Welcome Back: Digital storytelling reinvents the narrative

By Kesley Hughes- Staff Writer

Over the last several years, a certain anxiety has unleashed among the masses of literature enthusiasts around the world: What will become of the paperback book? Even further, what is going to happen to our society if everything — even palpable text — becomes digitized? 

While some swear by the ease and accessibility of their Kindle or other e-reader, others worry that the decline of the book as a physical object will adversely affect our ability to inspire a love of the written word in future generations.

But Jamie Skye Bianco, a former Pitt English professor who recently accepted a position in NYU’s English department, believes that such worries are groundless. “Our children are reading books. What form those books are in may change, but, then again, the form of books has always been changing,” she says.

Bianco urges those who are concerned with the decline of the paperback to remember, “Storytelling has always been something that took place in different forms and platforms because long before we had novels and books of poetry, we had oral storytelling.” 

As someone who has taught both conventional English courses as well as digital ones — including Pitt’s Composing Digital Media class and special topics courses and seminars such as Digital Storytelling — Bianco believes that the debate between paper and digital text is “not a ‘versus.’ It’s an ‘and.’” In this way, then, the addition of a new mode of storytelling — digital storytelling — is just that: an addition, perhaps naturally occurring after the advent of the Internet.

But what exactly is digital storytelling?

Digital storytelling’s most popular — or, more accurately, revenue-building — form is the video game, the global market for video games having reached $67 billion in 2012 with numbers still climbing. 

Digital storytelling takes another popular form in Facebook, which Bianco refers to as perhaps the “largest ethnographic database of storytelling on the planet.” The number of users in March reached 1.11 billion, meaning more than 1 billion people have chronicled and published their lives using this mass forum.

But digital storytelling does not begin and end with these popular modes of storytelling. Instead, because of the Internet’s multidimensional form, storytellers have new tools such as audio, video, web design and hypertext, which allow for new possibilities in how stories can be represented and told.

When senior fiction writing major Kristin Vermilya took a course on digital storytelling, she was both intrigued and discontented by the form. She was intrigued because it “seemed to be not necessarily a rejection of the canonical or typical framework to how we access literature, [but] an exploration of ways to experiment with that framework.” This exploration of such unchartered territories, though, was also the source of her confusion. 

Because digital stories often navigate through a series of hyperlinks, sending each reader on different twists and turns, many students were disoriented, even frustrated, by the nonlinear form. While English majors are able to speak to the jump-cut technique employed in John Dos Passos’s “The Manhattan Transfer,” or wield the feminist lens over Sarah Scott’s “Millenium Hall,” they do not know how to approach a text such as Michael Joyce’s “Twelve Blue,” whose navigation and form were not as simple as a paperback book’s beginning-middle-end formula.

To adapt to and interpret cybertext, students have to learn to let go of their preconceived notions regarding the “right” way to read a story — previously something oral or printed on a 2-D piece of paper — and open their minds to something more complicated. The students do not only have to be concerned with the text on the page, but also the other aesthetic elements that affect the reading. For example, in “Twelve Blue,” the blue background color lends itself to a more solemn vibe than, say, vibrant orange or fuschia. Also, having to use TV-static lines to navigate through the text might have an eerie effect. Readers must, instead, let their senses — sight, sound, touch — remain open and perceptive in order to appreciate the story’s full effect.

The order of reading or navigating the text is not significant because there is no hierarchy of importance with each page or part of a digital story. Instead, the story’s effect, created by the overall subjective experience of encountering the visual images, the colors on the page, the meaning of the text, any sound it releases and other navigational choices, is what distinguishes the story. Because of this, the reader or navigator is bringing much to the way the story unfolds. In a word from Jay David Bolter in his book “Remediation: Understanding New Media,” it’s about the “process as much as the product.”

Interactivity as a way to distribute responsibility

When Pitt graduate student Erin Anderson began creating The Olive Project, it started out as a personal endeavor to preserve and safeguard the memory of her dying grandmother, Olive Patton. After recording a lengthy interview with her grandmother about her life, Anderson created an interactive story that incorporated audio, video, pictures, text and hyperlink navigation to tell her grandmother’s story.

But because of her personal attachment, Anderson was “uncomfortable in having the authority in how [her] grandmother’s story got told.” Therefore, she sought to find a way to share that responsibility with her readers, resulting in an interactive project. She made it so that it was the reader’s choice how to navigate the text, such aswhich buttons to click and how long to invest in the project. Thus, it was the reader’s responsibility to get as little or much from the story as he or she pleased.

While some of the interactive navigation might seem random, it does not mean that the author or creator is lazy or uncaring for the structure. Instead, Bianco says, “When you make anything, it’s not just about, ‘I’m going to throw something that pops up in my head.’ You have to form and craft it to communicate.” The aesthetic choices, then, from the background color, to the navigation, to the way images move on the page, are vastly significant in telling a perhaps even fuller, more effective story. 

Because there is no template to follow, like there is for, say, romance novels or mysteries, digital storytellers must go out and “find a form, rather than [use] a form that was already given to us,” Bianco says. Her students are allowed a lot of freedom to find the form that best suits their story, but then she asks her students to take responsibility for their experiment and make the most out of that freedom. “Experimentation actually requires us to do more, not less,” she adds.

Digital storytelling also allows its creators more control over how the story is accessed and by whom. Because someone can create and upload a project onto the Internet without having to go through a publisher, “It allows more people to be storytellers,” Bianco says. “Anyone can tell their stories now and have an audience, even if that audience is just their friends.”

Anderson is intrigued by the varied audience that accessibility allows. The Olive Project was originally intended for a very intimate audience, including her family and friends. Then, at her grandmother’s funeral, a laptop was set up for guests to explore the project, and, perhaps, even understand Olive in a different way. She explains, “It was something my family could appreciate but also people who don’t know my grandmother can appreciate.” Further extending the project’s visibility, the text has even been used in some undergraduate courses.

Effects of Digital Storytelling

It’s not about what we’re leaving behind, but rather, where we’re headed. Instead of making print books obsolete, Bianco thinks the digital era will leave “a huge opening for them to evolve,” causing people to “become far more inventive.” Already some books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Tree of Codes,” — a novel created through the cutout and erasure of Foer’s favorite book, “The Street of Crocodiles” by Bruno Schulz — are taking inspiration from the digitalized form.

Digital storytelling might also allow for opportunities to teach people about a certain group’s perspective in a more creative, less preachy manner. For example, an online video game, Dys4ia, teaches players about the daily life of being a transgendered individual. For this specific game, there was a combination of doing — completing tasks such as shaving the narrator’s mustache or chest, or physically catching her girlfriend’s verbal attacks, which resulted in the narrator crying — and listening to the narrator tell her story. At the end of the game, the player or participant is much more knowledgeable about a transgendered person’s daily struggles and, in effect, more understanding and socially aware.

While perhaps interest in literary digital storytelling projects, such as ethnographies and  short stories, are concentrated within a niche of interested followers, the form is becoming more legitimate as organizations and online journals such as “The Atavist” and “Kairos” publish digital literature and sponsor contests that heighten awareness for the art form.