A boy sits by a fire, cross-legged, his head resting on his fists. Beyond the fire, a woman sits on a log, shadows playing on her face as she tells a story of a hero that battles thirteen whales aboard a coconut raft. The kid is motionless, afraid to even breathe as the woman tells about a whale jumping and crashing into the raft, sinking it. He gasps; his brother sitting next to him leans over and whispers, “Don’t worry, the hero always makes it.” Ever the storyteller, the woman chooses suspense, continuing the story by focusing on the hero’s companion. With every moment she neglects the hero, the boy’s anxiety grows. Eventually, he screams out, “The hero! What happened to the hero?”
We know stories. We tell them, we listen to them, we read them, we watch them, we engage with them, and we learn from them. As Reynolds Price said, “the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.” And yet when it comes to digital we find it hard to understand the best way to tell stories. Digital can confuse us, from its technology and channels to its flexibility, mobility, and interactivity. However, in all its newness, digital storytelling is akin to something ancient: the tradition of oral storytelling.
Oral storytelling is intimate. It establishes proximity—both physical and emotional— between storyteller and listener. A storyteller not only dictates a story, but she creates it through nuance in form, the inflection of her voice or the vehemence of her gestures. Imagine her voice cracking at an emotional turn, or a well-placed pause at the height of suspense. She’s not just telling a story, she’s engaging with her audience. And in return her audience engages with her. Now imagine a listener crying; he infuses the storytelling with his own experience, showing the storyteller and his fellow listeners that the story is not only what is being told, but also that it echoes his own story. His tears make the experience relevant and poignant. Storytelling in the oral tradition builds connection through communal experience. The audience, far from being a passive participant, becomes an active enhancer of the story.
If you think about it, one of the great possibilities and values of digital is an intimate connection. Defining digital as intimate may seem to be an oxymoron because we confuse digital’s widespread access as mass communication, but in truth digital is intimate, personal. Digital allows proximity through technology, permitting the intimacy of storytelling to succeed. It allows a user to consume what she wants and also to adapt, modify and create. Oral storytelling relies as much on communal experience as it does on story, and the same is true for digital. The mechanics may be different but the concept remains the same. Through digital people share, comment, co-create. Take a meme, for example. A meme is merely a (very) short story with a defined structure that anyone can appropriate. The story then becomes a narrative of parts understood not individually but through the communal experience of sharing and co-creating.
Oral storytelling is unique. A story will not be told the same way twice. Each experience is its own story shaped by performance and reaction. In digital, storytelling is also unique; few will watch, listen or read a story under the same circumstances. A story can evolve by what is commented, by who has shared it, or from where it is found. In digital if one wants to tell a story, one has to be a storyteller, listening to the audience and constantly allowing the story to be enhanced. As storytellers we mustn’t see a story as a closed inert object to be consumed, but as an organic communal experience, one that evolves with its audience.