The Instagram generation’s love for pint-sized fiction

Hemingway novels might not be their thing, and the familiar lament about the death of reading might cast a judgmental eye towards them, but the Instagram generation actually loves words, so long as they come in limited quantities. One hundred and forty characters, preferably.

Microfiction, or stories told in 140 characters or thereabouts (to fit the original word-count of a text message or tweet), has a growing fan following on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. A number of creative shops and platforms catering to this demand have cropped up, serving up a melange of work done in-house and contributed by readers. Brands that struggle to market to millenials who shun traditional channels, love collaborating with these platforms.

Very short stories, or flash fiction, of course has a long history. One apocryphal story attributes the most famous tiny tale in the world to Ernest Hemingway. He is said to have bet a lunch table of friends that he could write a short story in six words. “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”, he wrote on a napkin, and passed it around to collect his winnings. His authorship of the tale has been contested but the six-word story’s popularity has endured. It is of course incredibly hard to tell a story in so few words. And sure enough, a lot of what appears on the popular microfiction platforms will likely leave you unmoved, but every once in a while, they hit the spot.

One of the earliest and most popular microfiction platforms is Terribly Tiny Tales (TTT), which puts out its stories on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and its app.
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TTT was started by 31-year-old Anuj Gosalia in 2013 on Facebook with a team of 15 writers, putting out a micro-tale a day. At the time, he was running an ad agency called Not Like That. Chintan Ruparel, 30, was one of the writers in the team and became cofounder in 2014.

TTT’s design — plain white text against a black background — stood out from the clutter of “cat memes and jokes on social media”, says Ruparel. Gosalia saw the potential in the stories and decided to throw the platform open to the audience. They created a URL through which the community could send in their submissions, which the team curated and published. Today, TTT has around 903,000 followers on Instagram, 1.1 million on Facebook and more than a 100,000 app installs. That’s the kind of popularity publishers of longer fiction would give a limb for.

Instagram now has scores of such pages built on this user submission and curation formula. The Scribbled Stories, Scratched Stories, Scrawled Stories and Washroom Stories are among them. The majority of the audience is millennials. Some 55-65% of micro-fiction’s Instagram audience is between 18 and 24, according to audience data the founders shared.
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This age segment also happens to be the most elusive for marketers. Brands love to catch people young and young people in recent years have proved particularly hard to reach, with their indifference to traditional media and any social media platforms that their parents are on.

This has meant a happy confluence of interests — the microfiction platforms have become highly monetisable and brands love being able to reach millenials at relatively low costs. But it’s a tightrope walk. If your audience feels you are selling them out for commercial gain, rebellion and boycott can ensue. So the kind of advertising that happens on these platforms are also different. Sometime it will have little in common with traditional notions of advertising.
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Often, a brand’s audience itself writes the content of the advertising, as part of a promotion. The brand logo might make a discreet appearance, but taglines or brand names in the content are avoided. “We won’t throw products in people’s faces,” says Ruparel.

In fact, brands that have overt product placement actually have poorer engagement and reach, says 19-year-old Mohit Kumar, who co-founded The Scribbled Stories (TSS) with 20-year-old Omair Tarique. TSS is also present on Snapchat, where the audiences are mostly 16 to 19 years old, says Kumar.

This has become the primary source of revenue for microfiction platforms. Brands pay anywhere between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 12 lakh for a month-long collaboration with a platform, depending on the size of the audience and engagement achieved.

Ice cream brand Cornetto’s twoyear-long campaign with TTT, called Summer of Love, was so popular that they printed 200 microtales on 10 crore ice cream cones across the country, says Gosalia.
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Consumer retailer Big Bazaar also collaborated with TTT for a Ramzan campaign called Neki ka mahina (Month of goodness), doing a series of tweet-sized stories about good deeds. Yash Sanghvi, marketing manager at Future Group (which owns BigBazaar) says it’s a way for established brands like BigBazaar to stay young. If bite-sized stories are getting popular, so are bite-sized videos. Both TTT and TSS have a short-film division, both of which do branded content.

Ruparel says they see films as a natural extension to text. TTT is also putting up intimate, selfie-style films that are shot in first person on Instagram’s video platform called IGTV.

Most of these platforms, like TTT, actually started on Facebook and have more followers there than on Instagram. But engagement — the number of people reading and commenting per post — is much higher on the latter, according to all the founders. For example, a oneline microtale on TTT’s Instagram page — “Bride burns, illuminating another statistic” — had more than 6,000 likes, whereas the same on Facebook only had about 150. Ruparel says Facebook’s organic traction — the number of people you reach without having to promote your post — was great until its algorithm changed, prioritising friends’ posts over those of pages in the newsfeed. “Thankfully, Instagram came up around then.” Bite-sized, visually attractive posts like TTT’s were perfect for Instagram. But engagement — the number of people reading and commenting per post — is much higher on the latter writing prompts based on its latest releases. “HaikuJAM’s users are already avid writers or involved in literary pursuits and we¡¦ve always encouraged new writers and new voices,” says Vaishnavi singh, content marketing lead at Penguin Random House India.
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Monetising communities is the next level with these platforms. Karwa says he is now shifting from brand collaborations to “strategic partnerships” with like-minded brands like Penguin.

Innervoice does branded poetry events, while TSS and TTT host writing workshops in colleges and other spaces. Gosalia says the idea of doing workshops came from the community itself. “We got a lot of questions asking how we write this [microfiction]. We’ve just listened to the community.”

And the community now wants a little more than 140 characters. TTT and many other platforms now put out longer posts – poems, short stories or even letters, although the most impactful lines will still feature in a card on top. “Longer formats allow for more immersive reading,” says Megha Rao, 22, a full-time curator and writer for TTT. A published author, she likes TTT because she doesn’t have to tame down her pieces on mental illness or feminism, which she might have to for mainstream publishing.

Purists might mock microfiction as literature for the lazy but for fans, it has the same moving impact that literature in its longer forms can have. “I once got a message from a reader who said he was about to kill himself, but didn’t because he stayed up all night reading my post and felt better,” says Rao.
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Source: Economic Times