Storytelling Evolved: 18 Ideas in Digital Storytelling (Part 1)

In every age, as technology and culture advance, so does storytelling.

Philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously observed that, when a new media emerges, the first attempts to use it often resemble the older, more familiar media.  For example, consider early radio broadcasts of speeches, televised radio broadcasts, typed letters, and recordings of live music performances.  As these media evolved, more advanced techniques were discovered that unlocked the creative potential of each medium: the radio play, the edited television show, studio performances, the remix, and typographical art (to name a few).

As we become more and more familiar with the medium, what new digital storytelling techniques are being created?  Our series looks at eighteen different techniques developed to take advantage of the flexibility of the digital medium.  We’ll be showcasing six techniques every day, so stay tuned!

1.The Blog

Ok, I started with an obvious one.  Though it began as the online evolution of a personal diary, the blog has evolved into a rich storytelling medium.  It serves a variety of purposes: news, art, discussion, journaling, information dissemination, and more.

Of course, no mention of blogs would be complete without Joss Wheedon’s excellent “Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.” Starring Neil Pattrick Harris (of Doogie Howser MD fame), the performance (though not a blog in itself) parodies the melodramatic, self-exploration of LiveJournal’s and Xanga’s everywhere — from the perspective of an evil, mad scientist super-villain.  It should be noted that since Doogie Howser famously closed every episode with an entry in his digital diary, he is the first ever televised blogger.

The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it.

The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it.

2.The Wiki

The wiki plays off traditions of collaborative storytelling.  Certainly, people have collaborated on documents before digital but never to the extent of the wiki.  The medium has made possible a “collective consciousness” of information, one that can be as fluid or curated as necessary.  Don’t believe me?  Have you seen Wikipedia?

The format inspired publisher The Penguin Group to create, a crowd sourced, wiki-powered collaborative novel.  Users can add to or edit previous author’s work.  Did it work? Read it for yourself.  And if you don’t like it, change it!

The race to Shakespeare is on!  Who will win?  A million penguins or a million monkeys?

3.Data Stories

Statisticians have long known that data can be used to tell a story.  Designers quickly discovered that excellent design can make that story clear.  While the “best data visualization ever” still probably belongs to Minard’s chart of Napoleon’s disastrous Russia campaign (he fell victim to one of the classic blunders), digital has allowed this story telling technique to evolve in amazing ways.

Daytum is a project that allows users to construct their own data driven narratives.  By tracking and visualizing data from aspects of their lives, users paint a statistical portrait of themselves.  The results are surprisingly engaging and reveal the kinds of details you never find on a Facebook profile.  The Little Prince famously observed that adults only understand the world via numbers – perhaps we should replace our Facebook profiles with Datum pages?

A snapshot of Nicholas Feltron, by the numbers.

A snapshot of Nicholas Feltron, by the numbers.

Not only is digital great at displaying data, it’s also fantastic at collecting and aggregating it.  Jonathan Harris used this to great effect when creating his digital projects: I Want You To Want Me, We Feel Fine, and Lovelines.  All three explore human emotion through the aggregation and visualization of people’s publicly published blogs/dating profiles.

4. Digitally Augmented Novels

The Kindle marks the beginning of the first wired, digital books – that is, books with internet connections.  While we currently use them to display traditional print books (just like McLuhan said), what happens when we start taking advantage of this new capability?

One idea is suggested by Christoph Benda’s “Sengor on the Rocks,” a digitally augmented book, that displays the locations and movements of its characters through a Google maps mash-up.  Unfortunately, it’s in German so I can’t understand a word of it.  Still, flipping through the pages gives you a pretty good idea of what the author is trying to do.

Mike Shatzkin, CEO of The Idea Logical Co. and “digital book publishing futurist,” sees the industry moving along a similar tack as he predicts the future of the print medium in 10 years:

The robust e-book market—more than 50 percent of the sales of many titles (also a bit more than 10 years off)—will have been fueled by features built into e-books that can’t be replicated in print versions. For example, e-books will frequently use moving images as illustrations, rather than stills. And, of course, e-books all will have links, which will be consistently listed as the No. 1 deficiency responsible for the rapid abandonment of paper books.  (via

5.Everything is a medium

The explosion of digital platforms has encouraged people to explore new and unconventional ways to convey ideas.  As a result, digital stories are popping up in the most unexpected places.

Take a digital walk down Sampsonia Way in Google Maps and you’ll be treated to a series of vignettes that illustrate a bizarre, but surprisingly engaging series of micro-stories.  Didn’t see them all? Here’s the cheat sheet.

The Love Laser on Sampsonia Way is in a state of permanent beta.

The Love Laser on Sampsonia Way is in a state of permanent beta

Machinima is the technique of using video games and their characters as actors for what are essentially digital plays.  The genre began in 1996 with Diary of a Camper, using the then-popular Quake game engine.  Since then, the medium has ballooned in both size and sophistication.  Red vs. Blue is a popular serialized machinima production and portal features movies created from a range of game titles.

6.Collaborative Freeform

In 2006, YouTube poster MadV, popular for his magic tricks and Guy Fawkes mask, created a simple 40 second video.  The video (seen here) encouraged users to respond to the author’s work, a short clip where he reveals the message “One World” scrawled across his palm. The post became the most responded to video in YouTube history. MadV stitched the responses together, creating a montage to humanity, creating one of the most unique examples of digital storytelling I’ve seen – a crowd generated, unscripted, freeform story. Since then, MadV has deleted his account.  An artistic statement on the ephemerality of existence?  Who knows?

Who is Mad V???

Who is Mad V???

Tomorrow, we’ll have a look at another six storytelling techniques.  Anything I missed?  Leave it in the comments!

Update: Read Part 2