Vol. 13 - Issue 1 2017 - ISSN 1504-4831
Monday, 17 June 2024
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Story Circle: Digital Storytelling Around the World.

John Hartley and Kelly McWilliam (eds.)

Publisher: Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009

Reviewed by
Birte Hatlehol
PhD student in Media Education
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The anthology Story Circle is an international study of digital storytelling that discusses the phenomenon in a global context. The book contains 20 articles with contributions from a number of key specialists with wide-ranging experience in the field of DST.

It is organised in four parts:

  • What is digital storytelling?

  • Foundational practices

  • Digital storytelling around the world.

  • Emergent practices.

The anthology is a comprehensive international study of the digital storytelling movement. It showcases the current debates on user-led media, citizen consumers, media literacy and new media participation. A digital story will often be a combination of photographs, drawings or other material with the author’s own voice (voice-over), resulting in a short film (2-3 minutes.). The driving aim behind the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) is to reach so-called «ordinary people» and encourage them to tell stories through the agency of digital media. Traditionally, this takes place in workshops, at the heart of which is the «story circle» method. Here the participants share, develop, process and produce their stories, with professional help. The term digital storytelling (DST) is used to describe various forms of the digital story. The anthology is based principally on the classical genre of digital storytelling. Dana Atchley launched this in 1993, and since then both the genre and associated pedagogical methods have been further refined at CDS California.

The first part of the anthology presents the contents of the book, followed by two perspective-setting articles by the editors: John Hartley, Professor at Queensland University of Technology and Kelly McWilliam, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Creative Industries Faculty of Queensland University of Technology. Hartley places digital storytelling in an interesting historical context and points to European story telling traditions from the Middle Ages. In an earlier study of television, in collaboration with John Fiske (2003 [1978]), Fiske established the concept of «bardic function» to describe the active and cultural relations between TV and viewers. In mediaeval Wales, the bard was the professional poet who sang the praises of kings, knights and princesses in public but who sometimes also poked fun at his superiors. In our time, television performs something of the same bardic function.

As Hartley puts it: «Both connect political power and textual pleasure in a specialized form of expression that is accessible to everyone in a given language community, and which serves the function of ordering the social, natural, and supernatural worlds» (p. 22f). While mediaeval praises and television have a top-down attitude to story-telling and their audiences, Hartley re-assesses the bardic function. Several of the articles make the point that a bottom-up approach is called for today and, as Hartley asserts, we should realise to a greater extent the value of including «the anthropological level of everyday life» (p.23). He does however highlight a number of challenges, for instance how to encourage mass-participation without causing splits and anarchy, elitism or loss of quality in media texts. One of Hartley’s key points is that storytelling is a form of linguistic schooling that teaches us to reflect and comprehend the world. Precisely because story-telling is such an important part of being human, a point which Jerome Bruner (1986, 2003) also stresses, the art of story-telling is something that must be learnt. The mediaeval bards studied at bardic schools and learnt to create bardic tales and poetry which were oral and vernacular in mode. Digital storytelling and the story circle have some of the same functions as the bardic schools, and can be seen as methods of learning storytelling, self-expression and effective communication in present-day society.

McWilliam has made a quantitative analysis of 300 digital storytelling programmes from around the world, published on the Internet. The article is interesting and gives a fairly good idea of the extent and use of digital storytelling. Several educational institutions, community organisations, cultural institutions and government departments have digital storytelling as part of their programme or as stand-alone programmes. The survey shows too that this is a phenomenon primarily found in the western and industrialised part of the world. The second part of the anthology focuses on foundational practices, and presents key figures in the digital storytelling movement. Joe Lambert is one of the pioneers, as co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California. He claims that CDS’s approach to digital storytelling has been accepted as a useful tool, taking the form of the work but not the content. Lambert combines his interest in telling a good story with the bigger picture including the divide between the local and global and issues of access and participation within the digital environment. He emphasises «the value of progressive arts and educational activism to emancipate individual freedom ( ‘by telling stories’) while building a sense of community (‘to listen deeply’)» (p. 10). The fluid nature and the conflict between process and product means that metrics within other disciplines like art, education, media theory or social service do not suffice. Lambert calls for more research and comparative analysis for the genre to develop its own metric practice and theory.

Daniel Meadows was Creative Director of the BBC’s Digital Storytelling project Capture Wales in 2001-2006. His article was written together with Jenny Kidd, a Research Associate of the University of Manchester who completed a PhD at Cardiff University in 2005 on Digital Storytelling with Capture Wales as the primary focus. One of the findings from her research among Capture Wales participants is that the project has broken down social barriers between an amorphous «public» and a faceless BBC. One of Meadow’s interesting conclusions is that digital media are changing our mediascape and that mass media are becoming 1) a conversation 2) democratised, and 3) interactive. The amateur, DIY (do it yourself) and consumer-created content have thereby gained in importance, with audiences becoming both viewers and producers of a new participatory culture.

One key question raised by Helen Simondson at ACMI is how cultural institutions with statuary collecting can come to terms with consumer generated content. She asserts that the problems are not only institutional but also ideological. Curators and artists are not used to sharing their spaces with what they see as amateur work, and ordinary people do not look upon themselves as bearers of national aesthetic values.

