This post a re-production of an essay I did for a digital storytelling course at QUT a few weeks ago.
Storytelling has long been part of the human condition. According to the Storytelling Encyclopaedia, it is one of our primary defining characteristics as human beings. The oldest tale known in any language is the Epic of Gilgamesh which tells the story of the fifth king of Uruk who lived over four thousand years ago. In the skilful hands of Sumerian storytellers, the real Gilgamesh was transformed into a tragic fictional hero and a template for Oedipus, Lear and Hamlet. Such stories were passed on from generation to generation using whatever media was available at the time: speech, stone tablets, papyrus, paper, broadcasting and cinema. Now with the rise of digital media and the Internet, it is only natural that storytelling should colonise that environment too. Here it goes by the name of Digital Storytelling (hereafter DST). This essay offers a definition of DST and looks at how it developed and how it can be taught. There are four case studies; the BBC Capture Wales project, the Youth Internet Radio Network (Australia) project, the Kelvin Grove Urban Village project (also in Australia) and South Africa’s Sonke Gender Justice Network. The essay will conclude with a brief discussion of how DST fits in the innovation commons and discuss what role it has to play in fostering democracy in a global environment.
Democracy is about people and all people love a story. Everyone is drawn to storytelling because it is a process that involves relationships. The storyteller’s goal is to speak with directness and intimacy to build a bridge between the story and the audience. Storytellers need tools to build those bridges. The visionary Marshall McLuhan said all tools were merely “extensions of man (sic)” but not everyone has access to the same level of extensions. The scant availability of storytelling tools meant that mass media dominated the form in McLuhan’s twentieth century global village. That traditional one-way broadcasting model is now breaking down as complex peer-to-peer communications network patterns begin to emerge. Futurists such as John Perry Barlow and Nicholas Negroponte offered utopian visions of possibilities in the digital realm. Whereas in space no one can hear you scream, in cyberspace there is a “resuscitation of voice”. The wildfire success of Youtube showed the potential of the Internet as an audio-visual medium while the extraordinary uptake of social networks demonstrated that broad hunger for human contact has not diminished. The need for relationship bridges is constant – and DST is a powerful tool to build those bridges. Digital stories are “mini-movies” combining the age old art of storytelling with the use of modern technology. DST liberates its users from mass media’s practical monopoly on the mediated representations of the collective production of identity. It is a meta-tool using a variety of sub-tools including cameras, scanners, digital voice recorders, soundtracks, the Internet and computers with film editing programs. And along with other similar textual systems such as blogs, it challenges the traditional distinction between professional and amateur production and radically changes the nature of the producer / consumer relationship.
It is hardly surprising then, that many people see it as a powerful pedagogic tool. According to Cazden et al, the fundamental purpose of education is to ensure that students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public and community life. The use of DST tools and techniques promotes learning which posits students as constructive agents, building rather passively receiving knowledge. It has been used for numerous functions including preserving community and personal histories, engaging and motivating learners, creating digital portfolios, celebrating achievements and events, and presenting factual information. Because of its ability to construct a strong personal sense of place, identity and history, it has also been enthusiastically embraced by students. What teachers and students alike are finding out is its remarkable adaptability and effectiveness in any capacity where there is a human story to tell.
One of the important markers for the development of DST was the BBC Capture Wales project. The project emerged in 2001 out of a partnership between BBC Wales and Cardiff University by adapting the folk culture model associated with the Berkeley Center for Digital Storytelling. The project amplified ordinary Welsh voices in an attempt to recreate the “bardic function” for the digital age. The bardic function originally described how television spoke for the culture at large and all the individually differentiated people within it. DST replicates this function by allowing a “performance of the self in the context of power”. While the BBC stressed that each story was as individual as the storyteller, it imposed a strict uniform construction. They had to contain 250 words, a dozen or so pictures and be of two minutes length. These creative limits were crucial to its success. As the BBC stated “it’s the observation of that form which gives the thing its elegance. The constraints produced hundreds of offbeat and quirky stories of love, family and home in which the past and the present inform each other. Capture Wales works in two ways. It is both an inter-cultural communication using a universal channel to tap into the world of the imagination, and it is also a mediated community that operates in a geographical space forming a community network. It has also become an important template for DST in the western world.
