Cowbird website attempts to humanize the Web using multimedia storytelling

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Cowbird by Jonathan Harris

As I was flipping through the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal I came across the article “Can We Humanize the Web? New sites aim for story-telling that connects us.” The author details Princeton graduate and computer scientist Jonathan Harris‘ New Years resolution to “deepen the Web” by increasing the amount of heartfelt, intimate stories and decreasing the amount of superficial ones. His resolution is the recently-launched website Cowbird, which he has been working on since early 2009.

After playing with the site for awhile, I am impressed by the smooth UI and I particularly love how the visual component of the story is prioritized in its larger-than-life placement at the top of each story. Out of all of the stories I viewed, hands down the best one was “Iron Man,” which I highly suggest you see for yourself.

The stories are initially sorted by upload date, although users can sort the stories by the themes ‘people’ ‘sagas’ and ‘places’ or search for one story in particular. Stories have already been uploaded from 454 individuals showcasing stories in 71 countries. I look forward to seeing how this site blossoms as more storytellers join the initiative!

Here are a few interesting portions from the site’s FAQ:

Q. Why do you call it Cowbird?

A. We chose the name Cowbird to express the combined qualities of a cow and a bird.

Cows are slow, steady, and grounded, while birds are fast, free, and full of joy.

Most of the Internet — including websites like Facebook and Twitter — are all bird and no cow, while more traditional formats like novels and operas are all cow and no bird.

Cowbird combines these two extremes to form a new kind of storytelling medium — mixing the slow, deeply rooted, contemplative idea of a cow with the fast, efficient, playful idea of a bird.

Q. Why tell stories?

A. Stories help us be students and teachers of life. They help us untangle experience, and they help us find meaning. Telling a story increases awareness; hearing a story increases compassion. Stories are guidebooks for living and lifeboats for memory: they help us not to forget, and then later, not to be forgotten.

As individuals, we have about 30,000 days, and each of us will choose to fill them differently. We will choose to make art, make love, make friends, or make families, but no matter what we make of our lives, our greatest creation will always be our life story — the personal journey that unifies everything we do, think, and feel.

Q. How is this different from social networks?

A. As an alternative to the shorter, faster, more mindset that increasingly dominates our (digital) lives today, Cowbird is a place to slow down and go deeper — less about sharing what you link to and like, and more about sharing what life’s really like.

Cowbird is a place to find and tell stories. Real stories. The kind that take time to tell and that don’t disappear the moment they’re told.

Many social networking tools encourage incessant, continuous updates, under of the premise of fostering “nowness”, but we prefer a different kind of nowness.

Live your life. Take your time. See, and feel deeply. Later, with the clarity of hindsight, tell stories to make sense of your experience.

Q. How is this different from blogs?

A. Blogs are reverse-chronological diaries, consisting of individual entries, arranged in a vertical list.

Cowbird stories are lush, non-linear, richly interconnected environments, complete with maps, timelines, dedications, characters, and many other components.

Q. How many lines of code is Cowbird?

A. At the time of launch, Cowbird was 99,434 lines of PHP, 25,740 lines of Javascript, and 20,150 lines of CSS — over 145,000 lines of code in all.


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  • George

    Meh.  Seems like it’s asking way too much of both the author and the reader.  Nice idea, but I don’t see it having traction

    • http://www.tracyboyerclark.com Tracy Boyer Clark

      Interesting thought, George. Why do you think posting a story and browsing the stories is asking too much? In my opinion, posting a story is the same as a blogger publishing a blog post, or a videographer publishing a video to YouTube, etc. Similarly, browsing stories is the same as any Twitter or Facebook user browsing his/her feeds. Perhaps it is because they have to visit the site (pull) versus the content coming to the user (push)?

  • Kelly Andersen

    I love this take on storytelling. With everything we share online, stories are probably what people spend the least amount of attention on because they are the most time-consuming. This is definitely a great way to have people “slow down” and pay attention, but the trick is creating content that will latch on the viewer in the first few seconds and keep them watching, otherwise they will just click out.

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