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Storifying and storytelling

Does Storify tell stories? A critical appraisal inspired by our first workshop storyline.

Not long ago, after our first project workshop, we noticed that we had so many social media posts documenting some of the presentations and discussions there, that it made sense to preserve them in some form. This form we found when the wonderful Rachel recommended Storify, a social network service designed to collect online content, especially from social media, and form a storyline out of the collected posts.

We went ahead and arranged the various online content that related to our workshop onto Storify’s storyboard, which resulted in this


While this is undoubtedly a neat resource and handy archive of 140-character notes from the workshop, there also remained a nagging unease with this storyline as a representation of the workshop. First of all, we only tweeted during orderly presentations and discussions, not during the more disorderly – but at least as insightful – World Café and Open Space exercises, when we sat around flip charts and moved between groups to exchange ideas on several questions.

A second source of unease was probably more fundamental. Here we had, as an accessible archive of our workshop, a series of snapshots, all interesting in themselves, but their only connection seemed to lie in their sharing of a hashtag, or, indeed in their having been arranged on this storyline. Was this a story, after all?

The collection of snapshots on a timeline seemed to contradict much of what we have learned about the nature of narrative. Narrative means that events or expressions do not exist as isolated givens, but come into being in relation to particular developments, past and future. Environmental historian William Cronon, for instance, has argued that narrative creates direction and purpose, and is therefore a moral commentary with political implications. He writes that while it is near impossible to recount the past without telling a story (even the list-like chronicle implies one), the choice of story is crucial, since it can suggest very different understandings of past events and future outlooks or options.

Cronon emphasises that these stories must conform to a set of norms, including their congruence with other historical and ecological facts, but it is also clear that the logic of the narrative itself delineates which aspects of an always excessive reality are selected into the story, and which ones are left out. Rather than direct copies of a steam of events, a story is therefore selective and biased in non-random ways, perhaps, as Marilyn Strathern suggested, similar to the non-linear, but structured patterns of Cantor Dust.    

Nevertheless, the story is a continuous process that exists in its development and expansion, rather than in the summation of a series of facts or expressions. Tim Ingold has famously illustrated this with a line, reproduced from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which represents the movement of the tip of a Corporal’s stick that he waves about to elucidate the freedom in a man’s life:



Ingold uses this line to illuminate differences in approaches to travelling, mapping and textuality. If we take it as representing a story(line), then we don’t get around to first mention the wonderful collection of various version of this same line, in different renditions of Tristram Shandy, collated by Craig Conley.



Conley comments: “It would seem that even a squiggle isn’t immune to the corruption inherent in transliteration.  Like a curl of smoke, Sterne’s squiggle changes shape as it traverses edition after edition of Tristram Shandy.” This means that the story inevitably changes from one retelling to the next; however, it does remain a story – a line, in this visual metaphor – throughout the different versions (unless it is re-rendered in words, as in one of Conley’s examples).

Ingold, however, takes his illustration into a different direction, or into an experiment, as he calls it. He renders the squiggle through a series of dots that represent the points of cutting the line into equal segments:


He then proceeds to link these dots by straight connecting lines, ending up in a travesty of the original squiggle, which is also the point of his experiment:


Whereas Ingold uses this experiment to support his argument about the fragmentation of lines of dwelling in modern conceptions of assembly, it also serves well to illustrate the unease with a virtual storyline as a representation of a continuous thinking-listening-discussing process. Even though arranged consecutively as if a story, the online content in our workshop storyline remains a series of snapshots – (presumably) interesting and (hopefully) insightful points, but points after all. The story behind them has to be inferred by the reader and is not necessarily obvious at all. Connecting the dots does not add up to an equivalent of a narrative, just as the connected points in Ingold’s illustrations cannot reproduce the Corporal’s squiggle.

This is not to declare Storify useless; quite the opposite, it is a very useful tool to collect and keep in one place selected social media content that otherwise can prove all too ephemeral. What this does say, however, is that a Storify archive should not be mistaken for a narrative. For the latter, you better read our workshop report.