The history of digital storytelling

Digital storytelling is a fascinating field that combines the art of telling stories with digital media. It’s a form of digital media production that allows people to share their stories online using various forms of media such as text, images, video, and audio. The concept has been around since the late 20th century, evolving with the advent of more accessible computers and the internet.

The early days of digital storytelling were marked by high ambition but limited technology. The late 1990s saw the rise of the internet and the dotcom boom, which brought about predictions of the death of print and the rise of web-based content. However, the digital content of that era was often just a vanilla copy of print media, lacking in visual appeal and slow to load due to the limitations of dial-up internet and simple browsers

During the late 1990s, while the internet was still in its infancy, the technological limitations greatly impacted the nature of digital content. Dial-up connections were the norm, leading to slow loading times and limited bandwidth for multimedia content. As a result, most digital content was text-based, consisting of static web pages with minimal graphics or multimedia elements. Websites were primarily informational in nature, lacking the interactive and visually rich experiences that would become commonplace in later years. Despite the limitations, early adopters recognized the potential of the internet as a platform for sharing information and engaging with audiences on a global scale.

As technology improved, so did the quality and quantity of digital content. The rise of Google and social media platforms like Facebook allowed for a massive increase in content distribution. This era saw the development of content optimized for search engines, which could be easily found and consumed by readers. In the early 2010s, there was a growing emphasis on creating immersive and visually engaging digital content. One notable example of this trend was the New York Times’ multimedia feature “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” published in December 2012. This groundbreaking piece combined text, photos, videos, interactive maps, and animations to tell the harrowing story of a deadly avalanche in Washington State. “Snow Fall” received widespread acclaim for its innovative storytelling approach and stunning visuals, setting a new standard for digital journalism. However, producing such immersive content was costly and resource-intensive, requiring a team of journalists, designers, and developers to collaborate on its creation. While “Snow Fall” demonstrated the potential of immersive storytelling, it also highlighted the challenges and limitations of producing high-quality multimedia content at scale.

In the mid-2010s, a new generation of digital storytelling platforms emerged, offering intuitive tools and templates that simplified the creation of immersive multimedia content. These platforms, such as Shorthand, Atavist, and Medium, empowered content teams to produce visually compelling stories without the need for extensive coding or design skills. By providing pre-designed layouts, multimedia widgets, and easy-to-use editing interfaces, these platforms democratized digital storytelling and lowered the barrier to entry for publishers and creators. As a result, journalists, bloggers, and organizations of all sizes were able to leverage these tools to tell stories in more engaging and interactive ways. The rise of digital storytelling platforms marked a significant shift in the landscape of online content creation, enabling a broader range of voices and perspectives to be heard in the digital realm.

Digital storytelling today is much more sophisticated, with platforms and tools that allow for the creation of visually stunning and interactive stories. It’s used in various settings, from education and museums to social work and community projects, often having educational, democratizing, and therapeutic effects.

The evolution of digital storytelling reflects the broader technological advancements and cultural shifts in how we create and consume content. It’s a testament to the human desire to tell stories and the endless possibilities that digital media offers to bring those stories to life.

The power of Digital storytelling into creation of digital social innovation

Digital storytelling has emerged as a transformative medium in the realm of social innovation, harnessing the power of narrative to foster engagement and drive change. It gives the power to technology to engage with the audiences, inspire action, and drive change. The power of storytelling extends far beyond entertainment or mere communication. It has become a driving force behind digital social innovation – the use of digital technologies to tackle social and environmental problems, foster inclusivity, and promote sustainable development.
In the context of digital social innovation, storytelling transcends mere entertainment; it becomes a strategic tool to highlight issues, share experiences, and mobilize communities. By integrating multimedia elements, digital stories can evoke emotions, illustrate data, and present real-world scenarios that underline the urgency of social causes.
Research suggests that digital storytelling can significantly enhance teaching and learning outcomes, making it a meaningful approach for creating constructivist learning environments based on novel principles of teaching and learning. Moreover, it has been used to create more engaging digital content for social media campaigns, establishing stronger relationships with consumers and publics

Here’s how digital storytelling can be influential into creating a digital social innovation:

  • Educates and Inspires:

Digital storytelling serves as a powerful educational tool by presenting complex social issues in a relatable and accessible format. For example, organizations like Amnesty International utilize digital storytelling to raise awareness about human rights violations through interactive narratives and multimedia content.
Inspirational stories of individuals or communities overcoming adversity can motivate others to get involved in social causes. For an instance, platforms like TED Talks feature digital stories that inspire action and highlight innovative solutions to global challenges, sparking a ripple effect of positive change. Another instance is the United Nations’ use of virtual reality films to simulate life in refugee camps fosters empathy and understanding, leading to increased support for humanitarian efforts. Inspirational digital stories often serve as catalysts for innovation and creativity. By sharing the journeys of successful entrepreneurs and change-makers, platforms like “Startup Stories” not only educate but also inspire viewers to pursue their own ventures and contribute to societal progress.

