The Past and the Future of Digital Storytelling


One of the ironic things about technology is that it makes us reminiscent for simpler times. Ever since the advent of the internet, people have been going back in time for traditional mediums to reinterpret for an online age – newspapers are online, books are online, music is so very online it’s considering disappearing from the racks of CD stores permanently.

For the most part, these reinterpretations are a great thing, making traditional forms of communication appealing to a younger generation. They’ve also made it easier for the little voices to get heard without having to appeal to big corporations.

Writers publish their own work online for free. Bands get their start by putting music on MySpace and iTunes without ever leaving their garage practice space. Talented new journalists can start their own masthead with a blog platform without having to get hired by the New York Times.

And now the oldest form of communication – storytelling – has just jumped on the bandwagon.

Digital Storytelling

In a recent The Writer Magazine article by Carolyn Handler Miller called “The New Frontier of Web Based Stories,” Carolyn introduced a name for this new brand of tale-weaving: digital storytelling.

Storytelling in its original form was an oral narrative, with a single storyteller relating stories both fictional and true, usually before a large audience of people. These storytellers have been called bards, griots, oral historians, and many other names – these guys are often the only reason we have a history of anything that happened before 1000 A.D.

Storytelling, in short, is well worth saving and upgrading.

The digital version of storytelling involves the same bard or griot as before – but now that bard has a whole slew of technology on their side to help them tell the story. Imagine telling the story of Snow White, out of your head, to someone else. Now imagine doing the same thing on a computer with visual aids, video clips, audio, animation, and text. It’s an amplified experience. It’s 2.0.

And it might just make storytelling popular again.


One of the limitations of old-fashioned storytelling is how heavily it rested on the shoulders of just a few people. Those people knew all the stories, all the songs, all the epic poems of their culture, and it was their job to pass them on to another person. The stories stayed the same; nothing was added or changed. There was no collaboration, just the story that had always been told.

In digital storytelling, interactivity is encouraged – even required in some forums. In our own collaborative role-playing game, Escaping Reality, players add posts to each scene that contribute to the overall story. Sure, one character could tell only their own story for awhile, but eventually we’ll get bored with that.

The interaction means new stories are always cropping up out of old ones, creating a narrative that could go on eternally.

New Mediums

The written word is a beautiful thing, as is the spoken one. But if you’ve ever seen a professional storyteller, you’ll notice that the written word isn’t even half of it.

They don’t simply recite the words on a page. They craft shapes and pictures with their hands, sing snatches of songs, alter their voice to play different characters.

With digital storytelling, they can amplify those talents. Instead of singing a song, they can upload an audio file in the midst of text writing so that others can enjoy the impact of beautiful lyrics on the story they’re telling. They can include images and pictures, animation and video clips, to show those elements that need to be visualized. They can add the background noise of a forest, the blue shades of a shadow.

A Larger Platform

One of the reasons storytelling was so carefully preserved from generation to generation is that the story, once lost, was forever lost. Only a precious few knew the stories, and without them, the history of a people could be forgotten. They told the stories as often as they could, keeping some for only certain people, others to be proclaimed to outsiders so they would know who they were dealing with.

With digital storytelling, we have a much wider platform and a much better chance of being remembered. The number of people it’s possible to reach with digital storytelling is near-unlimited.

The people of Ghana could hear the story and be inspired; the people of Russia could hear it and be disgusted; the people of Iran could hear it and start a new organization around the idea.

The breadth of audience is something the first storytellers could never have dreamed of. It’s the chance to make peoples far beyond the immediate tribe hear it, remember it, and have it impact them in new and sudden ways.

It’s a powerful ability. The ways we now have to communicate are beyond anything we’ve ever known before. Digital storytelling can make good use of that platform.

The New Art Form

Digital storytelling is a new phase in the evolution of an age-old tradition. Humans have always used the tools they had to tell a story – painting on cave walls with soot and berries, crafting music from animal skins stretched over gourds, stringing words together in precise ways that were passed down carefully from one generation to the next.

The new generation has an unlimited world of technology, and the ability to reach everyone in the world. With these amazing new tools, how will we tell our stories?

How will you tell yours?

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

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  1. I find this post very inspiring. I don’t think traditional books will become obsolete anytime soon, but as we move toward the future, new ways to present literature will come up. I’m thrilled by the possibilities that technology affords us. Have you come across We Tell Stories ( I adored the idea and the execution. I especially liked “The 21 Steps” in terms of presentation.
    .-= Madeline Ong´s last blog ..Book reviews =-.

