Defining Digital Storytelling

If google results are any indication, ‘digital storytelling’ is a fairly well defined entity. The University of Houston site outlines how to use digital storytelling for teaching and as a learning exercise. Their suggestions, rules, and guidelines are based on those of the Center for Digital Storytelling at Berkeley.  It seems most people construct ‘digital stories’ as part of an assignment that teaches them to use audio and video as primary source material or as a way to rather quickly present an argument with multi-media.

To tell the truth I don’t see much difference between the methodology of digital storytelling and historical documentaries produced for television broadcast. The former, having the advantage of being more easily produced and distributed, are surely at a huge disadvantage in terms of attracting audiences. Historical documentaries use interviews, archival footage and narrative voice-over to make arguments. This seems also to be the major thrust of digital storytelling. The argument does seem to be of more importance in digital storytelling, or at least seems less obscured than the historical documentary’s often inevitable seeming conclusion. However, digital storytelling inherits many of the problems of the historical documentary, particularly in terms of narrative authority, causation, and the use of experience as evidence. Like its linear counterpart, writing, the choice of evidence and its arrangement in documentary often suggests a causation that may be questionable or presentist. Also, the Center for Digital Storytelling encourages participatory production methods, surely an unsettling issue for academics who prize critical distance in analysis. In short, the digital story as it is currently being defined seems to take advantage of online materials and the ease which software allows them to be arranged and interpreted, but doesn’t offer much in the way of new interpretation methods.

I myself recall the time-consuming matter of driving to archives, setting up an easel, and videotaping documents, then copying the video footage to the tape on which my interview or voiceover audio was recorded. Digital storytelling is faster, no doubt, but those setting the rules seem to downplay some of the other advantages of the digital. Those that allow evidence to be annotated, linked or footnoted instead of buried in the credits. Those that might question voice-overs as authority, break down narrative structures, present fuller and more varied patterns of causation, or even deny causation altogether.  For many of us, I’m pretty sure it’s time to stop making the rules and start breaking them.

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5 Responses
  1. tgoodwin says:


    I agree completely! I think this medium is rife with opportunity to broaden, experiment, and “break” these rules! I think it is a normal process to create a set of boundaries that provide a sense of context.
    The thing that comes to mind for me are filmmakers that ahve experimented with the rules of the moving image (Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, Scorsese pop into my head). These filmmakers certainly used the “rules” of film narrative and then applied their own creative ideas and experimented with ways to tell their story.
    Two filmic innovations come to mind. The “Dolly zoom” or “Vertigo Shot” is an example of how the narrative is given emphasis visually:

    The second “rule- breaker” that I’m thinking about is the famous opening shot of “Touch of Evil” by Orson Welles. This is a 3 minute, un-cut crane shot- unheard of at the time.

    I think it is incumbent upon us to know the “rules” and develop ideas and ways to tell digital stories that are unique to ones voice delivered in a style that is equally as unique through creativity and innovation.

  2. Chris King says:

    Breaking the rules sounds pretty good, Andrea, but if we don’t know the rules can we really break them? Your point about the similarities between DST and documentary films is well-taken, so I supposed you can break the documentary film rules in pursuit of novel and creative DST. Are the rules-makers in DST all coming from documentaries, or are there “outsiders” from other disciplines that are engaged in defining the DST framework? Are we still early enough in the growth of DST that the rules can be changed by a single work of creative genius?

    I’m reminded of a quote I once heard from Wynton Marsalis regarding the path to creativity in jazz improvisation: “Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.” For me, I’m still in the “imitate” phase!

  3. jhubai says:

    I agree with you Andrea and the two comments above. By defining digital storytelling, you are trying to define an evolving art. BY the time you figure out its definition, something changes it to create a new definition. I am all about breaking rules when it comes to art. I do, however, am very serious about telling a truthful story.

  4. Andrea Odiorne says:

    Yes, you do have to know the rules to break them and I am not suggesting we throw everything out the window. When you are trying to communicate with people you have to use a language that they understand. Truth, authenticity and authority are issues I am sure will come up often in this class.

    I entered a graduate program in history in order to learn how to better evaluate primary sources and avoid bending them to a preconceived narrative, to tell a story I just kind of wanted to tell. You can find evidence for just about anything now, with advanced search technologies, so it is more important than ever to try to ‘let the sources speak’ and evaluate the authenticity of evidence. I am actually for more rigorous academic work, more objectivity and greater critical distance in conjunction with creativity, not less.