ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs Serial storyteller, poetry pusher, digital doodler, flâneur.

Digital Storytelling: A New Paradigm

Image by Ian Hayhurst via Flickr

Image by Ian Hayhurst via Flickr

I’m still mulling over Monica Hesse’s article, “As books go beyond printed page to multisensory experience, what about reading?” It’s packed with so many of the ideas swirling around Vooks and other new digital storytelling formats. Although I scoffed at her rumination (Is a hybrid book our future? Maybe…), I actually think that there’s a boatload of substance worth recapping, including an open-ended question about whether digital storytelling formats like vooks will diminish readers’ capacities for imagination.

It’s amusing that digital storytelling has been something of a sleeper topic for a decade or more, idling at the margins of publishing and academia. I might be exaggerating slightly, but generally speaking the mainstream publishing chatter has been focused on best sellers, the shift from fiction to non-fiction, online sales, etc. and suddenly — propelled by the rapidly shifting sands of book/media retail and recent innovations in book/media integration, packaging and distribution — everyone’s chattering wildly about the death of the book, the pros and cons of new media, etc. My enthusiasm for the changing publishing landscape is no secret. In fact, ever since I discovered Dana Atchley a decade ago, I’ve been trumpeting the clarion call for multimodal, interactive storytelling. And, despite newer and sexier storytelling possibilities emerging every day due to advances in the multimedia toolbox, increasingly ubiquitous (and ever faster) connectivity, and the digitally fueled appetites and habits of today’s consumers, I’m keenly drawn to the most primitive and basic roots of storytelling.

As the developed and developing worlds hurtle into the age of digital storytelling, it’s more important than ever to remember that the fundamental storytelling ingredients persist. I see a trend toward producing increasingly impressive digital stories that showcase multimedia razzle-dazzle at the expense of good storytelling. Well constructed narrative will always be more important than even the most sophisticated digital storytelling. I hope! And, I also suspect that there will always remain a place for the most basic oral storytelling, even as attentions spans shorten and the magic of digital storytelling enraptures us.

But, let’s cut back to where I left off in a recent digital storytelling post about Monica Hesse’s question: Is a hybrid book our future? Maybe…” No, not maybeOf course hybrid books are our future. The unknown is whether or not conventional print publishing will endure. Is a printed book our future? Maybe. That is an important and intriguing question that only time will answer. I’m gambling that the answer is yes, we will continue to print books for a long time. But print books will become the exception, not the norm. Printing books will become a niche market in the publishing industry, catering to very specific needs such as collector’s editions, beautiful coffee table editions of art, design and other expensive format publications.

Monica Hesse continues: “Perhaps the folly isn’t in speculating that the book might change, but in assuming that it won’t.” Bingo! It’s inevitable, so let’s shift the focus of the debate and brainstorming to what I find most exciting about the advent of digital storytelling: its extraordinary potential. Certainly it dilates the potential for producing books, narratives, learning experiences, etc. that span a far broader diversity of learning styles/capabilities while better serving some handicapped audiences. Digital storytelling opens as yet unimaginable non-linear storytelling formats that were simply too challenging (or maybe even too subtle or cumbersome) for print media. It democratizes the publishing world in an exciting, possibly scary or dangerous, and ultimately positive way. It will demand and catalyze long overdue shifts in the way that we teach children to think (both analytically and synthetically), to decipher fact from fiction, to communicate in non-digital contexts, to focus over extended periods of time and a host of ways we haven’t yet conceptualized.

English: The Boyhood of Raleigh, 1871

The Boyhood of Raleigh, 1871 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of digital storytelling are new avenues for communicating still invisible beyond the horizon. Will we be able to engage more of the senses than just sight and sound? Will we be able to untether digital stories? Will we be able to package multi-format stories that are compatible with multiple devices and accessible in multiple formats (text, audio book, video, multimedia)? Will be able to open up digital books for broader sharing, one of the most practical advantages of print books? What sort of copyright innovations will evolve to track increasingly complicated intellectual ownership stories and story ingredients?

I would encourage authors and producers of digital stories to break free of the rules, conventions and expectations of the last five centuries of book publishing. Don’t just translate books into digital books. Look at the terminology — ebooks, digital books, video books, vooks — for proof that we’re still frozen in the Gutenberg paradigm. Amplify the idea of storytelling. Leverage today’s multimodal communication vehicles by integrating text, audio, video with the vast array of social networking tools so that the texture of storytelling is profound, diverse and malleable. Open storytelling up so that “readers'” experiences can be varied (maybe even unique?) which will compel greater interest, sharing, debate, buzz, marketing, content development.

