Elements of Digital Storytelling

note: I have also made this post available in a Google document if that is easier for making edit suggestions.

At a very early age I was introduced to a pre-cursor of digital storytelling by way of the record album. When I was four years old, my parents bought a toy store. Since I wasn’t yet in school I got to hang out with my mom at the store all day long. One way to keep me entertained was to put record albums on the turntable. One of my favorites was an album of fairy tales told by “Tammy.”

Tammy-albumThe doll, “Tammy,” was a competitor of Barbie and was one of my older sister’s dolls. One of my other favorite albums was stories told by Troll dolls. I’ve got that album somewhere stashed in the garage. During the long days spent at work I would listen to these albums. I would begin by placing the record needle at the beginning of the album. After a time, because I had listened to the same records over, and over, and over again, I would begin to get bored. One time I jumped up and down and found that in doing so, I could make the needle skip to a new section. All of a sudden I had a different story, much like a pick-your-own-adventure type story. That was great fun and made for complete and unexpected variations on the same old story lines.

Andrew Stanton (2012) suggests in his Ted Talk, Andrews Stanton: The clues to a great story, that there are no rules for storytelling, only guidelines. Stanton suggests that a few of the guidelines he uses include having a strong theme like asking a question, “Who am I,” that is carried throughout the story. You should also be telling your story in a way that has the audience leaving with a sense of wonder and the storyteller should use what one knows in order to make the story authentic. Depending on the story that is being told and the storyteller’s skill, which guidelines to follow or how closely to follow them, produces an opportunity for a great story.

I think the most important element of storytelling is that the recipient leaves with some kind of emotional experience, whether that be affirmation, anger, a call for action to right a wrong; some kind of emotion that gives one pause for thought. One of the 7 Elements of Digital Storytelling as outlined by The Center for Digital Storytelling at the University of Houston, is ‘”Emotional Content  – Serious issues that come alive in a personal and powerful way and connects the audience to the story.” I’m not sure I completely agree that the emotion has to be “serious,” but I do think that you need something in your story that people can be inspired by, something that stimulates one’s emotions. Or in the case of the pieced together fairy tales, which I found quite hilarious, stories with unexpected turns, that always ended with “happily ever after” for at least one of the story’s characters.

One of the biggest differences digital storytelling has from passive storytelling is access. Not only can you be a consumer of stories available through multiple online platforms, but you can also be a producer as well. Because of the openness of the web and availability of social media, when you publish a story you have the opportunity to get feedback and critiques, a chance to revise, and the ability to republish. It is true that before there were online platforms for access, storytellings were getting feedback, critique and even possibly rewriting their work, going digital opens up the options. Bryan Alexander (2011)  asks; “How does being digital enable new aspects of storytelling?” and talks about how the use of social media has impacted digital storytelling by creating access to producing and consuming, supporting, showing examples, experimenting, and obtaining critiques (p. 14). These activities are confirmed by Clay Shirky (2010) , in an interview in Storytelling Part 4: Potential of Social Media when he talks about social media giving the opportunity for feedback, competition, and learning from others as social media outlets provide opportunities for storytellers to share their work.

There are endless and unknown ways in which digital storytelling can grow and evolve. In a recorded interveiw, Storytelling Part 1: Change of Storytelling (2010), Henry Jenkins talks about Transmedia in which stories can play across multimedia, dispersing across multiple platforms with multiple points of contact and Shirky talks about stories evolving into multiple threads, happening over a long period of time. Alexander (2011) talks about telling a story through multiple delivery methods either in collaboration with one another or with each mode telling the story in a way best suited for the medium (p. 14). One example of a Transmedia project is Half The Sky Movement, which uses videos, websites, games (Facebook and Mobile), along with on-site presentations and discussion forums to reach a wide audience.

Half the Sky Movement: The Game Trailer:

An example of a transmedia story that is fiction-related is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries  (2012) which was mainly a series of video posts made to YouTube that retold the Pride and Prejudice story and included twitter and tumblr posts. It ran for just about a year and has since branched out into new story threads based on some of the other Pride and Prejudice characters. These threads are telling the story from their own character’s perspective. Another example is the winning story of Story 2013 a Transmedia competition held at higher education institutions in Switzerland, called Michael2023 (2013). This is a story of how social media becomes part of one’s life in the year 2023.

