21st Century Storytelling – Digital tools to create a better world

There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but therehave been no societies that did not tell stories. ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

Thinking and writing about storyteller Mattie Clark and World Storytelling Day (March 20) spurs me to wonder how we might harness the ancient power of storytelling to reclaim Americans’ sense that we still have the power to hold our leaders accountable. What I have learned is that a growing number of social activists are taking a lead to explore creative ways to employ digital tools to share the inherent power of stories.

Politicians have always realized the value of narrative, and voters have long responded to the essence of humanity illuminated in a well-crafted yarn. In the digital age technology transforms the technique but never the intent of a good story well told.

Because we are at the dawn of the digital age, explosions of naked data often overwhelm the receiver. My thought is that data rules because it’s easier to gather, manipulate and display data than it is to share a really good story. Jay Geneske writes that, though in some ways human connections are more pervasive than ever, “the noise and ubiquity of this digital world makes it harder to surface and share personal stories of change and impact.”

Caring creatures that we are, most of us still respond to anecdotes in which our fellow human beings play the lead role. Writing in the March 2015 issue of Governing, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene observe that “simple data – no matter how well it’s communicated – is devoid of the kind of emotional content that sticks in people’s minds.” They quote Jennifer LeFleur, senior editor for data journalism at the Center for Investigative Reporting, who “sees some governments putting up data without context, with no sense of why the data matters or how it affects people directly.”

Digital Storytelling for Social Impact, a major study sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, offers a timely fusion of technology with the power of a well-told tale. (The full report is available online at http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/blog/digital-storytelling-social-impact) In a follow-up blog post researcher Geneske describes the dilemma: “Long form narrative and conventional journalism now share the stage with messages of 140 characters or fewer and images that disappear seconds after they are opened. While there have never been more ways to reach audiences, it has also never been more difficult to really reach them.” Geneske decries the fact that “the noise and ubiquity of this digital world makes it harder to surface and share personal stories of change and impact.”

The Rockefeller Foundation study reminds social activities of the challenge to government and nonprofits: While private sector leaders have tangible products to offer, “public sector leaders…obtain resources by gaining support and legitimacy from politicians, public opinion and a myriad of other invested institutions each pulling and pushing in their own directions. Then, as the work gets done, it’s difficult to measure the impact it has made because the outcomes often emerge years after initiatives are implemented and working out what caused what is near on impossible. It’s a tough gig.” (quoted in Geneske)

Taking it a step further, my personal observation is that nonprofits and government are often at their best when the desired effect is that nothing happens – though the absence of street crime, food poisoning, fraud, house fires, and sex trafficking make the world a better place, it’s well nigh impossible to measure harm that was averted by the intervention of a social or political force.

Building on the Digital Storytelling for Social Change study, in December 2014 Rockefeller expanded the Foundation’s dive into digital storytelling as a tool for social action with the introduction of Hatch, an online primer, toolkit and community.  Hatch promises the user that the website will serve as “concierge” with a “suite of tools and a growing community to help you leverage the power of narrative to increase reach, resources and impact for your social impact or organization.”

Another strong voice in the movement is the Center for Digital Storytelling (http://storycenter.org/), committed to “the value of story as a means for compassionate community action.” Though digital storytelling is a yet un-tapped tool the philosophy of the Center is underscores that “new media and digital video technology will not in and of themselves make a better world. Developing thoughtful, participatory approaches to how and why these technologies are being used is essential.”

All proponents of digital storytelling stress – and grapple with — the harsh reality that stories harbor a pernicious gene. Agents of misinformation are have mastered the power of well-crafted prevarication to mislead the unwary. Thus Barrett and Green warn that “a good yarn that isn’t representative of what’s happening in the world can lead to bad policies.”

My friend Ruth Myers would emphasize that a priority for truth-tellers must be to “enhance the perceptive paranoia” of message receivers. The universal challenge is to cultivate critical thinking skills that screen out what one critic calls “outliers”, tales the Bard described as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Another is to delve deep to capture the humanity that lurks beneath the data, to embrace the power of a good story well told – orally or digitally – as a tool for change-making.


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