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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Labun Jordan: Virtual Storytelling

This fall, I helped organize a contest called StoryhackVT. Participants had 24 hours to create a story using at least three different media – which could be text, photos, audio, games, animation – anything as long as there were three and they told one story. This simple set up produced a variety of creative responses. Added together, these responses all reflect a new way of thinking about websites.

We’ve gotten used websites as a convenient way to do a lot of things – like look up information or shop – but we aren’t as familiar with websites that exist to tell stories. And I mean storytelling, not finding a way to post a book online or stream a film. Digital storytelling is a new challenge. It reminds me of being a kid pre-Internet, imagining I could create stories where illustrations move around the page, characters speak their best lines and dramatic scenes get a musical score. In other words, stories where one medium blends into the other to create a whole new experience.

Today we have tools to act on that sort of daydreaming imagination that sets aside what is or isn’t feasible, which is great ... until I start worrying about, well, what is or isn’t feasible. I’m not exactly a computer whiz. I’m pretty pleased when I type a story then remember where I saved the file. And while I know there are easy starting points for digital stories – and even your standard blog can include photos or videos alongside the text – that isn’t exactly limitless potential. To get closer to limitless, I signed up for a computer programming class.

Learning the basics of websites offered more similarities to learning the basics of stories than I’d expected.

We began with the challenge of balancing what you want to tell people with how you want to say it. Okay, not exactly in those words, but we learned that there’s one language to structure a site’s meaning and another to describe appearance. And websites can play with these elements, presenting text as clear as an operating manual or heading off into stylistic abstraction a la Jackson Pollock.

We learned that you use the command for a line break in a website the way you would put a break in a line of poetry, while a paragraph break is for an independent element, more like a whole poem or at least a stanza.

We learned that the header command is for mapping out meaning like you would outline an essay.

To be sure, it wasn’t all English class revisited – there are logic sequences and file transfers and it’s not a short path to the website of your dreams. I can now post a picture and write an unordered list. These are modest achievements. But I’m still enthusiastic about seeing websites as creative tools in their own right. Some stories will best be told through digital media, and every day more people are learning the language to do just that.

Helen Labun has worked in Vermont nonprofits addressing issues in rural economic development. Today, she is Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network, connecting chefs to Vermont farmers in support of the local food economy.
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