I’ve been thinking about the term “storytelling” and wondering if it is really the best term for the interactive potential of the digital “Web 2.0” environment. Implied in storyTELLING is a focus of the “teller” of the story and not the interaction with and participation in the story. The author is the active party (i.e. the teller) and the audience is the passive party (i.e. the story tellee). An audience may not even be necessary for storyTELLING at all. Although it reminds me of the old riddle “if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound?,” storyTELLING implies that communication is not required for a story to be told. In other words, the term implies that if a story is told and no one hears, storyTELLING still took place. Might “interactive storyMAKING” better embrace the communal nature of web 2.0?

Simple, interactive stories have been around for a while. I recall enjoying “choose your own ending” books and “Encyclopedia Brown” mysteries which invite the reader to parse a story for clues and figure how the bad guy (usually a kid named Bugs Meanie) got caught. But in these instances, the narrative is still tightly controlled and a clear, delineated relationship between the author and the reader exists. Yes, this environment is interactive, but this is still storyTELLING in the sense that the author has created something for the reader. Video games like Myst that were mentioned in the readings are “high-tech” versions of the same paradigm.

A more interactive, open-ended model involves abandoning the notion of authorship altogether. At the risk of exposing my inner geek, my most powerful experience with truly interactive storytelling involves Dungeons and Dragons. I used to get together with a group of seven guys approximately one evening a month for about 5 hours to play. Over the course of 6 years, we developed a story arc to which everyone contributed. No single person could be considered the “author” or storyTELLER, yet there was most certainly an interactive compelling narrative which engaged all participants. Although I don’t have any personal experience with “The Sims” or “Second Life,” my understanding is that these games use technology to create a virtual environment to build the same kind of dynamic, interactive, communal storylines.

The digital environment has the potential to change some aspects of academic writing, but to the extent that academia rewards authorship as “contributions to the field,” I don’t see the paradigm of storyTELLING changing. Academics receive social, professional, and financial rewards for writing/creating in their own name (and the name of the institutions they represent), not engaging in anonymous communal experiences or repositories of information like Wikipedia. Our social structure is so intimately tied to notions of authorship, ownership, and property that the role of the storyTELLER (and the product he/she creates) is buttressed in innumerable ways.

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3 Responses
  1. sdouglass says:

    I’m going to sound like a broken record, but we who have grown up in the age of radio, tv and movies, and storybooks galore will likely imagine our world to be the normal one. To the contrary, many cultures have participatory story traditions, dramatic renderings in which the audience takes part, grannies and other significant persons who engaged children with never-ending, always changing stories in response to external and internal events. Storytelling is just a term, but one that embraces word, dance, music, chant and picture in many, sometimes multiple forms. The broken record part is that I don’t think there is much new under the sun in terms of the thing, but much is new in terms of the audience reached and the medium of the internet as a dissemination, feedback and creative/communicative tool.

    • jgiampa says:

      I concur on the broken record debate. When everything is said and done the best stories are the ones spoken in the flesh. My five year old son asks me to tell him a story every night. I start out with the plot being about him and usually end up with some kind of virtuous lesson. Stories usually try to make a point and I think it is only human that we all want to connect in some way. Storytelling is a way of connecting and the medium throughout history has changed but the connection and reason behind the telling has not waivered.

  2. dcook6 says:

    I had the same reaction to the term web 2.0 storytelling, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it until I read your blog. The term storymaking does seem to be a better fit. I think people use old terms for new technologies to make the new users feel more comfortable, given that most people fight change. Since storytelling has been around since the dawn of time, a person sitting down for the first time to engage in a game like Myst (who isn’t a teenager) may be less intimidated by being told it is just an ‘interactive story’.

    I also agree that the value placed on authorship and ownership are quite strong, especially as it is tied to capitalism. No one wants to be cut out of their share of the pie, especially the academic institutions.