Digital Narratives

In his piece “The Database as a Genre of New Media,” Lev Manovich asked “How can one keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through the material if it keeps changing?” This question demonstrated with Manovich’s basic argument that digital content, specifically in the form of databases, cannot be manifested as a narrative. Manovich suggested that this lack of a narrative had begun to leak into the analog world, one which increasingly aligned with digital principles. One argument was that digital content typically takes the form of databases, or collections of items with no necessarily narrative based organizational system. Another reason he gave for this was that digital content is constantly being updated, hence the question, can a narrative with no end actually exist. Thus Manovich posits a digital realm in which there exists no potential for a narrative by virtue of its reliance on databases. However, Manovich did not anticipate the possibility that databases themselves could tell narratives.

Manovich referenced photo albums as an analog version of a database: a constantly expanding collection of images with no narrative. Except that all photo albums have a narrative. They tell the story of their creators, usually in chronological order, and without words. Online collections are no different. Many websites which could be considered collections – blogs, vlogs, social media profiles, websites – can also reveal narratives by virtue of their evolution over time. Manovich’s argument seems based on the idea that digital processing is at odds with human understanding. However, most digital structures are dependent on human’s understanding of time, and the importance of chronological order within human society. Rather than digital organization impacting analog society, the digital realm is an extreme representation of humanity’s organizational preferences. Because digital content cannot be organized in any manner illogical to human thought, it cannot avoid humanity’s tendency towards narrative building.

Rosensweig gave a prime example of this in his piece “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5.” In this essay, Rosensweig discussed his involvement in the project to establish a digital memory bank to collect personal accounts of Hurricane Katrina survivors in the aftermath of the storm. In recounting the evolution of the site, Rosensweig created a narrative. The story began long before the hurricane came onto the radar, with the development of the web itself. As the internet shifted from its early, more structured state to “web 2.0,” a more editable and interactive version, the beginnings of crowdsourced digital history collections appeared. The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank built on earlier attempts at crowdsourced collections, specifically the database dedicated to survivors of 9/11. As Rosensweig described the database, it became clear that this collection of individual narratives created multiple overarching narratives. The individual stories themselves demonstrated the impact of storms on impoverished communities, as well as government response times in relation to the socioeconomic alignments of certain neighborhoods. The rate at which the certain individuals shared their stories online also demonstrated rate of recovery within communities, and potentially the types of people who returned to New Orleans to rebuild.

 

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