Blog Post

Interview with Jonathan Zittrain on digital storytelling

Before his talk last week as part of the Duke Provost's Lecture Series, I had the opportunity to conduct a brief interview with Professor Jonathan Zittrain. The lecture series is concerned with "the historical record in the digital age". One of the opportunities of the digital age is the idea that cheap, networked, digital technologies might allow more of us to craft and publish the stories of our lives. That is, digital storytelling might allow us to impact the historical record by bypassing traditional gatekeepers - or as Zittrain suggested in his talk, developing "communitarian" methods for producing, maintaining, and "arguing about" the digital historical record. I explored the subject of digital storymaking in my ten minute talk with Professor Zittrain.



Mike Nutt: I'm really interested in storytelling, and especially storytelling using the Internet and other networked social technologies. Does the Internet change any of the fundamentals of storytelling as we've known it for thousands of years or is it just another storytelling tool?

Jonathan Zittrain: Well, there's that old story about Ernest Hemingway, who spent a lot of time as a screen hack before becoming a more well known writer. He had an "idea bottle" with a roll of ticker tape inside it. So if he ever got into trouble trying to figure out what to write about, he could consult the next stretch of tape by pulling it out of the bottle. And apparently what was on the tape was "Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl." Storytelling has an essence. One particular medium over another may favor certain aspects of it or certain styles [of storytelling], but you can do boy meets girl and all of its counterparts through any medium. In that sense, I think the Internet is just one of many tools. Maybe the question is, how human or humanizing are the narratives that we make through it? Especially considering its history, there are aspects of the Internet that make us view it as "just a technology"...that it's like any other piece of equipment in your house. If youre watching a TV show with people in it, you're still the only human in the room, you know youre alone. And that gives you certain license to behave in particular ways - you can't hurt anyone because it's just you. But, of course, the network brings us together, and I think there's a conflict because it's so easy to think you're still alone. Even though you're touching and changing the data with your own reactions, your own blog comments, everything else - those actions are affecting other peoples' lives. So if you don't look at [online] storytelling as a linear process, where some auteur makes some thing and then puts it out to the world...

MN: It's much more interactive...

JZ: ...If it's much more interactive, I don't know that we've fully figured out - and there's of course a range of ways to do it -  how human we want that interaction to be, or whether we want it to be more randomized. Just to look at a very recent and my guess is soon to be forgotten phenomenon called chat roulette...the way it's structured is not particularly humanizing from what I can tell. It wouldn't take much to make it so - it's not like webcams are inherently dehumanizing. But when you structure it in a certain way, it brings out certain behaviors in people, and I don't know how many stories are told through chat roulette.

MN: The stories that get told on social network sites, your everyday life story that you tell on Facebook through status updates or Twitter through your tweets - is it strange that the people who make the tools to help us tell those stories have access to all that data about ourselves? Could that data ever be a community owned resource?

JZ: Well, the thing is, we sometimes pit coherent narrative against authenticity. What makes for a coherent narrative - narrative truth whether than historical or factual truth - is what the author presciently chooses to change, to leave behind, to add. And so to the extent that our social network sites let us tell a story, it's one thing if we're so unselfconscious that we just have a bit of data that emanates from us - 

MN: Like your address or something like that?

JZ: No, I mean more like neutrons from a decaying atom. It's epiphenomenal to the life we're already living, we're just living more of it online or allowing more of it to be documented in some online way, and then others build stories out of it. But those who believe that almost everybody could or should have an online soon as you say that, you're starting to say, yes, you should more self-consciously craft a narrative about yourself that you present through your Twitter feed or through Facebook or something. Then - for better or worse - whatever you choose to fake is what you can become and if you chose to fake being someone that you believe is better than you are, it might be a salutary system.

MN: It can be empowering to craft your identity in that way. 

JZ: But compare it with an environment like World of Warcraft, or one of the other massively multiplayer games, where it's so much about storytelling and immersing in the story in the first person and feeling like you get to make the decisions upon which the fates of worlds hinge and you get to forge alliances and relationships -

MN: Online and offline...

JZ: Absolutely. But within the context of a game, to break the relationships or betray them maybe gives you a degree of freedom while still feeling more ethical than you would otherwise, because it's still a layer removed from reality. There's a story well known in the gaming community, little known outside of it, of a pretty famous player who died in real life. And her guildmates sought to hold a wake for her online, in the game world. They they put it together and others wanted to attend online who were otherwise at war with this guild. And they agreed to leave their weapons at a clearing.

MN: Wow, that's great.

JZ: Yes, it was great until one particular band of marauders came in during the wake and killed everyone! And the marauders were like, "You had it coming!" I don't know who has the better end of that argument, except there were a lot of people feeling betrayed and sad in real life rather than in the game. And, on the other hand, a bunch of people feeling that others had confused real life and the game.

MN: What could we start doing tomorrow to get more people making more digital stories, either through games, or movies, or through richer, story-based interactions on social network sites?

JZ: What we could start doing tomorrow is to make it part of the activities that we ask children to do in schools. It amazes me that kids are warehoused for years in places that give them very set-piece assignments that (at the moment) emphasize only the dangers and worries of online technologies, social networks, Wikipedia - whether it's inaccuracy or cyberbulling. The idea that you wouldn't try to have kids harness the potential of those technologies is astounding. That's something we could start doing tomorrow.


Video of Zittrain's inspiring and insightful lecture can be downloaded here.



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