Questions and Challenges for Digital Narratology


For the last few years, I’ve been writing about different kinds of digitally-enabled storytelling.  I started out exploring  examples of digital fiction, moved on to critique sex bloggers and their blooks, and more recently have been examining the various ways in which people self document their lives in blogs, social network sites and community projects. I’m currently leading an AHRC funded research network (Transforming Thresholds) which uses ideas about narrative and digital media to help improve visitor experience in museum entrance spaces.  These examples of my work seem perhaps eclectic, but they also show that the intersections between digital media and narrative studies are many and varied, that this kind of work is often transdisciplinary and works to connect theory and practice. 

The transdisciplinary, constantly shifting diversity makes the narrative study of digital media an exciting field to work in. But the potential for connectivity idealised in the metaphor of a network masks often profound differences which function to keep researchers in academic disciplines with remarkably robust boundaries.  Narrative communities like the International Society for the Study of Narrative may have diversified the kinds of materials they examine to move beyond print and film to include digital media, but the dominant frameworks which inform the scholarship at their conferences and published in their journals are still (more or less) from a literary-critical background (as opposed to sociolinguistic, media studies background and so on).   While I don’t want to argue for a universalising approach to narrative studies, I do want to ask:

  • Is it useful to make connections between the different subfields of narratives studies as scholars try to explore digital media? What can we learn from each other?

On a practical level, working with other researchers is often imperative to facilitate the narrative study of digital media.  The sheer amount of stories that are published in digital media and their multimodal formats can be duanting to handle by a sole researcher, or to process using manual annotation. So there are plenty of methodological questions we need to address, like

  • Can we scale up the analysis of individual, specific examples of digitally enabled storytelling using techniques from information mining and visualisation? But conversely what does a ‘big data’ approach to narrative analysis miss?
  • How can we accommodate audio, visual and verbal analysis of narratives in digital media?

Lastly, applying narrative studies to digital media raises questions about how socio-political contexts intersect with the architectures and affordances of different online contexts to shape the politics of storytelling.  So rather than leaving narrative studies to examine the surface of storytelling alone, I close with these questions:

  • What political and social factors shape the stories which are emerging in digital media?  Should narrative studies have a role in engaging with these political issues, and if so, how?

Image on front page by Guilia Forsythe and available on flickr


You ask a lot of great questions that I am in no way qualified to answer. I do think the technology is coming that will help us to do some of the analysis you mention. NVivo is one that we are fortunate to have in one of our grad labs, that allows you to annotate video and audio files. Overall, though, when we write about it, we end up converting that content into text. It is not good at the quantified research you're looking at as well. Perhaps this is a good way to think about the values of collaborative research. I think trying to usefully use bigger data and archival work is going to create a shift towards collaborative work in the humanities. 

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