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DST

The final product in digital storytelling is a tale where the imagination, that listeners previously employed through oral traditions, is now visualized through digital medium. At its heart, it should have a compelling tale and/or whimsical story, and fully engage audiences. On the surface, then, DST simply seems like oral stories with elements unique to a digital format (sounds, video, photos, computer effects).

Digging deeper, DST also contains elements that can be exciting and depressing at the same time.

One of the more exciting possibilities that DST opens up is the democratization of story-telling. You no longer need a fine arts degree/background to produce your story. In this vein, it is similar to what digital cameras did for photography…now everyone thinks they are an Amsel Adams or an Annie Liebovitz (see: the near-extinction of Photo labs and stores.) Count me as one-and I actually can take some nice pictures on an old Kodak with 4 megapixels-but I am not a Liebovitz. Still, exciting and groundbreaking digital storytelling will eventually surface as word spreads, separating the wheat from the chaff (and that’s worth the chaff!) One depressing aspect of all this is that I see imagination suffering. When I listened to old tales as a kid, I used to let my mind roam free. I didn’t want to see images or movies from a book I wanted to read. Can you blame me? Although it’s hard not to picture Ian MacKellan as Gandalf, I am glad I had the chance to read Lord of the Rings before the movies (ditto for reading Casino Royale). Digital Stories, however, are inherently someone else’s story and message that I am simply to absorb.

So, moving forward, I hope to see DST as a way to get inside the mind of a creator, perhaps an artist. Like Hollywood storyboards, or comic books, the editing process and evolution is just as exciting to experience as seeing the final product.

Good clip on how Spielberg approaches his visual framework: spielberg on storyboards

Digital Storytelling

Already my view of what a digital story is has changed since beginning this course.  I originally viewed it as a way to represent a story to the masses.  And while I still have this view, the view has also broadened.  I never thought of a digital story as something that would have links to other places in it, as I always viewed it as sort of a documentary on the computer.  And I never thought of it as something as simple as a slide show or a story with graphics like we saw explaining the controversy of merit system in teaching based on tests. 

Perhaps it is simply a tool.  And the user gets to define that tool.  The educator will use it to teach his class something. The executive can use it to show her new initiatives to her employees.  The artist can use it as an outlet of creativity.  The historian can use it to tell about their research.  As I am writing this, I am thinking about Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and what he used in telling that story.  He narrated his issue in front of an audience, showed excerpts of his life and how he got to that point and he uses a huge screen to show his data.  Yes it is a documentary film but the method could easily be used in a digital story very effectively. 

To me, it will always be first a way to convey a person’s story and the creativity behind it, to me, is art. And art should not be confined.  But digital story telling is more than that as people try to define it, analyze it and produce it.

Mediation

Digital storytelling uses technology and digital tools to create and share memories. In addition to other posts that details the types of digital technology and access to sharing these digital stories, DST is a way to mediate memory.

In Mediated Memories in the Digital Age, José van Dijck states that media “invariably and inherently shape our personal memories, warranting the term “mediation.” (p. 17).  The ability of media to extent beyond our immediate circles and reach beyond our localities or villages (e.g. oral traditions of storytelling) is what makes DST so exciting, compelling, and completely changes the landscape of how we experience and remember events.

DST can also replace the practice of collecting small keepsakes and mementos- though highly unlikely for a pack rat like myself. For example, I have a box of tee shirts that I’ve collected throughout my life. Two tee shirts represent winning a “Cheese Coney” hot dog eating contest two years in a row.  It is an experience that may only interest myself and those in my immediate circle of peers (such as Chris King), but these physical objects recall this memory.

DST reconstructs my memorial experience through creating a moving image enhanced with music or narration and mediates my memory into something potentially more meaningful.  If someone outside of my immediate circle watched the DST may connect with the story, or may not.  But the power and reach of  DST allows for a connection with the experience. DST is an opportunity to mediate our own life experience and memories for wide spread consumption.

(source: van Dijck, José. Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. Stanford Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007.)

Digital Storytelling, a novice’s definition.

Putting it simply, digital storytelling is telling a story employing a multimedia approach which can involve any combination of video, audio, photography, painting, drawing, music, etc.

To me, digital storytelling is a new variation on an old theme.  People have always told stories; part of the human experience involves passing down the details of our lives, from the incredible and extraordinary to the mundane.  In this way we endeavor to be remembered when we are gone or even famous while we are still here.  Stories have gone from oral recitations to book format and more recently to photographs and video.   In some ways digital stories are simply an outgrowth of the basic human need to tell ones own story.  Technologies change and improve, but digital stories are utilizing new and exciting technology to do essentially the same thing that Homer was trying to do with the Odyssey, tell an interesting story.

