Expression, Ecology, Identity

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Digital Storytelling: Amateurs and Experts

Knut Lundby defines digital storytelling as small-scale "amateur, personal stories" focused on self-representation (Digital Storytelling, Mediated Stories,1). Berkley, California's Center for Digital Storytelling describes a "digital storyteller," as "anyone who has a desire to document life experience, ideas, or feelings through the use of story and digital media. Usually someone with little to no prior experience in the realm of video production but time to spend a few days attending a workshop and developing a story with creative support and technical assistance from compassionate, highly experienced facilitators."

I'm intrigued by the idea that digital storytelling is usually done by someone with "little to no prior experience in the realm of video production" but who's work can be assisted by "compassionate, highly experienced facilitators." For me, these definitions beg the following questions:

What makes an "amateur" digital storyteller?
How is the amateur digital storyteller different from the expert digital media-maker?
At what point does an amateur become an expert?
What is the role of the "experts" - the "compassionate, highly experienced facilitators" in that transformation?

The CDS's definition suggests a digital storyteller is usually new to creating digital media. But, what that actually means is, necessarily, a moving target that shifts with digital technology, its popularity, and its availability. As recording and editing devices crop up in a range of portable devices - laptops, phones - fewer and fewer adults are completely unfamiliar with the means of digital media production.

The same is true for the self-ethnographic forms employed in digital storytelling. As institutional anthropology becomes more self-reflexive and collaborative, it shifts further away from the notion that people's stories can only be told about the "other" through and for the scholarship of the dominant culture. Indeed, as Lundby points out, humans have been telling self-reflexive stories for ages. The "mediatized" extension of storytelling is new, but the practice of storytelling isn't.

If technological and anthropological tools once reserved for the elite are now in the hands of many amateurs, what, then, is the role of the expert? What is the role of the visual anthropologist?

The Center for Digital Storytelling offers one possible response when it describes storytellers' work as "facilitated by "compassionate, highly experienced facilitators." The support being offered by these experts has to do with the process of mediated self-reflection and self-expression ("creative support") as much as it has to do with using unfamiliar software and equipment ("technical support"). These professionals are not just teaching video-production, they are also educating participants in a particular way of understanding their own experiences.

Here is what one example of this work might look like. This a collaboration between Dominique Peltier and (interestingly) unnamed facilitators from the Center for Digital Storytelling. The video was created for the "Italians of Denver" digital media project. Though the video is framed as a memorial to Peltier's grandfather, his story is largely told in the context of Peltier's own life as influenced by her relationship with her grandfather.


  1. Tamara, I was also drawn into the dynamic between the amateur and the professional. While I do understand that sharing between these two is mutually beneficial, I wonder what the drawbacks are. I was thinking about how midwives were ousted from their roles by the professionalization of the medical field, and began questioning whether or not a professional presence in an amateur space would result in a similar phenomenon regarding the digital storytelling medium. What do you think?

  2. I think the question you're raising is really important. I'm not sure how to answer it without first figuring out what an "amateur" digital media-maker is, exactly. Is it someone with no formal training in visual media? Or anthropology? Or ethnography? Is it someone who doesn't get paid to make or interpret media? What about self-taught media makers who now have their own YouTube channels featuring dozens of hours of their videos and thousands of subscribers? Are these still amateurs? It seems like the varying degrees of experience and types of expertise that participants bring to bear on digital storytelling makes their "amateur" status - or lack thereof - hard to pin down.

  3. I feel like the "amateur" that Lundby and the CDS describe is someone who is not bogged down with preconceptions of how videos "should" be made or how stories "should" be told. Obviously, it is a loose and problematic term, but it seems like one does not necessarily have to be a first-time user of video cameras or Final Cut to be an amateur, but someone who produces slick, traditional, generic videos is certainly not an amateur.

  4. there is a lot of writing about the nature of the amateur in web 2.0 culture. bringing on the term "pro-am" for instance to mark that space between one who is paid and authorized and people who do it for fun with little reflection or training. Comepnsation, training, commitment, effort, all factor in.

  5. Personally, I think that the expert's (who have been academically trained and who has experience in the field) role is to train amateurs or beginners so that they are able to tell their own story in a visual way (with the option of using however many editing tools and tricks that are available) and could potentially become experienced digital storytellers themselves. The traditional role of the expert which was to be the messenger or mediator of the video's subjects seems to be no longer necessary. There is a movement in this new digital culture that promotes the method of letting stories be told by the person whom the story belongs to (that is unless they want someone to tell it for them).

  6. Tamara, your engagement to readings from Digital Storytelling is noticeable. I relay like the informative question that you posted: “If technological and anthropological tools once reserved for the elite are now in the hands of many amateurs, what, then, is the role of the expert? What is the role of the visual anthropologist?”It will be interesting to see more findings.

  7. I think the collarboarion of amatuer and expert is necessay to digital story telling, while it is hard to balance the proportion of the expert role in the video. As amateur, they have passion for digital storytelling and willing to share with others, however, without a proper instruction and training, they could not finish a digital storytelling meeting with their expectations, which to some extent weakening the meaning and power of digital storytelling.

  8. Aww... This video is so beautiful... very inspiring... I really want to make something like this for my Grandma!! :)

    As for amateur vs. pro - yeah, many factors have been mentioned... Barbara Sher says amateur is someone who does things out of LOVE... the original meaning of the word...
    skills, experience, money etc. can be acquired along the way (or not) - from a pro, I think people expect more, though some amateur productions can be on a pro level, or better... (when they can maybe start charging $$$ and become pro...)

    Amateurs sometimes don't 'remember' to document 'everyday things' (eg an aunt in everyday clothes) even though this particular way of dressing/hairstyle may be of interest to experts - or themselves - later on (and may grow extinct in an area with arrival of new fashion)

    So I think experts could contribute greatly by helping people not just with techie things but also with advice/knowledge base, legitimizing and adding credibility to certain areas of work, providing context and a 'wider look' etc. (Or we might end up with a zillion similar videos on YouTube, while some things might get overlooked...)

    Experts can be beneficial to digital storytelling (or not lol, depends what kind of experts they are, do they have the particular skills/approach/view needed/preferred etc, this is meant in general, in regard to eco and other fields too)

    Drawbacks? :) Well, who's gonna pay the expert if they're both doing it for love? Funding needs to be arranged somehow, so it's sustainable... Or all need to agree they're volunteering and it's meaningful/interesting without exchange of monies too... When does the amateur/volunteer cross the 'volunteering' stage and puts in so much effort, research and expertise that they become an 'expert' and would deserve some compensation too...? (if they'd want/need it) And how to find funding - without losing passion, drive and freedom that an amateur has? Everyone likes 'free help'!:) These are some interesting questions I've come across along the way too, yeah... :)
    What if there are no local experts for something, you need to learn internationally/DIY/online... (or combine sources)

    Doctors vs. midwives: I think they just wanted to 'cut' the competition!! Good midwives are still worth their weight in gold!! (And good doctors too, there's room in this Universe for both?)