  2. Storytelling is important in our families as well…My Grandmother wrote her autobiography after she was 80 years old. Her great-grandchildren are still enjoying reading about the “covered wagon” days ! We all have “history” to
    share ! Thanks for reminding us of the importance of storytelling even in this digital age.

  3. Great post. I think the most exciting part is where and how we can use technology to influence our storytelling. I personally run two litexperimental projects which are my decent contribution to digital storytelling.

    Fist one is #hashtagstory – stories told as a sequence of Twitter hashtags. Any single hashtag means different things to different people, evokes different associations. But the most fantastic part is that f.e. in a sequence:
    #forgottogiveyouflowers #famousexcuses #howdareyou #icantbelieveyou #itsnotgonnawork
    there is a bit of a story of everyone who was using that hashtag before.

    The other project is purely tech-asburd. I let Google Translate influence my stories. The use of a translation tool at the beta stage is obviously a distaster, but with the improvement of GT, the story is constantly better told. Google-translated fiction is an example of a digital writing, which is selfimproving at a pace of a tool which is being used.
    .-= Nick Name´s last blog ..Google-translated fiction v.1.09 =-.

  4. it’s actually been penned a long time ago …Henry Jenkins at MIT, Lance Weiler with the workbook project and many others… it’s called Transmedia Story Architecture. We (my team) have been working for about 7 years and taken it further to call it Transmedia Interactive Story Architecture… whole initiatives have been going on about telling story as a cube rather than a line.

  5. And here is an application, which is designed to make interactive stories » Twine
    .-= Nick Name´s last blog ..Google-translated fiction v.1.09 =-.

  6. Lovely thoughts and important to reflect on this too – great post thank you for sharing. I do think that there is an interesting moment occurring where the act of digitizing the narrative actually interferes with the analogue part however – the bit that potentially made it interesting in the first place.

    The ‘Digital’ information (the story/narrative component) was always brought to life through the ‘Analogue’ (how it was conveyed – volume, intonation, body language). We agree on that, but it gets interesting where the polarities get reversed:

    The analogue is actually now the digital component which brings the richness of the original narrative information to life. And too much time spent on that will most likely result in the same thing that happened to musicians and songwriters in the late 70s. No-one wrote particularly great songs because the production became as important or more so than the song structure and content and we all sort of lost the plot.

    Lets hope there is a balance and that great writers will still be producing twists and turns on the 7 basic narrative structures that make up every great novel and film of our human history and the digital merely allows lots of us to remix it to evoke different nuance and meaning (Bladerunner springs to mind).

    Great post


    M (aka Holycow)
    .-= Holycow´s last blog ..Reading the community =-.

  7. The concept of storytelling is one that is older than the hills, and – with the advent of the Social Web – all kinds of shiny and new-fangled.

    I love great fiction of many genres, blogs of all kinds, & chewing the fat with Real People in the Real World. Stories are what make us who we are – from fond memories of our childhood to the lousy morning we had yesterday, we are programmed to share. Stories are what educate, enlighten, and inspire us – whether the stories are true or fabricated doesn’t matter. We are moved by stories. Hearing about a successful entrepreneur makes us think about taking our own small biz dreams out of the closet. Reading about how a family of six survived the holocaust teaches us about a whole range of values and strengths. Watching a love story unfold in a movie inspires us to keep our dream of true love alive.

    I’m thrilled that we have all these new tools at our disposal – both to create and spread stories of all kinds. It makes the world at once much bigger and much smaller.

    The resurrgence of the story and spread of Social Web tools also make my job as a marketer a lot more interesting. I love the way even big brands are incorporating story into their marketing – whether through old school advertising or as an on-going social media conversation. Stories stick, and they are a hell of a lot more fun to work with than your standard “unique selling proposition.” 😉 I love the idea of using storyteling to define a brand and connect with a brand community. Powerful stuff.

    As for my own stories … I have many plans that involve using the new technologies to share my own stories and give people a place to share theirs. Using stories to connect and inspire is a huge part of a project I’m currently working on. I’m only at the “once upon a time” part, but can’t wait to turn the next page and hope that I never get to the “happily ever after” part … this is one story that should never have any ending, but keep on going as long as people have journeys they want to share.