In other ways digital storytelling is a remarkably new and fascinating landscape to explore.  Telling stories with any sort of visual aid allows the viewer to be engaged in a new way.  Using multiple approaches to story telling enhances the viewer’s experience of the story and makes it more memorable.  The involvement of the internet has democratized storytelling and made it possible for everyone to record their lives, their past and tell their stories.  It has increased the possible viewing audience as well, a story which can manage to tap into the cultural zeitgeist can be viewed by thousands or even millions of people around the world.

Digital storytelling ushers in an exciting new venue for education as well.  In an increasingly technological society, it is vital that educators learn how to negotiate these new avenues of possibility to their advantage.  Digital storytelling offers educators a great tool, one that incorporates both the visual and the auditory to achieve a result that can be more effective than simply reading a text.  In addition, a video or photograph can offer an intimacy that simply is not possible in another venue. With a video the audience can be placed inside the action, something which offers a subtlety of perspective that is much more immediate than the written word.

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.

DST Definiton

Based upon the many posts already up on this site, definitions on other websites, and the definitions that can be gleaned from examples of digital stories that we have watched thus far in class, digital storytelling can be explained or defined in a variety of different ways.  I wish I could provide something more groundbreaking or profound, but my overly simplistic definition would state that a digital story is a narrative, either linear or non-linear, which is told with still images and/or videos that have been paired with narration, and is often supplemented by a soundtrack.  While this description may be simple, it does underline the fact that many different stories can fit within a framework as broad as this one.

Even though this description is broad and perhaps a bit too vague, it should not take anything away from the powerful messages these digital stories can convey.  In fact, because these stories can be as simple as a collection of photographs used to enhance a narration they can be utilized by a growing number of individuals eager to share and preserve their most precious memories.  Although we have already been exposed to a variety of visually stunning and well-produced digital stories, I continue to find myself drawn to stories like those contained in the BBC’s Telling Lives project.  Projects such as this give ordinary individuals with access to a computer an opportunity to document their own personal stories.  Whether these stories are recollections of the London Blitz or a cherished childhood remembrance, Telling Lives ensures that they are preserved and disseminated for people all over the world to see.  The fact that I can share these experiences a half a world away highlights the value of the digital stories that I have so poorly defined.

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Digital Storytelling

Digital: multimedia (video, animation, presentation, etc) often widely available (online, cds/dvds).

Storytelling: narration of an event, person, place that might be real or fictional for a number of possible reasons (educational, remembrance, entertainment, etc) that usually follows conventional guidelines (characters, plot, climax).

Digital storytelling: a uniquely creative form of sharing that tends to be available online for both a specific and general (since anyone might stumble upon the website) audience made by amateurs and professionals of all ages/gender/race/groups. This creative form might be entirely user generated, copied bits and pieces put together (like fan videos), recorded from a live event (presented in a constructed manner), etc.

Challenges of digital storytelling: includes accessibility, temporality vs. permanence (especially in an online environment), copyright.

Ultimately, defining digital storytelling becomes difficult because either the author or the potential viewer might label a work as a digital story while others might adhere to more rigid definitions. A digital story is a digital story depending on the eye of the beholder.

Old Process, New Tricks

Digital storytelling (DST) is the current iteration of the second oldest form of human entertainment. The basic building blocks of an effective story remain: point of view, pacing, economy of detail keep an audience’s attention no matter if the audience is sitting around the hearth fire or YouTube. This latest trend takes the form of digitally rendered motion pictures narrated by voice and accompanied by music or other recorded sounds, generally in a short format of 8-12 minutes. A digital story’s pictures do not have to actually recreate live action:  digital effects can be employed to impart motion to still photography. DST also introduces the soundtrack, allowing music to furthering the emotional connection with the audience. As with any effective story, digital storytelling relies on emotional content, point of view and empathy to connect with the audience in a meaningful way. The emotional connection created between story and audience affects the reception of the story and ultimately the perceived meaning of the story.

In addition, a critical element of any story is voice – both the aural voice and the narrative voice. The aural voice connects the audience in very visceral ways to the character(s) of the story. In DST, the aural voice can be more than one physical voice. The audience will form immediate relationships with the aural voices present in a story, an emotional connection that each individual invests with all sorts of subtext and context that the storyteller is both unable to shape and blissfully unaware. This connection facilitates the emotional connection with the story, opening the audience to the message carried by the narrative voice.  The narrative voice is the backbone of the story, the narration that describes the scene in ways that give meaning to the picture presented in the digital story. The storyteller’s choice of narrative voice is important, allowing the audience to become a part of the action, or remaining an notionally impartial observer.

