I came into this game of higher education at a chaotic intellectual moment: postmodernity. Accordingly, I struggle with claims of universality, and this persists as we begin to explore storytelling and digital storytelling.
We are all familiar with the short story, “You make me so angry.” If we take the authors of the Crucial Conversations curriculum seriously, we learn that mastering our stories is a fundamental key to improving our communications (and our internal life) (Patterson, K. Grenny, J., McMillan, R., Switzler, A., 2011, p. 103). Their schema moves from perceptions, for example, “see and hear” to “tell a story” which causes emotions and, in turn, inspires us to “act.” The trainers at Crucial Conversations teach various techniques to slow down, in order to become self-critical and provisional in our storytelling. Obviously, there is a tension between our common-sense meanings of our short stories and this second version. Jacques Derrida’s observations and methods, summarized as “deconstruction,” offer us a tool to explore this tension.
Deconstruction generally tries to demonstrate that any text is not a discrete whole but contains several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings; that any text, therefore has more than one interpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably; that the incompatibility of these interpretations is irreducible; and thus that an interpretive reading cannot go beyond a certain point. (Wikipedia, Deconstruction retrieved 1/26/2017)
So, if we take clues from Derrida and the Crucial Conversations curriculum we might interpret the short story in this way — “When you speak in that tone, in this context, I tell myself a story about being patronized and denigrated. In turn, I feel angry about that (though I might as well feel sad, or insulted) and in the end, I may lash out, or I may go to silence.” The voice we hear is the storyteller. What is missing here is the listener/reader/interpreter. Sometimes we tell stories solely for our own consumption but, if we analyze our internal dialog, there is very much a persona we create to tell the story to – a version of ourselves, our boss, or a spouse, for examples. Deconstruction shows us that a listener is an aspect of “irreconcilable and contradictory meanings.” That is, we cannot talk about storytelling without talking about interpretation. Returning to our short story, there are several key ambiguities here: the story, the emotion it elicits, and the consequent actions. We can problematize this further by scrutinizing our data itself; if it is composed, at least in part, of interpretations then every aspect of our storytelling/interpretation is ambiguous. So then, if the storytelling side is particular, situated, and relative, is it meaningful to speak of the interpretation side as exempt from this variability and particularity since teller/listener are bound together?
Yet while I love these philosophical musings, an equal part of my participation in this game of higher education derives from business school. Therefore, I am pragmatically intrigued by the claim,“To achieve success on YouTube you have to have a niche” (Edwards, 2014). Perhaps this is further evidence that universal claims about storytelling are problematic, but it is also an eminently useful observation.
Bryan Alexander offers a working definition: “Simply put, it is telling stories with digital technologies. Digital stories are narratives built from the stuff of cyberculture” (Alexander, 2010, Loc 110 of 3318).
So if our topic is actually particular and situated, then it seems wise to develop an aesthetic equally particular and situated. Again, “To achieve success on YouTube you have to have a niche” (Edwards, 2014). Alas, my tolerance for fiction has waned over the years, likewise, in part, as a function of the workplace grind. Rather my aesthetic cuts in a different direction:
Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word “gonzo” is believed to have been first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. It is an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of social critique and self-satire. It has since been applied to other subjective artistic endeavors. (Wikipedia, Gonzo Journalism retrieved 1/21/2017)
And, second, Yvon Chouinard says in the movie 180° South, “The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts” (Copeland, 2010). Entailed in both of these is a lived experience, lived in the “real” world. Once we attach the “digital” to our storytelling, we add complexity and nuance to this lived experience that will need to be explored. I found interesting connections between what I was sketching and this video definition of digital storytelling (Iwancio, 2010).
- Point of view
- Dramatic Question
- Emotional Content
I savor and favor the first person/subjective voice. It is most appropriate for these fraught (certainly sometimes contrived and antagonized) experiences. In addition, the fictive quality of memoir, changing names, or locations, or dates to protect the guilty adds complexity requiring additional development. “Self-aware” this is taking the first person perspective one step further and having that voice reflect on learning, emotions, and the physicality of the experience. Clearly, this is about the point of view and in this case, we hear a subjective first-person accounting hence we can combine this with voice as well.
The urgency and the on-edgy quality of both quotes are important as well. Failure, injury, and death are real possible consequences. Unlike most computer games, where we respawn at a save point, rather this lifestyle/storytelling is pushing the boundaries of our lived experiences, our skills, our preparation, and our knowledge. I would argue that dramatic question, emotional content, and pacing could all be folded together in this element.
