Commentary 3: Web 2.0 Digital Stories and Distributed Cognition

In the digital space of flows, where ideas collide and coincide across a fluid state of chaos within data streams across the nodes of our network society, there exists a new level of creativity impacting global society.  Like sparks of creative flows across the synaptic pathways of the brain, media-rich stories are being created across the internet uniting author and reader into a combined and seemingly paradoxical role of both producer and consumer.  In this creative space, Web 2.0 digital stories move beyond the linear construction of the printed book into a more unpredictable, open-ended, participatory, hyperlinked and flexible form of media.  Alexander and Levine (2008) describe the Web 2.0 digital story as a new form of storytelling based on microcontent and social media.  Microcontent is self-contained, embedded and in continual flux, whether it’s a blog post, a wiki edit, online video or podcast.  This new space for creative production and consumption is easily accessible through keywords and exists in a virtual place of distributed discussion (Alexander & Levine, 2008).  Web 2.0 stories are narratives constructed in a participatory space, buttressed by social media, and enabled with flexibility to enable consumers to leave and return through hyperlinking.  Similar to oral traditions, digital stories are structured around people, yet beyond both oral and print methods, rich media provides a multimodal experience.  This hearkens to the theories of the public sphere of Habermas, wherein a communication space is created for people to gather to conduct conversations about cultural matters and to share their lifeworlds (Valtysson, 2010). The digital story also incorporates Castells’ theory of the Network Society (2004), since it operates in a data flow across the various nodes of the Internet enhancing the experiences of viewers who interact with the world through the computer across a global interconnected society based on informationalism.

Open Spaces of Communication and Distributed Cognition

The space of communication and cultural transformation provided by the digital story enables public interaction and reflection on global cultural issues, and combines elements of both orality and literacy.  The digital persona creating the story is similar to the Bard in the agora of ancient times, who structured the narrative based on audience commentary.  Ong (2002) describes the heavy patterning and communal formulas used by orators who utilized additive oral style and aggregative oral structures, as seen in The Odyssey by Homer.  In the same manner, Web 2.0 stories exist within an additive digital framework and are integrated with social media to shape their existence through the digital conversation of the audience.  Valtysson (2010) writes that the digitization of culture redefines culture and identity through the creation of new cultural forms and redefinition of older ones.  The digital story is not fixed, but open to endless combinations, revisions and individual customization, thus changing cultural participation. This flexible space of flows enables a new relationship between author and reader, who become producer and consumer.  This new relationship, described by Manovich as “prosumer”, is a paradoxical remixing of blurred roles of participatory creation and consumption (Valtysson, 2010). The art of the story is thus transformed from the symbolic representation found in oral cultures to the interactive and participatory media-rich format found in the digital culture of Web 2.0.

Digital storytelling goes beyond a media form to become a field of cultural practice incorporating text, graphics, motion, collaboration and social interaction impacting digital culture and creativity (Burgess, 2006).  These new forms of stories are mediated across multiple global networks changing ways people access culture. Burgess (2006) defines creativity as a cultural resource based on material and shared knowledge that is recombined in new ways.  With digital stories, the possibilities for remixing media, narrative and formats is accessible to all netizens and unlimited in creative potential.  Since ordinary people are able to bypass the barriers of print media, there is a new intersection of everyday life and popular media to create what Atton describes as “everyday cultural production” (Burgess, 2006, 206).  This enables an incredible amount of media-rich digital experiences disseminating quickly and interactively across the internet.  A digital world of widely shared creativity provides a chance for a multitude of people to contribute to the digital culture (Valtysson, 2010), creating a new global cultural practice.

Along with this creative input comes a change in individual and cultural identities.  Vasudevan, Schultz and Bateman (2010) describe the multimodal experiences of digital storytelling which develop and showcase differing literate identities.  This opportunity to experiment with digital identities is reflected in the work of Turkle, who writes that while we are dominated by our digital devices, technology offers us a powerful substitute for connecting with people face-to-face (Olds, 2011).  The digital social interface enabled through the participatory nature of Web 2.0 stories, transforms our identity from the tribal village of oral societies and independent reader of print culture to new multiple identities existing in a digital world integrated with the personas of the physical world.  Collective memory of the community is replaced by the databases of the network society, and identity is transformed by the context and experience within the digital spaces of rich media stories impacting our lifeworlds.  The transformative, participatory and ultimately creative spaces within digital stories provide an autonomous and important contribution to public global and digital culture.

Social media supports the digital story by providing a virtual coffee house in which to discuss, interact and provide a live audience for the digital story, complete with simultaneous conversations across multiple networks.  I would suggest that digital stories, in their open, flexible and hyperlinked rich media formats are based on distributed creativity and therefore are reliant on distributed cognition.  Hutchins developed the theory of distributed cognition, which was based on the concept of collective knowledge, through which people assimilated technology into their daily lives impacting culture, identity and learning (Petrina, Feng & Kim, 2008).  Hutchins postulated that knowledge and cognition is distributed across objects, tools, environments and artifacts (Perry, 2003), and this model fits the distributed, open structures of Web 2.0 storytelling.  Digital storytelling enables a cultural change through a remix of archetypal constructs, combining both oral and print modes of communication to produce a media-rich, multimodal communication technique that is a remediation of both oral and print storytelling techniques.  By drawing on the wisdom of the crowd, the prosumer or visitor/creator enables a creative voice and representation of the global network internet society experience.  In an open, creative and participatory space, the digital story enables digital identities, collective lifeworld exploration, distributed intelligence and cognition.  The digital story thus provides a new space for communication, interaction and collective wisdom based on new art forms and the remediation of both oral storytelling traditions and print-based productions, enabling the interaction of audience and bard as well as collective production, identity and experience.



Alexander, B., & Levine, A. (2008). Web 2.0 Storytelling: Emerging of a New Genre.                  Educause Review, 43(6), 40-56.

Burgess, J. (2006). Hearing Ordinary Voices: Cultural Studies, Vernacular Creativity and        Digital Storytelling. Continuum: Journal Of Media & Cultural Studies, 20(2), 201-214.       doi:10.1080/10304310600641737

Castells, M. (2004). Informationalism, Networks, And The Network Society: A Theoretical      Blueprint. In Castells, M. (Ed.), The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.          Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Olds, J. (2011). Digital Dystopia. American Scientist, 99(4), 344-345.

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London:                       Methuen.

Perry, M. (2003). Distributed Cognition. In J.M. Carroll (Ed.) HCI Models, Theories, and           Frameworks: Toward an Interdisciplinary Science. Morgan Kaufmann. pp. 193-223.

Petrina, S., Feng, F., & Juyun, K. (2008). Researching cognition and technology: how we             learn across the lifespan. International Journal Of Technology & Design Education,             18(4), 375-396. doi:10.1007/s10798-007-9033-5

Valtysson, B. (2010). Access culture: Web 2.0 and cultural participation. International              Journal Of Cultural Policy, 16(2), 200-214. doi:10.1080/10286630902902954

Vasudevan, L., Schultz, K., & Bateman, J. (2010). Rethinking Composing in a Digital Age:           Authoring Literate Identities Through Multimodal Storytelling. Written                                   Communication, 27(4), 442-468. doi:10.1177/0741088310378217


by Kenneth Buis

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