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Dear David and the art of digital storytelling

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Dear David didn’t just spook us all, it changed the way the web can be used to tell stories, as Misbah Gedal explains

If there’s one thing that the web has taught us, it’s that there will always be a new way to tell a story. And with an increasing amount of social media platforms offering ‘story’ features, it’s clear that people are looking for new and imaginative ways to get creative and tell stories that matter. Sure, most of these stories tend to be short videos from a night out, a holiday, or even just brunch, but every once in a while, someone takes it to the next level.

The story of Dear David

I first came across Dear David last year and quickly became hopelessly addicted to reading every tweet that its author, Adam Ellis, put out. The creepy tale of a child ghost haunting Ellis instantly became internet gold and his Twitter account rapidly gained over a million followers. Ellis constructed a web of intrigue by using just a keyboard and his Twitter profile, posting cryptic clues about the ghost child, along with blurry photos of the haunting itself. But what was it about Dear David’s story that made it scary enough for Hollywood producers to take notice?

I think I know why. There’s something uniquely unnerving about using a familiar and generally benign medium like Twitter to tell a horror story. And Dear David isn’t the first spooky tale to make use of an unusual medium. Way back in 1999, The Blair Witch Project horrified cinema-goers with its found footage style (which quickly became a modern horror trope). Faced with a new way in which to experience terror, audiences genuinely believe The Blair Witch Project was real – and the fact that the directors backed up the film with a ‘real’ website and sent their actors into hiding only added to the effect.

A new form of digital storytelling

Fast forward 20 years and, while the concept remains the same, the medium used to tell the story has drastically changed. Rather than a shaky VHS recording, it was a social media network that allowed Ellis to share his story in the most effective way. Taking a medium most commonly used to share news stories and updates from friends, Ellis was able to craft the most ‘real’ feeling horror story of the past decade.

A few weeks after the story began, articles started popping up online, all asking the same question: ‘Is Dear David real?’ – a testament to how spine-chillingly authentic the whole story felt. I doubt a standard written story, or even a YouTube video, could have had the same effect. It was Ellis’ use of mixed media and real-time messages that made Dear David the most intriguing internet story of 2017 – and teaches all creatives a lesson on how to tell their stories in a way that will get noticed.

Dear David and Wakelet

At Wakelet, we’re all about using content curation to tell your best story, so we naturally gravitated towards that way Ellis skilfully used the web to that effect. We were truly honoured when Ellis chose to make Wakelet the new home of Dear David, compiling all of the story’s tweets into a Wakelet collection. This made it really easy to follow the story without any distractions and it quickly became one of the most popular collections on the platform.

Dear David digital storytelling

And as it turns out, New Line Cinema, the studio behind modern horror classics including It and The Conjuring, has decided to turn Dear David into a film that will be going into production in 2019 – a twist ending that I’m sure even Ellis could never have predicted!

I think the most exciting thing about the Dear David phenomenon is that it’s helped break the shackles of internet conformity. It proves to other creatives that it’s fine to step out of the box and tell stories in unique and unusual ways. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what the internet is all about?

You can read the full Dear David story on Ellis’ official Wakelet account here