In doing some additional research on digital storytelling, I had to go all the way back and ask , “What is it?” DS106 has had a strong “Just do it” ethos from before the beginning. However, I’ve been a bit stuck as I tried to explain to non “initiates” just what it was all about.

As I poked around Wikipedia, I found the Center for Digital Storytelling, from which the term seems to have sprung. In the beginning, digital storytelling seems to have had a narrower definition than it does today. Essentially it was

Recorded narration + musical background + slideshow with Ken Burns effect.

The Wikipedia article also pointed to a digital storytelling site put together by BBC Wales, which stuck to the early definition of the form. Many of the stories had transcripts of the narration, and this led to a discovery.

Rather than wait for videos to load, I tended to read the transcript and then decide if the story was interesting enough to bother watching the full version. After sitting through several videos, I realized that the digital part of the storytelling often didn’t add that much to the experience. You saw some nice pictures and heard the author’s voice, but they were just reading their story, not telling it.

For illustration, compare Seamus Heaney reading the opening of his Beowulf translation with Benjamin Bagby telling the story in the original West Saxon. I’ve read the Heaney translation aloud, and it is, IMHO an excellent rendering of Beowulf into modern English. One can read it aloud and feel like you’re telling a story rather than reading a translation, which is no mean feat. Nevertheless, Bagby claims your attention in a way that Heaney just doesn’t.  So what does this comparison of Beowulf readings have to do with digital storytelling?

When we transcend text, we are making stronger claims on our audience’s attention.  If we’re going to tell stories digitally, we need to back up those claims with something that holds that attention. Just as much as how to use the tools, it’s important for us to help would be digital storytellers that they are, well, storytelling , with all the performance aspects that that entails.