Electronic media are not simply changing the way we tell stories: they’re changing the very nature of story, or what we understand (or do not understand) to be narratives. To what extent is this true?
Many authors have argued that storytelling is intrinsic to humanity (Schank & Abelson, 1995) and part of memory and learning. And yet for some reason it appears to me that storytelling had something of a hiatus in the last century, perhaps as a side effect of the post war modern corporate life, the emphasis on the scientific method and the space race. However the proliferation of research, writings and talks on the power of storytelling in all aspects of life from the scientific (Bailey, 2013) to the corporate (Gottschall, 2012) to education (Matthews, 2014) and everything in-between hints that storytelling is once again coming into its own (Pettitt, Donaldson, & Paradis, 2010; Sauerberg, 2009). Whether electronic media is a cause or an effect of this or whether it is just part of the zeitgeist is something we will only know in hindsight.
What we traditionally understand to be narrative consists of a storyteller, an audience and the narrative elements of a hero, a problem, an antagonist, tasks, a turning point and an outcome (Alexander, 2011). How electronic media is changing the nature of this is by broadening the concept of who is the storyteller. Once a digital narrative moves beyond being a story delivered electronically as in an eBook, or as a movie, but streamed or available digitally and goes to being an interactive “event” in which the distinction between the storyteller and the audience blurs and is interchangeable, one can talk about the nature of the narrative being changed by the media and its affordances. The creator becomes an initiator and the audience becomes collaborators and co-creators. The question then is whether one can still find the narrative elements back in this new hybrid creation? Does the participation of many voices enhance or hamper the profundity, meaning and emotion at the root of the narrative? Does engagement and involvement and participation equate to the “wisdom of crowds” or does it result in a “lowest common denominator” product? Are we moving from a period of finite works of infinite genius to infinite works of dubious merit (Pickett, 1986) – albeit a series of very clever and networked and buzzed works.
Another matter in all of this that is somewhat bothering me is the way in which the “science” of storytelling and its capacity to capture attention and emotion in its audience is being (ab)used for commercial purposes or to manipulate audiences to create changes in political (Simsek, 2012), social (Burgess & Vivienne, 2013; LaRiviere, Snider, Stromberg, & O’Meara, 2012) or public sphere (Poletti, 2011). Proponents would of course argue that the ends justify the means – but of course both sides of the debate have the same weapons in their arsenals (see the whole climate change narrative as an example of this), and as educators this makes our task of aiding the new generation of learners to be knowledgeable, discernable, informed and aware that much more important.
Alexander, B. (2011). Storytelling: A tale of two generations (Chapter 1). In The new digital storytelling: creating narratives with new media (pp. 3–15). Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger.
Burgess, J. E., & Vivienne, S. (2013). The remediation of the personal photograph and the politics of self-representation in digital story- telling. Journal of Material Culture
(3), 279–298. Retrieved from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/62708/
LaRiviere, K., Snider, J., Stromberg, A., & O’Meara, K. (2012). Protest: Critical lessons of using digital media for social change. About Campus, 17(3), 10–17. doi:10.1002/abc.21081
Pickett, D. (1986). What is literature – established canon or popular taste? English Today, 2(01), 37. doi:10.1017/S0266078400001735
Poletti, A. (2011). Coaxing an intimate public: Life narrative in digital storytelling. Continuum, 25(1), 73–83. doi:10.1080/10304312.2010.506672
Sauerberg, L. O. (2009). The Encyclopedia and the Gutenberg Parenthesis. In Media in Transition 6: stone and papyrus, storage and transmission (pp. 1–13). Cambridge, MA, USA.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.