Lastly is the social criticism implicit or explicit in these lives/stories. Going to where the risks are takes us beyond the normal. Indeed for many of us living vicariously through those tolerant of risk is part of what fuels the lives/stories. This is actually quite a complicated figure because storytellers need an audience to consume their telling and, as we will see, these consumers underwrite the risks. So social criticism and social norms are complicit in ways requiring further development.
This leaves soundtrack and economy still unaccounted for…. Except, readers of Hunter S. Thompson will remember popular music references to the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane in his writing. “Economy” is a delightful ambiguous figure; we may be speaking of efficient prose or precise illustration, or we may be thinking about the transactions between characters, or writer/reader, or the money-making potential of the story and storytelling itself. Certainly, all these elements are present in gonzo journalism.
Length, Iwanicio’s video offers us a simple formula, and immediately, we hear Tara Hunt speak to a much more complex notion for deciding narrative length based on optimization accounting for YouTube algorithms (2016).
These definitions and this critical theory, alas, are formulated in the abstract. I believe it will make better sense to explore them based on a case study of a particular digital storyteller.
Jon B., at Fishing the Midwest is in his early 20’s. He recently dropped out of college in order to work full-time on his YouTube content. He has been creating YouTube content since 2009; he was 12-13 years old at that time. He participates in several additional social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. Jon B. is attentive to the details of his camera, audio work, and editing and he seems as passionate about them as his fishing. Recently Jon B. has traveled, fished, and created content with a cohort of YouTube channel hosts. These people might be seen as competitors; however, they are working as collaborators driving traffic to each others’ sites and appearing in each others’ videos.
Jon B. has created a recognizable personal brand, defined a business model, and is executing on his plans.
So returning to my critical theory, the first element is first person/subjective point of view. This is seen clearly in his “vlogging” content. “Vlogging” is a “journalistic documentation of a person’s life, thoughts, opinions, and interests” (ZMD, 2005). It is more complicated because of Jon’s use of multiple cameras, as in this video we see both chest-worn GoPro’s and deck-mounted monopod DSLR or mirrorless cameras. In this particular video, we see Jon B. fishing with friends and we might lose track of the first person narrative, nonetheless, this is his story of that event. In his solo trips, the vocal quality is clearly a first person and subjective point of view.
In this video, the friends have set a fishing challenge for themselves. It is not enough that Jon B. is hundreds of miles from his home near Chicago visiting Texas, during the winter, using borrowed boats on an unfamiliar water. This theatricality speaks to creating urgency, dramatic questions, emotional content, and pacing, all of which aids in having a story, an adventure, from what might otherwise simply be a relaxing fishing trip. This emphasizes both the lived experiences and the gonzo journalistic technique of pouring gasoline on the fire – everything for the sake of a story.
I see a couple places where Jon B. celebrates and advocates for “real” experience. Certainly, his love of fishing and fishing where he is presently, informs all of his video creation. He surrounds himself with friends and fans who love fishing. Yet that is only part of what is required by being a content creator. Jon B. has to film his activities and he, in turn, spends hours editing his videos. Solo camera work, self-filming, requires a split consciousness, as he must engage simultaneously with fishing and with video creation. We know that good framing and camera work can save hours of editing. Jon B. also puts the time into editing on his laptop, at home, or on the road and hence can be said to be sequestered in the virtual world as much as the real. This in part because he has to think like his consumer, in order to produce a product they want, and for many of them the ratio is inverse virtual to real world. We know Jon B. values the real world because of the message from one of his sponsors, Mystery Tackle Box (an interesting consistency between espoused value and paid sponsorship).
In several of his videos, Jon B. talks about his decision to drop out of college. In this one, he comes at it from the direction of quitting fishing and quitting video making, or the price tag that college required him to pay, beyond tuition (view from 7:30).
For me, this links back to the real sense of urgency in his life and his business enterprise. In addition, that connects with the critical theory as well. It also demonstrates the kind of social criticism that Jon B. is engaged in. I suspect that this cohort is speaking together in its’ criticism of schooling, and the “normal” career path. Yet, thinking back to deconstruction, we also see Jon B. clearly seeking corporate sponsorship as one of his revenue streams. Some of these vlogs narrate his attendance at industry trade shows and, while he offers no details, he mentions business meetings as an aspect of those trips. Therefore, this form of social criticism is complicated. Likewise in some videos, we hear Jon B. say or do things unreflective of his middle-class privilege. At other times, he is deeply cognizant of the opportunity and luxury he has in creating this media. Some of this we can attribute to his youth but some of it has to do with the straight up complexity of combining, art, self, and economics and doing it as a performance piece nearly real-time, for a subscriber base of four-hundred-thousand YouTube viewers.
