Friday , March 1 2024
How new media has changed how people tell stories.

Interview: Bryan Alexander, Author of The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media

Sometimes I write long introductions to interviews — today is not one of those days, due to factors ranging from heat and health to using someone else’s computer because mine is also having health problems.

Suffice it to say Bryan Alexander is both an online colleague I have known and respected for several years and an interesting and intriguing thinker. Rather than plaster on more compliments I’ll just cut to the chase, the interview.

Oh, and Howard Rheingold, a long-time friend and colleague, an amazing author and thinker in his own right, has a blurb praising the book — and if it’s good enough for Howard, it’s good enough for me. Howard is also thanked on the book’s acknowledgement page, “for endless inspiration and guidance.”

Let’s start by defining terms here. What constitutes digital storytelling? Is a story read on Kindle, for example, digital storytelling or does it need more digital elements than that?

There are two senses in play these days. The one I rely on is simple and broad: telling a story using digital technology. Most of the book focuses on new digital platforms, or tools newly conceived of as storytelling venues to many readers: Web video, podcasts, blogging, wikis, Twitter, Facebook, augmented reality, mobile devices. I also include computer gaming as a major storytelling platform, which is a nearly a truism within that world, but a strange thought to many who don’t think of themselves as gamers.

A different, narrower sense is the one established by the Center for Digital Storytelling. That describes a specific curriculum for helping people who aren’t media geeks to produce short videos. The CDS approach is based on autobiographical, emotionally engaged stories, and the outcome is a roughly three minute long video. That video includes audio tracks (especially a voiceover), images, perhaps video and sound effects, and maybe video clips.

Why did you decide to write this book? How long from inception of the idea to completion? What were the hardest and easiest parts of planning it and writing?

Why: I wanted to explore the full range of digital storytelling at a very creative time. Once I started investigating the topic, the more I looked, the broader the field became.

How long: I first co-wrote an article on Web 2.0 storytelling in 2008 with my brilliant colleague Alan Levine, a/k/a Cogdog. That’s when I conceived the idea of a book-length treatment. I won a publisher contract in 2009 and wrote through fall 2010.

Hardest: Dealing with electrical power and internet outages during air travel and at home (we live in a remote mountaintop location).

Easiest: introducing and reflecting on creative stories, which is a delight.

I found the way you used social networks while composing and finishing this book fascinating and, as you said, totally appropriate to the subject. Can you talk about how you tweeted and crowd sourced about the book while writing it?

Several ways, and Twitter was a mainstay. During the drafting process I sought examples, and field-tested some concepts. During revisions I went through the entire book, chapter by chapter, tweeting the main issues and getting feedback. Since publication social media have provided good feedback about the overall idea, pointing me towards future work.

Before starting the book, I blogged about digital storytelling (at the NITLE blogs, and at Infocult), while recording resources through social bookmarking (initially Delicious, then shifting to Diigo and Pinboard).

Facebook has been useful as a general get-out-the-word tool since publication. I’ve also set up a “Page” for the book, where I’ve been doing my month+ blogging about digital stories.

Similarly, I found interesting that you would talk, and have class discussions, about topics that come up naturally with this book namely defining what is and isn’t a story? Did that help to have ideas you can bounce off both people in class and, as with the prior questions, people online?

Defining “story” is a terrific exercise. Anyone can play, and most people feel intrigued by the prompt. Storytelling is pretty close to universal, everyone has opinions, and most of those ideas connect with thoughts about much of life: family, self, truth, morality, what it means to be human, politics. Defining what a story isn’t is more challenging, a kind of narrative photonegative, bringing out more and complementary issues.

Can you name and describe three of your favorite examples of digital storytelling?

“Momnotmom” is a great example of the CDS approach. A user-created, emotionally powerful exploration of a relationship.

“Farm to Food” is a Flickr remix of historical photos, leading to a very short, elegant, powerful trajectory.

Bioshock is a computer game which does several amazing things at the same time: an alternate history; Ayn Rand parody; scary horror; manic adventure. Or maybe Mass Effect 2, which a New Yorker writer called the most novelistic game out there: rich characterization, deep story.

Let me ask the devil’s advocate question: not all digital storytelling is better than traditional storytelling just because it’s digital, correct?

Correct. My book’s not making the case for comparative superiority. Instead, I wanted to show how many new avenues storytellers now have. In some cases a digital form is better than an analog one; in some cases, the reverse. It depends on how one strategizes through a classic mix: the story n one’s head, the intended audience, and available materials.

It’s also important to realize that digital tools are not only growing in number, but that many of them are becoming easier and more accessible.

Do you plan to write another book or are you going to take a break on that front for a while? Can you talk about your prior writing?

New book: yes, I’m exploring several projects right now. One would be a follow-up to this, exploring digital forms which appeared since 2010. Another is about education, looking at the revolution now sweeping through teaching and learning.

Let’s talk audience — this book isn’t just for those who consider themselves traditional writers but for larger segments of the populace, correct?

Yes, it’s for anyone who wants to share a story, which is just about every person. It’s also aimed at people who make digital content, but want to make it more compelling.

The part of the book I found most thrilling was the chapter about using digital storytelling to help in education. Can you talk a bit about how that will work and how much success it has had?

I’m glad to hear you say that! One correction: not “will work” but “is working.”

On the one hand, storytelling is an ancient teaching technique. Good teachers are good storytellers, often enough. The new digital environment – social media, gaming – offers additional ways for instructors to communicate their knowledge.

On the other, storytelling can empower students while boosting their learning. It’s a way for students to explore their voice and sense of self. It’s a way to reflect on and synthesize subject materials. Digital storytelling may be more accessible to younger students more immersed in a digital environment than their elders.

I’m not a gamer (I stick to puzzle games so the only one I decided to check out based on your book was the ChainFactor one), but to read your descriptions of some of the more in-depth ones was to realize I have a lot to learn as I’d not thought of them as digital storytelling. I admit this because I’m wondering if you think that’s common, that non-gamers don’t realize there’s much more going on in those games than they may realize — that it’s not just a giant time suck or addicting game (one reason I avoid them)

I hope ChainFactor didn’t eat your entire day.:) You are correct about nongamers not realizing that digital games do a lot of storytelling. It’s not intuitively obvious, nor broadly part of pop culture (so far). But a large and growing proportion of the human race experiences stories through computer games.

“Nongamers” is an interesting category. There are a lot of people who play games, but wouldn’t label themselves as gamers. They play casual games, primarily, but don’t see those are part of their identity.

Speaking of, what are the biggest misconceptions and stereotypes you found about this field as you did research on it?

That digital storytelling was for geeks and technologists. That the concept was oxymoronic, or simply bizarre.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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