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From What I Can Tell…

The art of digital storytelling is still a relatively new practice. Therefore, it appears the definition of a digital story can be as varied and flexible as the medium itself. The University of Houston website defines digital storytelling as the “practice of using computer-based tools to tell stories.” This very basic definition leaves itself open for the many different examples that fit into the category of a digital story. Visual imagery is usually a main component of a digital story, and fittingly, one of the best ways to define a digital story is to begin by watching examples of digital stories that have been made by others. Most examples contain a combination of images, text, and music or voice-over narration. Depending on the complexity of the story, it may also incorporate sound and/or video clips.

In many ways, digital storytelling is very similar to traditional storytelling. It is usually based on a specific point of view, and focuses on a particular theme or topic. However, unlike traditional storytelling in the format of a published book, digital storytelling can be done by a novice and still reach a wide audience anywhere in the world. Essentially all that is needed is an audience with internet access. The digital story can be retold for the duration that it is accessible in a consistent format. This means that people can tell any story which is of interest to them. Perhaps it is a personal narrative, a memoriam, an educational piece, amateur video of an important event, or an opinion piece on a broader topic affecting the local or global community. Digital storytelling provides a platform for personal expression that is possible for any person living in almost any place which melds with today’s practice of multi-sensory communication and advanced technology. It is my assumption that we will continue to see the medium evolve and refine as technology becomes more advanced.

Digital Storytelling Rooted in Stories

Before defining digital storytelling, it may be necessary to explain the importance of story itself. Stories do three things: they make sense of facts, help events fall into place and put values in context.

Stories make sense of facts. If facts aren’t put in context of events, they become meaningless. For example, the fact that John Adams defended a group of British soldiers is, alone, pretty meaningless. But put the fact in context of the larger story of the Boston Tea Party and the fact that the soldiers Adams defended were the soldiers firing on Boston Common, and Adams’ advocacy becomes significant. In digital storytelling, this element of storytelling is necessary if otherwise random facts and artifacts have any power.

Stories also make sense of events. For example, after the Haiti earthquake, a few stories emerged that sought to made sense of the tragedy. The predominant narrative from the media and government was humanitarian. Haiti had experienced a major crisis, and the United States, with its vast resources, would help the country come out of the crisis, building it into a better nation. A much less popular narrative explained that the earthquake was a result of an ongoing worship of the devil. Whatever one might think of this latter story, it nonetheless illustrates the need to apply story to a crisis in order to make sense of events.

Stories also give a culture its sense of values. For example, Elizabeth Bennett’s refusal of Mr. Collins demonstrates the perils of marrying for security instead of love without having to experience the hazards of such a union. By watching the play Othello, we learn to value loyal advisers. In the Odyssey, we learn the value of wits over physical strength. You can’t teach values in the classroom, but you can through story.

Added to these elements of traditional story, digital storytelling brings in new media elements. What distinguishes digital stories from traditional ones is that they actively appeal to more senses, principally visual and audio. Because of these additional platforms, digital stories can be more accessible than traditional written stories.

There are advantages and drawbacks to digital stories. Visual and audio elements allow the creation of a more appealing story, allowing the viewer to see settings as they really were, and a person’s voice can convey emotion more readily. Yet these elements can stifle the imaginative sense much like the way movies can suffocate the world of a book. Yet there’s evidence that digital stories do not have to cave to this end. Like Hitchcock said in his AFI interview, good digital stories should seek to preserve this imaginative sense.

To summarize, stories help us make sense of life and digital storytelling expands the traditional storytelling to more media platforms. Both help us to see our greater story, to sharpen our life’s purpose, and to make more effective decisions.

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What is digital storytelling?

This question is very difficult to answer because there is not a consensus as to what, exactly, would make up an “official” definition of digital storytelling. Some practitioners hold to a strict definition, limiting digital stories to 250 words, two minutes, and a dozen images. Others have very broad ideas of digital storytelling, using the term to refer to any relatively short digital presentation which in some way seeks to entertain, inform, educate, or promote a cause.

However, most people and organizations seem to define digital storytelling as conveying an event, idea, or personal history in a narrative, multi-media manner through video. This can be done either with historic events and people, or modern ideas and occurances. However, regardless subject matter, digital stories almost always have emotional components and seek to establish a personal connection between the creator and the audience.

These digital stories are usually short and their main component is a narrative script spoken as a voice-over for the video, usually by the story’s creator. This narration is combined with a variety of media to add richness to the story: photographs, still images, animation, background music, interviews, film clips, etc. In many ways digital storytelling is merely an evolution of oral storytelling, because we are not changing the traditional storytelling process, just adding additional visual and auditory elements to it.

The idea behind most digital storytelling projects is for anyone to be able to participate, even if they do not have a background in narrative writing or technology. The main point is for people to be able to tell their personal stories, making a compelling, emotional component such a strong part of a digital story. Because of this, they are typically made to instruct, persuade, reflect, or provide history from the perspective of one individual’s voice.

