While the Internet is teeming with storytelling portals - including the one you're on right now - some rise above the rest: in quality, spirit, and ambition.
Enter... Cowbird.com, a growing community of storytellers, focused on a deeper, more personal kind of storytelling than you may find elsewhere online. Cowbird's mostly filled with images and words, but slowly and surely, audio stories are gaining ground. Not that it's a competition, but it's good to hear more sounds and voices in the mix, like Man With Thirteen Fingers, a short and energetic tale, in which Canadian traveler Jordan Bower meets an unusual man on the streets of India.
Be sure to click on EXTRA below to hear a few more audio stories from Cowbird, and to read an interview with content manager Annie Correal that will help guide you through the glorious maze of stories on Cowbird.com. Then request an invitation to join Cowbird and start sharing your own stories.
Annie Correal is a journalist based in New York, where she manages content and a growing community of authors on the storytelling platform Cowbird. She is also a founding editor of a forthcoming radio podcast in Spanish, Radio Ambulante. Previously, Annie reported on crime, breaking news and immigration topics for The New York Times, El Diario, and the Feet in Two Worlds Project. Her radio work has aired on This American Life, NPR, the CBC and Transom.org. Annie was raised in California and Colombia.
Jordan Bower is a Canadian storyteller exploring cross-cultural relationships in the globalizing world. His recent projects include a photography exhibition featuring portraits of Indians and Nepalis that was displayed in the advertising space inside a Toronto public streetcar as part of the 2010 CONTACT Photography Festival. He is currently developing a book and multimedia exhibition to retell the story of his 1,800 mile walking journey down the West Coast of the USA, seeking insight about love and coming of age.
Here are a few more audio stories from Cowbird. Note the corresponding images above.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Annie Correal, Cowbird content manager
How did Cowbird come to life, and where did the excellent name come from? (Being fond of avian-related mascots ourselves...)
Cowbird is the latest creation of Jonathan Harris. He spent 2+ years at artist residencies in Oregon, New Mexico, Iceland, and Vermont designing this platform, which he envisions becoming a library of human experience.
The name is meant to reflect the qualities of the platform: quick and agile like a bird, slow and grounded like a cow. A lot of the recent Web (including sites like Facebook and Twitter) seem to be all bird and no cow, while more traditional formats like operas and novels seem to be all cow and no bird. Cowbird combines these two extremes, forming a space that is both contemplative and efficient. Also, real-life cowbirds are known as "nest parasites": They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and fly away. We’re like a nest for our cowbirders: leave your stories here and we’ll take care of them for you.
How about some numbers: how many people behind the scenes, how many contributors (as of early February, 2012), how many stories, how many countries represented? Any other metrics you want to share?
At the moment, there are three of us behind the scenes – Jonathan, myself, and Dave, who manages our servers. We launched on December 8, 2011. As of today, over 5,000 people have signed up, and around 1,000 have told at least one story. We're taking a slow and measured approach to expansion. Every new author has to request an invitation by writing a few sentences about who they are and what kind of stories they'd like to tell, and we contact each new author personally to welcome them into our community. So far, Cowbird authors have told nearly 6,000 stories, and have loved the stories of other authors over 17,000 times (an average of 3 loves per story). Cowbird stories come from 104 countries and 968 cities. Our top countries are the U.S., the U.K and Canada, followed by India, Iceland and Sweden.
It's a bit overwhelming, the first time you land on the site, with so many stories beckoning. How do you suggest visitors begin to orient themselves and navigate through the stories?
The best way to get oriented is by using the icons in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. By choosing Stories, you can see our Handpicked stories of the day, browse some great new stories under Recommended, and check out some all-time favorites under Most Loved or Most Viewed. If you want to see what’s hot off the press, hit Newest. Once you’re an author, you can curate your own experience, by touring People and joining the audience of your favorite authors. Then you get a customized homepage consisting of stories by authors you admire.
Alternatively, you can hit Places on the homepage and view stories by country or city. Another way to navigate the site is by going to Sagas on the homepage. There you can see hundreds of photos from the Occupy Wall Street Movement, our first saga. We’ll be announcing a new saga next week, which I’m really excited about.
How do people become CB contributors, and how do you maintain a high quality of storytelling on the site, with so many people contributing?
Part of my job is to select stories, so that people don’t have to go through every new story that comes down the line. I send out a daily story to our community every day, which you can see as a group on our Handpicked page. And we tapped a few outstanding authors in our community to help us curate Recommended stories. These are reference points for our storytellers. We believe strongly in the power of good examples, and when authors see great stories from other authors, they aspire to create stories that are just as beautiful.
To join Cowbird, you can request an invitation on our homepage. The only prerequisite is that you be a thoughtful human – and not a human using the platform to market a product or anything else.
What's the ratio of stories that incorporate audio to text-based stories? What does hearing the authors' literal voices bring to their stories?
As of this week, we had around 360 stories with audio, out of a total of nearly 6,000 stories. That’s about one story with audio for every seventeen stories without. We’d like to increase that ratio. Hearing the authors’ voice, or the sound of what you’re looking at in a photograph, takes a story to another level. Also, I think it’s the best way to put your mark on a story: no one can replicate your voice. Your patterns of speech, the words you choose, your accent—all of that gives a story layers of meaning. And it slows people down, it calls on them to sit with the story, and perhaps to look more closely at the image while they do.
