Storytelling in the Digital Age

This was written a number of years ago as the literature review for an essay on the evolution of storytelling. It’s a uni assignment, so it’s writing style can most politely be described as academic (and long). Frankly it’s hard work.

You were warned…

A comment in response to Kevin Roberts’ Sep 10, 2008 Blog on “A job for the future” posed the following to other readers:

“…I do wonder, in the 21st Century, a time when there’s more pressure than pleasure and people’s lives seem to be on some kind of high-speed auto-pilot, will society’s appreciation for myths and stories fizzle out?  Will we all turn into “forget the fluff, tell me the key points and benefits, hard and fast” kind of people?  Or will our growing need for mental release make them more popular?” (Sophee McPhee in Roberts, 2008)

This question has ‘pre-echoes’ in Joseph Campbell’s discussion on “The Hero Today” in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell, 1949):

“…for the democratic ideal of the self-determining individual, the invention of the power-driven machine, and the development of the scientific method of research, have so transformed human life that the long-inherited, timeless universe of symbols has collapsed.” (pg 387)

Campbell expands on this theme, seeing the change of the social unit from something apart from the rest of the world, and founded on religion and spirituality to a secular morass of materialism and logic.

He further expands the argument in his implied denunciation of the rise of the individual at the expense of the group.  He does not, however, advocate the turning back of the clock, but rather the seeking and understanding of new symbols to reveal a larger human truth.

The primary purpose of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell, 1949) is to demonstrate the universality of world mythology.  He claims that “In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognised, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream.” (Campbell, 1949, pg 4)

He further summarises what he calls the ‘monomyth’ as follows:

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Campbell, 1949, pg 30)

So it might seem, that the world is no longer interested in hearing the same story, told over again.  Especially when they can be so easily reduced to the outline above, or to David and Leigh Eddings’ ten elements (“Theology, ‘The Quest’, ‘The Magic Thingamajig’, ‘Our Hero’, ‘Wizard’, our heroine, villain with diabolical connections, group of companions, group of ladies and governments.” 1988, pg 7-9) – which, taken somewhat out of context here, does come across rather cynically.

A.R. Hope Moncrieff, in his introduction to Classic Myth and Legend (1934), denounces the prevalent Western attitude to myths and legends as mere fairy tales, suitable only for the nursery and attempts, through this and other publications, to restore credibility and curiosity to the myths of the ancestors.  This lament is also found in Naughton’s (2008) article, where she goes so far as to describe the label of ‘fairy tale’ as ‘demeaning’. (pg 194)

What we find here, from two publications written over 50 years ago, is a concern for the state of society and the breakdown in the notion of community, well before the advent of the internet (which has apparently done all the damage in community breakdown if some commentators are to be believed).

Wellman & Gulia (1999), discussing the nature of communities on the Web, make a cogent argument when they point out that “These worriers are confusing the pastoralist myth of community for the reality.”  As shown by the concerns expressed in the two publications above, the days of the isolated village as a community are long gone.  The challenge now is to find the stories that help to bind the new, worldwide village in which we live (something to which Campbell (1949) also alludes).

Rheingold (2000) exhorts us to look to places other than the internet for the “sources of our alienation” (pg 347), citing other capitalist developments such as cubicles and cars.  Indeed, Wellman and Gulia (1999) find that, now, people don’t pass the time of day in the village square and so chance upon friends as they go by.  If people want to stay in contact with their community, they need to actively communicate.

As Howard Rheingold says “Human civilisation undoubtedly lost something as well as gained something with alphabetic writing, books and libraries supplanted bards and peripatetic scholarship.”(Rheingold, 2000, pg 346)

His observation on the change in the way by which people consume news – from collecting in the village square to hear the tales of the travellers and discussing them, to the solitary perusal of the newspaper at home – rather masterfully refrains from pointing out the reversal in this activity now taking place via the Internet (although, to be fair, it was not a seemingly ubiquitous social phenomenon in 2000 as it is in 2009).

This isolation of experience of information is also commented upon by Steven Jones (1997) when he notes the blame attended to reading and the print culture for the resultant isolation of people.  He laments the strong tendency to read about the world, rather than engage with it.  In applying this tendency to the internet, he draws an interesting parallel between reading and lurking (lurking is when a visitor to, or nominal member of, an online community only observes, and takes no part in the communication in train).  The difference is that lurking is actually slightly less disruptive to a group of engaged individuals than if that lurker was the wallflower at a face-to-face social get-together.

