The Common Good
November 2006

Words! Camera! Democracy!

by Molly Marsh | November 2006

Storytelling in the digital age.

There are many ways to share a story. My favorites involve what I think of as “street-level” storytelling; The Autobiography Project, launched in Philadelphia this spring, is one example. Over a six-week period, Philadelphians were invited to submit 300-word autobiographies. Twenty brief memoirs were selected from more than 300 entries, their authors photographed, and the poster-sized autobiographies mounted in bus terminals throughout the city. Commuters could encounter a spectacled David Sanders sharing a story about his father’s bout with Alzheimer’s. Or Sage Waring’s memories of the hell of middle school. (And it’s one less piece of public real estate that’s covered with ads.)

StoryCorps works similarly, although in the medium of radio. Perhaps you’ve been stopped in your tracks by those intimate conversations broadcast on National Public Radio. Thousands of people have slipped into recording booths around the country to record a slice of their lives, many of which will live on in the Library of Congress archives as part of an oral history of America. A father and daughter inch toward reconciliation; a man proposes to his beloved, his voice shaking; a Sept. 11 survivor shares her aching grief. To eavesdrop on those moments puts us in deeper touch with our humanity.

Sharing stories is enlarging—in any medium. Books and films, of course, offer limitless opportunities to do this; the characters may not all be real, but the truth of their experiences often is. We may never sit down to an extravagant meal made by a French chef in the bleak landscape of Denmark—as the ensemble of odd characters do in the book and film Babette’s Feast—but we can understand the magnificence of Babette’s gift and the humility the recipients experience upon receiving what they don’t deserve.

As author Ron Hansen writes in A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction, stories confirm “that the least of us are necessary to the great universal plot in ways we hadn’t imagined.” We all matter. Stories are like echoes—we call out across the canyon and wait for someone to call back.

These days there are many more vehicles for capturing and sharing stories. Authors can bypass publishing houses to create e-books, marketing them directly to readers via Web sites. Filmmakers looking for larger audiences, or wishing to bypass the capriciousness of Hollywood executives, can post their work online, and digital technology allows us to record conversations on our cameras and cell phones to share with one or 1,000 others. The popular YouTube Internet site posts short videos of everything from home movies to political rants, boasting 20 million viewers every month. Although there’s a difference between sharing a story and “broadcasting yourself” (YouTube’s slogan), clearly Hansen’s sentiment is at work here.

Technology is democratizing the way we collect and share stories, as more people gain access to cheaper computers and recording devices. Writers and filmmakers don’t have to have, solicit, or spend millions to tell their stories. But this democracy is at least partly illusory: It’s also true that those with means—education, income, skills, and time—are the primary beneficiaries. This “creative class,” as Bill Ivey and Steven Tepper write in The Chronicle of Higher Education, can explore, experiment, and consume at will. Those with fewer resources are more dependent on what comes from media and entertainment conglomerates, which operate with much narrower gates. “Technology and economic change are conspiring to create a new cultural elite—and a new cultural underclass,” the authors warn. “Can America prosper if its citizens experience such different and unequal cultural lives?” It’s an important question, particularly when we consider that most of the world’s population doesn’t have access to a computer.

Although variations of The Autobiography Project and StoryCorps exist in other cities, they are unfortunately too rare. A lack of technology won’t keep anyone from telling his or her story; cultures have been doing that for millennia. But it might keep some of us from hearing stories we want—and need—to hear, and from recognizing that each of us is just one of many characters in God’s universal plot.

Molly Marsh is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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