In part three we get a glimpse of digital storytelling around the world, from Wales and London to Brazil, and from Australia and Southeast Asia to Scandinavia and Belgium. Several questions are raised, many of which have a cultural and political focus, for example how digital storytelling can be used to empower people, increase the individual’s agency and participation in society and help them to find a voice.

Margaret Anne Clarke writes about an interesting project: «One Million Life Stories of Youth» at the Museo da Pessoa in Brazil. Young people between the ages of 15 and 29 are marginalised in several ways: in the national economy, employment, social frameworks and, not least, they are digitally excluded as is most of the population. Brazil has a long electoral history but little democratic tradition, and from 1964-1985 the country was under the control of a military regime. It is interesting to see how the work for democracy in Brazil is strongly linked to popular culture, pedagogy and literacy and thus how digital storytelling can play a crucial role. The projects aim to integrate and mobilise a million young people for the explicit purpose of democratic evolution. To ensure the maximum degree of agency and participation, the young participants are trained as «story agents». After the training, they are responsible for creating new workshops and story circles of their own, passing on their knowledge to peers and creating ever-widening groups and networks. The story agents are also responsible for conducting research on common themes and connections in the stories they collect. These are used as a starting point for social and cultural activism within their communities through the dissemination of the stories in multiple ways, such as on CDs, the local radio and TV stations, local deputy or elected representatives. In this way DST gives a direct and human perspective to political or social problems. The idea is exciting and it seems to have great potential for breaking down barriers between amateurs and professional media producers, empowering youth and even including the illiterate. Further examples from other articles could be listed, but the point is that the articles give a broad picture of different projects in which digital storytelling is used as nation building, community building and self-expression.

The final section of the book deals with emergent practices rather than a comprehensive map and includes interesting reflections and discussions. It looks towards the future of digital storytelling and raises issues regarding digital storytelling in an educational context, as a tool for engaging marginalised youth and, in one article, commercialisation. In particular I would like to highlight the article by Jerry Watkins and Angelina Russo. They argue for a more strategic participatory content creation .Working with cultural institutions such as museums, libraries and galleries they emphasise the collaborative and «teambased microdocumentary production, bringing organizations together with communities of interest in co-creative systems». The focus is here on interactivity and possibilities for distribution by web 2.0 platforms and hence this article pinpoints the potential for digital storytelling in a future perspective.

The anthology can be described as « state of the art» in a global perspective. In that sense the book is eminently readable because it throws its net wide and focuses on a number of key issues relating to the media, the relation between amateur and professional, user generated content and interactivity as a possibility. But not only that: the book also casts fresh light on some interesting practices taking place in many parts of the. DST has established a foothold worldwide and is fast being accepted as a form, a practice, a movement and a textual system, a situation the anthology elaborates on and puts into perspective. The anthology thus proves its necessity, providing as it does a thorough review of current trends in DST. On the other hand, this broad approach entails a certain lack of focus. The book attempts to cover too much ground. It raises a number of problematic issues without analysing these in sufficient depth. This is perhaps because it is an anthology of contributions from different areas and at different levels. Its many voices are the book’s strength but also its Achilles’ heel. The anthology would have benefited from tighter editing and a clearer perspective. For example, the reviewer thinks that the articles on «radio storytelling» and «digital storytelling as play» have no place here.

DST is a new media form. The question is: can it also be called a genre? The reviewer feels the lack of a more fundamental discussion of the form. This may sound like a detail in the overall picture but in the reviewer’s opinion it is a critical point because DST might thereby acquire a more significant role not only in teaching and cultural institutions but also in a wider commercial context. The reviewer also misses a more detailed discussion of digital storytelling and literacy/competencies. It might have been fruitful, for example, to draw on social semiotics and theories of multimodality, not least in order to understand the potential, and justify the implementation, of digital story-telling in schools (Kress, 2003; Jewitt & Kress, 2003).

Many of the articles include the point that DST can give people a voice, not least in the context of community work where there is an interest in encouraging social change. This concept of a voice is often linked to identity and representations, but the concept has no universal understanding. The voice, and making oneself heard, has not always meant inclusion, nor is silence synonymous with being suppressed (see for example Bernadette Baker, 1999). The concept of voice in relation to digital storytelling could well have been discussed further. But what I perhaps miss most of all is a debate on digital storytelling in a more widely theoretically-grounded social context. Nico Carpentier is the only contributor to the book who discusses DST in this perspective. In an analysis of two DST projects in Belgium, he takes as his starting point Foucault’s theories of power and different anarchist theories, and thereby paves the way for an interesting and essential discussion of digital story-telling, everyday politics and democracy. John Hartley writes: If everyone is speaking for themselves, who is speaking for everybody? (p. 24.)

There can be no doubt that this book is important in fostering understanding of DST’s potential and it deserves many readers among students, researchers and practitioners in the field of DST.



Baker, B. (1999). What is Voice? Issues of Identity and Representations in the Framing of Reviews. Review of Educational Research, 69, 365.

Bruner, J. S. (2003). Making stories : law, literature, life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Fiske, J. & Hartley, J. (2003 [1978]) (rev.ed.). Reading Television. London: Routledge.

Jewitt, C. & Kress, G. (2003). Multimodal literacy. New York: Peter Lang.

Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.