Jones (1997) also discusses Hoggart’s description of the old men constantly to be found in the reading rooms of libraries.  They are geographically co-located for extended time periods (days, months, years) so, according to some of the more traditional definitions, they are a community.  Yet they never speak, never interact, never make contact with each other, they’re too absorbed in the isolationist world of reading. (pg 14)

To return to the connection between communities and stories, Jones (1997) asserts that “Narratives are not, of course, communities, though they may be artefacts of community and may represent a good portion of what communities do to maintain and reproduce themselves over time.”(pg 15)

This, however, does not address the apparent deep human need for mythology (as claimed by Campbell (1949) and Moncrieff (1934)).  Logically, it would seem that placing factual information into a narrative form would satisfy the human need for information sharing via storytelling, yet Boyd (2001) finds this to not be the case, that we “engage so compulsively in telling and listening to stories we know are not true.” (pg 201)  He further points out that, being a highly social species, activities that enable us to command or share attention are highly satisfactory, and since our sense of curiosity is so strongly developed, being able to engage attention in order to repay curiosity further enhances the personal reward.

Naughton (2008), on the other hand, finds the purpose of ‘fairy tales’ to be a method by which to combat fear through recognition, then either acceptance or annihilation. (pg 195)

The idea that storytelling is hardwired into our brains is explored by Sugiyama (2001).  According to archaeological evidence, narrative as a human cultural artefact, is between 30,000 and 100,000 years old.  Her assertion is that our brains as they are today were developed to deal with conditions in the Pleistocene period (1.6 million to 10,000 years ago) and survival in this time was highly dependent on the effective garnering of second hand information, hence our supposedly instinctive thirst for stories we find easy to remember.

While this may be the case, depending on people’s views on evolutionary theory, her observation of the variations in the relation of a story, depending on the nature of the narrator, the audience and the context in which the story is being told, finds a strong echo in the use of newer media for effective storytelling.

Since the advent of the Gutenberg press, reading and text have gained ascendancy and, even in the past 100 years, the new media development has, until very recently, focused primarily on effective mass reproduction of storytelling media.

Davenport et al (1991) address the challenges inherent in moving the monologue of film into the multimedia context, where the user is able to control the story.  In so doing, they provide a useful reminder that, “As technology evolved, filmmakers invented new aspects of cinematic language.  In this process, they reshaped the relationship between specific cinematic elements, the final movie, and the audience.” (pg 69) That is, the development of new media has changed the ways in which messages are encoded by the storyteller, and decoded by the story listener.  Or, to put it into Campbell’s (1949) language, new symbols have emerged.

This point is also explored, somewhat in the reverse, by Crane (1991) when he investigates the use of multimedia to improve the study of ancient culture (specifically that of Moncrieff’s Classic Greek culture and literature).  He has found that “Putting texts, images, sound, and motion video on line forces us to explore ways in which to link these different media” (pg 46) and “The long term consequence will not simply be new answers, but new questions…” (pg 45)

Klaebe et al (2007) have investigated the use of multimedia for storytelling in a practical application of idea of storytelling as a community-builder.  The project was centred around the acknowledgement of the history surrounding the site, and new inhabitants of, a new housing development (or Urban Village as the call it) in Brisbane.

They have found that the advent of the new processes of transmission have seen storytelling events becoming less “text-based, more visual and increasingly personal.” (pg 3)  They quote Frisch et al in saying:

“New digital tools and the rich landscape of practice they define may become powerful resources in restoring one of the appeals of oral history – to open new dimensions of understanding and engagement through the broadly inclusive sharing and interrogation of memory.”(pg 3)

While challenges were found in the effective application and protection of intellectual property, copyright and ethics, the researchers found the project encouraged “broad inclusive participation and interest…” (pg 11) and agree with Daniel Meadow’s assertion that “digital stories help to reveal the ‘invisible nation’…’Photographs which until now have been tucked into drawers…come out of the shadows…’”(pg 11)

It bears out Kevin Roberts’ observation on a similar activity in his home country of New Zealand of “…the central role storytelling has always played in Maori culture and how wonderfully new technology can bring it to life.” And that “…stories and interesting talk are the best way to connect our past, present and future.” (2009)

This leads to Georges’ (1969) exhortation for “students of man” to study “storytelling events” as opposed to “stories as cultural artefacts” – that is, rather than examine the text of the story as a relic of a given culture, explore the event of the storytelling itself.  In this appeal, he’s supported by Boyd (2001) who finds this ‘artefact-based’ approach lacking in both its ability to recognise the universal appeal of a story (beyond a given culture) while paradoxically also managing to ignore the individual nature of the artist creating the story at the time.

Sugiyama’s (2001) essay also finds the context for storytelling important, as noted above.  Georges (1969), however, takes it further by constructing a set of postulates and a storytelling event model (that looks uncomfortably like two amoeba exchanging DNA).  He finds significant fault with Malinowski’s (1931) assertion that “the functions of ‘myths’, their social meaning and significance, are identical in all societies.” (in Georges, 1969, pg 325)  He, instead believes that:

“Data for studying storytelling events must be sought in natural field situations, and every attempt must be made to capture their wholeness.  Technological devices such as sound cameras, which make this feasible, must be utilised in new and creative ways.  Only by attempting to study storytelling events holistically can we begin to appreciate their true significance as communicative events, as social experiences, and as unique expressions of human behaviour.” (pg 327-328)

Or, as Roberts (2009) puts it, “When people Love and Respect storytelling as performance, the compelling nature of metaphor and the mesmerising effect of a tale well told, they place a greater weight on the skills of communication.”