Jon B. is serious about his art; his video editing, camera work, storytelling and selection of soundtrack are all intentional. He is certainly bridging a very interesting divide. He is engaged really in fishing and virtually as a social media marketer and content creator. His circle of friends likewise blur the real/virtual divide and so, yes, in response to Alexander’s definition of digital storytelling this is built, in part, from cyberculture and yet that is not enough either.
Broadening the Application
I believe this case study develops my aesthetic/critical theory and demonstrates its coherence. I likewise believe this theory can be used to examine other niche content creators on YouTube, for example, Adventure Adrift and the Ginger Runner:
These stories are built from both real culture and cyberculture. These creators are certainly engaged in digital storytelling, and yet our definitions struggle to keep up with their innovation.
Circling back to the tension between economics and social criticism in the persona that Adventure Adrift has constructed, their social criticism is more explicit. Their tiny house allows them to travel the oceans and one of their aims is to do good in communities as they travel. Their monetized web presence facilitates their doing well as they do good. I might suggest that Ethan Newberry is most at peace with being an entrepreneur. If his passion for ultra-running has a social criticism it is more subtle, and he knows better than to alienate potential customers with proselytizing. Nonetheless, he is advocating for a more active and healthy lifestyle. As mentioned above, Jon B.’s social criticism is youthful and not fully developed but intensely relevant to higher education.
Circling back to the ambiguity of lived adventures turned to content for consumption of YouTube viewers, it really remains to be seen how impactful this genre is in fostering lifestyle change and increasing risk-taking. I take the Sailing Nervous channel to be one of these fast followers in the live-aboard community. Brendan’s Fabulous World of Fishing is likewise a channel on the rise in the fishing community. At what point will imitation breakdown and the market saturate? However, in truth and speaking from personal experience in the last year, I have taken several big risks in part emboldened by this genre. I too experimented briefly with video making. It, however, is not my passion and struggling with cameras while engaged in an adventure dilutes my fun. Therefore, it will be hard to know the impact of this genre simply because not everyone will become a content creator – even as s/he changes his or her life.
However, I think my theory begins to break down with other kinds of niche content creators. So for example, those that engage in purely cyberculture content creation, such as computer game playthroughs, or those engaged in MMORPG streaming pull on my valuing of real-life activities in a troubling way. Though I am not deeply bothered with that since my opening argument indicated my abiding suspicion of universal definition and theory. The Gamer niche needs a niche aesthetic/theory just like these genres I explore here need a niche theory.
Jon B. left college because it required him to give up his passion and it prevented him from developing his entrepreneurship. To my mind, that is a harsh criticism that higher education needs to take seriously. We need to find a way to stop being an impediment and instead begin to facilitate these young people’s successes. Finally, I believe, as an aspiring Instructional Designer, that this aesthetic/theory allows me room to work with both teachers and learners in developing skills that are relevant to young people and yet allows them to display sustained intellectual engagement and learning. My aesthetic/theory allows me to engage with a teacher familiar with grading an essay but who is out of depth in grading a series of videos, for example. Likewise, by emphasizing a kind of digital storytelling that blurs the boundaries between real and cyberculture, and real and virtual activities, I am treading in an environment that requires a couple different learning curves. Observing how the participant/learner navigates those offers interesting moments and intersections to assess learning. Interestingly, participation in this genre runs the gamut of demographics from Millennial to Boomer and so we see, in a snapshot, a cross-section of lifelong learning perhaps previously impossible to compile so simultaneously. I think my aesthetic is limited, as it is not applicable to all digital storytelling; however, I do believe it crosses niches as well hence expanding its usefulness and credibility.
Alexander, B. (2011). The new digital storytelling: Creating narratives with new media. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger.
Copeland, L. (Producer), & Mallory, C. (Director). (2010). 180° South [Motion picture]. USA: Magnolia Pictures.
Deconstruction. (2017, Jan. 26). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction
Edwards, J. (2014, Dec. 31) How to become a YouTube entrepreneur. Retrieved January 26, 2017
Gonzo Journalism. (2017, Jan. 21). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gonzo_journalism
Patterson, K. Grenny, J., McMillan, R., Switzler, A., (2011). Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, (2nd edition). McGraw-Hill Education.
ZMD, (2005, January 6). Vlogging. In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved September 29, 2016, http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=vlog