Just how “digital” is digital storytelling?

I was challenged at a recent conference to think about whether digital storytelling (DS) is making proper use of the power of the web.

After a few years exploring digital storytelling (DS) at Netskills we’ve settled on a particular format that we find works well for our workshops and also our own video production. It’s an approach that is based on a model used the world over and combines an audio voiceover with still images, produced as a video, like this example produced by Rupal Patel, a graduate student at Nottingham University.

It’s simplicity belies the fact that it’s a very powerful technique that is achievable for pretty much anyone even if they have never done any work with digital media before.

Thinking in different ways about digital storytelling

However, during a recent conference presentation on the subject, after describing this approach, I was put on the spot with a really challenging question about it; are these digital stories really digital?

I think the point that George Roberts, the questioner, was making was that although these stories exist as digital artifacts, the technique itself doesn’t make extensive use of the affordances of the modern digital universe. For example, the web is dynamic and ever-changing; these stories are fixed in time. There is little use of interactivity or social media in them. Also, the web is capable of sharing information in so many more ways than through video. Consequently, George compared the traditional form of DS as having much in common with desktop publishing. I can see what he’s getting at.

The way we approach DS is by no means the only way of doing it. That’s something we make clear on our workshops.

So, what does digital storytelling look like when it’s more “digital”? There are loads of examples out there. Here are some of my favourites.


Hollow is one of my absolute favourites. It’s an interactive documentary that tells the story of how a rural county in West Virginia has been impacted by population decline and the changing economy. It relies on scrolling to activate the animation and some of the video content. It makes very good use of modern browser technology and even finds ways of getting the audience to contribute to the story through social media, although this is on a fairly superficial level.

Here’s the trailer:

Snow Fall

Snow Fall” caused quite a stir when it was published by the New York Times. It is similar in some ways to Hollow but relies more heavily on a written piece of journalism  combining the text with digital photography, GIFs, mapping and data visualisation.

It’s an approach that has been emulated many times since but there’s also some interesting debate about how much impact it might have on the world of journalism, mostly whether it’s a sustainable form given the effort that has to be put in to creating them.

There are more examples of this style of storytelling out there. Firestorm from the Guardian is particularly good.

Nagasaki archive

As a lapsed geographer I have a soft spot for maps. The Nagasaki Archive project is a great example of using mapping technology, in this case Google Earth, to to make the most of the fact that stories and place are intimately connected. From the video demo below you can see how they have used Google Earth to create layers of multiple stories, images and maps to tell the story of the devastating events when “Fat Man” dropped out of the sky on 9th August, 1945. The video also shows how they incorporated aspects of social media as part of global public engagement exercise.

Highrise – One Millionth Tower

One Millionth Tower came out a while ago. It’s a collaboration between web designers, artists, media producers and residents of a highrise block in Toronto. It makes great use of HTML5 and WebGL technologies to create an immersive 3D environment to explore. My favourite bit is that the “weather” and daylight on the site mirrors the actual conditions in Toronto at that moment.

It’s best viewed in Chrome, FireFox or Safari. If you don’t have those then here’s the trailer.

Story hacks

This is less of a style of digital storytelling and more of a method. There have been a few of these collaborative events that bring together creative and technical teams to produce transmedia stories around a particular topic. They use video, audio, web design and data visualisation to create some compelling stories.

Storyhacks have happened in the US in Vermont and New York and at the Barbican in London. 15-days.org is one of the outputs from the New York event focusing on issues around solitary confinement in the US penal system.

It strikes me as an approach that universities could make good use of especially for public engagement in research, but that is something to explore in a blog post of its own.

The future of digital storytelling

All these examples show that digital storytelling doesn’t have to be just about producing a 2-3 minute video and that it’s possible to use much more of the power of the web to tell a story.

At the moment, creating these interactive and transmedia stories takes a great deal of time and expertise, putting it out of the reach of many which also loses a lot of that personal control that’s so important with the traditional form of digital storytelling.

There is no “ideal” form of DS. It depends on what your purpose is and what resources are within your reach.

But technology is always moving on. It will be interesting to see how the emergence of tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn change the way that storytelling and the web work together. That’s something we’re going to investigate more and come back to in a future article.