What is digital storytelling? No, really, what is it? If somebody were to ask you that question, how long would it take you to come up with a coherent answer? Does it fall under the “I know it when I see it” category? Maybe it’s not as mysterious as all that, but given that digital storytelling is not only a new format but a rapidly evolving one, it’s easy to see the challenge in defining it — for now.

There’s no better way to get your head around such an amorphous idea than to dive into it head first — better still, in a one-day steel cage marathon.

Nate Herzog

Nate Herzog, StoryhackVT

That’s what the organizers hope for StoryhackVT, a new, hopefully annual, event that is taking place in Burlington, Vermont., later this month. Like 50-hour film contests or one-day coding hackathons, StoryhackVT will pit several teams against each other to see who can write the best story to be told across at least three digital mediums within a very short time frame. These outlets can include digital video, blogging, Twitter feeds, gaming, online photo essays, or any other new media. By the end of that 24-hour stretch, it should be very clear to everybody involved what exactly digital storytelling is and what it can do. And with the public voting that will follow, who is the best at it.

StoryhackVT organizer Nate Herzog came up with the idea for this contest because he “wanted a way to encourage people to push storytelling in new directions, to really push the limits of it.”

His motivation behind embracing digital storytelling and moving this new craft forward is that “a lot of the storytelling that we’re used to has been dictated by the medium … When you switch that medium to a digital medium, there are a lot more opportunities for the reader … With the reality that we are spending more time in digital spaces, I think it’s more imperative for writers to know how to effectively communicate in those spaces.”

C.J. Feehan

C.J. Feehan

Author and sports writer C.J. Feehan, who will be competing on the colorfully named Emerging Maple Syrup Conglomerate team, said: “People are getting a little tired of just reading stories, and they want to interact with them more.”

The Challenges

As if coming up with a plot, characters, and building a world isn’t a challenge enough, the teams will have to do so collaboratively and figure out which mediums best serve their story. Though so much of the teams’ success rests on the storytelling aspect, Herzog said, “a lot of the elements of a good story remain consistent. Stories are about people … I think the human element of storytelling is always going to be there.”

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen, Champlain College

Erik Esckilsen, who teaches digital storytelling at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont., realizes that “the Storyhack teams are going to have to come up with the main story. That’ll be hard. In my experience, I’ve found coming up with the story like that — with other people collaboratively — to be a great challenge. If they can do that, if they can compromise, if they can brainstorm and work collaboratively, they’ll be successful.”

Then, the challenge returns to the original question — not simply what digital storytelling is — but how best to use the tools at hand. Herzog pointed out that “it requires that the author set up the story a little differently for their audience.”

Esckilsen said that Herzog’s goal behind StoryhackVT is for teams “not merely to adapt a story for multiple digital platforms, but rather to use what each digital platform does best.” He summed up the situation that each team faces in this pressure-filled event, saying that “the good news is that they have an entire universe of storytelling opportunities available to them … The bad news is they have the universe of possibilities available to them.”

Why Vermont?

Vermont is known for its constant accolades of BEST per capita. But what most people don’t know about the second-least-populated state in the country is that it’s home to many creative and technical industries like design, digital marketing, game development, digital media, public relations, Web development, and information technology. Burlington, which is the most populated and energetic town in the state, makes the perfect backdrop for this creative competition.

Peter Biello runs the Burlington Writers Workshop and has put together his StoryhackVT team from the people who attend its regular meetings. “I think this is the kind of event that belongs in Vermont because it depends on community involvement … As Vermonters, we have to be used to working together because there are so few of us here in the state, relatively speaking, that we’re sort of forced to become a community.”

Note: Our Digital Media team at Vermont Public Television (Hilary Hess and myself) will be engaging in this marathon in our own way. We will be following three of the teams around all day with our camera as the contestants plot, produce, and struggle to meet their deadline. We recently produced an introductory video where we talked with a few of the people involved (see below). In our own sadistic way, we’re looking forward to adding that additional layer of pressure – a video camera – into the teams’ intense day and seeing how our fellow Vermonters find inspiration and discipline on such a tight schedule.

Adam Rabin is the Director of Web Services at Vermont Public Television in Colchester, Vermont. Before coming back to VPT, Adam was the webmaster at Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, Colo.