Story Wars: The dark side of the force?

I love just about anything to do with stories and storytelling but this video by Jonah Sachs left me more than a little depressed. What does it do for you?


It comes from the Future of Storytelling site (def worth a look!). It’s beautifully done and has some great explanations of why stories are important and powerful. And I’m aware it’s meant for an audience of which I’m not really a part. But…

It’s the points he makes about brands using stories to move away from narratives of fear to sell stuff to ones of empowerment that give me pause; as if this was some sort of transcendental change and that somehow the human race is better off if brands tell us to “Just Do It” rather than “Eurgh! You smell! You’ll never have sex like that.Spray this on”.

The story is different, more affirming, but the end point is exactly the same, just more underhand. We consume in the belief that we are making the world a better place somehow, rather than doing it to fix a problem that was manufactured for us by advertisers.

We’re still consuming. Nothing has changed.

I hope I’m advocating something different when it comes to storytelling, and it’s to do with individuals developing a stronger sense of their own identity and worth.

I presented a little while ago at an event where I was putting the case for stories in education. One of my final points was that if learners are better at experessing themsleves through story they become more aware of stories around them and what might lie behond those stories. How trustworthy they are. What their underlying motive is.

I’m all for a world with more stories in it. But I aso think we need to help develop people’s awareness and discernment.

Digital Storytelling for Researchers

I’ve been part of a discussion on a Facebook digital storytelling group this week about people using DS for research communication.

It seems many researchers don’t see it as useful as it will never be able to convey the complexity of their research topic or methodologies but thought this comment from Karen Diaz from Ohio State Uni summed it up nicely:

We tell people that the story is a good way to “start the conversation” of their work, to emphasize the importance and significance of what they are working on. A digital story is not the place to express methodology or research results, but to help people understand why they/society/the audience should care about the work they are engaged in.

In other words as a way of explaining why this research “matters to me and why it should matter to you.”

It’s something that applies to not just research but any area where communicating effectively with people outside the scope of a project. It’s a tool for public engagement.

What might it look like? Here are a couple of Swedish examples (in English with Swedish subtitles) that were posted by Ragnhild Larsson from Konvoj Produktion.

There are also quite a few examples available from Karen Diaz at Ohio State Uni.

Update: Ragnhild also posted another example produced at the same time by the same production team but with a different style, a more traditional video case study.

I thought they made an interesting comparison. Which do you think works best in terms of your own interest?


Footloose Digital Storytelling at the EFL Showcase 2012 (#efl2012)

Enhancing Fieldwork Learning 2012 Showcase

I had obviously behaved well enough at last year’s showcase in Wales to be invited back for another event from the HEA funded Enhancing Fieldwork Learning Team. This year was at the rather lovely Preston Montford FSC just outside Shrewsbury.

I had mixed feelings about going. Last year’s event had been brilliant but last time I was in Shrewsbury there was an earthquake. Thankfully, this year was fascinating educationally and boring seismically.

The event brings together geographers, geologists, biologists, environmental scientists and the like to share their experiences of enhacing fieldwork through the use of technology.

Now, I don’t do fieldwork (although I do like to get out and about) so my session was mostly about seeding ideas and experimenting. 

This year I chose to focus on “Footloose Digital Storytelling”. I had a morning session to talk about what digital storytelling was and then embarked on a rash plan to get the entire group to film, edit and publish their own digital story using iPads and iPhones (one person used an iPod Touch).

We used the free version of Splice which, although doesn’t have the most features of mobile editing apps, is one of the simplest and suited our purposes really well.

It’s not without its bugs and quirks but in the end the group had created 16 movies and given that they’d only really had an hour to make it I was pretty bowled over.

For the record, I’d never suggest squeezing an actual storytelling session into on hour. It needs time to do it right. This was a bit hit and run and the attendees did really well to cope. One said it had simultaneously been a good experience and hell on earth, which sounds about right.

Originally I’d thought of setting them the task of creating a movie with a specified title but in the end I thought I’d surrender that side of things to them and just asked them to tell their own story of the event. Let many flowers bloom. You can see most of them here but here’s a couple showing the varied approaches.


Mobile devices are not ideal as tools for this sort of thing but it’s still pretty amazing what that you can shoot, edit and share a movie using your phone or tablet. YOUR PHONE!


Pip Hardy likened this to criticising a talking dog. Do you quibble over its accent and vocabulary?

As part of the experiment we discovered that Splice works quite happily without any wifi or 3G connectivity. A couple of the attendees are now considering getting their students to do digital storytelling whilst on field work abroad – I’m eagerly awaiting the results of those.

Coming shortly – my reflections on the rest of the event…

Anatomy of a story – personal storytelling with Curiosity Creative

Still catching up on blogging stuff I should have done months ago.

Back in April and May some of us at Netskills and our colleagues at JISC Infonet took part in 4 days of digital storytelling workshops with Alex Henry of Curiosity Creative.