The BBC techniques were closely studied by Brisbane’s Queensland University of Technology. When QUT moved into its new campus at inner suburban Kelvin Grove, it partnered with the Queensland State Government to capture the rich mix of indigenous, military and educational history of the area it was about to inhabit. They launched a public history project about the Kelvin Grove Urban Village (KGUV) using themes of urban regeneration. The project’s groundbreaking ethnographic active research methodology added an action component of a community of contributors to the traditional practice of informed reflection. The four year Sharing Stories DST project aimed to capture local voices with a view to “inform, educate and entertain”. But as well as being a history lesson, the project also had a grand forward-looking aim. It wanted to “re-invigorate a more contemporary interpretation of community values in a networked society and enhance the capacity to interpret and engage with our urban environment by raising awareness of the socio-cultural background and heritage of new community members”. The success of the project’s digital stories depended on the Internet, that ultimate “network of networks” which Lessig called “one of the most important innovation commons that we have ever known”. Klaebe and Foth cited Horrigan’s optimism about the great potential of the Internet and new media for government service delivery and community building in urban developments. The ulterior goal of the KGUV is to show that inner-city densification is the solution to South East Queensland’s urban sprawl. It is the mix of urban studies, public history and the connective potential of new media that gives Sharing Stories its explanatory power.
But connectivity alone does not ensure community. Another QUT sponsored project examined an application of DST out on the technology-poor edges of society. The Youth Internet Radio Network (YIRN) project was designed as an open access architecture platform to promote the propagation of digital content among young and marginalised Queenslanders. DST has a natural affinity with radio; they are both means to connect with, and imaginatively create, communities. The researchers used the digital stories of the “peripheral” young people at YIRN not only to understand the different ways they constructed cultural affiliation, but also to explore their feelings of isolation, boredom and lack of opportunities. The subjects used their digital stories to subvert and challenge the way society saw them. The production of creative content on the Internet had the potential to bring these disaffected youths in from the periphery. It was the creation of “DIY Citizenship”, an outlet for people who are inventing senses of themselves and who seek a voice and form through which to narrate their lives. DIY Citizenship is formed from everyday practices such as chat, photosharing and storytelling which constitute the threads from which the social fabric is knit. This concept fits in with the founding vision of DST pioneer Joe Lambert – co-founder of Berkeley’s Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) – who said that DST was rooted fundamentally in notions of democratised culture that was the hallmark of the folk activist traditions of the 1960s. YIRN’s overall yearning, following the CDS, was appropriately grand. It was no less than an “exploration of the emancipatory and democratising potential of new media technologies”.
The CDS, meanwhile, is expanding its own role in democratising culture globally. It partners with organisations in 34 countries to develop DST initiatives tailored to meet local needs. One such organisation is South Africa’s Sonke Gender Justice Network. South Africa has the largest number of people in the world living with HIV, with an estimated six million people living with the disease. The network aims to change gender relations which it sees as a “fundamental force” driving the rapid spread of HIV. The network believes that giving a voice to those affected by violence and HIV is a crucial success factor in overcoming the problem. It partnered with CDS to produce the Silence Speaks initiative to train staff and conduct DST workshops in poor urban areas of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Organisers said the everyday stories that emerge from these workshops “tend to be in short supply” while media representations that do make news segments tend to encourage sensationalism and pity. For the Sonke project, DST not only offered a peer-to-peer communication channel to overcome the negative stereotyping of mass media, but was also a tool to foster agency among people that might otherwise be considered victims. And while Lambert warns that DST does not function explicitly as therapy, he says we must recognise the emotional and spiritual consequence of its work. The story, as the Sonke Project shows, is a safe place to be heard.
But if more outlier groups such as the “peripheral youth” of YIRN and the women of Sonke are to succeed with DST, then access to the technology is important. It must be as free as possible, but not be too easy. An important finding from the experience of a State Library of Victoria children’s program is that digital media which are rich in hands-on processes often deliver better outcomes than those that “do the hard work for you”. Creativity needs to be allied to hard work to achieve satisfactory outcomes and more research work needs to be done to understand the complex relationship between the process and outcomes of digital media. The role of storytellers themselves as cultural consumers of texts needs attention also. Following De Certeau, Jenkins framed consumers as textual poachers who integrate media representation of their favoured texts within their own social experience. While this is an alluring metaphor, it ignores the fact that real life poaching is illegal activity. Poachers can now become gamekeepers using Creative Commons licences legal under Australian law. Creative Commons allows users to access wide-ranging material without content creators having to give up copyright. Like any open source system, the Creative Commons attempts to act as a “viral spiral” – it just needs to become more common. Anderson described how newspapers acted as a glue defining “a national imagining” during the golden age of print capitalism, and now the distributed network environment of the Internet and the innovation commons is providing a new “global imagining”. But like the national one it is replacing, global imagining must be informed by human relationships. DST can play a large and powerful role in bridging the audiences with the stories of this brave new world.
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