I think we need to talk about the word “digital”

On Saturday, I was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and attended a session called New Worlds: Digital Storytelling. This session threw together (almost literally) Cornelia Funke, an author using digital technology as a way to further expand her story world, Inua Ellams, a poet using Twitter as a medium and Kavita Bedford and Connor Tomas O’Brien, two people using the digital space as a way to bring communities together. I think this particular grouping of artists and creators was a bit confused and we need to think about what we mean when we talk about “digital storytelling”.

I first had this confusion a few months ago when the Digital Writers’ Festival was on. (Connor Tomas O’Brien is the Director of the Digital Writers’ Festival and that’s what he was talking about at the SWF event.) Because it was called the Digital Writers’ Festival, I thought that meant it was going to heavily feature sessions about literary works conceived using digital technology. That was my thought that when I first heard about it, it was my thought during the program launch and continued to be my thought during almost the entire 12 days the festival was on. But there was something slightly wrong because nothing in the program was particularly about “digital works”, as I understand them. I knew, obviously, that the Digital Writers’ Festival was happening online rather than in a physical place, but as my whole focus is on digital works I continued to engage in a bewildered way with the program until towards the end of the festival, when it finally dawned on me that the “digital” referred to the digital space and pretty much the digital space only.

At this point, it would be easy to say that the confusion is all mine and that when people talk about “digital storytelling”, they clearly mean storytelling in a digital, read online, space. Except that even the Sydney Writers’ Festival got confused and put Cornelia Funke, who has made a digital work (actually, a super impressive digital work) on a panel alongside people focusing on the digital space. This might seem like stupid semantics, but it’s not. Last year I wrote about confusion surrounding the word “interactive”. Now I’ve realised there’s a similar kind of confusion around “digital”. By now, most of us are used to using the digital space. It may be something that’s constantly evolving but from early chatrooms to email to Skype to Twitter to virtual meeting rooms, we’ve been interacting in these spaces a long time. And they hold great possibilities in terms of deliberately bringing communities together in meaningful ways.

But then there’s also the interactive stuff, which is what I get excited about. Interactive and digital are not interchangeable terms. But digital works hold the possibility of being interactive, which I define as the audience — be they reader, viewer or player, or a combination of all three — having influence over a story as it unfolds. This is the kind of thing that can happen in digital works because digital works are about content. The digital space is something different, it’s the online bit. So when we talk about digital storytelling — we need to be very clear, do we mean the mechanics of storytelling in an online space or do we mean the stories we create in those spaces? Personally, I’m not that interested in the spaces by themselves, but am greedy for information about the stories that people are telling in those spaces and how they’re telling them. I wish that the Sydney Writers’ Festival had seen the difference between the two. Next year I hope they do.

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