Why do we study or participate in digital storytelling as a distinct art form or communication medium? Because we can. Mostly because the opportunity is there. In a video interview with Dean Janse (2010), from Participation Culture Foundation, in Storytelling Part 1: Change of Storytelling, he says that the masses can now create stories to an unlimited audience in ways that they haven’t been able to in the past.

In the past, storytelling for the masses was done by a few who had the money for recording and access to very expensive film equipment. Along with dedicated time to creating the recording or film of a story. Then these stories were consumed in limited dedicated spaces at prescribed dates and time. With today’s technology, almost anyone can document elements of a story and put one together. Anyone can tell their story and more importantly, anyone can share that story. People who may not have had a voice in the past are now able to share their stories and tell them themselves, instead of relying on someone else to tell their story for them. Youtube is one platform where people are telling their stories. Accounting to http://www.onehourpersecond.com/ (2012) every second, one hour of video is uploaded to YouTube. And YouTube is only one of many publishing platforms.


Is this image a digital story? What if the words making up the image is a story?


Is there really such as thing as digital Storytelling, or are we just talking about using technology to tell a story? In many ways, I think “digital” being placed in front of storytelling is misguided. You don’t say digital journalism when you are reading an online version of a traditionally published newspaper, and you don’t say digital diagnosis when your doctor reads the digital images of an MRI report.

If I had to come up with a definition, digital storytelling is a method in which a story is told with the use of some kind of digital means. At the most basic level, the difference between digital storytelling and non-digital storytelling is in the way in which the story is being captured or manipulated. To me, a storyteller being recorded with a digital camera or digital audio recorder isn’t a digital story, but rather a digital recording of a story being told. But a series of moving images recorded with or without narrative through a digital camera would be considered a digital story because the story that is unfolding through the images is using electronic means to help tell the story.

I also think to put a definition on the terms somehow diminishes its capacity, and limits the innovative ideas one might apply to it. Just as giving a definition to an “outstanding” column on a rubric might constrain what “outstanding” could be for a student, I’m willing to accept a broader definition of digital storytelling, and leave the assessment and judgement of the quality of the story to show for itself.

“About digital storytelling: The 7 elements of digital storytelling”, Retrieved from http://digitalstorytelling.coe.uh.edu/page.cfm?id=27&cid=27&sublinkid=31

Alexander, B. (2011). The new digital storytelling: Creating narratives with new media.  Santa Barbara, California•Denver, Colorado•Oxford, England: ABC-CLIO, LLC.

“Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story.” Feb 2012 Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story.html

The Association of Independents in Radio: AIR! Retrieved from http://www.airmedia.org/PageInfo.php?PageID=704

Baris, D., Jung, N., and Steiner, L. (2013). Michael2023. Retrieved from http://michael2023.com/

Choose your own adventure. (2013, December 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Choose_Your_Own_Adventure&oldid=585280482

Half the sky movement: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. Retrieved from  http://www.halftheskymovement.org/

Lizzie Bennet diaries. Retrieved from http://www.lizziebennet.com/

Lizzie Bennet diaries YouTube playlist. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6690D980D8A65D08

Moloney, K. “What is Transmedia Storytelling?” Retrieved from http://transmediajournalism.org/contexts/what-is-transmedia-storytelling/

One hour per second. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.onehourpersecond.com/

Plett, H. (2013, December 17). “How to stop the spiral of self-doubt.” Retrieved from http://heatherplett.com/2013/12/how-to-stop-the-spiral-of-self-doubt/

Story2013. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.story2023.com/

Storytelling part 1: Change of storytelling. (2010). http://vimeo.com/12999733

Storytelling part 4: Potential of social media. (2010). Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/12999733



10 thoughts on “Elements of Digital Storytelling

  1. Access and scale seem to be recurring themes in all of these discussions–which makes perfect sense to me. With digital tools, more authors can tell more stories to a wider audience than ever before. Does that change the nature of storytelling? Probably not much, at least at this evolutionary point. I think we’re just beginning to see what forms these stories can take, and whether or not there is some form out there that can only exist in a digital environment–i.e., that there is no other way to tell that particular story. I like to think that there is, but I’ve not been able to imagine what it might be.