Digital storytelling must develop the potential for annotation and marginalia that print books permit. And it will be important to devise innovative ways for readers/consumers to share this marginalia. I know this sounds scary, and it poses real challenges (intellectual property rights, etc.), but it is inevitable and good. And it will unleash a viral potential heretofore unfathomable, not to mention the pedagogical implications. I touched on these ideas briefly in a recent post about James Governor’s “Reading is Writing: Illuminating The Digital Manuscript“.

In sum, I agree with Scholastic editor David Levithan: “It’s expanding the notion of what storytelling can be.” Rather than fear and desperation, publishers should be reinvigorated, revitalized and optimistic. The publishing industry should embrace the new digital storytelling paradigm and begin dreaming up creative new storytelling opportunities. Frankly traditional print books represent a single, extremely restricted vehicle for telling stories. Five centuries of increasing ubiquity make it challenging to think beyond the limitations of a stack of paper sandwiched between two covers, but storytelling existed long before the printing press, and it will continue to exist (and flourish) long after books become relics.

Of course, change always introduces new concerns and risks as well. Hesse asks whether reading and imagination will suffer as a result of innovations in digital storytelling. She acknowledges that digital books empower the reader to skip around, perhaps even skip sections altogether. “It’s also possible for the user to never read more than a few chapters in sequence, before excitedly scampering over to the next activity…” This is certainly true, and not only because integration of audio and video invite this sort of jumpy navigation. Searchability alone is revolutionary. The ability to quickly, easily filter a digital text for relevant terms, references, etc. shifts significant control from the author/publisher to the reader. This basic change invites us to leap from relevant topic to relevant topic rather than trudging from beginning to middle to end. But is this a problem? It could be if authors think and write according to the conventional Gutenberg paradigm. But authors can evolve and grow. In fact, many may welcome the change, may recognize its vast potential. Inevitably some will not.

“Hybrid books might be the perfect accessory for modern life. They allow immediate shortcuts to information. They feel like instant gratification and guided, packaged experiences. What they don’t feel like, at least in certain examples, is reading.

World Storytelling Day logo by Mats Rehnman.

World Storytelling Day logo by Mats Rehnman. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Although there’s reason aplenty to fret the diminishing attention spans of people increasingly plugged into a digital world, I’m not convinced that the “feeling of reading” is in and of itself critical. Some of us love to grab a book and tuck into a hammock on a summer afternoon. It’s pretty hard to beat this “feeling of reading”, but I’m not terribly concerned that fewer and fewer people seem to desire it. It does concern me that a reduction in reading might indicate a reduction in the type of thinking and protracted focus that reading fosters. But I’m not convinced that a shift from print to digital storytelling is the culprit, especially of a potential loss of imaginative thinking which is encouraged by reading a print book. Television and video/movie consumption seem more likely culprits. (Or an ever more pervasive culture of instant gratification?) But the sort of digital storytelling I’m aspiring toward is a far cry from a video or a television program.

Vook’s founder, Brad Inman discourages us from equating print books and Vooks, emphasizing that the two storytelling formats are unique. “‘We don’t pretend that it’s a book because it’s not.’ With the Vook, ‘there’s an expectation that you’re not gulping the text,’ as you would in a traditional novel. Instead, Inman says, ‘you’re tasting the text,’ dipping in and out of it at will.”

I think that this in-and-out experience is potentially one of the great values of digital storytelling. Although Hesse cites Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor who studies multitasking, to distinguish between active and passive entertainment when reading or watching a video, we need to remember that digital books are not videos. Even vooks are not videos. Watching a video or a movie or a television program is considerably more passive than reading the same content, and I agree that the reader is more engaged, more thoughtful and more imaginative than the passive viewer of video. But in digital storytelling, video is only one of the modalities employed to advance the narrative. Although type and depth of imagination employed when reading a print book certainly is different from reading, a well composed digital book is not a passive experience. Indeed it should be considerably more interactive than a print book precisely because of the in-and-out experience which empowers the reader to elect, decision after decision, a personal experience within the narrative, ideally participating on some level and sharing at will. Think more seminar, less lecture. Perhaps Hesse’s reaction tells us more about the shortcomings of a specific vook rather than digital books in general.

