The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media by Bryan Alexander

Nick van Orden

Alexander, Bryan. The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011. 275 pp.


Bryan Alexander’s excellent book, The New Digital Storytelling, examines the way that stories have been told in digital media — from early versions of the Web through social media and into the developing mobile Web. The New Digital Storytelling largely consists of discussions about effective digital storytelling platforms, but a foundational question about the nature of stories and their telling lies at the centre of the book: what is a story? In its attempt to answer this question, Alexander’s text presents a compelling argument for expanded definitions of storytelling that take into account social media, blogs, wikis, computer games and other forms of new media. The New Digital Storytelling is an important book because it raises questions about “story” with respect to digital texts, and reveals the literary potential of digital storytelling, without resorting to the revolutionary claims often made by new media theorists. While other critics have drawn links between television or cinema and digital technologies, Alexander establishes strong connections between traditional literary criticism and digital storytelling. These connections are compelling not only because they suggests that traditional literary scholars are well positioned to analyse digital storytelling, but also because they suggest ways that literary studies might evolve as a discipline.


In his introduction, Alexander notes that “The New Digital Storytelling is aimed at creators and would-be practitioners, first of all — people who want to tell stories with digital technologies for the first time” (xii). The book is neither a technical manual for digital media nor “a literary-theory-level study of digital storytelling” (xiii), but “straddles the awkward yet practical divide between production and consumption, critique and project creation” (xiv). Despite this caveat, my biggest complaint concerns the book’s limited theoretical engagement. The important questions that seem to motivate Alexander become buried in a catalogue of digital storytelling websites, apps, games and devices. The book’s lack of a clear definition of “story” accentuates this problem.


Alexander provides a brief overview of historical definitions of storytelling in Chapter One. His summary refers to Plato’s mimesis, Freytag’s pyramid and Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey in less than fifteen pages. This chapter provides a modicum of context for the rest of the book but is too short and scattered to describe effectively the enormous body of intellectual labour devoted to defining stories. Alexander synthesizes several of his own ideas about stories into one defining statement: “For a given audience, a story is a sequence of content, anchored on a problem, which engages that audience with emotion and meaning.” While this is an effective working definition, he immediately qualifies it by noting that “what makes a story for one group might fail utterly for another” (13). The book proceeds without a clear sense of which definition Alexander supports or what the word “story” means for him. He might have emphasized the importance of this uncertainty and noted that the difficulty in defining what stories are is perhaps more instructive than any single definition. He might also have incorporated his discussion of definitions into the remainder of the text by explicitly using his numerous examples of digital storytelling to critique traditional definitions or develop a more comprehensive definition. Important questions about the ways that terms such as narrative, literature and fiction interplay with definitions of story also remain unanswered. Furthermore, Alexander might have identified the distinction that narratologists make between plot and story, but this discussion is absent from The New Digital Storytelling. These gaps are particularly disappointing because Alexander’s sophisticated analyses of digital storytelling media (which comprise the majority of the book) imply the urgency of theory-based investigations. Alexander anticipates this complaint in his introduction, noting that “[m]ore literary and theoretical studies of digital storytelling are certainly needed, bringing to bear the formidable hermeneutic tools of contemporary literary criticism” (xiii), but he might have taken up these hermeneutic tools more effectively throughout The New Digital Storytelling.


The great strengths of Alexander’s book lie in the connections it makes between literary analysis and digital storytelling. His study of various storytelling platforms emphasizes the literary force of digital storytelling while enthusiastically disrupting conventional categories of literary criticism, such as audience, author, character and narrative form. The development of online digital storytelling tools has meant that “a greater proportion and number of people than ever before now have access to storytelling media — for both story production and consumption, united by myriad networks of critique, support, examples, and experimentation” (14). This democratization of production has disrupted the traditional boundary between producers and consumers; for example, the people who upload, tag, comment on and remix videos online exist outside of the traditional artist/audience binary. As Alexander explains, “‘Audience’ no longer describes this complex mix of many watchers, a large number of arrangers and comments, uploaders and creators, with amateur and professional roles cutting across all strata” (84). The characters that Alexander identifies within digital storytelling also differ widely from the characters represented in traditional modes of storytelling (such as myths, novels, and drama). The curators of fictional blogs (She’s a Flight Risk) and nonfictional blogs (WW1: Experiences of an English Soldier) are some of the most prominent characters in digital storytelling: bloggers develop personas through their posts, “about” pages, blogrolls, embedded Twitter feeds and comments sections (58-59). Blog readers might develop a sense of the blogger’s personality by following links from the site or by digging deeper into the blog’s archives. Alexander also argues that computer games complicate the distinction between character and user (or reader) more effectively than traditional second-person stories. He explains that conflict between the players’ motives and the constraints of the game create a “gap between our desire and that of the character ... forming a sort of dialogue across psychological states” (100). This dual-consciousness is echoed by the game player’s experience of time during the game, wherein “you exist in dual-track time as well: that of what the game represents (night falling after a zombie attack) and that of real-world play (mouse clicking, pause button selected then released)” (101). Games also experiment with narrative forms—from controlled linear or chronological sequences to divergent timelines in which “the past is very present, filled in as play moves forward” (113). Through these and other examples, Alexander makes a convincing argument for the literary force of digital storytelling.


The New Digital Storytelling is rich with references to other texts and media, both print and digital. Clearly an avid gamer, Alexander also draws attention to important digital storytelling projects (such as the Centre for Digital Storytelling), popular alternate reality games (like “The Beast”), storytelling apps (“Frotz” and “StoryCorps”) and numerous storytelling blogs, websites, YouTube channels and social-media accounts. The New Digital Storytelling sits at the centre of Alexander’s personal network of digital storytelling. He maintains several blogs and an active Twitter feed (@BryanAlexander), where he continues his engagement with digital storytelling. His main blog ( further extends the book’s network by hosting videos of presentations related to all aspects of his work.

Alexander’s insights prompt many questions about the force of digital storytelling and its influence on artistic production and scholarship. By effectively connecting literary studies and digital storytelling, The New Digital Storytelling provides a model for literary scholars, especially those interested in the narrative output of digital technologies. While the media and devices that Alexander mentions will evolve into new forms, the central questions that he raises about stories and their telling will remain important as artists and scholars continue to explore the possibilities offered by digital storytelling.




Nick van Orden is a PhD student in the English and Film Studies program at the University of Alberta. His research interests include the collision of digital spaces and literary forms. His MA thesis, "The Cyber-Performative in Second Life" (UVic. 2010), focused on the performativity of human and machine-readable languages in the virtual world Second Life. Building on this work, his dissertation explores the interplay between fictional, digital, and real spaces, and the impact that this interplay has on reading practices and the production of literary texts. Nick is a research assistant with the Editing Modernism in Canada (EMiC) project at U of A.



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