    We’ve also encountered the idea of stories having to make an emotional connection with the reader/viewer. Like you, I’m not entirely comfortable with the notion that stories must engender a serious emotional response from the reader/viewer. I suppose it depends on what you mean by serious, though. I enjoy stories that provide little insights that I wouldn’t consider serious. Joso’s haiku about the hungry owl (By a wayside shrine, a hungry owl hoots and hides, so bright is the moon) comes to mind. I remember first reading that in high school and enjoying the little cascade of connections and insights that ensued as I thought about it. Was that a serious reaction? (Perhaps it was, considering it has stayed with me so long.)

    I like the way you seamlessly incorporated links into your response (in addition to the embedded media). I don’t see this discussed very often with regard to academic writing, but it seems like such an obvious service to the reader/viewer. There was an article on Slate this morning (http://slate.me/MYwqsK) about this very topic.

    The only rough spot I see is this: “…that the recipient leaves with some like of emotional experience…” Did you mean “some kind of emotional experience?”

    • Yes, Skip, it should be “kind”- I fixed it in the post. That is a very interesting article about hyperciting. I had intended that all of my links also appear in my reference list but I see that I missed a couple of them so I will fix that too. I do with agree one of the commentors that citing a specific page, minute, or section is an important aspect of citations that should be included when using a URL. I didn’t do this but maybe I should?

      • I saw that too, and it sounds like good practice to me. I wouldn’t retroactively fix the links that are currently there, but it might be worth considering in future citations.

        I’ll add that article to the G+ community.

  2. Heidi- I loved your introduction describing the fun with the skipping record stories. It reminded me of a long drive, during which I was listening to an audio book that was really difficult to follow. It seemed to be jumping between characters and settings and situations with limited transitions. I kept telling myself, “Ok, just focus and you should be able to put the pieces together and figure this out.” I struggled mentally for quite a while before I noticed the CD player was on “random”….

    (See, your introductory story was so engaging that you’ve made me reflect and connect to it. I love that about stories.)

    You brought up some insightful ideas that I wish I would have considered in my post- specifically the opportunities to revise and collaborate that digital stories provide us with.

    I was nodding my head vigorously when I read this section:
    “Is there really such as thing as digital Storytelling, or are we just talking about using technology to tell a story? In many ways, I think “digital” being placed in front of storytelling is misguided. You don’t say digital journalism when you are reading an online version of a traditionally published newspaper, and you don’t say digital diagnosis when your doctor reads the digital images of an MRI report.”

    I really liked how you used specific examples to show that “digital” in front of storytelling is probably unnecessary, and potentially limiting. I would also like to work with a broader definition.

  3. Nick also mentioned the Lizzie Bennett diaries and I was interested in your take about copyright and remixing stories on online spaces. Do you think that storytellers should be allowed to share/mix/rewrite other author’s works, even the newer ones?
    Like these other posts mention, I was happy to see you bring into the conversation issues of access and your use of links. These parts of your blog post, I thought, also demonstrated how digital formats allow for information to be navigated differently.

    Your section on fairy tales made me remember “Fractured Fairy Tales” from Rocky and Bullwinkle–only you created your own fractured fairy tales in remaking them in your own way! I like how you bring up these cultural markers, like Tammy, to situate your own position on the topic.

    Thank you for presenting the option of letting us comment through Google Drive too. Although I did not comment in this way this go around, I may want to in the future. Again, I think this highlights options in reading and response digital storytelling offers.

    • Hi Victoria,
      Good point about copyright and giving options for rewriting or remixing stories. I’m not a writer or a poet, nor a very good storyteller, so I would personally be honored if someone took my idea and made it better! I relate this to my knitting. Let’s say that I knit you a hat and maybe it doesn’t fit quite right or maybe you have a zillion hats and you really need a neckwarmer. I’d be ok with you frogging (rip-it, rip-it) my hat and seeing you reknit it as a neckwarmer.

      I think that if you are putting yourself out there online, then you should expect someone else to share, mix or rewrite – it is just too easy to do. I’m a big fan of seeing creative commons http://us.creativecommons.org/ attribution placed on works. Since I work in the education field, I’m also more invested in fair use.

      I wasn’t sure if anyone would use the google drive option for editing but I thought I would try it. I’m a terrible proofreader!

