Dan Talks Digital History IV: Narratives and Storytelling

What is digital storytelling? I’ll spare you a full taxonomy, as in my first post of this series, but I think digital storytelling, like digital history, has several definitions.

At its core, digital storytelling is the use of electronic information, stored in binary code, to tell a story. If you emphasize digital, you could be referring just to stories (films, pictures, texts) converted into digital formats, such as DVDs or streaming feeds. If you emphasize storytelling, the implication is that you’re talking about narratives made exclusively for a digital medium, harnessing the potential of computer technology, electronics, and optics to tell a story. I’ll focus on this second, more interesting definition of digital storytelling, the born digital version.

Digital storytelling doesn’t have to be done online, but since fewer and fewer people buy CD-ROMs of encyclopedias or — well, anything, the Internet is basically where digital storytelling occurs. Even a computer exhibit in a museum is probably streaming content from a master server somewhere. As we’ve shifted to an increasingly Web-driven world over the last four years, I’ve noticed that web layouts for blogs and news organizations have simultaneously grown more elaborate. It used to be that all web pages were static. A page would load as one piece, so when you scrolled down it, you imagined you were reading a single piece of paper. Now, pages often give the illusion of having moving parts. When you scroll up or down, *you* the viewer seem to stay in place, but the page transforms. By incorporating animation and liquid formatting, writers can produce beautiful articles with embedded videos, shifting photo galleries, maps, and much more.

I first saw one of these new web layouts in 2012, when the New York Times published “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” a gripping story of skiing and disaster that became even better thanks to the animated pages. I remember being blown away by the design. Instead of videos embedded on pages, the videos seemed to be the pages. Yet “Snow Fall” still had elements of traditional web pages, such as the scroll bar along the right margin. Some of the digital stories published in following years have abandoned old-Web elements like the scroll bar. Consider the Guardian’s recent web documentary, “A Global Guide to the First World War.” The publication becomes a video image, morphs into maps and galleries, and utterly eschews anything resembling a traditional web page. Other websites take a middle road between old and new formats. The Guardian’s recent article on police brutality in Chicago uses striking animations to visualize its data: Markers representing victims swirl into elaborate figures and charts.

A screenshot from the New York Times's "Snow Fall" article. Source: http://bit.ly/1H5dTQJ.
A screenshot from the New York Times’s “Snow Fall” article. Source: http://bit.ly/1H5dTQJ.

The biggest danger in digital storytelling, as with any computer publication, is the long-term survival of work created for a digital medium. A recent update to Google Chrome cut support for the Java plugin. That simple change rendered animations and videos on many older websites inoperative. If a digital story is going to persist over time, then the creator or publisher must periodically convert the story to the latest format. The other option is to create a “virtual desktop” program that mimics old operating systems and reads obsolete plugins and software, but how many people have the time, let alone programming skills, to create a virtual desktop? Data conversion at regular intervals is really the only solution for preserving digital content. Considering how creaky the Library of Congress website has become, I hope the next Librarian takes data conversion to heart.

The greatest potential for digital storytelling is the chance to let the reader/viewer become an active participant in the story, rather than a passive consumer. The Guardian’s WWI documentary allows viewers to pause the film and explore the galleries, although viewers can return to the documentary’s linear path at any time. Other websites, like the bizarre meditation on inequality and imprisonment called The Knotted Line, utterly reject linearity. Such sites allow viewers to explore a story at will. The best example of active viewing that I’ve seen this year is Al Jazeera’s Palestine Remix, which allows users to take existing video footage of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and assemble their own documentaries. More websites should include such creative and open-ended features.

As far as history goes, I think digital storytelling is an asset to historical publishing. Thanks to new templates that often don’t require knowledge of coding, historians can create galleries, archives, timelines, maps, radio shows, documentaries, and annotated texts with relative ease. But historians will have to consider seriously how avoiding linearity changes how we write history. What does it mean when a viewer can skip a web publication’s introduction and thesis, choosing instead to start in the middle, or at the end? Then again, how is that any different from skimming a paper book?

Historians must also weigh the positives and negatives of letting users augment a publication. As we’ve all seen with Wikipedia, it takes a long time to create a well-sourced history article, but it takes only moments to edit an article and fill it with fiction.

Cover Photo Source: http://bit.ly/1RygQ1I.

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