A metaphorical perspective on digital storytelling

In a study about digital storytelling as a metaphor, I discussed the term as a phrase where the noun (storytelling) is modified by the adjective (digital) to designate the target domain of the utterance. According to metaphor theorists (e.g., Lakoff 1992, Lakoff and Johnson 1980, Ricoeur 1978, Steen 2011), a metaphor occurs when we talk about something by means of something else and, therefore, a stretch or twist is required for sense making. This metaphorical twist involves a movement to a target domain (in this case: telling stories) to explain what it means, for instance, to integrate digital technologies into pedagogical practice, nowadays.

The sense descriptions of ‘storytelling’ in the dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary) involve both traditional and contemporary notions of telling or writing stories. These descriptions point to the medium, or the channel, used to communicate the story, with illustrative examples that refer to the hero/character as an integral feature of tales, myths and legends, but also personal narratives, political commentaries and evolving cultural norms through mainly visual technologies.

In oral storytelling, the communicative event involves a dialogue between a speaker and a hearer, where something is expressed and communicated to another. This is a shared dialogical experience for mutual understanding and reciprocal recognition. To this effect, the speaker produces an experience for the hearer in which the latter recognizes the intention of the former. This means that to understand the meaning of the dialogue is the same as to understand what the speaker means. To resolve misunderstandings, the speaker and the hearer can ask each other questions.

Can oral storytelling be another aspect of the metaphorical digital storytelling? It can certainly be. Current pedagogical practices with online platforms (e.g., Zoom, Teams etc.) with plenary sessions and group work are manifestations of dialogical experiences with opportunities for immediate responses, on-the-spot questions for clarifications, shorter and longer turns, and so on. The communication, therefore, and how shared understanding is constructed heavily depends on the co-presence of interlocutors (i.e., in a pedagogical setting, the teachers and the students).

In written storytelling, on the other hand, the story can take a life of its own, as the meaning is no longer dependent on co-presence. In this way, the story must be interpreted in the absence of a speaking subject or a shared dialogical situation that acts as common reference. Therefore, the meaning of the author and the meaning of the written story may or may not coincide.

The difference here is that while the shared dialogue mediates oral storytelling, it is the different forms of emplotment that mediate written storytelling. The participants in a group work discussion online, for instance, need to establish a joint understanding to complete a task. The way this blogpost, is received and interpreted, however, can very from reader to reader, which -as well- can be different from the author’s intended meaning.

The narrative of the written expression, therefore, differs from that of the spoken interaction, not only in structural terms (i.e., more or less spontaneous, more or less elaborated linguistic expressions etc.). As well, it differs in terms of immediacy (i.e., how much time is given for sensing the plot, interpretation etc.) and purposefulness. Evidently, the synchronous discussions and group work sessions can serve well when the purpose is to explore a thematic area. But when it comes to deeper reflections and understandings, the asynchronous mode of storytelling in the form of, e.g., reading/writing/commenting on etc. blogposts, seems to be a better fit.

Obviously, it is a complicated situation with digital storytelling that becomes even more complex when considering its multiple modes of expression through different types of symbols (i.e., not only linguistic) and multiple forms of media (e.g., video, audio, audio-visual etc.).

In this sense, ‘digital storytelling’ as a 21st century metaphor that signifies mapping of two domain areas in the meaning making process might not be enough to describe the multiple dimensions of the phenomenon. In such mapping, ‘digital’ signals the comparison between the domain of technology and that of telling stories. This mapping however is a dichotomy. In addition to the two-domain approach (characteristic of the contemporary theory of metaphor) and its expression though language (which is the focus of deliberative metaphor theory), digital storytelling is multimodal.

A new perspective is therefore needed to approach in a dynamic way the essence of contemporary digital storytelling.

But let’s discuss this new perspective in the next blogpost.

Stay tuned!

This post was initially published on the Pathways to scholarship blog.