What is new media storytelling?

I wrote this description for the Spring 2014 syllabus for my Storytelling through New Media course.

This course gives you the opportunity to learn more about and experiment with new media storytelling. But what exactly is new media storytelling?

Here’s one way to think of it: using contemporary media and methods to engage in the ancient tradition of storytelling. The following sections clarify what I mean by the terms in bold.

Ancient Tradition: Storytelling

Even before the dawn of recorded history, humans used oral storytelling to make sense of their lives and experiences, and even after the technological and scientific advances of our current age, we’re still drawn to storytelling more than any other form of communication.

At the heart of the storytelling impulse is the desire to understand the kinds of obstacles humans encounter on the path towards their goals and how to overcome them, which means that nearly all stories share a common purpose. But the narrative framework we use to tell stories — with characters, dialogue, plot, setting, and so on — gives us such a broad variety of ways to tell our stories that no two are exactly the same.

The narrative framework is particularly helpful at giving us a way to better understand our experiences, motivations, choices and beliefs, by helping us explore the turning point moments that have shaped who we are. By putting these moments into the framework of a story, we not only come to understand them better ourselves, we’re also able to share them with others in a way they can relate to or learn from.

Contemporary Media: New Media

Before YouTube was created in 2005, those who wanted to communicate with broad audiences through multimedia had to go through the gatekeepers of “old media:” the publishing, television, and film industries. YouTube made it possible for anyone to reach a broad audience and also inspired a variety of new multimedia composing tools aimed at everyday users. Now just about anyone with web access on a computer or mobile device can compose multimedia messages, ranging from videos that resemble film and television to completely new forms of communication.

In short, “new media” refers to the forms of multimedia fifth graders and grandparents are now using to communicate via the social web. If they can do it, anyone can do it, which means we all have the potential to become new media storytellers.

Contemporary Methods: Cinematic Strategies

Until the rise of new media, our choices for sharing our personal stories were limited to oral delivery or writing, both of which work well for stories delivered primarily through words. Both methods invite the audience to use their own imaginations to visualize each scene, and both also give storytellers the opportunity to reveal the inner workings of their characters’ minds in ways that can’t easily be visualized. But oral delivery allows storytellers to enhance their words with body language and vocal inflection in a way that’s difficult to replicate in writing, while writing gives storytellers the opportunity to use literary techniques that are often too complex for oral delivery.

With the emergence of new media, storytellers gained access to a third option for sharing personal stories that was previously available only to professional filmmakers: cinematic storytelling. Because this method relies heavily on visuals and sounds to deliver the story, it’s an excellent choice for storytellers who want to bring their audiences through the kind of sensory experience that evokes emotions on a level not easily accessed by words alone. We’re well acquainted with how these stories work as viewers of movies and television, but now that we have access to new media tools we can use to create our own cinematic stories, it’s time to start experimenting with the possibilities.