Defining DST

By this point, it goes without saying that there is no comprehensive definition of Digital Storytelling.  Instead of enumerating the many characteristics of DST, I would like to describe one aspect that is important, and perhaps central, to the genre.

In Bill Nichols’ Introduction to Documentary, documentary films are described as having an “institutional” affiliation.  These institutions might include a film studio or distributor or television network – each of which are generally large organizations, many of them working for profit.  I contend that DST is characterized by its lack of such an institutional affiliation.  DST is instead undertaken by one or a few practitioners.  Rather than employing a large cast and crew, DST typically involves one or a few storytellers and employs relatively basic software priced for individual purchase.

(Some digital stories are created and produced in affiliation with a school – like George Mason – or a workshop.  Allow me to use these institutions as exceptions in my definition.)

As a consequence, Digital Storytelling retains a more raw, unrefined tone that preserves the sensation of traditional oral and written narrative and rhetoric while exploiting the dramatic devices of other film genres.  The noncommercial nature of DST can help to encourage sharing everyday stories – even ones that are seemingly banal compared to commercial film – that are nonetheless worthy of sharing.

I realize that my argument here calls into question one of the videos we watched in class on Thursday, “Nablus, A City of Life and Death.”  That video was apparently put together (to paraphrase Janine) by Mohammed Sawalha in conjunction with Palestinian conflict resolution associations.  Depending on how much support Sawalha received from these groups – whether it is in production or distribution assistance, his work may have had more in common with expository documentary, to use Nichols’ terms.

Defining Digital Storytelling…

It seems to me like we’ve got one of those blind-men-and-an-elephant problems, here. I’ve been playing around with trying to come up with a working definition of “digital storytelling” for a couple days, now, and honestly, anything I can come up with is simultaneously:

  • So broad as to be meaningless.
  • Still far too restrictive.

This does not bode well for the prospect of coming up with anything that even resembles a “definitive answer” to the question of what “digital storytelling” is.

Which makes this class seem a bit amorphous.

The best I can come with is this: “Digital storytelling” is the use of digital (non-analog, usually computer-based) media to create (or suggest) a narrative (or set of narratives or narrative possibilities).

I could unpack that a little, but I’m afraid to do so too much, because the more you do, the more restrictive your definition becomes. So let me just sort of ramble about a couple of the implications of this.


The use of digital techniques alters older technologies by lowering barriers to use in both cost and necessity of technical skill. While techniques like sophisticated 3-d rendering are still prohibitively difficult for amateur users, digital photography, videography, sound recording, and image alteration have continued to get cheaper, faster, and easier. Looking at a the technological forces behind this, things like Moore’s Law, Rock’s Law, and Nielson’s Law all suggest that this pattern will continue. All things digital will continue to get faster, cheaper, easier, and better, as long as research and development continue.

Not only is this true with individual digitized media, but it is also true of the ability of computers to integrate various forms of media into a coherent whole. Digital technology continues to make it easier, faster, and cheaper to put together still and moving images, sounds, and written words, to combine them into new integrated wholes.

And just like the words and pictures of a comic strip, each of these elements gains something in combination with other elements– it’s a synergistic relationship. Looking at just the words or just the images of your average comic strip, you realize that either element is less meaningful when not interacting with the other. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. It’s the same thing with digital stories that incorporate multiple media.


While words, pictures, sound, and video are all clearly important building blocks for digital stories, it is important not to exclude the “natively digital” media that can be incorporated into digital storytelling projects– the two that spring immediately to mind are simulation and databases.

Both of these technologies present us with some of the most dramatic possibilities of digital storytelling: they do not necessarily follow– and indeed can be used to actively undermine– the traditional notions of narrativity we have from old media. Storytelling is no longer necessarily limited to a single beginning, middle, and end. Instead, creators have the ability to chart various paths that audiences can take, indeed– audiences are no longer limited to “passive” intake, but can actively guide their own user experience, taking the driver’s seat or even helping to build and extend the story itself.

Of course, audiences have never been particularly passive, and have always re-purposed, remixed, and reinterpreted the media they consume. The difference now is that we can construct stories that encourage or even force audiences to do just that. It can be built into the medium itself, now, rather than just being built into how humans consume stories.

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