Story Snippets, Ministories, and Microblogging

New Pedagogical Tools for Leveraging Short-Form Digital Storytelling in Education

As new media continue to find their way onto the digital landscape, storytellers are finding themselves with new creative ways to share their narratives. The form and content of stories have recently been transformed by the emerging super-short format of short-snippet storytelling. These bite-sized chunks of strung-together media have become incredibly popular on the web in the last two years. Although the format is new and can take some getting used to, it has some specific benefits that can be leveraged for learning!

Photo credit: Speech bubbles at Erg

There are multiple reasons educators should start paying attention to the seemingly disjointed strings of posts that I call short-snippet storytelling, which are also commonly known as microblogging or short-form storytelling. First it’s popular…very popular. Look at the phone of any under-20 year old and you’ll see them stringing together a story from a bunch of photos, videos, and texts they make throughout their day. Keeping the pulse on tech use by students and mining the pedagogical nuggets are what these essays are all about!

Second, short-snippet digital stories are not just about telling every detail of one’s life — those stories will get ignored amid the fast daily stream of data. Instead, choosing and stringing together information to share to tell a story in creative ways has seemed to grab the attention and eyeballs of the mobile device generation. In short, it’s more about people doing interesting things in their lives and telling interesting stories. Figuring out what is interesting, though, is just a matter of knowing and listening to your audience. If it’s just a simple listing of one’s everyday activities, it may not have much value. There’s something about what makes these stories interesting, and identifying that element can have deep pedagogical impact.

Finally, because stories are made of many small-effort and short-shelf-life bits, there’s a really low risk to participating and thus, a much lower bar for entry. Participants don’t have to overthink their smaller contributions too much, so it may be easier than ever to get stories made and shared!

Telling a story in 100 chapters: Bite-sized chunks

With new media short stories, creators share very small chunks of a story at a time to a broad, open audience. Stories can be pre-conceived and edited, or they can be told live, in the very moment they are happening. However, instead of stand-alone posts that tell a whole story, the short blurbs are meant to be strung together or seen in a sequence. Think along the lines of Twitter, with many small 140-character snippets, but having some way to read the tweets in order. In fact, Twitter is one of the original forms of “microblogging,” as storytellers would share their stories with the world with a series of small text messages, but with the intent that they be read in a particular sequence.

I say that you “read” short-snippet digital stories, but reading may not be the right word. With short snippet storytelling in 2016, any media can be used, and the combinations of various media can have interesting effects. For example, on a platform generally known for a text-only interface like Twitter, you can now share video (e.g., Vines), images (e.g., gifs, memes), annotations (hand drawn notes on images and videos), and links to websites in addition to the classic 140 character text that made Twitter famous. The type of media, the timing and sequence of posts, and the commentary by the storyteller all create super rich narratives that help “readers” experience happenings in meaningful ways. Top social networks like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram are all adopting storytelling tools that allow the use of various forms of media. This leads me to believe that all social media platforms should also include useful storytelling media. A general rule of thumb on social networks is that followers want to see interesting happenings and perspectives of those that they follow. As such, short-snippet stories served up on social networks make it easier than ever to craft a story and share it.

The functions of short-snippet storytelling are a bit different than conventional story publication. Although all stories are built from small elements of events, people, concepts, place, and time, this method prioritizes small elements literally. Instead of using a single, dense text to string together events, participants, and a plot, storytellers find various meaningful elements and share them over time. Storytellers are afforded the opportunity to create brief updates to their stories. As a result, it’s a low risk that one specific element will ruin a story, reducing the requirement to think too hard about editing and revision. These smaller chunks are easier to make, easier to digest, and easier to respond to. Media can be produced faster and with lower barriers to entry.

It’s worth noting here that I think there are two types of stories shared on these kind of media right now. However, it’s hard to specify where one begins and the other ends, so I’ll probably dive in deeper on the differences between the two in a future essay. First, there are thought-out and edited short-snippet works, similar to conventional stories in which there’s room for revision and editing. A scripted story, either fiction or nonfiction, can be developed and shared over time on these media. Second, and something we haven’t seen in previous media, is live short-segment storytelling. Using the range of media in the short-snippet form, storytellers can share the stories of their lived experience as it happens.

