What is digital storytelling?

Probably the best way to begin this blog is to define digital storytelling. Or perhaps, that should be Digital Storytelling. Many blogs are digital stories, and so are some tweets, but in the capital case we mean both a kind of video story as well as the methodology used to produce them. Digital Storytelling has its origins in 1990s San Francisco and is a story best told by them that spun the web originally, the Center for Digital Storytelling.

Here’s my definition:

“Digital stories are short, short films that employ images (still and/or motion) and sounds (spoken words and music) in a multilayered, economical narrative the goal of which is to capture the essence of an experience. Digital storytelling is the practice of making digital stories, usually in a collaborative workshop atmosphere.”

And here’s an example, made by me to use as a teaching story when I work with undergraduates going on a semester abroad:


3 thoughts on “What is digital storytelling?

  1. I want to address the history of these two terms — “digital” and “storytelling” — in a later post, but I think I can agree with you, Doug, on the core definition: “short videos, using images and sound, focused on helping the viewer understand a concrete experience.” And, it’s always hard to be the first poster in something like this, so props. 🙂 A few tweaks I’d be willing to continue talking about:

    – I’d shift “film” to “video” because, though “film” has a certain cachet of seriousness that fits with the tone of many digital stories (and which “video” does not), there is significant technical dissonance for me when all digital stories are, you know, digital. 😉 It’s a small point, but one of accuracy imo.

    – I tend to downplay using motion picture clips in my students’ digital stories, because my experience is that in most cases, working with video is more demanding by a significant degree than working with stills. I wouldn’t say I actively discourage it, but I want them to think very seriously before they start grabbing video they’ve shot for inclusion in a DS.

    – The “essence of an experience” is a wonderfully evocative phrase in yours that I really like a lot. It is hard to understate this aspect in the way that I tend to use DS with my students. I’d add “concrete” there maybe, on the argument that so many (most? nearly all?) digital stories are about events as opposed to internal experiences. But I’m not wedded to that (especially because the impact of reflection upon those events almost always brings emotional, internal responses to the surface).

    – One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is the extent to which the “storytelling” part of DS necessitates that it be in the form of a narrative. From a coherence standpoint, that seems to be fundamental. But I know others (Bryan Alexander is one) who don’t use the term so strictly, and I appreciate the willingness to expand the conceptual geography in that way. Still, when I teach DS, I ask students to shape their reflection as a narrative, telling them that other forms/genres, such as “video essay,” use similar techniques and tools but adhere to different structural rules.

    – The one aspect of your definition that puzzles me is the second sentence, about the role of collaboration. I’ll admit that whenever I teach DS, it’s in small groups who are asked to share their work with each other and who are encouraged to assist each other with editing, working with the software, etc. But I wouldn’t extend that so far as to include it as a fundamental aspect of my definition. Would you say a little more about why you feel that should have a more prominent position in your definition?

    Here’s an example I like to use with students.

  2. Brett,
    Thanks for those thoughts…I agree with all of them, though I’m still stuck on “film” even with the dissonance.

    On your last point, I think I initially included the sentence about collaboration to address the concerns, specifically in an academic context, that Digital Storytelling was too much of an “I” centered activity and that it encouraged narcissism, or something like that. I gave this criticism a lot of thought. I actually think ds is remarkable as a process because it empowers the “I” without entitling it. In other words, the storytellers are encouraged to give their stories voice as a social act–and that it underscores the humanity of both storyteller and audience. The audience comes to know the storyteller as a unique human being and the storyteller, through sharing his or her story, also comes to realize the humanity in others (“We all have stories like this to tell.”) So it’s a humanizing process all around, encouraging both speaking and listening.

    Narcissism would be to think one was the only one who could tell a story.

    But as I moved beyond that criticism in my mind, I still clung to the sentence about collaboration, but for different reasons. For one, I think most DS is done in groups–otherwise the “story circle” wouldn’t be such a central part of the process. I really think that the iterative social process of constructing a digital story is important if not completely central to the process. I think the journey/destination cliche applies here.

    Lastly, I like to stress the social nature of the ds process because it underscores for me that all stories are social constructions, that is, they depend on the active involvement of both storyteller and audience to create meaning that is at once within and between each, that generates both personal and social interpretations.

    I once asked Michael Oondatje why so many of his stories had this device of a disparate group of people coming together to a single (usually half-ruined) house and all becoming part of each other’s story–forming a kind of informal family rather like the crew of Serenity in Firefly–and his answer was illuminating. I can only paraphrase, but essentially he said he was tired of the artifice of a single, coherent story happening to a single hero. Life in his experience just wasn’t like that.

    When I look at digital stories, I don’t see just a single powerful voice (though I do see that), I also sense the web of other storytellers that helped that person craft his/her narrative.

  3. Yes, that’s an excellent elaboration. Truett and I see that on our end, too: just knowing that their stories will *actually* be seen by others provides all the narcissism-busting fuel needed. Instead, they really think hard about how to communicate something of their individual experience to others, and in so doing “socialize” it in a very productive and engaging way.

    Thanks, Doug.

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