The Never-Ending Story

Artist Jonathan Harris’s new digital platform aims to help people find a signal amid social media noise. He spoke to frog Content and Community Manager Kristina Loring about his innovative form of digital storytelling.

In 2006, Jonathan Harris and a colleague launched We Feel Fine, a project that took the Web’s emotional pulse by culling personal data from blogs. It was the first of several groundbreaking websites that Harris helped to create, and the project attracted widespread attention. In the following years, however, Harris began to feel like a voyeur.

Determined to find a more open, transparent way to chart shared human experiences, he retreated into solitude, altered his approach, and developed a new digital storytelling platform called Cow Bird. The platform, which he plans to release “soon,” encourages people to tell long-form stories online using photos, sound maps, timelines, videos, and casts of characters. It then spins a larger “meta” tale from their commonalities. With Cow Bird, Harris aims to revive letter writing in the digital era—providing the Internet generation with a deeper, more reciprocal means of communication than shouting into a disconnected social media void.

How would you define storytelling? I define storytelling as the untangling of, and bringing order to, the chaos of actual experience and packaging it in a way that is usable for yourself and other people going forward. There is an interesting psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Shay, who studies post-traumatic stress by comparing the experience of Iraq war veterans with heroes from ancient Greek tragedies coming home from war. He concludes that what is missing now is the crucial decompression period of the soldiers’ journey home. In ancient Greece after battle, soldiers had a two-month boat trip home during which they could compartmentalize experience into stories, so they could be ready to reintegrate with their families and share the experience in a very mythical, well-understood way. Now, as a soldier coming back from Iraq, without that time to create a story, you’re rocked by that chaos. So, I think that’s something stories can do—prepare their way of finding meaning in this madness and bringing some order to the chaos.

How do you think technology or a Web platform can encourage people to share their stories? Stories online aren’t really stories right now. They’re like fragmentary reactions to things for the most part. They’re like little nerve firings. Very rarely are they fully formed thoughts and expressions and so on. So, I think creating a space that’s more about slowing down and contemplating and being introspective is a prerequisite for getting people to tell stories that have impact. When you design a space that encourages short, reactionary verse, people are going to give you short, reactionary verse. Maybe when you design a space that’s not encouraging that, people will use more depth in their self-expression.

Tell us more about your current project, Cow Bird. Is it headed in that direction? Cow Bird is basically a storytelling platform that people can use to tell stories online using photos, sound maps, timelines, videos, and casts of characters. It’s geared towards long-form narrative, so it’s kind of the opposite of Twitter and Facebook and all of that fragmented stuff in that it encourages introspection. But the second part of it is the interesting part, which is that when many different people tell stories, the system automatically finds connections between them and weaves them together into a kind of meta-story. In the long-term, it will hopefully become like a reference library for real-life experiences the same way we have public libraries for science, math, and historical fact. I’ve been building and designing it for almost two years, and I’m almost done now.

How does the “meta-story” part work? The structure is that an author creates a story that consists of an integrated memory containing photography, sound, text, or a video. They tag it with a location, time, date, themes, and identify who was in it. The platform automatically analyzes all the text in your memory, figures out your cast of characters, and connects it to previous stories.

How can people see themselves in this work? How do you think people are going to integrate themselves into the platform over time? Those were the questions I was asking myself for the past two years. I saw the limitations in my own work, and I wanted to build something to transcend those limitations. The big question is whether it’s going to resonate with people or not, because the trend for years has been shorter, faster, more. This platform is reversed. It’s asking people to not follow that trend anymore and to move toward longer, slower, less.

People seem to enjoy the highly fragmented nature of social media. Is there really a need for longer-form storytelling? The Twitter and Facebook stuff seems to be constantly devoured by its own novelty. Every item is smothered by the one that comes after it, and that happens continuously, 24 hours a day. There’s no sense of a collection or of building anything. One thing that I’ve been trying to get back was that feeling of when I used to keep sketchbooks, knowing I could pass down a record of [my] life. It’s that feeling of building something, not just drowning in the moment all the time.

With blogs right now, there seems to be a hyperconsciousness of personal branding that inhibits full self-expression. On your platform, will users have the ability to comment on other people’s stories? Would that hinder authenticity? Curation is one of the big changes in blog characteristics that I’ve noticed in the past few years. People don’t blog in the way that they blogged in 2006 anymore. They mainly post links to stuff now and annotate. So now there’s this phenomenon, this idea, that you are what you link to. But the type of self-expression that’s been happening on the Web is not actually anyone’s experience as a human; it’s just decorations without any true expression of life experience.

So, how can we raise the stakes? A lot of online platforms are missing an important aspect in storytelling, which is the listening part. Can you build that type of engagement through technology? Well, one of the pieces of this system I’ve been building is that to tell the story you have to dedicate it to somebody, which creates a gift economy of stories. It’s like changing the scale of the discourse, a deeper phenomenon of one story being answered with another story being answered with another story.

So, is it the need to reciprocate the gift story that will drive people to engage with the new platform? Yes, but it is also that it takes a little bit of the loneliness out of online existence, which can stem from just shouting into the void. It’s more like sending a letter instead. There’s a hard-wired connection between two points, even if there are other things existing around that rope. I don’t think you can resist technology. It’s far too powerful, so what you do is shape it into a place that you want to live or the way you want to live with it.