  4. Your idea that recorded storytelling is a precursor to digital storytelling is interesting – it makes me reconsider whether or not “digital” is the right word. What’s the difference between Tammy’s stories on record vs. Tammy’s stories on the iTunes store? Or as a podcast? Maybe “digital” isn’t the word we’re looking for. You can jump around in a podcast, right? You can mix and match audio into new sections on casette tapes just like you can on a computer (though one is obviously a lot easier). You call traditional storytelling “on-the-spot” and I understand what you mean (I think) but I think making that distinction is problematic. Digital stories such as live podcasts can be done on the spot, and older forms of storytelling can be printed in a book. Your entire post makes me think that my post was misguided in its intention. There is certainly a difference between what we call “traditional storytelling” and what we call “digital storytelling” but I agree with you that the word digital is problematic. Maybe we’re looking for words like “interactive” or “mass” or, as to accomodate things like the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the heart spiral you posted, “multimodal.” All in all this is a great post and it’s really got me thinking about how we throw around the word “digital”.
    The only problems I really notice are a few capitalization quibbles, “Google” should be capitalized, and “fairy tales” should not be. Neither should mom. You also switch from title case to sentence case halfway through your reference for Stanton’s Ted Talk. Also, titles in APA format are done in sentence case, not title case (how silly!)

  5. I too enjoyed your anecdote about the record player. I remember listening to my aunts 45s and having my favorite songs that I would just play over and over again. I still know the words to the Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack”.

    I agree with you regarding fair use and advocating Creative Commons on digital work. The ability to adopt, add, modify, layer, and manipulate digital content is part of what differentiates digital stories from a printed text though in a way it is reminiscent of the oral traditions of storytelling.

    I admit that when I think about digital storytelling examples of multimedia storytelling are what comes to mind in which both our dual channels are engaged (auditory and visual) though this excludes a lot of digital stories. The advances in technology that have enabled us to employ multimedia methods (text and/or audio with images and/or videos) is a significant milestone in our ability to communicate, educate and entertain.

  6. Your post has made me reflect on a couple of fundamental aspects of storytelling.

    First, emotional experience. I agree that to be a story, the object has to facilitate some kind of emotional engagement. I wholly disagree with the notion that such engagement has to be “serious.” That contention conflates what makes a story with what makes something–in the estimation of the consumer–a “good” story. If what one seeks is serious emotional engagement, then a good story for them must stimulate that. But it remains a story even if it fails to do so. And I’m not even going to get into the discussion of what “serious” means because I feel like that can only lead to _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle_ length discussions since I think what is really being discussed is “quality.”

    Second, the mutability of stories. This isn’t unique to digital stories, but like some other aspects brought up in class posts, it’s nature has changed so much that it might as well be. In addition to the ease with which stories can be edited, revised and transformed by multiple people, the digital can have an ephemerality that physical media doesn’t. The very nature of the living digital document that makes reliability and confidence perilous, where the new and revised can wholly, silently replace the original without a trace, is one of its great strengths, I think, for storytelling.

    As you know, I’m very interested in copyright and intellectual property (the former in the shape of law, the latter in the nature of it as a fiction that has become a kind of reality). I don’t know how those concerns can be disentangled from the living nature of digital stories. This is another of those areas where digital media isn’t unique but where the capabilities and reality of the tools and access make it practically a new idea.

  7. Hello again,
    I have been revisiting these posts as I revise my own blog on the topic of digital storytelling. While I am here, I thought I would just say a few more things that I picked up on my re-reading. Therefore: you get a second peer review from me!
    I thought your message was clear and well articulated. The movement between topics and ideas all helped to communicate your position in response to the generative questions we were given. On a re-reading, I noticed, “Because of the openness of the web and availability of social media, when you publish a story you have the opportunity to get feedback and critiques, a chance to revise, and the ability to republish.” Which is a feature I am taking full advantage of right now, a feature that I did not think too much about last time but I believe you are totally right in this! It is so much easier now to write, rewrite, and republish then, say, back when we typed on typewriters and had to physically get out scissors and tape. I think you covered the topic rather well and offered many well placed and well represented examples to back your assertions. I really enjoyed the way you referenced in text and at the close of your post, with the links included. I may borrow this for my own use. You used the multimedia opportunities for the definitions (or, as you described it, possibilities) of what digital storytelling is well. Thank you, too, for mentioning the importance of access. I think it is critical that citizens can write back to the culture they engage with. The only critique I can think of to offer is: what would your blog look like with headers between parts? Do you think this would clarify direction or confuse the reader with clutter?

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