Naughton’s (2008) article highlights a significant flaw in Georges’ (1969) set of postulates as they may apply to the digital context.  Georges sees the participants of each storytelling event assuming the role of either storyteller (there can be only one per event) or one or more story listeners (the name of which implies passive participation, much in line with the lurker mentioned earlier).

Naughton (2008) investigates the world of massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft and finds extremely heavy folktale and mythological representation in that form.  As such, when Campbell’s (1949) monomyth plays itself out in digital multimedia, Georges’ (1969) storytellers and story listeners merge as they become the Heroes, who undertake ‘The Quest’ and overcome limits set by fear.

The article then moves to examine the role and nature of the shamanism, both in the current, real world, and in MMORPGs.  In essence, she sees the shaman as the provider of spiritual solace, healing and ritual.  Shaman, in order to become what they are, and to fulfil the quests or tasks they need to undertake must undertake “journeys to “hidden worlds, otherwise mainly known through myth, dream and near death experiences.”” (Naughton, 2008, pg 202) and these “form the very basis of involvement in virtual worlds like Everquest.” (ibid, pg 202).  They also form a strong connection with Campbell’s (1969) monomyth.  The difference however, comes in the participatory nature of MMORPGs.  As Naughton puts it, “In effect, and by design, these games constitute a virtual shaman initiation.” (ibid, pg 202)

It would seem that the world of mythological storytelling, in its evolution from the oral practices of Sugiyama’s (2001) ancient past, to Jones’ (1997) loss of the village square news discussion in favour of the together-in-isolation of the reading room (and mythology’s relegation to the book of fairy tales in the nursery), is now moving back through the text-to-oral process and beyond, to full story involvement, where the teller and the audience create (or re-create as Campbell, (1949) asserts) the story together.

As Moncrieff (1934) puts it, ““Naught so tedious as a twice-told tale”, remarked one eminent hero of ancient fiction; but these stories, though so often told, in such varied forms, may still bear retelling…”(pg vi).

For the final word, it seems appropriate to return to Kevin Roberts (2008) and his “A job for the future” blog, which prompted the comment at the start of this essay:

“…The ability to tell stories has been admired since humans first gathered around a campfire.  Now, with cultures merging and technology connecting everybody with anybody, storytelling will become even more highly sought after.  Not everyone can do it well, but we all have a spark of the storyteller in us and it’s a skill to nurture.  Where storyteller merges into mythmaker, that’s where the future lies.”


Boyd, B. 2001, The Origin of Stories: Horton Hears a Who, Philosophy and Literature, Vol 25, No 2, Oct 2001, pg 197-214

Campbell, J. 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, HarperCollins Publishers, London

Cane, G. 1991, Hypermedia and the Study of Ancient Culture, Computer Graphics and Applications, Vol 11, Issue 4, Jul 1991, pg 45-51

Davenport, G., Smith, T.A. & Pincever, N. 1991, Cinematic Primitives for Multimedia, Computer Graphics and Applications, Vol 11, Issue 4, Jul 1991, pg 67-74

Eddings D & L. 1998, The Rivan Codex, HarperCollins Publishers, London

Georges, R.A. 1969, Toward an Understanding of Storytelling Events, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 82, No 326, Oct-Dec 1969, pg 313-328

Jones, S. 1997, The Internet and its Social Landscape in Jones, S (ed.) Virtual Culture, SAGE Publications, London, pg 7-35

Klaebe, H., Foth, M., Burgess, J. & Bilandzic, M. 2007 Digital Storytelling and History Lines: Community Engagement in a Master-Planned Development, Proceedings 13th International Conference on Virtual Systems and Multimedia, Brisbane, 2007

Moncrieff, A.R.H. c1934, Classic Myth and Legend, The Gresham Publishing Company Limited, London

Naughton, L. 2008, Magic, Myth and Mayhem: Tribalization in the Digital Age, in Adams, T.L. & Smith, S.A. (eds) Electronic Tribes, University of Texas Press, Austin TX, pg 191-203

Rheingold, H. 2000, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Revised Edition, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Roberts, K.R. 2008, A Job for the Future, KR Connect, 10 Sep 2008

Roberts, K.R. 2009, Tell Me a Story, KR Connect, 25 Feb 2009

Sugiyama, M.S. 2001, Narrative Theory and Function: Why Evolution Matters, Philosophy and Literature, Vol 25, No 2, Oct 2001, pg 233-250

Wellman, B. & Gulia, M. 1999 Virtual Communities as Communities: Net Surfers Don’t Ride Alone in Smith, M.A. & Kollock, P. (eds) Communities in Cyberspace, Routledge, London, pg 167-194

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