Storytelling 2.0: Cowbird Classes Up Our Communication

After testing it out on himself and 100 other storytellers, Jonathan Harris launches Cowbird, a website that seeks to become the ultimate public library of human experience.

Our standard mode of written expression, which started as letter writing, currently hovers around the level of the tweet—140-character missives about anything (or nothing) at all. Perhaps not for long, though.

Last week, Internet innovator and artist Jonathan Harris launched Cowbird, a space on the web for housing deeper and more personal storytelling. It’s a project that aspires to no less than building a comprehensive public library of human experience.

“It wasn’t clear to me how there was going to be another level of compression after tweets, unless we reverted to monosyllabic grunts,” Harris says. “I thought we would hit some kind of wall, bounce back in the other direction, and people would start craving a little more depth.”

Cowbird takes the deliberate, cow-like pacing of traditional storytelling media such as the novel, and gooses it with the quick-hit, bird-like qualities of Facebook and Twitter. Users within a small community of storytellers handpicked by Harris post images and accompanying text, and continue doing so until a larger narrative begins to reveal itself.

“There are things that happen now in the world which are so large and global and quickly changing and hard to really understand, but are touching millions of people’s lives in one way or another,” Harris says. For recent examples of such events, which he dubs "sagas," Harris lists the earthquake in Japan, Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement. “These types of rapidly changing events are hard for the mainstream media to write about because they tend to take a 10,000-foot view and summarize it, rather than getting in any real depth.”

It’s not just mass media either—on an individual level, people have been describing their personal stories with less range too. Harris’ “We Feel Fine” project, which culminated with a book in 2009, tracked usage of sentences containing the words “I feel” or “I am feeling” on over 12 million personal blogs around the world. When he started tracking, usage was at about 20,000 utterances per day; now it’s about 8,000. This decrease is partially explainable by a lack of input from Facebook, which has absorbed some of the personal storytelling that would have been on blogs, but not completely. “People aren’t communicating with the same level of depth as they were in the early days of the Internet, and certainly not as much as in the pre-Internet days,” Harris says. “The idea of Cowbird is to try and bring that depth back.”

The stories on the site are richly interconnected, complete with maps, timelines, dedications, and many other components. The basic structure of Cowbird consists of three levels: stories, diaries, and sagas. The basic story is a photo with text (although these can also include audio and other features). As more stories are added, they begin to comprise a person’s diary. Users can also flag some stories and diaries as being part of a larger saga—events like the above-mentioned Arab Spring—making them appear in two places. It’s a complex project that Harris has been working on for three years.

Jonathan’s projects vary in subject matter, but they are all centered on the relationship between humans and technology, and helping the former influence the latter more than vice versa. Last June, he started inviting friends and people whose storytelling he admired, and asked them to be test subjects. This invitation resulted in a community of about 100 active users over a couple months. In 2010, though, he first tested the Cowbird concept himself, documenting every day of his own life and sharing it in the Today project. Later he would end up using Cowbird a lot more frequently to document his involvement in the Occupy movement—the only event to erupt in America so far worthy of being dubbed a saga.

“It’s very difficult to communicate the story of one of these sagas while they’re happening. Those stories only come into focus when you’ve had a little distance from the thing. While it’s happening, I think the best you can do is create a living folk history of that thing, based on personal experience,” Harris says. “Over time you see enough of those, you start to have this feeling that emerges, and it’s closer to the emotional core of the event than any one account would ever be. Cowbird is after that emerging feeling.”

Although some sites such as Storify offer deep digs on all the major stories discussed on social media at any given moment, Cowbird shines a light in the darker corners that elude the gaze of most social spotlights. It’s a Facebook where people share more about what their lives are actually like, and in greater detail. Storytellers can toggle between private and public modes until they’re ready to share, while other users can “join an author’s audience”, and receive updates like an RSS feed.

“We all have unique experiences and if we don’t pass them on, they evaporate when we die,” Harris says. “If there were a way to embody some of that wisdom so that other people could learn from it, that would allow us to grow on an individual level, but also a species level, from generation to generation.”

By encouraging people to document and catalog these experiences, Cowbird has the potential to become an organic anti-panopticon, capturing the stuff of life that can’t be sufficiently synopsized. Harris is confident that this is something people will want to do. “It’s asking something very different than firing off a tweet from your cell phone,” he says. “It asks a lot more of you as a storyteller, but I think it gives back a lot more too.”

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