THE ELEMENTS OF DIGITAL STORYTELLING
The digital frontier is a dynamic new space for storytelling but its potential has yet to be
realized. Exploration of this poorly charted territory is needed as there are now more questions
What is unique about the digital environment? How do users respond to it? How can its
potential be maximized? The Institute for New Media Studies and New Directions for News are
investigating these questions.
The Elements of Digital Storytelling site provides a:
• Taxonomy of digital storytelling.
• Analysis of current practices.
• Clearinghouse of effects research.
• Showcase of innovative story forms.
• Forum for discussion.
Interactive, multimedia, experiential—these terms are frequently used to describe digital
storytelling. These concepts, however, are too broad and open to interpretation. This site
attempts to clarify and explore these ideas.
Examination of thousands of digital stories revealed five elements present in each: media,
action, relationship, context, and communication. Click on the Elements to the right for a
graphic overview, description, and examples of each.
The Elements are intended to serve the three purposes indicated to the right. Roll over the
boxes for explanation. Additionally, the research and resources pages serve as a
clearinghouse for relevant materials.
Since the digital environment is evolving, the taxonomy is meant to be a starting point for
further discussion. We welcome your opinions and contributions.
1. Establish a Taxonomy:
The digital storytelling taxonomy has five parts:
1. Media usage;
2. Action built into the content or required by users;
3. Relationship potential between story and user;
4. Context provided by other materials; and
5. Communication potentials.
2. Analyze Current Practices:
Applying the Elements taxonomy to content analyses of digital stories provides
understanding of current practices. These content analyses will establish baseline
measurements of the usage of different Elements. With these baselines, changes in the
adoption of various digital storytelling features can be gauged.
3. Measure Effects:
There has been speculation about, but little measurement of, the effects various digital
story forms have on users. The taxonomy provides a framework for establishing a research
Look in the Research area for links to reports and studies focused on different aspects of
digital storytelling and their effects on audiences.
Media refers to the material(s) used to create the story package. Unique to the digital story
space is the ability to use any type and combination of media.
Configuration is the media layout used in the story package. There are three conditions:
Single medium: Only one medium is used to tell the story: usually text or video.
Single Medium Examples:
The Feedroom – www.feedroom.com - Video reports of news events
Pensacola News Journal - www.pensacolanewsjournal.com/news/091602/Local/ST001.shtml
- Example of a typical text-only news story.
Multiple media: Two or more types of media used, but as separate components of the story
package; they are not interwoven.
Multiple Media Examples:
BMW - www.bmw.com/bmwe/products/automobiles/7er/sedan/index.html
There is a slide show and a sidebar of text. (Opening slide has dynamic text integrated into the
Christian Science Monitor – Shakespeare Behind Bars -
www.csmonitor.com/specials/shakespeare/index.html A rich package of video, slide shows,
and text stories.
Multimedia: Two or more media types woven together into a seamless presentation.
journalE – journale.com/stories/brainnetwork/index.html - These stories on brain tumor victims
combine slide show and text with an audio overlay.
The Crystal Method – www.designmethod.com/TCM/ - Blend of animation, music, and text.
Type is the media formats used to tell the story: text, audio, graphic, motion graphic, animation,
photo, 3D photo, panoramic / 360 degree photo, video, 3D video, panoramic / 360 degree video.
Recorded content is delayed from the time it was captured; it is asynchronous.
Live content is delivered without delay; it is synchronous.
The Guardian - www.guardian.co.uk/audio/ - There are numerous audio reports.
Minnesota Public Radio - www.mpr.org – There are both live streams and recorded programs.
Time/space addresses the degree to which the story’s content has been revised or adapted
Edited content has been processed in some manner by the content developer.
Real-time content is shown in its entirety; it has not been excerpted or reorganized.
Minneapolis Star Tribune - www.startribune.com/stories/1557/3241209.html - This is an edited
version of the show.
Hardball with Chris Matthews - www.msnbc.com/news/810096.asp - This is the “real-time”
transcript of the show from Sept. 18. It has not been abridged or reorganized.
Digital stories have action in two areas: movement of or within the content, and movement
required by the user to access the content. Legacy media can have movement within the
content (i.e., video) and required by the user (i.e., turn the page) but online stories have
different action models. Flash animations, user controlled slide shows, and clicking to prompt
the content’s movement are unique to online storytelling. There are various combinations of
content and user action possible.
Static content does not move. Newspaper stories are static, as are many digital stories.
California National Guard -
www.calguard.ca.gov/ia/Taliban/Bin%20Ladens%20Secret%20Citadel.htm - Static graphic and
Static column of text, typical of many news stories.