Thus, stories can also unfold in real time. Similar to how journalists tell the news, any person can now share the story of their experience as it unfolds. As such, the upcoming sequence of events is not known to anyone, including the storyteller. The popularity of recent inventions like Facebook Live, YouTube Live, and Snapchat Stories are all indicators that people are finding value and interest in how others live and see the world without any editorial interference. Although the storyteller chooses the type of media with which to share the story, the raw, unedited story is appealing. Readers can follow a story as it unfolds, which can be just as exciting for the reader as it is for the person telling the story! It’s like a sitcom back in the day for which you have to excitedly wait each week for new episodes…except only the updates now come faster and are in smaller chunks than a 30-minute episode on primetime.

How do you string together a short-snippet story?

As creators string together the nuggets of a short-snippet story, they can create a chain of tens or even hundreds of posts that tell a story. Many different forms of media come together to paint a vivid picture that the storyteller wants to get across. Unique combinations of media can be used to convey the events, people, concepts, and emotions that the storyteller wants to share. In effect, the storyteller also serves as a curator of media — bringing together the many chapters of the story and serving them up in small servings.

There are many apps and platforms that are being used right now to tell stories. The classic example is how many people use Twitter to tell stories. Instead of stand-alone tweets about something, many twitterers will share a string of posts around a common theme using a variety of methods. On Twitter, it is most common to see a story told over time in a sequence of ordered posts. Additionally, tweets can include a common #hashtag, which are used to easily search any post that uses the unique keyword contained in the hashtag. Posts are also not limited to text — videos, images, and audio can also be shared. In addition to spacing out posts sequentially, live events are also often captured on Twitter in what is called liveblogging. When they liveblog, storytellers rapidly post updates about an event as it unfolds. This method allows readers to experience events through the narrator’s tweets in real time, much like a live newscast at an event. Finally, Twitter has recently released a tool called Moments that allows users to string together a series of tweets to tell a bigger story and distribute it to viewers. For many, it’s more about the sequence of posts more than what any individual post contains.

Similar to Twitter’s strings of stories, YouTube users have been sharing short stories for years. Many YouTubers have gained popularity as vloggers, or video loggers, as they share their everyday experiences in the form of short, unedited videos as things occur. Vloggers tell stories as they occur, with their audiences anxiously awaiting new posts. To this end, YouTube has recently allowed users to broadcast their videos live, allowing active audience participation through comments and video responses. In effect, the story can be influenced by the audience as it happens!

Although remaining an esoteric app to educators, Snapchat’s Stories feature remains popular for many of the platform’s users. Creators can deliver snippets of video, photos, and annotation over time and string them together in a specific order. Brands (through Snapchat Discover), organizations, and celebrities create sequences of media for their followers, giving them a stream of media doses with each providing a deeper meaning than any one single snippet can provide. In fact, Snapchat even briefly flirted with the idea of providing original programming on their Stories platform, much like a Netflix of social media. However, the most important technological contribution of Snapchat Stories is that stories only last 24 hours. This gives rise to the idea of a digital shelf life — something that hasn’t been considered in the age where the admonition that “Google Never Forgets” rings too true. The function must be popular though, as Instagram recently implemented a similar function to tell strung-together stories on their social network, and Facebook has indicated an interest in the same.

As we can see, this shortest-form storytelling method has provided some unique tools to storytellers that have not been available in the past. For the first time, small chunks can be distributed widely to followers. Stories can have permanent homes on the web, or they can have daily sell-by dates. As such, time has become as much a tool for storytelling as the myriad media that narrators have at their disposal. The stream of snippets can be controlled and curated in ways that afford great opportunities for experimentation, audience engagement, and easy entry to creation.

Thinking pedagogically about short-snippet stories

There are volumes of research on the benefits of getting students to tell stories and the use of narratives for learning, so I won’t get into that work here. What I will discuss, however, is that these micro-media stories help better emphasize the events in creative work and make it easier to create as events occur. The platforms for producing and sharing short-snippet stories promote the authenticity of stories as a way of expression, making sense of the world, and sharing with others.

Shorter might be better at some things. When “reading” a short-snippet story, these media can be digested over time, and in smaller amounts. It requires far less investment than a book or even a blog post, which could possibly improve motivation and interest. Stories are sent directly to users’ inboxes on these platforms, so it’s easy to stay up to date on a story’s progress. In short, it keeps viewers anticipating more…as long as the story stays interesting, that is.

