05 March 2022

Book Review: The Sea We Swim In by Frank Rose

The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World
By Frank Rose
W.W. Norton & Co., 256 pages

We’re drowning in stories.

In the 2010s publishing became democratized – anyone could publish a website, a blog or microblog, which is what we used to call social media. Everyone could tell a story. Very few people tell stories of quality, but now anyone can try.

That’s Frank Rose’s world. He’s a certified member of the media industrial complex, the creative class, the techno-elite, call it what you will, and he writes about this world in a recent book, The Sea We Swim In. The story – er, analysis – is at times convincing, scary, informative, partisan and above all insightful. If you work in media or marketing, read it.

Rose uses the words "story" and "narrative" interchangeably, which is a sign of the times because all politics today seems to be a contest of narratives instead of the dialogue it should be. If you lean left, you will enjoy Rose’s passages of progressive narrative. If you lean right, your patience will be tested.

Interestingly, that’s a foundational point Rose makes early in the book: that our perceptions of stories are shaped by the degree to which we identify with them. Rose quotes Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson, who says that by the simple act of telling a story “I’m making your brain similar to mine.” Ah, the goal of every advertiser, reached not by stating a benefit, repeating a USP, or showing a dog or baby, but by telling a powerful story. Later he quotes cognitive scientist Roger Schank, who explains that “human memory is story-based.”

The Nine Elements of Story

The main part of the book is nine chapters describing the elements of story: Author, Audience, Journey, Character, World, Detail, Voice, Platform, Immersion. Two insights about Audience are especially worth noting. The first is that society has flipped from an oversupply of attention and undersupply of information to the opposite. “Time is the only unit of scarcity on the Web,” says Tony Haile, founder of Chartbeat and CEO of Scroll. The second is about the nature of attention, that it means engagement. “If you treat your audience like so many eyeballs, that surface interaction is all you’ll get.” Take note, clickmongers.

The chapter on Platform includes a serviceable taxonomy of platforms, in case you’re in the club that senses this is an overused and hence vague term. It reminded me of the false strategy of early Integrated Marketing Communications, that we should somehow “surround the consumer” (who didn’t want to be surrounded anyway). In Rose’s view we might find a more successful strategy to “invite the consumer” by telling stories in some combination of platforms now available.

The Pros and Cons of Immersion and Engagement

“Immersion” is the last element of story, but it’s also a theme running throughout the book, and a note of caution. Earlier in the book he explains how Christopher Nolan’s Inception was completely understood by gamers, who are accustomed to organizing different worlds and levels, just as the movie’s story was told. This isn’t eyeballs, it’s engagement taken to another level. What happens, however, when the audience is telling the story? The creative director and proprietor of a London VR arcade told Rose, “I realized I wasn’t the storyteller, they were,” referring to his audience.

Technology is developing faster than our ability to see its social impact. If you use any social media you already know that. Consider something more insidious, though. Rose describes a meeting at the Entertainment Technology Center, a think tank funded by the major Hollywood studios. The leader of its Immersive Media Initiative tells Rose, “The ultimate goal is effectively to have multi-sensory input that you can’t tell what is real and what is virtual.”


To his credit, Rose, seemingly deadpan in tone, then writes, “I was starting to wonder about this whole immersion thing.” He increases the worry level when he segues to a story about an ETC scientist who struggled personally with what is real, having disgraced himself as an on-air ABC News consultant with a completely fake résumé, later resurfacing with a different name as an AI industry executive. “I realized the entertainment industry was a great opportunity for AI,” he states, with apparently little self-awareness.

Read this book, because it’s an essential view into what we’re developing – and perhaps what we’re becoming. Meanwhile, remember that the best marketing is stories. Preferably truthful ones in which we can indeed “tell what is real.”

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