  • Enhances Reach and Resources:

Digital storytelling can transform local issues into global movements amplifying the reach of social initiatives by empowering the viral nature of digital media. The “Ice Bucket Challenge,” for example, started as a small campaign and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, significantly boosting awareness and funding for ALS research through its viral nature. By utilizing user-generated content, initiatives like “Project Everyone” aim to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by encouraging people from all walks of life to share their stories, thereby democratizing the narrative and pooling a wealth of resources for social betterment. Another examples for reaching wide audiences are crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe and Kickstarter that are enabling individuals and organizations to share compelling stories and raise funds for social projects, reaching donors from around the world. The collaborative storytelling initiatives, such as Humans of New York, harness the power of social networks to crowdsource stories from diverse communities, increasing visibility and support for marginalized voices and social causes.

  • Drives Engagement:

Interactive storytelling experiences, such as immersive documentaries and interactive web series, captivate audiences and encourage active engagement. Projects like “Hollow,” a web-based documentary exploring rural communities in America, use interactive storytelling techniques to immerse viewers in the narrative and prompt them to reflect on social issues.
Social media campaigns that empower storytelling, such as hashtag movements like #BlackLivesMatter that harness the collective power of storytelling to mobilize mass participation and advocacy, sparking conversations and driving systemic change and #MeToo that demonstrates the power of digital storytelling to unite individuals across the globe, creating a shared space for dialogue and support. This collective storytelling approach has the potential to shift cultural norms and influence policy at the highest levels.
Gamification is worth mentioning when it comes to digital storytelling. The gamifying elements in the app “Zombies, Run!”, create an interactive and engaging way to promote social causes like health and fitness, turning mundane activities into exciting adventures with a narrative drive.
Digital storytelling is indeed a versatile and impactful tool that can educate, inspire, and mobilize people to drive meaningful change in society. By expanding narratives and integrating various digital elements, these stories can resonate more deeply and lead to tangible outcomes.

  • Reflects Diversity:

Digital storytelling platforms provide a space for diverse voices and perspectives to be heard and celebrated.  They are a testament to the pluralistic nature of our world, where each narrative thread weaves into the larger tapestry of collective memory. Initiatives like StoryCorps, which collects and shares personal stories from individuals of all backgrounds, promote empathy and understanding by highlighting the richness and diversity of human experiences. These platforms are not just repositories of narratives; they are active participants in fostering empathy and understanding across the spectrum of human experiences.
Similarly, projects like the Indigenous Digital Archive are instrumental in the reclamation and dissemination of Indigenous narratives. By digitizing cultural heritage, these platforms ensure that the stories, histories, and traditions of Indigenous communities are not relegated to the annals of obscurity but are instead celebrated and integrated into the global narrative, thus contributing to cultural preservation and revitalization.

  • Facilitates Connection:

Digital storytelling fosters connections and empathy by enabling individuals to see themselves reflected in the stories of others. For example, online support communities like The Mighty provide a platform for individuals facing health challenges to share their stories, connect with others facing similar struggles, and find support and solidarity. Here, stories are not just shared; they are the threads that bind the community, offering solace, support, and a sense of solidarity to those who find their reflections in the experiences of others.
Virtual reality takes this a step further by dissolving the barriers between the observer and the observed. Experiences like the United Nations’ VR documentary series “Clouds Over Sidra” are more than just visual spectacles; they are immersive journeys that place the viewer in the heart of humanitarian crises, fostering a profound sense of presence, empathy, and a call to action.

  • Promotes Active Participation:

The landscape of digital storytelling is one of dynamic interaction and co-creation. Participatory storytelling initiatives, such as community storytelling workshops and digital storytelling competitions, empower individuals to become active participants in the creation and dissemination of narratives that reflect their experiences and aspirations. Workshops and competitions in community storytelling are crucibles of creativity, empowering people to articulate and share narratives that resonate with their personal journeys and aspirations.
Crowdsourced storytelling endeavors, like the Global Storytelling Project, harness the collective power of narratives. By inviting contributions from a global audience, these projects amplify a chorus of voices, each adding their unique pitch to the symphony of shared human experience. This collective endeavor not only celebrates diversity but also acts as a catalyst for social change, knitting together individual stories into a narrative that has the power to move mountains.

By influencing the unique capabilities of digital storytelling, organizations and individuals can create impactful social innovations that educate, inspire, engage, connect, and empower communities to address pressing social challenges and drive positive change.

Digital storytelling is increasingly recognized as a powerful tool for social impact. It empowers the availability of digital cameras, social networks, and other technologies, enabling anyone to share stories that can educate, inspire, and drive change. The strategic use of narrative and networks can significantly enhance an organization’s reach and influence, helping to engage audiences in meaningful ways. However, the challenge lies in cutting through the noise of the digital landscape to capture attention and motivate action. Effective digital storytelling requires clear goals, understanding of the audience, and measurable objectives. It also demands skilled storytellers who can craft compelling content that resonates emotionally and spurs people to become active agents of change.

Reference links:

The History of Digital Storytelling: Evolution and Impact | Constant Contact
A short history of digital storytelling (
Digital Storytelling for Social Impact (
Digital Storytelling for Social Impact (
(PDF) Investigating digital storytelling for the creation of positively engaging digital content (

Author: Martina Durljanova

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