Digital Storytelling: Where the Experts

November 8, 2011

I teach a course, Visual Research Methods, for Cultural Studies at the Claremont Graduate University where I push graduate students who have made a career of paper-writing to express their intellectual work about visual culture, visually. Even as the course provocatively pushes them as individuals out of their comfort zones of expression and audience, it also begs larger questions about field formation, training, authority, the use, ethics and scale of academic work, and its normative vernaculars, media, and modalities. While they start closer to home with video essays, then moving farther afield through documentary and ethnographic media, they end someplace new again: right smack here, in the Internet, asked to think about and through “digital storytelling.”

While you might imagine that a great deal of the writing on the Internet might be considered just such a text, there is actually a sort of academic/non-profit stranglehold on the what this terms means: “A short, first person video-narrative created by combining recorded voice, still and moving images, and music or other sounds” as enabled by the standard workshops given to local citizens at the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, CA, and its many official and kindred sites around the world, institutions where trained experts facilitate the voices of the people. The work that comes out of these centers follows a rather predictable model for both form and content—private often painful or sensational stories, illustrated with personal images and moving scores—while also attaining a level of quality and attention that a good deal of the “bad video” of the Internet lacks. These other “digital stories” sit in some precarious and complex relation with the unruly, undisciplined, and often proto-literate projects of citizens who tell their stories outside of institutional sanction, training, or norms: the blogs, tweats, videos, and tumblrs of web 2.0.

For my students (and for me), this begs the role of the (visual/academic) expert in the sea of the digital: to speak here ourselves in new voices and vernaculars and to different audiences, to train the peeps to be more literate, to look at the work of day to day users and better understand it. This post serves as an invitation for my students currently enrolled in the course to blog about their initial stake in and take about digital storytelling (you’ll find their ideas in the comments here over the next few days). But we’d love to hear from other readers as well: about my opening remarks, or my students’ thoughts relayed on their own blogs (another visual research method for the course). In our readings for this week from Digital Storytelling, Meditized Stories, Knut Lundby introduces his anthology by raising these academic understandings of digital storytelling: as small scale stories that give a voice to ordinary people through self-representation using digital technology; as multi-modal transformations that remix culture to challenge institutions through personal narratives and a performance of authenticity. It seems worth noting that many of these ideas about scale, institutional challenge, multi-modality, authority, and performance are equally critical to understanding scholars moves into a digital (research) voice (note my first paragraph), so I invite some introspection and self-reflexivity (as have many past students in the course) about “digital storytelling” as well:

13 Responses to “Digital Storytelling: Where the Experts”

  1. Alex, I loved this project. K and I were incredibly invested in our digital storytelling project (thanks for the link!), and the discussions in class were fun and critical and highly intimate and just fantastic, even *with* its few moments of discomfort and vulnerability. I’m excited to view what your students produce!

  2. Alex, I agree with you about giving a new voice. It is important to allow all people to engage in storytelling because everyone has a story. Everyone can’t use academia as a way to share their narrative so with the emergence of digital storytelling one can use new media to share their story and to validated without neccesarily being an “academic”. For more info visit my blog

  3. oksana williams Says:

    Alex, thank you to assign readings from Digital Storytelling book by Knut Lunby. It gives a clear understanding what digital storytelling represents.
    For additional info visit my blog

  4. Andrew Says:

    Alex, I think digital storytelling is a great tool, but does it lose some of its power when people can’t find them online? I wrote about this on my blog:

  5. amandajslee Says:

    Alex, there is no doubt that digital storytelling has empowered many individuals to be able to narrate their own stories without an overhaul of manipulation or mediation. However, how does the issue of authenticity play into all of this?

    To read my personal response, please visit my blog:

  6. stompingoneggshells Says:

    Alex, in addition to the questions I have posed in my post, I would also like to request some clarification on the distinction between mediation and mediatization. I believe the latter is a process on a macrocosmic scale whereas the former is microcosmic. Am I even close?

    Anyways, on the topic of digital storytelling, I approached the medium from a position of academic privilege, and have questioned whether or not this form of media can/should be incorporated into professional academic endeavors.

    You can read more here:

  7. musinosusan Says:

    Hello Alex,

    The reading resonated with me regarding how digital storytelling is and will continue to influence educational practices. Having a masters in Special Education, my mind went immediately to how this medium will even the playing field for those students with challenges in reading and writing. I have seen first hand how adept these students are utilizing technology and many special needs students excel in the creative process.

    This class has opened my eyes to a place I had not explored. My daughter and sons would send me links to YouTube and I would watch these, but I never ventured in on my own. I have now and I am enjoying the landscape.


    • Joi Says:

      I feel the same way Susan. Honestly, I used to scoff at the notion of YouTube and posting “actualities” on ones life online. This class has definitely open my mind up to the posibilities of this rhetorial medium (and otherwise).

  8. Tianyu Xiao Says:

    Hi Guys, here are my comments about digital storytellings!

  9. Is it possible that although digital storytelling gives the potentially voiceless some chance of self-representation, how is the deluge of online information to be navigated, managed, filtered? Must there be some type of gatekeeping function provided to make sense of the online world, and who controls such a function/system?

  10. Joi Says:

    Digital storytelling is an incredibly powerful medium that gives voice to aspects of our lives we may not necessarily want to say out loud. I think of the blues women in the 1920’s who began to share their private woes in public spaces. I wonder if the “mediatized” space creates a sense of boldness, anonymity (though known), and/or safety that scholars have often discuss regarding the notion of a-syncretized digital dialog.

  11. Hi, Alex,

    Fascinating stuff! I’m especially intrigued by your comment that digital media “begs the role of the (visual/academic) expert in the sea of the digital: to speak here ourselves in new voices and vernaculars and to different audiences, to train the peeps to be more literate, to look at the work of day to day users and better understand it.” I comment further on the roles of the expert and the amateur in digital media at

  12. […] academic blog. While I’ve been blogging since 2007, with some review it seems I haven’t blogged about the class every year, although many of the courses are covered (follow links please). But I […]

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