Dynamic content has movement built into the design. Content movement can occur in visual
and/or audio form.
MSNBC - http://www.msnbc.com/modules/summer_driving/decades/default.asp - Intro starts
automatically when site is accessed. User must actively choose a decade to continue.
Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel - http://www.sun-sentinel.com/graphics/essays/aids/ As you click
to the next slide the picture slightly moves within the frame.
Combination content has both static and dynamic portions. For example, a story package with
static text linked to a motion graphic would be a combination.
CNN - www.cnn.com/interactive/specials/0008/qm.timeline/frameset.exclude.html – The text is
static but new text moves when the timeline is clicked.
Poynter Institute: http://www.poynter.org/dr_ink/Barbie.htm Click the pictures embedded in
the static article and get dynamic audio segments.
Passive content requires no action of the part of the user - the content moves automatically, or
there are simply no content action choices.
MSNBC - www.msnbc.com/news/sexslaves_front.asp - Once the user enters the documentary
section it continues without prompting.
Honolulu Star Bulletin - starbulletin.com/2002/09/19/features/index.html – Static photo and text,
Active content requires the user to click or select something for the content action to start
and/or continue. This action is part of the story design, not a browser function (like scrolling or
forward / backward clicking.)
Newsday - www.newsday.com/news/local/newyork/ny-protetchgallery.photogallery?index=1 –
Click the button to see proposed designs.
USAToday - www.usatoday.com/graphics/news/gra/gtbomb/frame.htm - Nothing happens until
the user clicks the “next” button.
Mixed content is a combination of passive and active. For example, a passive display of
dynamic content that stops requiring the user to take action to keep the content moving.
MSNBC - http://www.msnbc.com/news/729756.asp?launch=/modules/airport_security/screener
- Intro starts up but then user must engage in the game.
El Mundo - www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2002/graficos/ene/s3/guantanamo/guantanamo.html -
Click “comenzar” and the animated graphic begins but you must prompt each of the next
The relationship between the digital story and the audience can be open or closed. This is
determined by the presence, or absence, of features that allow choice, contribution, and
interaction with the content. Look at the five “relationship” features. Each has a condition that
would indicate a “closed” or “open” relationship. (In linearity, for example, nonlinear indicates an
“open” condition, while linear is “closed.”) If any one of these five features is in the “open”
condition the story is “open.” If all of the features are in the “closed” condition, the content is
Nonlinear (open) story packages allow the user to select the order in which they access
content. There might be more than one entry point or each of the story segments might be read
as a story in itself.
Linear (closed) stories move along in a pre-determined order that can’t be altered by the user.
(Navigation bars as part of the site design, not the story design, do not constitute “non-linear”
Washington Post - www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/blackhistory/main.htm - Move along
U Street and view the slides in each locale in any order.
Slate - http://slate.msn.com/?id=2061470 – The Enron Blame Game allows random movement
through characters in the Enron story.
United Way: national.unitedway.org/aboutuw/ - This is a typical linear column.
Star Tribune online: http://www.startribune.com/stories/462/3339959.html – An example of one
of their linear stories.
Customized (open) content gives the user the option to personalize content by selecting out of
a larger set the part relevant to them. For example, a database query allows users to identify
specific content of interest.
Standardized (closed) content cannot be customized; everyone gets the same thing. Most
news stories contain standard content.
Tampa Tribune Online – crimetracker.tbo.com – Enter an address and get crime reports for that
Star Tribune Online - www.startribune.com/news/traffic/cgi/index.cgi - Pick the route and get
Calculated (open) digital stories contain a feature that first requests user input, then computes
or tallies a result. This might, for example, be a quiz or vote.
Not calculated (closed) stories have no feature that seeks and tallies input.
Milwaukee Channel - html.themilwaukeechannel.com/sh/includes/survey/1344/1344995.html –
The vote is immediately calculated.
Helsinki Sanomat - www.helsinki-hs.net/webortage/cheatersway/cheatersway2000n1.html - The
answers to the surveys embedded in the story are calculated at the end.
Manipulated (open) content can be individually arranged. It allows alteration of (not addition to)
existing content. Manipulated content might provide an experience or an opportunity to move
around components of the story.
Set (closed) content cannot be arranged by the user. Content in traditional news stories is set.
American High - www.pbs.org/americanhigh/ - The yearbook feature lets users create their own
HeraldNet - waterfront.heraldnet.com/develop2.cfm – Move around icons of different structures
on waterfront maps.
Appended (open) content is designed to be added to by the user. For example, appended
content in online news includes vote tallies and forum messages.
Finite (closed) content cannot be added to by the user.