Smaller bits of media also mean that many smaller, measurable achievements get done. It’s much easier to track one’s work and progress with smaller chunks of work. The size of a snap, tweet, vine, or short YouTube video is manageable and well-defined in this realm of storytelling. Having a bunch of smaller tasks may be easier to complete and make larger projects look less daunting, much like how modern video games use small quests, missions, and small achievements to promote progress in the game.

These media are redefining the units of daily communication. to the tweet or vine instead of the sentence, paragraph, page. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, as smaller chunks are easier to interact with. However, they can be hard to take as a whole, and could lead to many tangential distractions while trying to accomplish work.

Multimedia affordances — things “just text” may not be able to do. Small-topic stories told with the short-snippet mode can use video, audio, images, and yes, text. For many K-12-aged students, this beats just having to write solely with words. Although text literacy is an important skill, some media might convey ideas in a better way than text can provide. What’s new about the short-snippet story method is how it ties together unique combinations of media. Storytelling platforms like Snapchat and Twitter specialize in tying these media together into chains, giving rise to the unique combinations of communications tools. In addition, each of these media can have multiple layers of annotation, with storytellers able to draw on, add text, and provide additional information on the surface of images and videos. Storytellers can also link to outside resources to support the story or provide context. In today’s digital landscape, teachers who use these tools in the classroom can promote the development of digital literacies that empower students to create and understand meaning with digital media.

Low barrier to participation brings increased engagement. With these chunks of media being so short, there’s a much smaller learning curve for both creators and consumers. You can jump in much easier and not have to worry about your early content not having high production value. What’s important is the ongoing story — not any individual post. The tool also gives voice to students who may not typically speak up in class. With the low risk of failure due to the lack of longevity in short posts, anyone can approach these media with their own interests and communication styles to find their voice through a unique combination of storytelling tools. As a result, teachers can be a member of the audience for students stories’ to see how students see the world and think.

Two-way street: Storytelling is not just for the writer. These media also allow the audience to interact with the author. With smaller chunks, it’s easy to jump in and catch a story as it is being told. Given the medium, it’s less important to know the backstory and to catch up than it is to follow along as stories play out. In addition, the common platforms like Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube promote audience interaction. The authors of stories can answer questions, respond to feedback, and even allow the audience to influence how a story continues to get told.

Some additional thoughts

Despite all of the benefits I identified above, I’m not yet sure if short-snippet storytelling is a good thing for learning. Most importantly, its disjointed and hyperlinked form may reduce focus (something of which I’m definitely guilty of!) For instance, in contrast to a string of tweets and short videos, a book bundles everything together and isn’t so all over the place, which can improve focus. Even a Wikipedia article or news article bundles a story together, making it easier to read. Will strung-together stories exacerbate our already addled attention? I don’t think I can venture a guess yet to answer that question.

However, in the modern media age, the idea of a stand alone media document is becoming a rarity. Even the examples I cited above aren’t that great at keeping attention in one place. News stories today typically have additional links to previous news stories sprinkled throughout the article. The defining characteristic of Wikipedia pages are their hyperlinks scattered throughout a page, linking readers to hundreds of other pages. As such, much of today’s media encourage tangents in people’s media consumption. Focus is not a new concern in media use, so there’s much research to be done on this method before any speculation can be asserted about it being good or bad for learning. In the specific case of short-snippet storytelling, all we can say as educators is that it is hastily gaining popularity among the under-30 age group and worth looking into.

Additionally, compelling the use of this method may be beneficial to learning, but may also not achieve intended goals. Because of its open-endedness, student stories may never touch on the intended concepts or experiences. Indeed, the broader toolbox of media in short snippet stories can be helpful though as it provides more ways to share stories. As such, it may also generate better levels of interest and motivation as short snippet storytelling doesn’t privilege one form of media over others. The form is in the stringing of stories, not in the media used to convey information. Everyone can be a storyteller. These combinations of media encourage experimentation, critical thought, and expression in the telling of stories.

What do you think?

Have you used short-form, snippet-style storytelling in your classroom? (wow, that was a lot of alliteration :) ) What are your thoughts on short style stories? — tweet me at @jeremyriel and let me know what’s on your mind or what’s worked for you. I’m also always on the lookout for cool apps and resources, so if you’d like to drop me a line about what you use related to this post, let me know.