The importance of storytelling in the digital age
WE TELL OURSELVES stories in order to live.
This sentence has been echoing in my head for the past several weeks, all on its own and contextless. Sometimes I hear it in line at the grocery store, sometimes it floats around before I go to bed; on Saturday it showed up unannounced during the final kilometers of a bike race. I was warring with my own mounting exhaustion and my mind was in the state of unthinking focus that characterizes those final kilometers when suddenly, between pedalstrokes, there it was: We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
It is not my sentence. It is the first sentence of Joan Didion’s essay The White Album, so it’s an old sentence — Didion published The White Album in 1979, meaning it’s been around a while. This of course does not make it any less true or less striking for me, reading it as I was in my cold Montreal apartment in the rapidly waning fall of 2012. We can, if we so choose, think of the world in terms of the stories we’ve told or the stories we’ve heard or the stories that others have told that we haven’t heard or the stories that there are to tell. For me, it makes some sort of innate sense to try to do so, although I’ve not yet been able to pinpoint, to articulate, to lay out for myself on graph paper, exactly what this sense might be.
No matter, though, because even without an overarching end-goal, stories justify themselves. To hear someone’s story is to hear another perspective, to form a connection to another person, and to remind yourself that you are neither all-important nor alone. Other people’s narratives have the power to entertain us, to give us comfort, and to make us more conscious and empathetic people. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why stories have always been told and will always be told across all cultures. Wherever people go, stories go with them.
As it turns out, we live in a good time for storytelling. Unsurprisingly, raconteurs have taken to digital media and HTML, and the everevolving nature of the internet means ever-evolving opportunity to tell their stories.
Personally, I am scared of the internet — it’s a vast and daunting place, and I am wary of getting drawn into cat videos and inane conversations and dubiously legal purchasing opportunities. However, it’s a comfort to know that among the endless links and tweets and peripheral connections lie some narrative projects that have the power to fascinate, to move, and to be remembered. It is precisely these projects that make Joan Didion’s assertion more relevant than ever in the digital age. Here are four of them.
1. The SoundCloud Community Fellowship
The SoundCloud Community Fellowship has a very broad mandate. It offers people the chance to “showcase their creativity with sound” — a phrase that, with some effort, can be stretched to just about anything. The scope of the projects of this year’s 15 finalists is correspondingly broad and none the worse for it — better, in fact.
Nadia Wilson’s From Hear to There tries to capture the brief sounds and chance meetings that happen every day in that giant web of transient citizenry, the New York City subway. Stephanie Dub’s Appreciation Engine wants to help transcend the peripheral nature of connections in the digital age (think: texts, tweets, facebook wall posts) by asking people to record audio messages of appreciation and share them with the people they care about.
Guidebooks comes up with the concept of a crowdsourced band, taking sounds contributed by SoundCloud members and making songs out of them in a new take on community musicmaking. Laura Herberg tries to understand the urban lanscape of Detroit in her audio guide to the city, Detroit Mobile Audio. Each project is radically different from the others, but all try to use digital audio to tell us something meaningful about the world we find ourselves in.
2. Stories Everywhere
Stories Everywhere is the blog of Krissy Clark, a radio journalist with a keen interest in the history of place. Deeply influenced by her identity as a fifth-generation Californian, Krissy’s explorations of local history have garnered her numerous awards. On her blog, you can listen to her recount what she’s found out about a very special dairy farm on the Canadian seashore, or about the bar that is one of the chief reasons that San Franscisco became a queer mecca in the 20th century, or about the history of one single foreclosed house.
One of Krissy’s most interesting projects is Block of Time: O’Farrell Street, in which she picked a nondescript block of a random street in San Francisco and created an audio installation there. The installation consisted of signs, demarcated by red balloons, that listed phone numbers that passerby could call to hear about the stories that had once unfolded on the exact spot they were standing on. The message is clear, and striking: stories are everywhere. It’s simply a matter of looking.
You can listen to the charismatic Krissy talk about her project at the Web 2.0 summit here:
3. The Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project
After working as a journalist on the Pine Ridge Reservation for seven years, Aaron Huey appreciated the inherent difficulty in trying to write any one piece about the community. Any singular perspective would necessarily leave out other sides of the story. He was searching, then, for a way to give an idea of the collection of intersecting experiences that make up the life of a reservation community. The solution that he came up with is the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project.
A partnership with the storytelling platform Cowbird, the project is a collection of photographs, each accompanied by a story, either written or recorded, from a member of the community. A man talks of his years as a community bus driver and of living with his grandchildren on his ancestral land. A woman speaks about the reasons she does not want Mount Rushmore to be a tourist attraction. A man sings a lullaby to his son who died in infancy. Someone gently makes fun of a reporter’s question about staying warm in the winter, telling her that he personally captures and trains baby beavers to cut his wood for him.
This is where the Pine Ridge Community project succeeds most brilliantly: There is humour in some stories and sadness in others, levity and solemnity existing in a sort of counterbalance. Together, these short narratives are more than the sum of their parts and the observer is able to try to see the reality of existence for this community.
4. Dear Photograph
Dear Photograph must be one of the most succinct and striking evocations of memory on the internet. The premise is beautifully simple: People bring their old photographs to the places they were originally taken and take another photo, this time overlaying the old photograph on top of the place as it looks today. The result is an instantaneous continuity. The place remains even as the people who interact with it — who bring their children trick-or-treating there, who prepare for their first prom there, who get married there — leave and go elsewhere.
Each double photograph is accompanied by a short explanation, and we read briefly of people’s families and loves and losses. In some photos, time has changed the place itself as well, perhaps with a convenience store replacing the general store on a streetcorner. In these, we see geography itself as a malleable thing, just as changeable and impermanent as the people who inhabit it.