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Analyzing Digital Narratives

In The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, Bryan Alexander defines digital storytelling as “narratives built from the stuff of cybercultur.”  For Alexander, these narratives can play out on myriad types of technologies, from podcasts to twitter feeds and Facebook pages.  Alexander argues that stories are important because they allow us to share our material, not conceal it.  For a historian, I think this is an incredibly important point.  Certainly, historical monographs tell stories (or often try to tell stories), but all too often they fall victim to criticisms that these narratives are only written for the 5-10 people in a sub-field.  Incorporating a digital narrative into a project allows for a historians work to be shared to a wider audience.  And for scholars more grounded in “traditional” history, this can be a useful tool.

While there are countless numbers of digital narratives available online, there are two in particular I want to share.  The first is the WWII Tweets from 1940 twitter feed.  This is a six-year project that “live tweets” the events of WWII on the day and time they actually occurred.  This is an inventive way to tell the story of WWII in short, digestible bits of information through an immensely popular social medium.  As Alexander notes, the strength of twitter as a place for digital storytelling is in it’s immediacy, which “lends itself to ‘live’ stories.”  As of today, the twitter feed has over 228,000 followers.  Twitter deservedly draws criticism for the bevy of inanities posted daily, but the WWII tweets provides an interesting way for history to reach a broader audience.  In addition to the main twitter feed, the WWII Tweets has a corresponding facebook page.  Additionally, this idea is dedicated to reaching the widest audience possible, as it has corresponding pages offering translations in Spanish, Russian, German, French, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Korean, Hebrew, Romanian, and Latin.

While it is commendable that the WWII Tweets from 1940 page endeavors to reach such a wide audience, twitter is still limited in terms of how interactive it can be as a medium for a digital narrative.  Others can read and retweet the feed, but their ability to contribute to the conservation is limited.  I’d be interested in seeing if the same people who ran this twitter feed could start a second one that would “interact” with the first in hopes of expanding the community.

A more useful way to engage the audience and offer them a forum to discuss the topics is through podcasts.  Podcasts tap into the “ancient” tradition of storytelling, making podcasts “deeply historical, even nostalgic.”  The advantage to podcasts is, as Alexander notes, that we can google key terms, look for maps and images of relevant topics, and follow along at our own pace using the internet to supplement the podcast.  Katrina Gulliver has shown the effectiveness of podcasts as a way to reach a wider audience with a historical narrative.  Her podcast, Cities in History, explores different aspects of urban history, from the contributions of the Chicago School of urban sociology to the history of Havana.  Each podcast is paired with a series of monographs to read to offer historiographical context.  One advantage to the podcasts over the WWI twitter feed is the ability to comment.  In theory, a provocative podcast could generate a healthy conversation in the comments section.  The ability for audience engagement gives this brand of digital narrative a powerful edge over twitter.

While these are just two of many types of digital narratives, I think they offer at least a brief glimpse into the possibilities for this particular type of digital history.  Personally, of the various types of digital media I’ve studied so far, I find narratives to be the most intriguing and promising for my own work.

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Categories: Full Post, HIST 479
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