Alex has a wealth of experience in the field of DS having project managed Cultureshock, one of the UK’s biggest digital storytelling projects, on behalf of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums. Following on from a conference Andy Stewart and I attended last September we asked Alex to come in and help us develop our skills and approaches.

It was a great few days.

This is the story that I created. It’s quite a personal, reflective one. We made it with iMovie HD and it mostly uses some of my pics, creative commons images and sound effects which are credited at the end. My favoured Flickr CC search tool is this one. The sounds came from the excellent Freesound.The pic of the sandwich is mine as evidenced by Steve Boneham! 😉

A few weeks after producing this Alex interviewed me for a segment on, asking me to reflect on the process. Over the 18 mins or so we talk about the process of creating the story but also a couple of points about balancing subjectivity with authenticity.

Hopefully it gives a bit of an insight into all the stuff that happens around digital storytelling but doesn’t appear on screen.

It includes the audio from the story at from about 13:30-15:20.

By the way, my wife still hasn’t seen it. I just never seem to remember. Hopeless, really. 😉

Here are some of the other stories created by us on the day

Steve Boneham

Jacquie Kelly

Marianne Sheppard


Digital storytelling for projects – background and examples

At Netskills we’re developing our approach to helping project teams to use digital storytelling as a way of demonstrating their impacts. Part of this includes developing our own skills but we’re also putting together guidance for project teams working in JISC funded programmes.

The first stages of developing this guidance is setting out the stall for what this sort of digital storytelling might look like but also what the benefits of it could be.

This is a snippet of audio I recorded as a basic introduction prior to a workshop that is happening in October for one of the JISC programmes.

The big problem has been finding examples of digital stories about the impacts of change and innovation on stakeholders. Most storytelling out there tends to be education-related or personal reflection which is great for demonstrating the form but not so much how it might relate to the projects context. It seems that most project storytelling is kept within institutions which is a shame as this misses out on the opportunity for getting attention from wider audiences.

We’ve been using a story I did for another Netskills project that partners Northumberland National Park but although it’s about project work it’s still mostly personal reflection.

Thankfully Cherly Diermyer, one of the DS Working Group on Facebook sent me 2 very interesting links which I think we’ll be using to get the earlier workshops started. (Hopefully, we’ll have some JISCy examples to use for later ones).

They’re from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and you can check them out at these links:

  • WiSCO Story – the strongest example – showing a narrative description of an unsatisfactory status quo, an intervention with support from outside and the qualitative evidence of change.
  • Brad Postle’s story – Think of this more as describing Brad’s personal journey. There’s not as much here about the students’ stories but it still follows a basic narrative arc.

In fact, there’s a whole bunch of other examples on their gallery site.

The music is a little intrusive but they’re good examples. The use of video talking heads and text animation means that a lot of specialist production work has gone into them. Equally compelling stories could be told using a simpler approach of recorded voiceover, still images and so on, like the embedded story above.

There’s obviously a lot more detail behind these stories but we’re trying to encourage projects to see storytelling as providing a route in to this more objective, quantitative data. It also helps to add the engaging human perspective on what might be formal reporting that is difficult to relate to outside of the project team.

Storytelling is about helping project teams keep an outward focus when it comes to communicating their impacts.

I hope to have lots more to say about this sort of storytelling over the coming months. If it’s something that interests you I’d love to here from you.

WeVideo – online video editing tool

The summary

WeVideo is an online video editor that allows cloud storage of assets and finished videos. It’s got a good feature set and nice links to social media tools. But it won’t do everything.


  • Free
  • Sign in with Google, Facebook or Yahoo
  • Good links to YouTube, Vimeo
  • Very broad music and sounds library
  • Multi track video and audio
  • Cloud-based storage means potential for collaborative projects and cableless mobile uploads (Android).


  • Limited media storage
  • Free accounts limited to exporting at 360p with watermark. Max 480p for $2.99 a pop.
  • Only 15 export minutes/month 
  • Some effects are limited (e.g. Ken Burns zooming on images)

The detail

I’ve been struggling to come up with a decent video editing tool to use on the Netskills storytelling workshop recently. Photostory 3 is showing it’s age, MovieMaker has had it’s feature list decimated and using iMovie would mean both a massive outlay on shiny Mac kit and learning a whole new, unintuitive workflow for editing. 

Part of the solution will probably be to turn it into a BYOD event so people can use the software they are most familiar with (and it opens up the option of using iOS for storytelling too) but there needs to be a fallback for those that either have no device or software.

Online tools seem to be the best way forward in theory. We do training in numerous venues so there’s always a chance that when I turn up some aspect of installed software won’t work or I don’t have enough priveleges to sort problems. This happened with Photo Story 3 at the last venue where the mics I’d brought along didn’t work with the sound cards so attendees needed to yell their narration into the built-in webcam mics – not great.

Web tools are always going to be a compromise. In the past Jaycut would probably have sufficed but that was bought out by RIM a while back.

WeVideo appeared last year and looks very promising.

