Defining digital storytelling

Over the last 10-20 years, there has been a pretty rapid shift from analogue to digital. Podcasts, videos, blog posts and social media are now a major part of most people’s daily ecosystem. As these mediums become more prevalent, the term storytelling seems to be getting more prevalent too.

I think we’re losing the meaning of storytelling.

Think back to what you learned about storytelling in elementary school. As Matthew Kobach, the head of social media at the New York Stock Exchange, says (via tweet), “great stories require compelling characters, an interesting setting, plot, conflict, and a satisfying resolution.” In a non-fiction setting, we learned that things like newspaper articles needed to answer the 5 W’s in order the properly tell the story.

Is that still the case? Have these rules changed? I don’t think they have. But I do think that as we increasingly use digital tools, we increasingly misuse the word storytelling.

Let’s look at podcasting. Just because you’re making a podcast doesn’t necessarily mean you’re telling a story. Podcasts that share expertise, such as Buffer’s The State of Social Media aren’t storytelling; they’re information sharing. Podcasts with two hosts having a conversation, such as Being Boss, aren’t storytelling (although they admittedly sometimes tell small stories, the overall podcast episode isn’t a story, it’s a topic). Most interview-style podcasts aren’t storytelling.

It’s the same when we look at video. Most YouTubers aren’t traditional storytellers. Crash Course is sharing educational content. Tyler Oakley is, well, often filming himself doing weird things. Jason and Caroline, on Wandering Aimfully: The Show are simply having a conversation. Again, while they may sometime share small stories, their overall intent is not storytelling. You can talk at a camera without telling a story, and that’s exactly what many people do.

What happens when we look at social media? As Matthew Kobach says, “social media doesn’t have time for any of this,” with “this” referring to characters, setting plot, conflict, and a resolution. Some might (and do) say that they are telling the story of their company, institution, or story using social media, bit by bit. But I don’t think that is storytelling either; I think it’s something we don’t quite have a word for yet. Sharing experiences doesn’t always equal storytelling.

Use digital tools, please. Use them to share information, to share your thoughts, and to share your stories. Creating is fun. Sharing is useful. But if we want to continue to have good storytellers in the future, we need to stop calling everything online storytelling.

Let’s be careful not to ruin the power of a good story.

Confession: I’m not 100% sure I believe in what I wrote above. While I do believe there are lots of people who are misusing the term storytelling, I also believe there’s a huge grey area here. Is it possible that the definition of storytelling is shifting, and that’s okay? Are we simply moving to more real-time, ongoing, long-term storytelling? Are (some) stories maybe moving away from the typical arc format we have been taught in elementary towards something new? Maybe an interview is a form of storytelling. Maybe sharing bits and pieces of what it’s like to be a university student on social media is telling the story of your university. Maybe we’d be better off if we let the definition of storytelling expand.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Featured image by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

One thought on “Defining digital storytelling

  1. My confession is I think most attempts to define experience (in as much as receiving a story is an experience, phenomenologically (?)) with terminology will be bastardized by human nature. Can’t a photograph or painting also “tell a story?” Everything we have discussed in this educational journey is “grey area,” why should digital storytelling be any different. Aside: you are a really strong writer (not that you need my approval) and I find myself gravitating towards your posts as I always find it strong storytelling 😉

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