Digital Storytelling a Trojan Horse for Social Movements?

by Timothy Malone


I was inspired to engage with the question of the relevance of digital storytelling to the Occupy Los Angeles movement after attending an OccupyLA media team committee meeting. Occupy La has had a series of successes with regards to its capacity to represent itself through youtube videos, outreach to independent media such as KPFK and, and through its website. From the beginning, organizers and activists within the movement have been cognizant of the need to have a robust media presence, for we could not trust ‘mainstream media’ to adequately represent us, for we held a worldview and i nitrated a practice which would challenge many of the unquestioned assumptions from which dominant media proceed. But it has been a rather difficult and bumpy road for the media team.

At this particular meeting, On November 7th, the discussion was on how to reconfigure our media platform from the ground up. Due to intersectional division, lack of resources, and differing visions, the Occupy Team had come to a point of crisis. We would start over, from the ground up. Problems included lots of people shooting independently, but not enough attention on storyboarding and editing. Participants disagreed on whether to adopt, a youtube like site for accumulation of videos, shared across occupations as the site within which the media team should focus its collaborative efforts. One of the participants spoke upu.

“I think we should focus on individual stories. Mainstream media has been able to make us look like dirty hippies…. and disorganized. They are making us look like freaks. If people actually could hear our voices, they’s see we had good things to say…. that we’re like them….”

Response was generally positive. People did feel that the grand narrative of who was at OccupyLA was not representative of who we were. We were often spoken of as an anonymous mass, ‘occupiers, ‘ but the individual experiences, what brought people to Occupy was elided. If people could only hear our voices.

I was instantly uncomfortable with the proposition. We were in the midst of discussion of digital storytelling for this class, and my analysis of the form led me to some pretty deep reservations of its ‘revolutionary potential.’ Its focus on individual experience seemed to structure digital storytelling perhaps operates at the expense of a collective representation of experience, which would be more suited to conveying structural aspects of experience. Collective representations speaks a language of institutions, systems.

Also, the very notion of ‘the individual’ for me is one steeped in ideology. With the creation of the public relations industry, consumerism, and the consuming self, we have seen develop a particular notion of individuality. Atomized, satisfying manufactured needs through consumer goods, enmeshed within a circuit of competitiveness and spectacle, the ‘individual’ voice is the ideological fiction in the age of Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil, self-help books, and psychotropic medication. Not only is the most fulfilling life one in which jouissance is unleashed, but the very meaning of life in consumer society is the individual’s experience.

Such a notion of the individual, rooted in Cartesian duality and enlightenment thinking, is not very good at thinking of the self in relation to the other, has a tendency to reduce social problems into individual pathology, and is not able to form bonds across shared experience of atomization.

My Experience Filming Individuals at Occupy Los Angeles

Confidence in my rather skeptical analysis of the lack of potential for digital storytelling to aid social movements was rather shaken, though, in my experience of editing my own Occupy LA footage. I conducted a few dozen interviews at OccupyLA, and one question I asked, in a rather open-ended way, was “What brought you out to Occupy? WHy are you here?”

Very often, respondents gave me some type of systemic analysis of the political or economic system. “I am here to protest the corrupting influence of money in politics.” “I am here because I want to see Wall Street held accountable for fraudulent behavior.” “I am here for the revolution.” Occasionally though, and I would say a definite minority of the time, the question would prompt some very personal, individual stories of experience. I remember thinking, as I filmed, ‘well ok, thats not really what i’m going for here,’ but i wasn’t going to stop and redirect the interview. I would let them talk, in an open ended fashion, usually remaining silent. “I am the first person from my family that has the opportunity to go to college. But with tuition hikes, I can’t afford it anymore. ALl I want is the same opportunities as someone else.” The story was told with such emotion, almost a panicked tone, that i felt viscerally impacted. A young woman I interviewed spoke of how she works all the time, has to take care of her family as her father has been unemployed for some time, but she is sick. She didn’t go into the details of her ailment, but described that she couldn’t afford healthcare. She spoke with such honesty and clarity of vision that I was taken aback, and with cameras in hand, felt I had violated some unwritten ethical rule of privacy.

