Definition and reflection

I think it is important not to put too fine an academic point on a definition of digital storytelling so as not to limit a new medium, but rather to leave it open to various uses, formats, and modes of creation and dissemination.

At the most obvious level, digital storytelling is different from oral, pictorial, or written storytelling in that it is created and/or disseminated using those little electronic 1′s and 0′s in some combination. The digital medium is convertible. It is possible to convert a digitally created or disseminated story back into one of the traditional (non-digital) forms by printing it out, telling someone about it, or reading it aloud.

The most important way in which a digital story makes a difference is in the variety of media that can be used to tell the story. It might be a video or merely audio production of and by more than one person. It can involve sound–voice, music, or sound effects. It can make use of images, both moving and still, photographed or created using art media (crayon, pencil, paint, collage, digital graphics), alone or in combination, manipulated artistically or kept as they were created. An in-person storyteller could use all of these effects in various ways by acting, using props, and incorporating sound. Such a performance could be videotaped or otherwise archived in digital form and become a digital story.

Two aspects of the digital story are decisively innovative: the ease of its creation with inexpensive equipment, owned or borrowed, and the ease of its dissemination to potentially everyone with Internet access through posting online. As a corollary, unlike a non-digital story shared with an audience limited to those present, or those who read it, a digital story can be archived and given permanence. In oral cultures, storytelling was a persistent presence–meaning that story performances happened continuously on various occasions,  usually either by designated persons with special skill or knowledge, often hereditary (a griot, for example), or by individuals in familiar roles–a grandmother, a mother, a male or female elder. In digital storytelling, the persistence of storytelling comes through archiving, viewing many episodes or different examples of people’s stories. The unity and persistence of a body of story material that is common to a group is exchanged for persistent, continual access to a world of stories. Exclusivity is traded for ubiquity. There will be those who feel that stories are enriched by such wide dissemination, and those who feel something is lost because of the potentially infinite access to all the world’s stories–or at least those that come to the attention of those with digital equipment. What is ubiquitous can seem superfluous. The gain or loss equation depends at least in part on the use to which digital stories are put. They can raise awareness, move people to action, change attitudes, or just give pleasure (or pain in some cases). Meaning is what gives a story its value, and it is relative to the listener/viewer.

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