“In reading “Embassy,” what concerned me wasn’t that my brain was getting overworked but that my imagination wasn’t… when the “true” representation… is immediately provided to the reader, imaginary worlds could be squelched before they have a chance to be born. Reading Vooks made me feel a little like a creative slacker…”

Like Clifford Nass, David Sousa (an educational neuroscience consultant who wrote “How the Brain Learns to Read”) is likely correct in his concerns about the effects of video on the imagination of children, it is less helpful when evaluating digital storytelling: “we find that kids are not able to do imagining and imaging as exercises… because video’s doing the work for them… They still have the mental apparatus for that, the problem is they’re not getting the exercise.”

The Historian, by E. Irving Couse

However, digital storytelling is not video. It profits from the integration of video into a considerably more interactive tapestry of narrative that engages the reader at every turn, offering multiple levels of interaction and a great deal of independence for how to navigate the content. Digital storytelling at its best should challenge the imagination more consistently and more rigorously than video and likely than conventional print books. Perhaps we’re not there yet. Certainly we’re not there yet. We’re at the proverbial dawn of a new storytelling paradigm, and it’s only logical that the prototypes will be awkward prototypes. But they offer an exciting glimpse into the future, a future that will be driven by raconteurs creating for the new paradigm, not just trying to adapt or salvage the Gutenberg paradigm.

Hesse shares this open-minded optimism, concluding with Bog Stein’s inspiring outlook. “‘Things like the Vook are trivial. We’re going to see an explosion of experimentation before we see a dominant new format. We’re at the very beginning stages’ of figuring out what narrative might look like in the future. ‘The very, very beginning.'”


Gadding about the Gadget Graveyard

Just smiled familiarly through Josh Marshal’s lighthearted reflection “Adventures in Obsolescence” on Talking Points Memo. He acknowledges his inability to dispose of dated gadgets event once he’s replaced them, and the condition (who’ll be the first to clinically diagnose it?) is all too familiar. He’s responding to a friend who’s in need of a second hand iPod since hers gave up the ghost and he decides to gift her his dinosaur, “one of those early all-white, physical scroll wheel, boxy archeo-Pods that probably many of you had at one point or another.”

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Easy generosity, right? Give away something you no longer need or use, a gadget that’s already well into artifact-dom that nevertheless can help out a friend. True. And yet there is a funny compulsion which I admit to sharing that makes it difficult to part with these relics. Josh explains:

“So even after some gadget is well into its planned obsolescence and I’ve replaced it and it’s clear I’m never going to use it again, I just can’t manage to toss something I once found so cool and also dropped a decent amount of money on. And because of that, I have a small tribe of old i-Gadgets totally unused, sitting in boxes or drawers, living on borrowed time, or perhaps subsisting in suspended animation on borrowed time, because I can’t get myself to treat them as worthless and toss them in the trash.”

I periodically manage to pass these on, but generally they just collect and collect. I recently gave an older Sony Vaio laptop to a tech buddy who wiped all the memory and donated it to a charity that refurbishes computers for people who can’t afford to buy one. Cool idea. But all too often inertia prevails and the gadget graveyard fills up. So I’m making a resolution that when I return from Shanghai — and before I head off to San Franciso for DrupalCon — I’m going to eBay, fiverr, freecycle and craigslist my backlog of geriatric gadgets. If you’re in need, keep me honest!

M on the Bund


Chinese architecture  Despite my withering review of M on the Bund in Shanghai, I remain intrigued by some of the design elements of their website… Although the actual restaurant-specific drill downs are not particularly innovative, the general home page experience is similar to the concept I’ve been working on for Rosslyn Redux.

Illuminating the Digital Manuscript

James Governor tackles the concept of digital media consumption in a familiar and appealing way in his March 10 blog post, Reading is Writing: Illuminating The Digital Manuscript. He opens with a reminder that reading, albeit a solitary practice on the simplest level, usually tends to be[come] considerably more interactive than the initial visual/mental textual interface:

“there is an other side to the book, the canon, the stories we tell each other. We like to discuss books. We like to write things in the margin – we even have a name for this activity – marginalia, a practice as old as the Illuminated Manuscript. Most of all though, books help us learn – particularly when we share them.”

This echoes the reflection I recently offered to the smart folks over at They had solicited feedback from customers to see what we think they should be improving in order to help design a more appealing digital storytelling experience. I offered quite a bit of feedback, but the crux of my advice was to better leverage the full potential of interaction and marginalia allowed by the connected, digital publishing format.