The stories people told me were powerful. I met a sweet old man, that told me he was there to engage OccupyLA with the question of how to end the drug war. I thought, ok – thats an important issue, ties into the prison industrial complex, racist social structure, etc. Definitely a voice I would like to include in my project. Without prompting from me, he went on to narrate his personal story. He had been growing marijuana, and was raided by police after an informant gave him up for a lesser sentence. He was just out of federal prison, this sweet, frail old man. Sensing my confusion of why he was telling me all these details (it felt like he had a need to talk about his experience to someone who potentially had the power to shift opinion; i did have a camera after all, who knows how large my audience?), he wrapped up by including that ‘he was also there to support an amendment to abolish corporate personhood. “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when texas executes one!” I appreciated the gesture, but it rang somewhat hollow in comparison to the heart-rending story he had just divulged in front of my camera, and myself.

As mentioned above, I filed away these personal stories both mentally and on my desktop. They were the ones that drew the largest emotional response for me, but how useful were they in a project attempting to make a structural argument on behalf of the occupation – what are our demands, how do we do things, what’s our vision for the future? After Michael Moore films and those similar in style related to political issues, I was very wary of the potential for emotional manipulation as engaged by many film makers. When I see such manipulation, which is usually quite transparent even to people who haven’t taken graduate level film theory/visual methods classes, i mentally revolt. After being beaten over the head with it for so long, its like a conditioned response, visceral reaction against. I didn’t want to engage in such practice in my own film.

Some digital storytelling I have seen feels emotionally manipulative. Not all the time, but enough to make me wary. What is the difference? Many people at Occupy are there for very personal reasons, not just because they hold a difficult theoretical conception of the way society should be organized. Am I to exclude their voices simply because I have a sympathetic emotional reaction? I don’t think so.

But the problem remained. A digital storytelling project, if that’s all it is, a series of individual stories, often with emotional appeal, following a pretty particular trope and structure may lack the capacity to engage truly structural analysis. If the individual being interviewed does analyze a particular system as opposed to relating individual experience, it may seem rather academic and emotionally dry, lacking that very mechanism by which the viewer comes to empathize with the experience of the historically disenfranchised. Whats the proper balance?

WHile thinking about this question, I came across this article in truthout,org, by Rose Aguilar, a radio host with shows in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. The article is entitled “Media Coverage Fails to Tell the Personal Stories of Occupy Protesters,” and in it, she argues that the answer to media misrepresentation of the Occupy Movement is to let the individuals involved tell their own stories.

“it’s all too rare to hear the voices of the people taking part, even in local media outlets….Tim Darby, a demonstrator with Occupy Monterey, says media coverage has been “very poor.” He says most of the coverage he’s read and seen – and he’s been watching closely – fails to include personal stories. “Our problem is that the two local [television] stations are KION, a Fox affiliate and KSBW, a Hearst owned company. Neither are going to want to represent us fairly,” he said. “We are trying to develop a good relationship with the rest of the local community, with initiatives to support local independent businesses and other local campaigns such as the workers at La Playa Hotel who just got laid off. Also, we have someone from In-Home Support Services coming to the next General Assembly to ask for our support. I think this will be the best way to engage others in our local community, rather than hoping that we can get some fair, representative coverage on the local media.” (Aguilar, Occupy Movement)

Aguilar initiated a project of documenting the ‘personal stories’ of occupiers she met at a few encampments, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Monterrey. Youtube clips of 8 such personal stories are inserted below. She met a broad swathe of people, many ready to talk to her. On first inspection, the interviewees seem to be not very racially diverse; I don’t know if that’s a function of the occupy sites themselves, or inherent to her selection of subjects. Listening to their ‘stories though, yielded some general conclusions that I think may help resolve this question of the public and private, the individual versus the systemic. Perhaps her project can for me elucidate the potential of the digital story to further the goals of social movements.


