously, trying out your first story.That experience has been replicated, on front porches, in marketplaces, in front of barber shops, around water coolers, in the agora and around the campfire, for millennia.

Tools tell the tale

The front porch is now a whole lot bigger. We tell our stories, in all their myriad forms, from the puppet show to the journal article and the textbook, using whatever tools are around, and sometimes we even invent a new tool when the story requires it. In the process, the medium shapes the message and vice versa. (Could the novel have arisen without the printing press? And didn’t radio just repurpose the epic as the soap opera?)
As the internet grows and changes, it will change the ways we tell those stories, and eventually, the stories themselves, and then, ultimately, us as the tellers and hearers. We will be different people and societies. Will that be for the good? Hard to say, although as McKissack told us, “Different is not a synonym for wrong.”

Her travels have taken her, among other places, to Gee’s Bend, Alabama, where the quilters there told her how to stop an infant’s teething pain. Apparently the secret is to put an egg in the baby’s sock and tack it over a doorway they go through. Don’t say I never give practical advice here . . . but that’s another story.

Joseph Janes is associate professor in the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle. Send ideas to


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