Stories are perhaps the primary way in which human beings communicate with one another. It is hardly a surprising fact, then, that people today are using modern communications technologies (email, blogs, etc) to share stories with each other. What is interesting, though, are the ways in which these technologies are now evolving to accommodate the ways in which people create stories.
Of course, the process of creating stories has always been a highly social one. At first we may not imagine this to be the case, if we picture the common image of a novel author locked away quietly in his study, or a scriptwriter sitting alone by her word processor for hours trying to write a story. However, if we look closer at the process of creating stories, we can see that, ultimately, rather than generating new stories from scratch, most authors take in a variety of stories from other people, extract various elements, then recombine the different pieces to author new stories.
Think about the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm ... Disney took these stories and retold them in a way that carried them into a new age. He animated the stories, with both characters and light ... And not just with the work of the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, the catalog of Disney work drawing upon the work of others is astonishing when set together:
Snow White (1937), Fantasia (1940), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Song of the South (1946), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Robin Hood (1952), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Mulan (1998), Sleeping Beauty (1959), 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), and The Jungle Book (1967)—not to mention a recent example that we should perhaps quickly forget, Treasure Planet (2003).
In all of these cases, Disney (or Disney, Inc.) ripped creativity from the culture around him, mixed that creativity with his own extraordinary talent, and then burned that mix into the soul of his culture. Rip, mix, and burn. (Lessig)
Our focus on autonomous creative expression falsifies the actual process by which meaning gets generated and new works get produced. Most of the classics we teach in the schools are themselves the product of appropriation and transformation or what we would now call sampling and remixing. So Homer remixed Greek myths to construct The Iliad and the Odyssey; Shakespeare sampled his plots and characters from other author's plays; The Sistine Chapel Ceiling mashes up stories and images from across the entire Biblical tradition. Lewis Carroll spoofs the vocabulary of exemplary verses which were a standard part of formal education during his period. Many core works of the western canon emerged through a process of retelling and elaboration: the figure of King Arthur goes from an obscure footnote in an early chronicle into the full blown text of Morte D'Arthur in a few centuries, as the original story gets built upon by many generations of storytellers. (Jenkins)
In this way, the creation of stories has always been tied to communications media (as they allow authors to receive story components from others). However, as new technologies push the boundaries between sharing and creating stories even closer together, it becomes increasingly important that we take into account the social nature of storywriting when designing any assignments in which we ask students to create stories.
Consider the ways in which youth today interact with videos. Originally, working with video footage required expensive equipment and access to large broadcast distribution channels. Of course, this never stopped people with two VCRs, a box of postage stamps and a lot of patients from creating and distributing amateur video productions. But, it created a general mindset that guides much of our current curriculum for working with videos: we passively watch videos, but we actively write novels or act out stories (perhaps directly after watching a video of the same story).
However, today youth are regularly using video blogs to reconfigure videos and images in a variety of ways. Some use simple techniques such as taking an existing video and replacing the audio track with a new user generated piece. At the other end of the spectrum, those with advanced editing skills enjoy activities such as sharing their interpretations on how movies should have ended (advanced activities can often be made available to less technologically advanced students by providing more pre-made pieces for them to remix). And, of course, we have everything inbetween:
Jumpcut.com [external link], a video blog showcasing a variety of remixed videos and providing easy to use editing tools
So, while it has always been common to take the intangible story elements (characters, plot, etc) someone else has created and then recreate the visual elements of a story, it is now becoming easier to directly appropriate the visual elements of others to stimulate the creation of a new story by replacing alternative elements (such as dialog and language), then share creations with an international audience.
Perhaps the most striking difference between storywriting with modern media versus earlier times is the level of dialog that occurs between authors and their readers while creating a work. For example, many authors today write their stories by pulling directly from compositions written in social media (i.e. blogs). In this way, feedback left by readers of the blog can make their way into the final compositions.
This model is especially prevalent among youth still working to refine their storytelling skills -- or particularly those struggling with their language skills -- where they join large online communities of burgeoning storytellers to help support each other while developing their stories together and build upon one another's work. In fact, much of youth culture outside of school today consists of contributing written compositions in multi-participant asynchronous dialogs.
Outside of school, using large pieces from somebody else's work is commonly referred to as remixing. Inside school it is more commonly referred to as plagiarism. While most remix and collaborative authoring technologies do include mechanisms for tracking individual contributions, the larger implications of how we assess creative value in derivative works is still a challenge for most educational disciplines. For Foreign Language learning, however, it is fairly simple to design activities [Sims 2 / Transmedia Improv] structured such that pre-made non-lingual story elements are remixed with entirely student provided linguistic elements, with technological systems that clearly differentiate contributions from different students [Transmedia Improv]. In this way we can both remove creative barriers for students assigned to tell stories by providing more stimulating elements for them to work with, and provide a school context more aligned with youth out-of-school culture.