Knut Lundby (red.)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 2008.
Jill Walker Rettberg
Associate Professor of Digital Culture
University of Bergen
We live in an age in which more and more of us are creating our own "digital stories". In 2008, 18% of Norwegian 16-24 year olds were recorded as being active bloggers over the previous three months (Statistics Norway, "ICT in households", 2nd quarter 2008) while more than 2/3 of American teenagers have uploaded self-produced material to the Internet, in the form of YouTube videos, photographs, blogs, stories, remixes etc. (Pew Internet). The numbers of these "user-made" cultural productions are growing year by year and spreading from the younger generation to us adults, who are now the group most increasingly represented on Facebook. In blogs and on Facebook the distinction between amateur and professional is largely meaningless.
The anthology "Digital Storytelling, Mediatized Stories: Self-Representations in New Media" does not focus primarily on this "participatory culture" but on the societal effects of a narrower form of Internet storytelling: a genre initiated at the Center for Digital Storytelling in California in the early 1990s. Here, "ordinary people" were invited to workshops where they learned to digitalise photos from the family album and combine them into a two-minute video sequence comprising still pictures and voiceover, occasionally with video between the still shots. The stories in this genre are mainly personal. The genre and workshop methods have spread to large parts of the world and we can read for example how projects have been carried out in Australia, Wales, London and in Norwegian lower secondary schools.
The anthology originates from the project Mediatized Stories, headed by Knut Lundby at the University of Oslo and finalised in December 2009. On the project’s website we can read that ”Media studies (..) stress that it is not the digital media themselves but the processes of mediation they are involved in that matter, played out in contested social and cultural contexts,” and this view harmonises well with the main thrust of the book. Here it is not the stories themselves which are the focus of interest but the relations between digital media, institutions and society.
It is in this context that the concept of mediatization is discussed – with debates on the extent to which this term or possibly the more common word mediation is the most comprehensive and relevant for this field. Most of the contributors to the book have a background in media studies and learning research, and some of the discussion revolves round the different use of mediation in these two disciplines. In his introduction, Lundby quotes Stig Hjarvard, one of the principal mediatization theoreticians: mediatization is ”the process through which society increasingly is becoming dependent on the logic of the media” (p. 11). But mediatization is clearly a concept more accepted by Scandinavians and Germans than in Anglo-American contexts. Nick Couldry’s contribution to the book is thus also mainly an argument against the use of mediatization and for mediation, which Couldry sees as a less limiting concept. When Couldry mentions a third, almost identically-sounding, alternative to the mediatization/mediation opposition, namely ”mediazation” (p. 42) I begin to wonder how useful this neologistic zeal and whittling away at definitions really is. Lundby has recently edited a book focusing specifically on these concepts (Mediatization: Concept, Changes, Consequences. New York: Peter Lang, 2009), but for me, as an outsider to this debate, the effect is to distract attention from digital storytelling. The discussion of how mediatization/mediation functions in relation to digital storytelling in particular seems somewhat forced and superficial.
Of course, the object of the book is not in any way to analyse digital storytelling as form but to explore how these stories can be understood as a societal phenomenon: their putative democratising potential, their function in learning and how this genre works in relation to established media and cultural institutions.
The perceived opposition between the ”ordinary people” composing their digital stories and these institutions comes clearly to the fore in many of the chapters in this book. According to the California Model, digital storytelling is institutionalised storytelling, always initiated by experts or facilitators interested in training and educating ordinary people. This often works very well and the ”ordinary people” appreciate both the technical skills they learn and the chance to tell others something about their lives. But it is also clear that the stories they produce are not given the same status as professional productions or works of art.
