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The Art of Digital Storytelling

he medium is the message." — the great Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan

"the medium is the message." — the great Canadian theorist Marshall McLuh

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“the medium is the message.” — the great Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan

More than a century ago, German composer and operatist, Richard Wagner, strove to transform musical drama into a “gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total work of art.” His controversial ideal called for the subordination of music to theater, which he felt to be the superior artform. While Wagner’s radical ideas did much to irk many of his musical contemporaries, the flawed concept of the “total work of art” has had a tremendous impact on the practice of storytelling.

Today, digital storytelling tools could become this generation’s “gesamtkunstwerk.” We say this because today’s audiences have access to enormous amounts of highly specific, interactive content online. (We’re talking about the technology used to build the New York Times’ Snowfall project, not your Facebook timeline.) So if you’ve got a story to tell, you can afford to start dreaming–there’s never been a better time to find ways in which to enrich your work with multimedia storytelling tools.

What is Digital Storytelling?

Simply put, the art of digital storytelling is all about telling stories using digital media. For example, a student may want to create a digital story using a video camera and simple video editing software to discuss a major event in their life, or even their own family history. Digital tools empower us to bring a new and vibrant dimension to our stories and the ways in which audiences experience them.

Of course, with so many tools available, sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start. In addition to effectively relaying your story to a wider audience, digital storytelling can convey a sense of innovation and mastery of several different creative tools on the part of the author/creator. Below are a few examples of how digital storytelling tools are making a difference today.

Digital Storytelling in Primary and Secondary Education

The University of Houston provides an excellent resource for using digital media in educational storytelling. The primary goal of the site is to show students and teachers how digital storytelling can be used to augment various educational activities. In addition to tools and other relevant pieces of information, Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling showcases several digital storytelling projects, such as The Reality of Television, which uses digital video to explore the effects television has on life and society.

The National Writing Project and the Pearson Foundation are currently collaborating to find out how digital storytelling can help students improve their literacy and writing skills. Together, the two organizations have been hosting workshops and professional development programs to help communicate the educational benefits of digital storytelling throughout the country. This great documentary produced by the Pearson Foundation provides a glimpse at how powerful digital storytelling can be as an educational resource.

Digital Storytelling for Higher Education

In addition to its many uses for educating primary and secondary school students, digital storytelling has also been shown to have tremendous benefits for college students. In fact, several major universities, such as the University of Maryland and the University of California, Berkeley, offer extensive programs and resources for digital storytelling.

While traditional reading and writing will continue to be a major component of higher learning, digital storytelling promises to offer students a richer palette for communicating their ideas. Moreover, the shareability of visual content is opening up new possibilities when it comes to teaching students through the use of video lessons and social media. The Center for New Design and Learning Scholarship at Georgetown University hosts the Digital Storytelling Multimedia Archive that offers great tools and examples to help students and educators understand the value of digital storytelling at the college level.

Digital Storytelling for Business and Creative Professionals

Business and creative professionals are also finding ways to incorporate data visualization and interactive media into their work. In response to an increased demand for user-friendly “storytelling tech” tools, sites like Prezi and Tableau Public have popped up to provide non-techies with tools they need to communicate complex or data-heavy ideas digitally. For anyone with a passing interest in finding out more about creating digital stories, sites such as these are great places to begin experimenting with the medium.

For quite some time now, authors have been turning to digital storytelling as a way to expose their writing to a more tech-savvy audience. Visual novels, which continue to be extremely popular in Japan, have proven to be a great way for writers to share their stories using digital mediums. In fact, visual novels accounted for nearly 70% of Japanese PC game sales in 2006, and the influence of the medium has been growing internationally ever since. Only the future will tell what kinds of new technologies this growing demand for digitally enhanced literature will bring about.

Storytelling for a New Generation

As the great Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote: “the medium is the message.” Indeed, the medium is a crucial aspect of how we experience and interpret a story, and without it, a story would dissipate into nothingness. That said, the rapid evolution of multimedia and digital storytelling tools shouldn’t alarm us. Today’s stories still serve the same purpose that stories always have–to entertain, inform or arouse their audiences.

From woodblock printing to Wagner’s “gesamtkunstwerk,” it’s fascinating to trace the ways in which mankind’s storytelling tastes have evolved alongside technology. Even though digital storytelling could be the primary storytelling medium for generations to come, who is to say that a more effective storytelling medium won’t come along in the next 10 years or even the next 10 minutes?