What is this thing we call digital storytelling?

A family group of women and children sitting listening to a storyteller
A family group of women and children sitting listening to a man telling a story. Wood engraving by Dalziel after J.E. Millais
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

When it comes to telling a story about digital storytelling, I wanted to find out where the term arrives from and how others define this thing we refer to as ‘digital storytelling’.

I gave a talk, in fact, two talks, about digital storytelling at a breakfast briefing and a Digital Identity workshop organised by IDEK and Dhyaan Design on 12 May 2016 in Stockholm. A cut-down, edited version of that presentation is available on Slideshare but as much as it is good for sharing, Slideshare didn’t really help me tell the whole story. In this post I wanted to dwell deeper into some of the ideas I touched upon in those presentations.

My research took me back to the Ancient Internet Times, the year 1993 and San Francisco, California. This is where I found the alleged ‘founders of the digital storytelling movement’, the Centre for Digital Storytelling, now called StoryCenter, at Berkeley, University of California. Their understanding of digital storytelling is deeply rooted in the community development and engagement. For them, digital storytelling is a process; it is as much about telling individual stories as it is about listening, sharing stories and active participation. From what I could gather, for them, the adjective ‘digital’ relates solely to the digital distribution of stories shared in face-to-face workshops with the members of different community groups. Their approach to digital storytelling, a so-called Story Circle method, has since been taken on by other similar organisations such as the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling in Wales and Digitales, a research media company hosted by the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. The following two definitions sum up what they mean when they talk about digital storytelling:

Digital storytelling is a collaborative, workshop-based process which enables people to tell their own stories, in their own voices using still and moving images and voice-over sound tracks in a digital environment.

DigiTales, London

And similarly,

Once upon a time we sat around the fire and told each other stories, now ‘young or old’ we can do it with computers. We call this Digital Storytelling and it’s made possible by the new tools of media production.

-George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling, Wales


For me, digital storytelling is still just a buzzword used to describe quite a broad array of digital practices, and a definition that I have in mind is more akin to this one from the University of Houston:

Digital storytelling at its most basic core is the practice of using computer-based tools to tell stories.

-University of Houston

Kranz on Console NASA
Credit: NASA

But no matter how and whether you define the term, two things are certain.

  1. Firstly, we, humans, love stories.

… as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.

-Paul J. Zak, Greater Good Science Centre, Berkeley, University of California 

The Greater Good Science Centre at Berkeley, University of California conducted some research into why some people respond to a story while others do not, and how to create highly engaging stories. They discovered two key aspects to an effective story:

It must capture and hold our attention

It “transports” us into the characters’ world

-Paul J. Zak, Greater Good Science Centre, Berkeley, University of California

2. Secondly, the most important ingredient in any digital storytelling is the story itself. The story must take centre stage.

Metropolitan Opera, New York

The digital tools should then be employed in such way as to help enhance the story not to be a burden.

So next time someone tells you, ‘I want an app’, ask them what’s the story.

If you have some views on this topic or definitions you would like to share, I would love to hear from you.

Author: Tiana Tasich

Founder and Consultant, Digitelling Agency

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