The first generation vooks are basically digitzed books, e-books, with periodic video clips peppering the text that readers can opt to view as they read the text. Of course, hyperlinked text is present and the symbolic opportunity to connect to Twitter and Facebook and post your reactions to the vook, ideally offering a little free advertising to the company. This is a necessary first foray into digital storytelling, but it’s scarcely superior to reading the print version. And in many ways, it’s an inferior experience because there’s no handy way to add marginalia or share the reading  experience with others.

After reading Gary Vaynerchuk’s print edition of Crush It! then re-reading and watching embedded videos in the Vook edition of Crush It! my review (video above) was intended to offer timely feedback to the team producing these digital stories, but also to jump start their thinking. By capturing screencasts, I tried to hint at a more engaging way to open up and amplify the text. At present, the format is very solitary. Very locked up in a text-based silo with some video audio visual candy to make the reader feel like the experience is sexier than reading the print version.

James Governor grumbles that the “big problem with most current efforts in digital publishing [is that] they don’t learn from the web. We can bookmark a link on the web but why can’t we bookmark a digital book? It’s not enough to view source, you need to be able to share it and mark it up. What the hell good is XML if it’s just for layout?” While reading Crush It! or my current vook, Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Super Ideavirus, it should be quick, easy and fun to share my marginalia with others. This requires two important additions to the current vook experience:

1. a seamless scrapbook component should be integrated into the vook so that I can underline/highlight, jot notes, link to related content (including Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, blog posts) and generally capture/contribute my interactive reading, viewing and listening experience;

2. a seamless, quick and easy sharing tool.

I know that both of these suggestions are easier requested than developed. And I know that copyright issues need to be resolved with both. But these challenges should inspire innovation, not inhibit it. Whether I want to tweet, email, quote in an article, embed into a YouTube video, include in a presentation or share an audio excerpt via mobile phone, I would like to be able to open up my reading experience to share with others.

Obviously sharing in this way needs to be limited to excerpts so that copyright is respected and readers can’t skip buying the vook by accessing the full vook when shared. However, if/when I share an excerpt, the person I share with becomes a likely purchaser. The viral sales potential is huge! Especially if the shared excerpt makes it easy to buy the vook. And it would be amazing if vook buyers could then be granted access to the marginalia annotated versions of others. In other words, I decide to buy a book based upon a screencast/audio clip from a friend. I buy the vook, but rather than being limited to the original version, I can also toggle on/off the marginalia of my friend if my friend gives me permission. Likewise, I could get permission from other readers as well to access their marginalia. The practical application of this in a learning environment would be extremely valuable. A professor could enable students in his/her class to access their marginalia and follow their links, effectively supplementing the original text in an interactive footnoting environment.

I’ve become verbose, and since I’ll inevitably return to this topic before long, I’ll wrap up. But a few last quick thoughts. Vooks (and other digital book publishers) should at the very least plan to:

  1. produce an integrated text, audio and video edition,
  2. enable digital marginalia and
  3. enable sharing.
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Vooks: Beyond the Printed Page

It’s a dizzying experience, reading Vooks. But they represent just a few examples of a new genre that has been alternatively dubbed v-books, digi-books, multimedia books and Cydecks, all with essentially the same concept: It’s a book… but wait, there’s more! […] Is a hybrid book our future? Maybe. “As discourse moves from printed pages to network screens, the dominant mode will be things that are multi-modal and multilayered,” says Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book. “The age of pure linear content is going to pass with the rise of digital network content.” (Washington Post)

The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse asks, if book publishing is moving “beyond the printed page to multisensory experience, what about reading?” I just completed a feedback survey for after purchasing and reading Gary Vayverchuk’s Crush It! They’re asking lots of questions to try to understand some of the same issues this article explores. The market will decide, and so many exciting new storytelling techniques will evolve in the process.

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What Are Google TV Ads?

Google TV Ads is a flexible, all-digital system for buying more accountable and measurable TV advertising. Using the familiar AdWords interface, you can launch a TV advertising campaign in minutes.

Just a little follow-up on my previous Google TV ads post, and this time it’s straight from the horse’s mouth. What are you waiting for?

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How to Run to Advertisement on Fox News

See video here!

Slate ad critic Seth Stevenson tries out a Google service that allows you to run your own commercial on national TV for as little as $100.