I think the best characterisation of this tension is seen in Nancy Thumin’s chapter on London Voices, a project run by the Museum of London that included giving unemployed 16-19 year olds training in photography and writing which was to result in an online exhibition showing how these young people felt about living in London. They developed great enthusiasm for the project and in the interviews they had with Thumin some of them went so far as to say that the training had given them an aim in life: they wanted to study photography and become professional photographers. But then came the let-down: when they attended the opening of the exhibition at the museum, they discovered that the photographs they had worked on so intensely were not displayed like professional works of art but only shown in rotation on a small screen in the museum corridor: ”In the corridor like no one even cared about us. They didn’t even put us in properly, just in the corridor” (p. 98)
The result of all this is that while institutions make well-meaning attempts to give power and a voice to ”ordinary people” they simultaneously make it very clear that what these ”ordinary people” produce is of inferior quality and not worth as much as professional production. It ends up as an odd mixture of seeking to empower youth and give them voices but at the same time telling them clearly that they should stick to their place in the social hierarchy: not for them framed pictures on the museum wall. This topic receives the clearest analysis in John Hartley’s chapter, ”Self-made media ought not to need input from the expertise of someone external to the self whose story is being narrated” (p.203), writes the man who has spread California Model workshops in Australia. He goes on to say that the very fact that the genre emphasises the personal element as sufficient for ”ordinary people” may well contribute to reinforcing the barriers between popular culture and expert culture (p. 208), probably not an intentional effect of the California Model.
The anthology provides various other examples of the tension between amateur and institution. Ola Erstad and Kenneth Silseth have interviewed Norwegian eighth-graders who had been given the task of composing a digital story on the lines of the California Model, i.e. put together a selection of still pictures with voiceover. In the class teacher’s view, the pupils who solved the task best were among those who normally did worst at school: three boys who made their digital story about the World of Warcraft. Would their story have been different if they had made it outside school?, ask the researchers. At first the boys answer that they probably wouldn’t have made their story at all if it hadn’t been a school assignment, but then they add: ”Wouldn’t have been that serious. Don’t believe we would have made it about youth. I believe we would have had many pictures and music maybe . . . made more out of it, if we had made it in our spare time” (p. 225). It is doubtless no surprise to learn that the boys would have opted for a less formal genre if they had done it outside the school system with its demands and expectations, but what is more interesting is that they think they would have made more out of it if they had done it on their own initiative. Are then strategies aimed at giving youth a voice truly democratising? Perhaps they might have achieved more by creating their story entirely on their own, publishing it on YouTube and so gaining more recognition than their teacher and classmates could give them. On the other hand—and this is after all the point of the California Model and the workshops and the attempts at empowerment —perhaps the London teenagers would not have taken photographs or the World of Warcraft boys have made their story about their hobby if the experts—the museum curators and the teacher—had not obliged them to.
But the statistics show that young people do in fact compose their own digital stories to a rapidly increasing extent. Among the self-representations made by “ordinary people” without workshops on the “free Internet”, as on YouTube and in blogs and on Facebook, a great deal is naturally qualitatively inferior. Perhaps 90% of all production is poor and never reaches a public. But there is also some that is extremely good and there is some that gains wide popularity—or that reaches a small but grateful public to whom the question of how far the self-representation is ”amateurish” or ”professional” is wholly indifferent.
It is quite evident that YouTube and the blogosphere also have power structures and obstacles to total democracy. But they at least avoid consolidating the old dividing lines between professional and amateur, experts and ”ordinary people” that the institutions can scarcely avoid perpetuating no matter how well-intentioned they may be. There are two chapters in the book which discuss digital stories that do not follow the California Model. David Brake has interviewed ten youngsters about their MySpace profiles, and Larry Friedlander writes about storytelling in electronic literature (i.e. fiction created for the Internet) and particularly in computer games. These chapters are interesting in themselves but give little insight into the power shifts this type of storytelling can bring with it.
This is not a book you should read if you are interested in what digital storytelling is like as genre, whether it be digital storytelling based on the California Model or other types of digital stories such as those found in social media, computer games, interactive films and electronic literature. On the other hand, if you are interested in research into how “ordinary people” find the experience of taking part in institutionalized projects aimed at storytelling, or in how concepts such as ”mediatization” and ”mediation” can help us understand the tensions between media and cultural institutions and a changing society, then this book is for you.
Editors note: This review was published 2009 in “Norsk Medietidsskrift” in a Norwegian version.