Tuesday, April 19, 2011

8 lessons from X Media Lab Perth: Storytelling in a digital age.

I find myself continually drawn to the intersection of history and digital media so jumped at the chance to attend X Media Lab Perth: Storytelling in a Digital Age. Technology has always shaped our relationship with the past and today it offers exciting opportunities to reach new audiences and communicate in more engaging ways.

A range of speakers from various disciplines shared their understandings of this paradigm shift. Their views were inspiring, thought-provoking and, at times, contentious. Though aimed at a broad audience, there were some valuable insights for digital historians:

1. No matter what technology you use, the fundamentals of storytelling remain the same.
Stories are central to mankind and humanity. They teach us about how the world works, how to live in society and how to get along. Both Marshall Vandruff (Artist) and Dominic Knight (The Chaser) spoke about storytelling as a craft. It’s not enough to express yourself. There are rules and they can be learned. While most relevant to those writing non-fiction, it is important for historians to acknowledge the structure and effects of a compelling narrative. Despite all the talk of crowd-sourcing, collaboration and co-creation, Dominic rightly questioned the ability of a committee to write a classic novel or make a TV show like The Wire. It’s all about balance.

2. The most engaging stories reflect our basic human emotions.
Marshall Vandruff has had an extraordinary career as an artist and knows a thing or two about storytelling having worked for clients including Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbara, Dark Horse Comics and MAD magazine. I was hanging off every word as he gave a lecture about classic storytelling (doing his best to condense 40 hours of lectures into 10 minutes). The most powerful stories are those which connect us with others, take us on a journey (not a tour) and give meaning to our lives. Vandruff’s focus on human empathy resonated with me - I recently read a fascinating article which cited empathy as a ‘universal solvent’ and ‘the world’s most valuable resource’. I believe good history is rarely without it.

3. Good storytelling conveys both the familiar and unfamiliar.
Another gem from Dominic Knight. Powerful storytelling treads a careful tightrope across our comfort zone. It is the tension between the familiar and unfamiliar that can convey realisations about ourselves. I was reminded of a powerful quote by historian William H. McNeil (Mythhistory and Other Essays, 1986)...
“Historians can only expect to be heard if they say what the people around them want to hear—in some degree. They can only be useful if they also tell the people some things they are reluctant to hear—in some degree.”

4. Stories can transcend borders.
Peter Shiao spoke about his work adapting classic Chinese martial arts literature for the Western world. The themes of transformation and spirituality have a powerful ability to transcend borders. His work has a strong cross cultural appeal in USA and China - two countries are most often talked about in terms of differences, rather than similarities.

5. Digital storytelling can give a voice to the voiceless.
Emma Kaye spoke about the ways in which mobile phones are being used in South Africa to empower impoverished communities to tell their own stories. In Africa, oral tradition was central to building and maintaining of community and today digital platforms have allowed a resurgence of personal storytelling. Unlike traditional filmmaking, editing and broadcasting content on mobile phones has low barriers to entry, resulting in a renaissance of content being made by the community for the community.

6. People are already pushing boundaries.
Ana Serrano shared several examples of digital storytellers who are leveraging technology and social media to create more immersive experiences. Some of the results are more engaging than others however all are breaking new ground.

7. Don't fear a shift from sole creator to co-creator.
Social media has changed everything. It’s now possible to interact with a ‘story community’, build relationships and even maintain these over the long term. Just think about all the opportunities to use these tools to connect communities for local history projects! The new remix culture (legitimised by revolutionary new frameworks such as Creative Commons) can also be harnessed to fuel innovation.

8. Interactivity can increase the level of engagement - but tread carefully.
Professor Duane Varan from Murdoch University shared his 10 Commandments for interactive storytelling. His research at the Interactive Television Research Institute has proven that interactive stories can be better than traditional linear narratives – but only if we stick to the rules of structure. Varan noted it does not matter how small the screen is; if it is an iPhone, laptop or wide screen TV. Media platforms do not hold power – content is king and interactivity should be used to complement the story rather drive the narrative.


  1. Great wrap-up of an amazing, intense day of inspiring sessions :)

  2. Your blog is really interesting, Jo! Looking forward to coming back for another look soon.

  3. I read all my books now on my Android phone with Google Books app. Because its so portable I can read anywhere anytime I have a spare five minutes. I read so much more now, its way more accessible, good blog Jo