This is a copy of my paper from the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities 2012 Conference. Since I signed up for a 10 minute paper, I left a lot on the cutting room floor. In the coming weeks I’ll post a ‘director’s cut’ of my paper that’s a bit longer and more fleshed out.
I accompanied my paper with a Prezi. You can view it here. The images in this post all come from my Prezi.
I’d love to hear your feedback or thoughts in the comment section.
The Importance of Storytelling in a Digital World: Or, What the Digital Humanities can learn from TED
What better way to begin a paper about storytelling than with a story?
“Each one has to be made from hand, in the winter, in Detroit. The metal rods all have a special resonance, like tuning forks, and they’re all connected with this special mesh. When a note is sung into a Crumpter, it sort of corrects it and adds a little bit of a chorus effect … thanks to vocoders and other new technologies, the crumpter ceases to exist …”
Matt Brown sold his crumpter for $51.00. But this sad story of an old man selling a valued memory has a happy ending – none of it is true. Matt Brown is a real person and he did sell his crumpter for $51.00, but his crumpter isn’t a crumpter, it’s a piece of scrap metal.
Matt Brown is an author who participated in a 2009 anthropological experiment call Significant Objects, whose hypothesis was: “Narrative transforms insignificant objects in significant ones.” It’s goal was to test whether stories could imbue objects with value beyond the subjective, giving worthless objects an increased monetary value. After enlisted the help of a number of artists, poets, authors, and storytellers, Significant Objects sold $128 dollars worth of, in their own words, “thrift-store junk” for more than $3600, with the proceeds going to charity.
I’m telling you this, not because I want historians to craft enthralling lies, but because I want to highlight that storytelling adds quantifiable value to reality. Everyone understands the subjective value of storytelling. Well told stories make us happy; stories make us sad; stories make us feel every human emotion. But stories also add value which can be measured.
Storytelling creates engagement. It captures the imagination and draws the attention of the audience to the storyteller. While storytelling may be among the earliest of human practices, it is still relevant here, today.
Why? Because the digital humanities have a problem with public engagement. In her plenary for the 2010 Digital Humanities Conference at King’s College, London, Melissa Terras ask the question, how do the digital humanities hold up to outside scrutiny when it comes to factors like sustainability and impact? Her answer, and I quote:
“The answer is – not very well. From the outside looking in, we look amateur. We should know and understand best, amongst many academic fields, how important it is to maintain and sustain our digital presence and our community. But our web presence, across the associations, sucks.”
I contacted Melissa on twitter and asked her, in the two years following her plenary, has anything changed? Her response:
In 2012, how is digital humanities using the mobile web? In a word – haphazardly. And this is dangerous because the mobile web is and will continue to be a major factor in engagement, collaboration, and dissemination. The mobile web is the future.
When asked why owners use the internet on their smart phone, 60% of users listed because “it answers questions quickly” and 66% listed “provides relevant information.”
From these statistics and a slew of others that I could throw at you, it’s clear that more and more people around the world are accessing the internet, and the information it provides, through their smart phone. The future of public engagement is mobile.
In an attempt to see how digital humanities are attempting to engage a smart phone-using audience, I ran a search for “digital humanities” on iTunes U. For those not familiar with this service, it’s an offshoot of Apple’s iTunes for the mobile access and dissemination of higher education content.
If you search for “digital humanities” on iTunes U, this is what you see. Digital humanities content is not lacking and it comes from such fine institutions as MIT, McGill, and Stanford. After downloading several podcasts and videos, it quickly became apparent that something was missing. Perhaps Melissa was too strong in calling the digital humanities web presence ‘amateur,’ but it is certainly haphazard.
The quality of the scholarship is exceptional, but the production values more often than not failed to match the intellectual rigor. Two examples stand out in my mind. One podcast discussed a very visual project, and referred frequently to images that were lost in an entirely visual medium – the lecture better suited to for video. Another video began with 2 minutes of audio tests and equipment checks – checks which should have been edited out of the final product.
If the medium is the message, neither of these examples do their message justice. Both of these examples were among the top results for the search “digital humanities.”
If top search results have a mere 18% chance of being clicked, it behooves us as content creators to create the best content possible – on both aesthetic and intellectual grounds. First impressions are lasting, if the digital humanities wish to appear professional in the mobile space, the medium and the message must both be flawless.
Now let me talk an example that succeeds in storytelling, in intellectual output, and in the mobile and non-mobile web – TED. Established in 1984, the non-profit Technology, Entertainment, and Design has become a major force in the dissemination of knowledge, with its videos garnering hundreds of millions of views.
Here’s why TED is interesting – it shouldn’t be popular. In a world where an internet connection brings you access to virtually any entertainment medium ever created, ranging from books to movies to music to pornography, why would you choose to watch an educational video of a single individual giving an 18 minute lecture?
TED’s success comes down to three factors: medium, message, and storytelling.
When it comes to the medium, TED has excelled in delivering their content on the internet. Each of their 900 videos is available for free, without commercials, on nearly any device that accesses the internet. iOS apps, Android apps, Blackberry Apps, Netflicks, Xbox 360, Youtube, even DVD’s, TED makes it easy for people to access their content.
What’s more, their videos are licensed under Creative Commons allowing users to share and repost them without fear of persecution. TED also collaborates with their community, allowing viewers to translate the talks into other languages and upload these translations as subtitles. Because of this, some videos are available in 40 languages.
TED excels at delivering their message. The organization was founded on the belief that, and I quote, “there is no greater force for changing the world than a powerful idea.”
TED gives its speakers a platform to inspire political and social change. Recently Clay Shirkey’s video “Why SOPA is a bad idea” contributed to turning public opinion against the recent proposed anti-piracy legislation in the United States.
TED gives some of the best intellectuals, academics, authors, and storytellers a platform to speak to millions of people, giving them a chance to be heard, a chance to make a difference. The kind of great power, to paraphrase Ray Siemens and Spider-man, that bestows great responsibility.
Finally, TED excels at storytelling. TED is successful not because it was first, or had the largest marketing budget, but because of the quality of stories its presenters tell.
Ultimately great storytelling comes from telling a story you believe in. I’d like to conclude by telling you what I believe in – I believe in the digital humanities.
I believe in its values of inclusivity and community – the kind of values that allow young researchers like me to speak on the same stage as the giants whose shoulders I stand upon. I believe in diversity – the kind that brings people from all over the world to Japan to talk about the future.
And because I believe in these ideals, I believe that we in the digital humanities should tell our stories to as many people who will listen. Because as J. Stephen Downie observed as last night’s plenary, you never go who you might accidentally influence.
You never know which story just might change the world. Thank you.