Outstanding! A new day is dawning. I’m going to check this out now…

Count Down to DrupalCon San Francisco


Excited to accelerate my Drupal learning curve! I’ve just finished organizing my conference schedule at DrupalCon San Francisco next month. Flight? Check. Hotel? Check. Registered? Check. Sign-ups? Check. I’m good to go!

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Audiences Don’t Pay for Content

Where to Look for Opportunities

When we start with the premise that consumers haven’t paid for content in the past, we gain visibility into new ideas that make sense for the digital era.

It’s not micro-payments alone that will save the future for professional quality media content. On the other hand, the idea that the consumer will always pay for distribution that massively over-serves their needs is not a foregone conclusion either. Paying $2500+ per year for cable/broadband/telephony/mobile in order to gain access to a million times more content than you could ever possibly need is not going to work out so well for the media industry either.

We need solutions that improve the relevance of content for individual consumers without expecting individual consumers to be able to predict exactly what they want. The Internet has exploded the supply of content but digital technologies have only just begun to filter and sample that content for the consumer in an effective manner.

Content providers who used to enjoy control over the method of distribution are feeling a lot of pain but their content remains vital and appealing to consumers. Rather than stomping our foot like Mr. Isaacson, it is better to focus on new solutions that tie content and distribution together in ways that create great consumer experiences.

We don’t know what the other side of this transformation will look like but we have guidance;

  • Look at what the iPod did for music. Think about the critical role of sampling in the success of the micropayment model for songs.
  • Look at the potential of what Kindle can do for print publications.
  • Study the legacy of syndication that makes business partners of the content distributor and the content provider.
  • Look at the popularity of expensive sets of DVDs for old TV episodes.
  • Anticipate what the near-future DVR will be capable of doing.
  • Think of what GPS will mean for the distribution of local and timely content.
  • Think about what Twitter and search are doing to reveal the consumer’s need for specific content at precise moments in time.

It is time to think about distribution and content holistically. Digital technologies are not the enemy, they are an enormous opportunity to improve the relevance of content to the individual consumer. Don’t think so small as micropayments for one article at a time and don’t take for granted the current ability to charge a big fee for massively over-delivering irrelevant content. Look in the middle.

Somewhere in between asking the consumer to buy content “al a carte” and asking the consumer to pay for the whole menu, new “prix fixe” solutions are going to mature.

A Final Word from Our Sponsor

While we are at it, let’s not lose sight of the value of the advertising supported model. We are in the middle of a complex media transformation and a brutal recession. At times like this, pundits like Bob Garfield want to convince us that advertising is dead.

Advertising works. In the digital era, the consumer finds it very easy to ignore irrelevant advertising but they are quicker to engage with relevant advertising than ever before because the Internet makes engagement easy.

Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water in pursuit of the goal of getting the consumer to pay for the content. The advertiser remains happy to assume that role so long as we can offer a reasonably scaled and engaged audience. We just need to apply our new resources to help the advertiser better align their message with the right consumer at the right time.

Media companies can create new and better advertising values and it will still command a premium relative to the costs of distribution. Now that digital efficiencies have greatly reduced the cost of distribution, media companies need to look hard at the overhead that is a hangover from the analog era.

Some legacy media executives complain that they are trading analog dollars for digital pennies as advertising moves online. That is a valid concern so we can’t drag our feet when it comes to rethinking overhead costs from analog dollars to digital pennies as well.

We can reduce overhead, improve advertising value and find new consumer revenue models built on interesting combinations of content and distribution all at the same time. We need to be more disciplined about who the consumer is and what they really want as we build our new solutions, but the solutions are just waiting for the imaginations of new media moguls to find them.


I excerpted this from an informative piece with sound thinking that I’d recommend to anyone creating content (word, video, music, etc.) for an audience. A few highlights:

#1. “We need solutions that improve the relevance of content for individual consumers without expecting individual consumers to be able to predict exactly what they want.”

#2. “Study the legacy of syndication that makes business partners of the content distributor and the content provider.”

#3. “Think about what Twitter and search are doing to reveal the consumer’s need for specific content at precise moments in time.”

4. “We need to be more disciplined about who the consumer is and what they really want as we build our new solutions, but the solutions are just waiting for the imaginations of new media moguls to find them.”

Carl Honore Praises Slowness

Carl Honore praises “slowness” at TED Talks (video via

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