Digital Narrative and Temporality

Abstract (in English): 

We sometimes hear it said that our relationship with time has been altered. In companies and administrations, the adoption of New Management strategies means that employees feel themselves subjected to ever increasing urgency and stress. The “FOMO Syndrome,” the anxiety generated by our fear of missing out on something in a world in which we are exposed to a constant flow of information and access to other people’s narratives (or at least to their stories), is a phenomenon inherently linked to the digital environment. The Covid-19 crisis has no doubt accentuated this tendency, with its injunction to stay increasingly connected (particularly to social media and video conferencing platforms), and to immediately respond to digital notifications and sollicitations on a 24/7 basis.

According to Paul Ricoeur, “narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence”[1] (Ricoeur, 1984). From this perspective, narrative is our principal tool for situating ourselves in time ― and for experiencing time within ourselves. Moreover, the Digital may be characterized as “a tool for the phenomenal deconstruction of temporality” (Bachimont 2010). This is reflected in its two main tendencies: that of real time calculation, conveying the impression of immediacy, and that of universality of access, conveying the impression of availability. The digital, thanks to its availability and its immediacy, thus leads to constant present, without any impression of the passage of time (Bachimont, 2014).

What happens then when the digital and narrative come together, when digital technology and narrative discourse, between which obvious tension exists, are combined? What happens when we exploit the particularities of “programmable media,” to use the term coined by John Cayley (2018), which for Bruno Bachimont are essentially detemporalizing, to tell a story, which we traditionally consider as being structured by an internal temporality and linked to an external temporality? From such a perspective, the term digital narrative would appear almost oxymoronic.

Digital narratives do nevertheless exist and are proliferating in multiple forms and thanks to varied approaches. What kind of temporal experiences are constructed by these new forms of digital narrative, and how are they constructed? Reciprocally, what new narrative forms, or even new concepts of narrative do these new temporal experiences provided by digital technology offer to us? The challenges lie in the manner in which narratives, revisited for and by digital tools and the digital environment can on one hand stand up to the deconstruction of time provoked by the said tools and environment, and on the other hand make us reflect on our relationship with time, and on the place of narrative as a discursive mode in our culture and our ways of interpreting the world.

In this article we will focus on three very different types of digital stories, in order to analyse the diverging potentialities of the relationship between the digital, temporality, and narrative. We will study two artistic creations on the one hand, and the widely used social media feature of stories on the other.

We will first examine a fictional work written for the smartphone[2] (downloadable from an app store), which is based on notifications, i.e. in which a fictional character regularly sends notifications to the user. This type of narrative plays on notions of temporality, with the intrusion of the reader’s real time.

We will also study a narrative based on a real time data flow[3]. The constraints imposed on the narrative by this type of apparatus imply that the causality of events is replaced by the sequentiality of real events. Yet this technical specificity, the linking of the narrative to a real time data flow, can mean that life’s contingencies enter into the narrative and result in a “pure time experience” (Chambefort, 2020).

Finally, with a change of field and direction, we will examine the phenomenon of the stories made possible notably by platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, which allow users to display a short video clip, an animated or static picture, a text or even a mini-survey for a default duration of twenty-four hours, which in turn is temporalized and presented to users with an associated duration of fifteen seconds, after which the feature automatically displays the next story available in the user’s newsfeed.

These three examples each explore the notion of temporality and the use of time in the digital “narrative” from a different angle: first, the interaction between the real time of the reader and his/her reading with narrative time, and so with the fictional work, then that of the diegetic time determined by the data flow, which thus becomes the temporal axis of the work in question, and finally the temporality imposed by the story features on various platforms, presented as a constitutive aspect of the story, and which the content provided by the user adopts and integrates.

[1] “Time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence.” (Ricoeur, 1985).
« Le temps devient temps humain dans la mesure où il est articulé de manière narrative ; en retour le récit est significatif dans la mesure où il dessine les traits de l’expérience temporelle. »

[2] Enterre-moi, mon amour (Bury me, my love), The Pixel Hunt and ARTE France, 2017:

[3] Lucette, gare de Clichy, Françoise Chambefort, 2017:


ELO 2021: Reading, temporality and genres, May 26, 2021

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Record posted by: 
Milosz Waskiewicz