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SXSW 2007: Digital Storytelling Phenomenon


Since the beginning of time, storytelling was considered a core human trait for conveying events by combining gestures, expressions, sounds, images and words. Sharing stories was an essential part of culture and a means of instilling tribal knowledge.

In fact, prehistoric cave drawings demonstrate the early use of symbolic figures representing the elements of simple storylines. As language skills evolved, oral stories were passed from generation to generation primarily by human memory. Later, with the development of writing, stories were recorded, then transcribed and shared more broadly.

In the classical cultures of the world, the act of storytelling was believed to be inclusive -- everyone has stories to tell. Moreover, while some people were recognized for telling stories in a more engaging way than their peer group, the basic ability is innate to all humans.

However, as civilizations progressed, communication of a narrative evolved into an art and science. Chronicled events became the realm of the professional storyteller. People engaged in all forms of skilled storytelling were referred to as creatives. The rest of the citizenry were labeled mere amateurs.

Teaching the unCreative Class

Who bestows this elite creative status on an individual? Typically, it starts with a teacher in the later grades of formal schooling, through a process of elimination. Impressionable young minds eventually learn -- via the threat of ridicule and rejection -- that they shouldn't attempt to draw, paint, sing, dance, and eventually even write creatively.

That said, what I observed at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas last week indicates that a growing body of people have been released from their self-confinement and are now actively participating in a communal revolt of expressive defiance.

Independent bloggers dare to write narrative, un-schooled videographers boldly capture and arrange imagery, and others are using their imagination to mash-up musical content in willful abandon. All acts of self-publication, performed without permission or approval.


Revolt of the unCreatives

Is this the work of radical heretics or anarchists? No, it's the empowered common people, for want of a better expression, choosing not to conform to an established attitude or doctrine that they believe has proven to be obsolete in the 21st Century.

This phenomenon is called unprofessional by the big media establishment, as they discount the unwelcome surge of independent creative inspiration. Such views may reflect insecurity, prompted by the old-guard's notion that all worthwhile content development must be laborious and ultimately very expensive to produce.

Good-Enough Multimedia Quality

Regardless, unique content has now superseded complex production values, as evidenced by the rise of demand for topical video delivered over broadband services. Traditional media professionals may have placed too much emphasis on achieving broadcast-grade quality. In contrast, media consumers appear to value compelling and engaging storylines over production polish.

Numerous video portals are providing exposure for the otherwise obscure Indie short film and documentary creator. This seeding activity clearly infuriates legacy big media executives who resent the loss of mindshare from their once captive audience. Video delivered over the open and unfiltered public Internet has become a disruptive force on the content distribution value-chain.

Today's consumer behavior is clearly divergent in nature, creating the potential for even more micro markets. As an example, a third of frequent visitors to the YouTube video-sharing site say they watch less TV as a result of their online video habit, according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive.

The more SXSW Interactive and Film panels that I attended, the more I realized that terms like "user generated content" are irrelevant, because the most significant defining factor for these projects is a low-budget -- in contrast to the high-budgets of large established companies.

The Telling of unTold Stories

So, what's the overriding take-away for those seeking a business opportunity at this key inflection point? First, I'd ignore the amateur rhetoric, and the equally misguided user generated mantra. Then, I'd think less about sizing an intended audience, and more about all the untold stories that would greatly benefit from a digital media format.

The democratization of media creation and distribution will continue to be enabled by more people-friendly multimedia composition and authoring tools and the Web will further level the playing field for all dormant low-budget content co-creators, co-arrangers and co-marketers. Storytelling has become inclusive, once again.

In support of the "Digital Freedom" campaign, I mashed-up a video entitled "Independent Creative Commons." Protect your digital rights, using a Creative Commons license that encourages open innovation.

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