The Roots of Digital Storytelling

Digital storytelling is a hot term, used so frequently in the media, over social networking, and even in the classroom nowadays. However, even 10 years ago, digital storytelling was not a term many were familiar with. 

My personal introduction to the notion of Digital Storytelling occurred in the early summer of 2005. With a dandy Suma Cum Laude BA in Cinema from the San Francisco State University, but no green card at hand (i.e. bye, bye paid position), I was desperate to find an internship that would further my knowledge of filmmaking. Luckily, my knowledge of digital editing in Final Cut Pro got me an intern position with the Center for Digital Storytelling, in Berkeley California. 

The name of the organization made some sense to me at the time. Logically, I could grasp the meaning of the words Digital and Storytelling, but logistically I didn’t really get what it meant. Little I knew that the technique of digital storytelling will influence the way I made my own film from then on. 

The Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) is a non-profit organization, established by Joe Lambert, and the late, Dana Atchley, in 1994 (Lambert, p. 10). the CDS offers workshops locally, nationally, and internationally; teaching people of all walks of life how to produce meaningful and professionally-put 3-5 minute digital stories, created over  a period of 3-5 days (Lambert, p 39). The motivation behind the work of both Atchley and Lambert, is the notion that everyone has a story to tell. Fundamentally, this type of storytelling evolves from cultural activism of 1960s (Lambert, P. 2). While the experience of storytelling is not only validating, authenticating, and profound, but also absolutely integral for healthy leaving. “We can live better as celebrated contributors,” says Lambert. “And we can easily die from our perceived lack of significance to others, to our community, and our society.” (p. 3)

The ability to produce stories by each and everyone of us results from the technological revolution we’ve been experiencing since the early 1990s, to which Lambert refers as “Digital Tsunami of 1992.” (p. 8) This was an exiting time of initial collaboration between visual artists and computer engineers, discovering the frontiers of multimedia. Certainly, the rapid technological developments of the past two and half decades gave us a multitude of digital tools to produce short stories that we can write, develop, digitize, edit, and distribute — without going a step away from our personal computers. Furthermore, the vast benefits of digital storytelling are valued and eagerly promoted within educational circles. For example, today’s educators can create digital stories supporting the material taught in the classroom, and expose their students to creating such media, by using internet-based, free tools, like Zimmer Twins

Nonetheless, digital storytelling holds even bigger potential for personal transformation. It is not only the relative ease with which a digital story is manufactured that is enticing to folks. According to Lambert, “a tremendous play space” is made by fusing digital photography with non-linear. It not only “enlivens” people’s relationship to objects, but even transcends their experience. (Lambert, p. 9). 

I can attest to this statement personally. As part of my internship with the CDS I was lucky to participate in all aspects of their work, including joining on and supporting ongoing workshops. Indeed, the stories produced in only  3-5 days — often by folks who have no previous knowledge of digital editing — were astonishingly professional, and incredibly profound. 

Here’s moving and very early example, by Monte Hallis from 1993, produced in a digital storytelling workshop.  

In fact, CDS’ approach to, and their socio-political view of storytelling has majorly influenced the way I use digital media and make films. 

Other incredible films produced by CDS workshop participants can be viewed on their YouTube channel



Lambert, J. (2009). A Road Traveled. Digital storytelling: capturing lives, creating community (3rd ed., ). New York: Routledge.

Lambert, J. (2009). Seven Steps of Digital Storytelling. Digital storytelling: capturing lives, creating community (3rd ed., ). New York:      




3 thoughts on “The Roots of Digital Storytelling

  1. Interesting post. I honestly cannot remember the first time I heard the “digital storytelling.” But I do think its use has picked up over the last three to four years. I remember back in 2008 or 2009, the big trend and hot term in journalism was, “hyperlocal,” meaning news that’s specifically catered to a distinct/focused population (i.e. a community, county, town or city). In fact, a lot of media was shifting that way for a while. Remember when The Onion’s AV Club specific sites for different cities? Unfortunately, I think many later discovered that while people like niche and local-ized news coverage, it’s difficult to increase your income in that small of a market. Here’s hoping digital storytelling has some staying power and isn’t just a here-for-now trend like hyperlocality.


  2. I agree with the precedent post. Thank for offering such a personal and interesting perspective about a term we frequently use without reflecting about its roots. I personally do not remember the first time I heard it and I connect it with my experience in this Master program, but wow your internship experience must have been something really special in your educational path.


  3. Nadia, this was a very movie piece. Two parts. You cited: “We can live better as celebrated contributors,” says Lambert. “And we can easily die from our perceived lack of significance to others, to our community, and our society.” — I have never heard an insight like this said so beautifully outright like that. If there is such a thing as the artist’s soul this sentiment is at the heart of it. The true storyteller, or actor, or director or whatever is an artist at heart. The artist at heart loves his art unselfishly (adapted from Constantin Stanislavski) and the only enemy is fear to find your voice to pursue true expression of yourself.

    Second, simple digital story at the end was wickedly profound. This further confirms for me that good story trumps bells and whistles any day. Thank you for sharing Nadia.


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