A Laundry List of Things…

When asked the question, what is digital storytelling, I can’t help but feel anxious. There is no right or wrong answer to the question, and I find this unsettling. Digital storytelling is a method through which a story of some sort can be told, typically involving voice and pictorial aspects, but the ways in which a digital story can be told are so numerous that it makes my head hurt.  It can be a personal narrative, a history, a persuasive argument; it can be seconds long, or minutes long; it can include video or just still pictures; it can involve music and voice, just voice or just music; it can have a lot of text, a little text, or none at all; it can have a linear storyline or one that is new and innovative; and it can be any combination of these things, plus many, many more that I have not included in this spastic laundry list of details.  A digital story is an extremely accessible form of expression that not only can they be created by someone who has a lot of experience dealing with audio and visual technology, but often they are made by someone who just recently learned how to put together pictures and sound through a user friendly program.  The sheer number of types of digital stories that appear when a google search for them is conducted points to the fact that we will probably never be able to agree on one set definition:

“Digital Storytelling refers to using digital tools so that ordinary people can tell their own real-life stories.” – Wikipedia

“Digital Storytelling is the modern expression of the ancient art of storytelling. Digital stories derive their power by weaving images, music, narrative and voice together, thereby giving deep dimension and vivid color to characters, situations, experiences, and insights.” - Leslie Rule, Center for Digital Storytelling

“Digital Storytelling uses computers to create media-rich stories and the internet to share those stories creating communites of common concern on a global scale.” – Dana Atchley

“Simply defined, “Digital Storytelling” uses new digital tools to help people tell their own stories in a compelling and emotionally engaging form.” – Zero Divide

“Today’s technology allows students and faculty to tell stories in powerful ways. The digital camera, editing software, and media outlets means that anyone can tell their story.” – Mark Standley

All of these definitions agree that new technology people to tell stories in new ways, but beyond that there is no central heart to digital storytelling. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of digital storytelling is that which makes me so uncomfortable – that there is no right or wrong answer to what it can be.

“Seeing in Beautiful, Precise Pictures”

“Seeing in Beautiful, Precise Pictures”

 “….Because I have autism, I live by concrete rules instead of abstract beliefs.  And because I have autism, I think in pictures and sounds…Here’s how my brain works:  It’s like the search engine Google for images.  If you say the word “love” to me, I’ll surf the Internet inside my brain.  Then, a series of images pop into my head.  What I’ll see is a picture of a mother horse with a foal; or I think of ‘Herbie, the Love Bug’; scenes from the movie Love Story; or the Beatles song “Love, love, all you need is love….Some people think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be ‘normal.’ But, I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures.  I believe in them” (pp. 87-88)

This excerpt is taken from the book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women.  The book is a compilation of the personal stories of thousands of individuals who were given the task of writing a few hundred words expressing the core principles that guide their life, something like a personal credo.  The excerpt above, “Seeing in Beautiful, Precise Pictures,” is from the personal story of Temple Grandin, associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University.  The story itself is intriguing because it illuminates a world with which many of us are unfamiliar: the autistic mind.  It draws us into the author’s personal life, his personal thoughts, and compels us to linger on his words momentarily only to turn the page with a sympathetic sigh.    

Now, imagine the words as spoken through the calm and warm voice of the author, his narration accompanied by a tender piano melody faintly playing in the background.  Photographs of him as a young boy watching his parents kissing, petting a big, fluffy dog, and smiling from inside Herbie the Love Bug fade in and out revealing to us what love looks and feels like to a young boy with autism.  Our investment is now emotional and perhaps permanent because the images of this happy, young boy experiencing love and living his life through “beautiful, precise pictures” ask us to think beyond the words on the page, beyond the word autism, to the person living with it.    

Digital storytelling is a communicative tool for those who have powerful stories to tell and the limitless possibilities of digital media to help bring them to life.  The best stories take only moments to come to life and through the use of photography, video-making techniques, hand-drawn images, vocal inflection, musical accompaniment, sound and special effects can transport the viewer to a particular time and place as seen through the storyteller’s eyes.  Collectively, digital stories create sort of a cultural landscape that presents itself to us in unexpected ways; ways that encourage us to reexamine the world around us and pay more attention to the “beautiful, precise pictures” that surround us.

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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Digital Story Telling (Definition)

Digital story telling is an artistic and communication medium that emerged in the 1990′s incorporating digital images displayed in series usually accompanied by narration, music, sound effects, and/or text. The typical length for digital stories is between three to five minutes, although longer and shorter digital stories are sometimes made. The first person perspective is usually employed and personal narratives dominate the genre. The form is often used in an educational context at the secondary level and beyond to teach principles of good storytelling, communication skills, and to explore issues of personal identity.

The increasing power, affordability, and ubiquity of personal computers as well as free, easy-to-use software allow amateur storytellers and documentarians to harness the power of visual images and sound to form a cohesive, dramatic statement. Since the form is overwhelmingly used by non-professionals for non-commercial purposes, digital stories carry an assumption of “authenticity” not usually afforded to commercial forms that incorporate visual images and sound like television and film.

Digital stories are typically distributed via the internet through web sites hosted by educational institutions and public media outlets as well as YouTube. Audiences typically view digital stories in private, which differs from other visual and dramatic forms like opera, theater, and film where audiences gather in communities.

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