It comes in a 2 flavours, a stripped down editor as part of YouTube’s Create range of services, or a stand alone webpage. I’m not recommending WeVideo for day to day editing. It doesn’t have the flexibility. But as a tool for workshops and to get people started on the path of using non-linear editing tools it works very well.

You can see from the summary above that there are some limitations for the free version of the site but that’s fair enough. These sites have to make money somehow.

For our digital storyteling projects we need to ability to import images,video, audio over a number of tracks, add text and simple effects such as pan & zoom on still images. WeVideo allows all that.

The Ken Burns effect is quite important for image-based digital storytelling. Although this has it and give the ability to centre a zoom on a focal point it only allows a zoom out which over a few minutes becomes very repetitive. I’ve raised this with them but it doesn’t look like it’ll change any time soon.

The final output is low quality on the free account and it has a permanent but discrete watermark, but as I said. Fair enough, it’s a free tool. The ease of exporting directly to YouTube or Vimeo is a real bonus.

This is what I put together from some HD footage and images this morning. Music is “Pipeline” by Rho )

Despite the compromises on quality, it does the job nicely.

A word on using online tools

Using online tools isn’t always the best option. The availability and feature set of these sort of tools are subject to change with little notice. For indiviual uses it’s possible to weather those storms. When you’re putting together resources and planning workshop activities a sudden change can really screw things up. There have been a number of times when tools I’ve relied on have suddenly vanished (see sadly departed Fliggo).

The only way round this is to keep an eye on developments through following the official twitter account, talk to the developers and always have a fall back plan.


Telling stories in the digital domain: 2 examples

I’ve been reading a lot about narrative for my dissertation recently and came across 2 examples this morning that illustrate some of the ideas I’ve come across.

Oatmeal on Game of Thrones

The first simple example is from the Oatmeal. It says it’s about Game of Thrones but is actually about media companies completely misunderstanding the web.

One way of looking at storytelling is that it’s a way of framing complex, abstract concepts in a way that is both engaging, memorable and helps understanding. Some authors say that story is the primary way we understand the world.

So, with the Oatmeal example we have a simple depiction of an individual trying to do the right thin, being thwarted and finding, as the author sees it, a reasonable solution to the problem.

So, it takes some abstract points about the piracy debate, uses narrative to contextualise them, keep our interest, create an emotional response and hopefully make it more “sticky“.

Why is being in the digital domain important? As a static image it could have been published in a magazine or on a notice board. By being digital it give an audience a way of interacting and responding. At the most basic level it had over 6k likes and 2.5k shares on Facebook as well as 18.4k retweets. This helps the people that come across it incorporate it into their own personal and social narratives about piracy, IPR, SOPA, ACTA or whatever.

The Tale of the Invention of the Incredible Folding Plug

This is more of a distributed bunch of content telling a story.

Now the invention is plainly awesome in a why-has-this-not-been-done-before-it-could-transform-my-life way so I can immediately relate to it.

But what you also have around it through Rory Cellan Jones’ interview, the business’s website, the product demo (embedded above), and all the other mentions in the media (traditional and social) is a story about the product.

We have a cast of characters, a macguffin (the invention), a plot, setting, triumphs, hurdles to be overcome, quite a clear timeline and perhaps the possibility of a sequel.

Somehow, just watching the product demo (embedded above), although it contains some elements of story, doesn’t quite have enough of the human content to make it properly engaging.

My own reaction is that I’m thinking about the product in a much broader way, seeing how it would fit into my own life but also having it humanised by the story of its inventor and his business partner and how it fits into the wider narrative of startups and innovation in the UK.

Immersive video on the iP*d – more than just interesting?

Just saw this on the Neiman Journalism Lab blog…

A collaboration between Condition One and The Guardian it’s a slightly more interactive approach to video where you have an element of control over where the camera is looking.

Is it more than just interesting? It would make some intriguing digital stories where the viewer is more actively selecting what elements of the story to view.  

Is it a flavour of AR where the “reality” can be displayed independent of location (picture it with points of interest embedded into the video)? 

Could this be what Google Streetview looks like in a few years’ time? 

Digital storytelling with HTML5

Updated 09/12/11 – 16:30: @sboneham pointed me towards this BBC Click podcast where they discuss the Highrise project. Section starts at around 4m 50s.

Hat tip to @theokk for this one. Highrise:1 Millionth Tower is an interactive documentary on how a community of high rise residents in Toronto see a possible future for their neghbourhood. 

This project, according to the site…

… is a concrete result of a community collaboration between residents, architects, documentarians and animators to re-imagine the particular spaces around these particular highrises.

This innovative approach to documentary making uses HTML5 and WebGL (Web-based Graphics Library).

Rather than play the documentary as a linear video, you are placed in a dynamic 3d environment (the light and weather change based on live data from Toronto) where you are free to explore the different pieces of media. It requires a browser compatible with HTML and WebGL – worked well on Chrome for me.

It reminds me quite a bit of the ground breaking Inanimate Alice, an early use of interactive storytelling.

Image – Lilian Chan, Howie Shia and Kelly Sommerfield, courtesy of the NAtional Film Board of Canada