Wikipedia – www.wikipedia.com - This encyclopedia lets users add and edit text.
American High - www.pbs.org/americanhigh/ - User created profiles can be added to yearbook.
Temporary alterations to the content last only as long as the user is accessing the story.
Permanent content alterations are lasting and can be viewed again and again.
Sun-Sentinel - www.sun-sentinel.com/extras/graphics/news/epaper/index.html – This interactive
on how e-paper works only lasts as long as the user is on the screen.
Slate - slate.msn.com/?id=2063699 – Reader comments about a story are added to the end.
C/Net - http://www.cnet.com/software/0-352109-1218-9610157.html?tag=st.sw.352109-1205-
9610157.dir.352109-1218-96101057 – The poll results and comments are a permanent part.
Another aspect of relationship is who is able to see the altered content. Who is it available to?
Individual content changes are viewable only by the user who made the alteration.
Select Group content changes allow only certain users to view the alterations. Some chats, for
example, only let those who were involved witness the exchange.
All content changes are viewable by all. Appended content is generally viewable by all users.
Sun-Sentinel - http://www.sun-sentinel.com/extras/graphics/entertainment/celeb2.htm – The
Clone Zone combinations are temporary and viewed only by the individual user.
American High - www.pbs.org/americanhigh/ - The yearbook additions can be viewed by
anyone accessing the site.
Context is defined as, “that which surrounds, and gives meaning to, something else.” Context in
newspapers, for example, can be provided by sidebar stories but there are space limitations.
Digital storytelling allows limitless context through linking to related, relevant information.
Standalone stories are self-contained and do not utilize context links. Linked stories provide
access to additional information in one of two ways discussed below.
Linked stories utilize one of the following techniques to add context:
Embedded links are found within the story text, (also referred to as hypertext links).
Sidebar links are located outside of the story text, to its “side”.
Slate - slate.msn.com/?id=2070832 – Slate’s stories typically use several embedded links.
Houston Chronicle - www.chron.com/cs/CDA/story.hts/front/1582798 – The sidebar has links to
sites with hurricane information
Context links are used for one of three reasons:
Contextual links are made to material specific to the story being read.
Related links are to material on the same topic, but not necessarily specific to the story being
Recommended links are to material likely to be of interest because of choices the user made in
CNN - http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/meast/04/12/mideast/index.html -
Baltimore Sun - www.baltimoresun.com/news/education/bal-
te.ca.teachers20sep20(0,4077281).story?coll=bal%2Dhome%2Dheadlines – The sidebar links
are to other education stories.
New York Times - http://www.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html – NewsTracker will take your
preferences and find other stories like it.
Internal links are to material on the publisher’s website.
External links go to other sources outside the website.
Mixed links include both internal and external sources.
Access Atlanta - http://www.accessatlanta.com/ajc/opinion/0902/15downtown.html – Links to
material developed by the AJC.
Time - http://www.time.com/time/columnist/mideastmonitor/article/0,9565,349412,00.html – The
weblog is the quintessential externally linked story.
Salon - www.salon.com/tech/feature/2002/03/18/videogame_music/index.html – There are both
offsite links and links to other Salon stories.
Duplicate links are to the same content but in a different media format. For example, the text
version of a speech may be offered beside the audio and/or video version of the same
Supplement links go to other content that is not a replication of the original content.
www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/09/20020925-3.html - Both audio and video versions
of the text transcript are included.
www.startribune.com/stories/507/3329298.html - Several audio clips related to the story are
The ability to connect with others through multi-nodal communication makes the online
environment unique from all other previous media. Often thought of as a mass medium, it
morphs between a one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many communication
space. Online communication can be synchronous or asynchronous, and the communication
can actually become a part of the content set (see Element 1 – Relationship – Appended).
Two-way communication occurs when the user can communicate with the content developer or
One-way communication is when the user cannot communicate digitally; the communication is
from producer to receiver only.
There are three methods by which communication is facilitated:
Chats are “real-time” message exchanges.
Forums allow people submit a message that can be read by others at a later time.
E-mail links provide access to the reporter or to contacts named in the story.
MSNBC - www.msnbc.com/chat/default.asp – News Chat is a regular feature.
St. Cloud Times - miva.sctimes.com/miva/cgi-bin/miva?Sctimes/index.mv – Forum messages
are for individual stories.
Star Tribune - www.startribune.com/stories/512/2226797.html – E-mail links to reporters are
The other aspect of communication is the currentness of the content.
Recorded content includes forum postings and e-mails.
Live content includes chats. (Note that messages posted during a chat often become part of
the content set, and at that time move from being live to recorded.)