In part 1 of this post, I shared my journey to becoming interested in (obsessed with) storytelling. The question I ended with was how can the act of finding, sharing and listening to people’s personal stories be enough of a process in and for itself? In this post, I share what I’ve learned from sharing insights with a thoughtful bunch of digital storytellers during the Un/Told Digital Storytelling conference.
For context, I feel it’s helpful to make the distinction between digital storytelling (no caps) and Digital Storytelling (with caps).
‘No caps digital storytelling’ encompasses pretty much everything that relates to using media to share stories. Film, radio, games, interactive journalism, immersive theatre, and everything in-between and beyond that. The Digital Storytelling Lab at Columbia University leads the way in terms of exploring these crossovers, and envisioning what the future of storytelling looks like.
By contrast, ‘with caps Digital Storytelling’ is a bounded practice, enabling people to share personal narratives through film or photography and audio first person narration:
Digital storytelling refers to a short form of digital media production that allows people to share aspects of their life story. Digital Stories can be comprised of photographs, video footage and audio voiceover, and typically last between 2 and 3 minutes. Each film tells a story written and narrated by the teller. Digital Storytelling is increasingly popular as a learning, participation and empathy-raising tool in higher education, health care and civic engagement. [link]
I’m not a purist, so I feel more excited by the potential of the all encompassing ‘small caps’ definition of digital storytelling. However, ‘with caps Digital Storytelling’ comes with a set of ethical principles that feel really close to what I’ve been looking for in terms of moving beyond the story robbery industry. Here are a few of these principles.
- The Sacred Meaning. Joe Lambert talks about how each story carries a sacred meaning to the individual who owns it. As soon as that story is shared, listeners start layering their own meaning and interpretation onto that story: the sacred meaning is at risk of being eroded or lost. Our job as storytellers is to ensure that no matter whose ears the story falls into, the core meaning, the heart of the story is respected and passed on.
- Power. Even though Digital Storytelling is concerned with first-person narratives, there is never just one person behind a story. The authorship of a Digital Story looks more like a quartet, composed of the storyteller, the facilitator (or researcher), the commissioner (if the story has been commissioned by a third party, like a media company or a charity), and the listener (the audience, you, me, and everyone else). Each of these actors have the power to shape the story. Each have to understand and negotiate each other’s motivations when creating the story. Is is a way to share my truth? Is it data? Is it a positive communications opportunity? Is it entertainment? It’s probably all of the above. But the question is how can we maintain a reflective awareness of the power balances that impact the telling of the story? How can we ensure that the communications opportunity for the commissioner doesn’t override the process of truth sharing for the storyteller? Who really holds the power to define what the narrative is?
- Healing. Turning a life experience into a story is a sense-making process. If the experience is painful, it might seem counter-intuitive to delve back into that pain and to create a story that carries that pain with it. But making sense of a painful experience through narrative can also be healing. Because it’s a first step to being heard, and being heard, being deeply heard is healing. Not only that, it’s also contagious. Sharing your truth can encourage others to share their truth.
These 3 points feel incredibly relevant to any storytelling work that focuses on personal narratives. There is a fourth one, which requires to be explored further. Listening. Too often, in the civic engagement world, we hear the phrase “giving people a voice.” That phrase always feels painful and presumptuous. Because people already have a voice. And the best we can do is to give other people ears, so that that voice doesn’t get lost.
But what do we know about good listening? What do we know about unlocking that part of people’s brains that makes them relax and open up to the vulnerability of truly hearing someone else?
These are questions I want to keep exploring.