1. Context is important. Aguilar is approaching individuals that are already a part of a social movement, thus more likely to think in structural terms. In asking her respondents ‘their story,’ they very often did so, but only by framing it within the socio/political/historical context from which their story emerged. Their ‘personal stories’ might have differed quite radically if interviewed in their homes, or at a university, in a digital story lab. The occupation itself grounded that which is personal, and respondents, consciously or unconsciously advanced from this position.

This is not the traditional digital storytelling format, and perhaps that is good, for we may juxtapose this model, the interview on site of movement, from the more polished sequestered traditional storytelling style. In traditional digital storytelling, without the ground of occupy influencing what is ‘personal,’ would personal stories have been so explicitly political? Which leads to the second conclusion.

2. There is no such thing as a ‘personal story.’ In an apolitical environment, the personal story is more likely to be apolitical, or at least read that way. To impose the digital storytelling format on this particular situation, for instance relating pure personal experience, (not referencing for instance a union’s inability to strike as necessarily ‘personal in this context) may crush the politics out of it. In fact, depending on context (at Occupation or at home) and form (free flowed, unedited discussion, music or no music, etc) entirely different stories may emerge, with all of them being true and personal. What is personal is in deep conversation and interaction with all that is not. If someone asks for a personal story, its always a political question; in particular the way they ask, the ground from which you both are situated, as well as how you are allowed to answer. AN apolitical presentation of the question is perhaps the most politically dangerous of all.

3. “I think this will be the best way to engage others in our local community, rather than hoping that we can get some fair, representative coverage on the local media.” This needs to be thought through, not only for occupy but for digital storytelling as a practice. More hopeful theorists of its political potential assert the medium as giving voice to the voiceless and marginalized. What about distribution? We have talked about this in class, but i’ll repeat the argument for clarity. The quote provided references the occupiers to engage with the local community through personal stories to challenge mainstream representation. How is this to be effective? How does that local community come to see their personal stories, if not already avid fans of local digital storytelling? How is the shift effected between gaining perception of occupy from the mainstream media? By having someone walk over to the local shops and direct them to a website? Why not just walk over to the local businesses as occupiers, as a community outreach, and tell them yourself, face to face, your plans to support their business? I think the problem scales up. Because the voices are recorded in some digital archive somewhere does not guarantee viewing, nor sympathetic response.

Analysis (Conclusions for the Role of OccupyLA Digital Storytelling)

Digital storytelling, as least as it is conducted to further the aim of social movements, need be embedded within a network of activism. For OccupyLA, digital stories should be accessed through OccupyLA webpages, social networks, twitter accounts. This ensures that the digital stories are bundled along with other self-representative content, and available to those searching OccupyLA, not just ‘digital stories.’ They should exist alongside, and part and parcel of media products in their entirety, so as to be anchored within a signifying chain, grounded by structural analysis.

When performed, digital storytelling should occur on site as much as possible, or in some other way grounded to the movement. The personal and the political deeply overlap, and shift along a spectrum of representation, with the notion of ‘personal’ or ‘individual not absolutely, but to a high degree, fluid and determined beyond an individual self-reflecting. What is ‘primed is derivative of context.

A Moment for Self-Reflexivity
What struck me quite vociferously as I thought about my own work, my own selections for what would be included in my final cut was a notion that I had heard repeated a few times by Professor Juhasz in Visual Research Methods class. The female has been linked with the home, the personal the individual (paraphrased). The masculine has been the public sphere, the workplace, the society.” Up until this project, I had theorized from my male, white, and privileged position was to liberalize the public sphere so that women may enter, to ‘hold the door open, ‘ so to speak. That’s quite a condescending position, for it leaves in place the binary in which the ‘public,’ the ‘systemic’ is superior to the personal, the home, the individual experience. With good intention, i had necessarily denigrated the position to which the female, women are often still intimately intertwined, perhaps by patriarchy and interlocking oppressions, but also perhaps through political choice and agency. The question is not to eviscerate the private, individualized position, so that all may share the public, but to challenge the binary. Im not sure if that’s correct or not. But I did realize my own role in selecting, acting on behalf of, being a representative for. I was acting from a position of male privilege.