Storytelling with Web 2.0 Tools: A New Genre?

The Beginning

“Web 2.0 storytelling: the emergence of a new genre” by Alexander and Levine begins provocatively. In the past, according to the authors, stories had “a beginning, a middle, and a cleanly wrapped up ending” (p. 40) and were told, in one-way exchanges, by a storyteller or story tellers to a passive audience. “Or at least that’s what a story used to be, and that’s how a story used to be told” (p. 40). Such an extreme oversimplification of stories and storytelling throughout history immediately puts me on edge. The authors continue “Stories are now open-ended, branching, hyper-linked, cross-media, participatory, exploratory, and unpredictable.” (p. 40). With the exception of “cross-media”, these sound very much like the characteristics of oral storytelling, as we’ve learned from Ong (2002). In fact, most of these adjectives could be applied to some print stories as well. So the article begins badly, from my perspective, setting up a false foundation as a base of comparison from which to describe the changes to storytelling brought about by Web 2.0 tools.

Due to more user-friendly web publishing techniques, it is now very easy to create web content. To quote Cope and Kalantzis, “the practical business of doing multimodality is easy now, and because it is, we are using the affordances of the complementary modes to ease the semantic load that had been placed on written language” (p. 18). Alexander and Levine argue that ease of use and the affordances of Web 2.0 technology, such as collaboration and the findability of microcontent, have given birth to new practices for telling stories, and that these new practices constitute a new genre.

The Middle

The authors acknowledge that to “claim that there is now such a thing as ‘Web 2.0 storytelling’ invites risks” (p. 46). The risks, as they see them, are: 1) pinning down a moving target by giving it a name, and 2) asserting that storytelling is happening online contradicts a reported decline in reading. I see the latter as an explanation – there is a decline in book reading because more reading takes place online. The first risk is more valid. How can all the different forms and styles and even genres, of storytelling that use Web 2.0 tools be described as a genre unto themselves? (A mystery story told in a series of podcasts. A personal diary published on a blog, with comments from readers. A science fiction video posted on YouTube.) A genre is identified by shared conventions or style or form. I don’t see how these examples of Web 2.0 storytelling share any conventions or style or form.

However, their claim that Web 2.0 storytelling constitutes a new genre may be a red herring. Alexander and Levine write “we suggest there is most certainly a new form of expression that is compelling to educators” (p. 46). Although I would argue that there is not simply one new form of expression, there is a compelling and vast array of tools available to educators that offers possibilities to experiment with form, set up student collaborations, and mix and mash content from multiple media and genres. The authors describe a project they have been working on called 50+, in which they aim to discover more than fifty ways to tell the same story using Web 2.0 tools. With so many ways to tell a story, “aptness of mode” (Kress, 2005) takes centre stage: “the new media make it possible to use the mode of that seems most apt for the purposes of representation and communication” (Kress, 2005, p. 19). This is exciting for educators, and I think this idea is the strength of this article. The enthusiasm of the authors to experiment with Web 2.0 tools should encourage educators to consider “the facility of new media” (Kress, 2005) and incorporate them into their teaching, not for technology’s sake, but because they have a discovered a mode that is apt.

The Cleanly Wrapped Up Ending

A short piece on The New Yorker website this week called “On bad endings” talks about the many books, including classics such as War and Peace and Wuthering Heights, that start out great but end poorly. Columnist Joan Acocella says that it’s as if the authors, forced into the necessary step of closing out the narrative, have run out of energy and inspiration. She quotes E.M. Forster, who  said in “Aspects of a Novel” that nearly every novel is a letdown: “This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows the novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored?”  Indeed, why is there also not this convention for academic commentaries?

On a final note, since the publication of the Alexander and Levine article in 2008 there has been a retreat from the open space of the Web to the paid, closed, and proprietary spaces of apps (Anderson, 2010). Increasingly, people are using the Internet to download their favourite newspapers, magazines, movies, and music directly to their devices, bypassing the Web altogether. Has this trend away from the hyperlinked, flexible, and interactive silenced the buzz around Web 2.0, or are they parallel streams?

References

Acocella, J. (2012, November 27). On bad endings. The New Yorker. Retrieved from The New Yorker website http://www.newyorker.com

Alexander, B., & Levine, A. (2008, November/December). Web 2.0 storytelling: emergence of a new genre. Educause Review, p. 40-56.

Anderson, C., &  Wolff, M. (2010, September). The Web is dead. Long live the Internet. Wired. Retrieved from the Wired magazine website http://www.wired.com/magazine

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “ Multiliteracies ”: New Literacies , New Learning. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 14, 164–195. doi:10.1080/15544800903076044

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition, 22(1), 5–22. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2004.12.004

Ong, W. (2002). Orality and literacy: technologizing the word. London: Routledge

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4 Responses to Storytelling with Web 2.0 Tools: A New Genre?

  1. Danielle Dubien says:

    Hi Arlene,

    I just read “On Bad Endings” and I mostly agree with the author. (The part I disagree about is Wuthering Heights. Though the part of the story about the next generation is less captivating than the first half, it’s there to show contrast and that they cycle of revenge won’t continue. The author could have written the whole story just as exciting as the first part, but then, maybe that would have become boring.)

    Anyway, the idea of ending a story without necessarily tying up all the loose ends is really appealing. (I detest writing traditional “sum up” conclusions and either avoid writing conclusions at all or try to find other ways to finish off an essay.) It puts the onus on the reader to complete the story which is a fantastic exercise of imagination. It also requires the reader to accept the mystery about the fate of the characters.

    To end a story without wrapping things up neatly means that story structure would change from the typical increase in suspense, sprinkled with exciting bits, climax and conclusion. What kind of story structure would you create? It could very well be a risk given that people are used to a certain type of story structure and may not be open to new ways, but then, that’s what makes art interesting, isn’t it?

    Check out this storytelling tool: http://writer.inklestudios.com/ It offers the possibility of branching off, like in Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books that we discussed so much this term. Do you think it offers other possibilities?

    • jmah says:

      Hi Danielle,

      I too discovered the inkle writer. It looks like a really neat tool for easily creating hypertext fiction. Have you checked out the new Choose Your Own Adventure books in the Apple store?

      -Jerry

  2. jmah says:

    Hi Arlene,

    I too am disappointed by the closed nature that apps and other proprietary tools are starting to develop. At one point, it seemed that the web was truly open – allowing us to mix, remix and extend content.

    I love the power of these Web 2.0 tools and their ability to engage and motivate students. Connected to my previous statement – I’m concerned about the content we create. Who owns it? How do we back it up or transfer it?

    -Jerry

    • awhetter says:

      Hi Jerry, absolutely. Your concerns (copyright, preservation) have to be addressed anew with each tool – a lot of work if you want to experiment with many different things. Not such a big deal if we are using the tools for short learning exercises with ephemeral, impersonal information. A big deal if teachers are asking children to use the tools.

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