Audio producers should also check out our subtitles function. You can translate your audio into another language, and have those subtitles appear over the photograph as the sound is playing. Cowbird subtitles are also interactive, meaning listeners can click them to navigate through a given piece of audio.
Could the number of contributors become a liability eventually? Do you worry that you won't be able to keep up, or that overall quality could slip over time?
I think as long as we showcase the best stories, the quality will stay consistent or improve as our numbers grow. So far, it’s improved. I think the reason is that our authors are seeing the stories we’re recommending and handpicking and sending out every day. Also, we're trying to keep bad habits from spreading – say, posting a copyrighted song instead of original audio – by immediately asking authors to take such material down. But there seems to also be some self-imposed quality control. We’ve signed up thousands of authors and very few have simply uploaded cell-phone shots with snarky captions. There are many places for that on the Internet. Already, I think it’s clear that Cowbird is not one of them. Someone called us the Anti-Facebook.
Another thought on story quality and quantity – it’s important to remember that, even if a given author is not an accomplished storyteller, their stories will still be incredibly interesting and meaningful to the people who care about that author (his or her parents, children, spouse, friends, etc.). So it is really crucial to provide a space for all kinds of stories, because every story will be meaningful to someone. Then, it simply becomes a filtering problem, to ensure that the right stories are exposed to the right viewers. But that is a design problem, not a quantity problem.
Also, I should add that while I may be a little intimidated by the expanding volume of stories, Jonathan can’t wait to have hundreds of thousands of stories to work with, because then he’ll be able to write code to construct interesting interactive high-level portraits of everyone -- kind of like meta-portraits of humanity. A lot of his earlier work, like We Feel Fine, I Want You To Want Me, and The Whale Hunt, excelled at this.
Have you noticed certain trends in the stories people are telling, or in the approaches taken?
We’ve noticed trends since we launched in December, yes. People are writing very openly about very sensitive, sometimes difficult, topics – coping with cancer, a sister's suicide, their crippling anxiety or long-term unemployment. Jonathan and I were recently talking about how on Facebook people seem to want to look cool and like they’re having fun, while on Cowbird it’s almost the opposite: there’s this willingness to show vulnerability.
Also, remarkably, people write more about the people in their lives than they do just about themselves. This differentiates Cowbird from most blogs, which can sometimes be a bit narcissistic. People are approaching untouchable topics in their stories, like the suffering of others. A recent story comes to mind. The photograph was of the face of a homeless man. The author, Annie Atkins, told his story, and wondered at the end whether the last time he was touched was when his leg was amputated.
Among the group of storytellers posting consistently there seem to be slightly more women than men. A lot of the photographs have faces in them. We get more color photographs than black and white, longer stories from our older contributors, more and sadder stories from the Northern Hemisphere, where it’s winter now. Though on the whole, authors are focusing on finding the positive and the good.
People approach their subjects in all sorts of different ways. Most write reflectively about something they experienced. Some quote dialogue. Others write small prose poems or post a photograph and share what they see in it. Some interview their subjects with a mic—but not enough.
A few authors approach Cowbird more like a conceptual art space, with consistent, tightly scoped stories. For instance, Yen Ha in Brooklyn photographs objects she finds lying in the street and then writes stories from the perspective of those objects. Geoffrey Gevalt makes audio tributes to people he has known in his life. Charlotte Sullivan talks about lessons that different people have taught her.
There are so many storytelling outlets on the Internet - how can Cowbird remain unique and distinguished from the others? What are your goals, to this end?
There are a few things that set Cowbird apart.
First, unlike traditional blogging platforms, Cowbird is a single interconnected space, so every Cowbird story gets interwoven with every other Cowbird story. This exposes people to stories they might not otherwise find, and creates some beautiful network effects.
Second, Cowbird is a platform, not a curated space. There are many websites that curate great stories and disseminate them to an audience. But this approach is limited in terms of scale and scope. Because Cowbird is a tool that people use directly, its potential impact is much greater.
Third, and most importantly, is our community. Cowbird is quickly becoming the place on the Internet for talented storytellers to gather – and it’s one of the only places where non-professional storytellers stand side by side with seasoned pros. We believe it is the most beautiful place in the world to tell stories, and the most respectful and supportive community of storytellers.
As for our goals – well, recently a war photographer, Sebastian Meyer, created a breathtaking story about seeing a bomb drop while covering the conflict in Libya. He uploaded a photo of a billowing cloud of smoke and sand, along with the sound of the bomb dropping, and a few paragraphs describing what he saw and how he felt in the seconds before it hit the ground.
One of our goals is to collect more moments like these, to give people a place to record their experiences and provide a deeper account of the events that shape our human story. But unlike many other storytelling outlets, we’re not editors, nor do we impose a voice on our contributors, so ultimately we’re dependent on our authors to tell the kind of stories that will distinguish us from other places. Jonathan has created a clean and elegant design and offered authors the ability to combine image, audio and text simply and in one place. Now everything depends on our authors, on attracting them and cultivating them.