  8. @ Madeline: I don’t think traditional books will ever go out of vogue either. I still enjoy having a physical book in my hands and the opportunity to get away from the screen.

    I just took a look at the We Tell Stories – and boy does that have the potential to be addictive!

    @Kate: That is very cool. Has it been published or has the family thought about that? I wouldn’t mind reading that myself.

    @Nick: I’ve seen a few people do storytelling through Twitter. That’s a challenge to keep each post to 140 characters, but fun stuff!

    @DL: The more I do online storytelling, the more I see how the whole story is more of a cube than a linear progression. Sort of like going from 2D to 3D.

    @HolyCow: I’m sure there will be a balance. Everything these days has gone digital, making it more accessible to the masses. While “anybody” can do it, not everyone will shine through with sheer genius. Given the number of individuals all trying, someone is bound to break through at some point – there’s just more competition than before.

  9. I think this technology has been out for a while now. Even comic books has been interactive and someone narrates it for you while you click on the pages.

  10. The premise of digital storytelling is phenomenal. Interactive storytelling with the help of audio and visual effects is almost similar to watching a movie.
    This demands more from the storyteller then; ability to creating videos or editing sounds.
    The traditional way is still what I prefer. Technology sure opened a lot of doors for better storytelling. But the old-fashioned way is simple yet still endearing as far as I am concerned. 🙂
    .-= Louise |´s last blog ..14 Business Card Designs in Dark Colors =-.

  11. One thing I don’t like about Digital Story telling is when people post a video which provides the same information as the text below it. Sometimes you don’t need a video at all, however, many just shuv ’em there…

    .-= Igor Kheifets´s last blog ..7 Key Marketing Areas You Should Be Focusing On… Instead of Playing Farm Ville =-.

  12. I remember long long ago, back before the earth’s crust cooled, when I would keep a real! live! paper journal…and how I truly enjoyed rereading it from the past.

    I’m trying to encourage my kids to write things down on real! live! paper! as well, but the lure of easy activities (much easier to type than write, so to say) makes this difficult.

    I like the intimacy of story-telling within a family…that will be something my kids ideally will never lose.
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..When your WONDERFUL readers ride to the rescue! =-.

  13. Great post. The only real drawback is that it’s harder to spot great, new storytelling talent amongst a sea of less interesting work. But talent always emerges, and I don’t think digital storytellers will be an exception.
    .-= Ben Locker´s last blog ..Twitter slang in dictionary. FFS, who cares? =-.

  14. Big fan of digital storytelling here. As a writer who has used podcasting to get his novel out and then added the layer of other voices and sound effects to make my work come even more alive, I can say that the new tech layered over the old ways of doing things is pretty frackin’ awesome. Endeavors like Escaping Reality and a short story I’m writing collaboratively with ten other authors through the magic of Google Docs also merge that old and new in cool ways. The tricly part, though this isn’t necessary so perhaps I should say another fun part, is trying to find ways to take this digital stuff and use it in ways that are more than just that sort of layering. Many of my fellow podcasters are striving to really push the envelope and succeeding. It’s an exciting time to be telling (and consuming) stories.
    .-= Scott Roche´s last blog ..How I Spent My Summer Vacation; or Why I Am No Longer in Full-Time Ministry =-.

  15. @James F: The technology has been out there for a while, but I think now people are starting to use it in more creative ways. Rather than clicking and reading, people are actually becoming involved in the creative process of the story itself.

    @Igor: Maybe so, but it’s still nice to have the option 😉

    @Barbara: Ah yes, the primordial days of writing! Nothing beats the feeling of taking actual pen to paper.

    @Ben: Agreed. Talent always finds a way to float to the top, it’s just a matter of taking the time to find it.

    @Scott: So that’s where you’ve been hiding, huh? Good to hear you’re out there experimenting, sounds like you’ve got some fun stuff going on!

  16. Stories should only be told by grandmothers. Grandmothers r best at it plus it’s lovely to sleep in her lap and hear them.
    .-= Mrugesh´s last blog ..DIU =-.

  17. Story telling is the fact that keeps us rooted to our roots we have modernized a helluva way but we still miss the times when the grandma used to tell us the stories at night… Your post made me nostalgic.
    .-= Ravi Kuwadia´s last blog ..Free Unlimited One Way Backlinks =-.


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