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Cowbird: An Anti-Facebook For Sharing Stories, Not Just Updates

Jonathan Harris, a noted digital artist, has unveiled his latest project: A site built for slow storytelling. His goal? Nothing short of a library of human experience.

Cowbird: An Anti-Facebook For Sharing Stories, Not Just Updates

Cowbird is a new platform for sharing stories online. Wait, wait! Don’t click away. While it’s true that there are already plenty of other platforms for posting pictures and text to the Internet, the design is in the details. With Cowbird, Jonathan Harris wants to encourage a slower kind of storytelling. In an environment rife with frictionless sharing in the form of tweets, status updates, and reblogs, Cowbird aims to stand out as a place for heartfelt expressions of personal narratives.

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On the one hand, Cowbird sounds simply like a blogging platform: Users can post pictures, sound clips, and text. But the site is built to encourage the careful retelling of a story, rather than whatever’s happening in the moment. Twitter, livestreams, and liveblogs are already great for that.

[Stories that involve many participants are labeled as “Sagas.”]

So stories in Cowbird are organized differently. Like any robust content platform, Cowbird has a rich set of tagging options (including the basics like people and places but with some more specialized ones like dedications). These are the heart of how posts on Cowbird relate to one another. For instance, instead of a stream in reverse chronological order based on the posting date, stories in Cowbird are tagged with the date of when the story happened. You can browse a timeline and find two stories next to each other even though they were written months apart because they are about the same event.

“We’re not trying to encourage longer stories, per se,” says Harris, “just longer-lasting stories.” That has been an obsession of Harris’s for a long time. He’s something of a guru when it comes to cataloguing emotion on the Internet. He’s most famous in design circles for creating We Feel Fine, a sprawling visualization of over 13 million separate sentences, scraped from blogs over three years. He’s created myriad other projects along those lines. But this is his first project that feels more like a viable product, and less like an art experiment.

Just as Tumblr wouldn’t be Tumblr without the native reblog function, or Twitter wouldn’t be Twitter without the 140-character limit, the heart of Cowbird is a full-screen image, followed by a written vignette. The design is intended to produce a contemplative feel and encourage users to stay with a story long enough to absorb it. Harris says that images accompanied by audio are particularly effective in this regard.

[Within a Saga, you reorganize by characters, to see the individual points of view inside the larger story.]
[Sagas can viewed by geography.]

“At any given moment, there should be the minimum possible number of elements on screen,” say Harris, “but it should be fast, fun, and playful to get more.” On the story pages, that means you start with the image, then you scroll down for the vignette, and then you scroll down for the administrivia (posting date, author, and other associated metadata). On the index pages, which allow you to browse through hundreds of stories, Cowbird uses a clear hierarchy with one or two large things, a few medium-sized things, and lots of tiny things. This gives a “combined sense of simple clarity and endless possibility,” says Harris.

Many of the design decisions aren’t about what Cowbird does, but what it doesn’t do. There are no comments, story pages don’t show how many Likes, or tweets, or +1s a story got, and they don’t allow video. Harris calls out the sins of most websites as cacophonous places filled with distracting headlines, banner ads, flash content, and other blurbs, trying to pull you to click on more things and do just about anything other than read the story. Given the rise of services like Instapaper, Readability, and Safari Reader, he’s not alone.

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[The heart of Cowbird is embodied by the smaller stories that people share.]

The posting page is similarly disciplined. “I love the idea of walking into an empty room with a single microphone dangling down from the ceiling, and then speaking into the microphone to communicate your story,” says Harris. The page is nearly bare, dominated by two edit boxes. One for the title, one for the vignette. Tastefully secreted around the edges are a set of tagging buttons and content controls. These will be used to ensure that your story finds its place in Cowbird’s ecosystem.

Cowbird’s tagging system allows a second layer of meta-storytelling, says Harris. Readers can choose to browse by any mixture of date, location, people involved, age, gender, theme, or other tags. As the pool of stories grows, this will allow collective stories to emerge. Cowbird can dynamically create these, allowing readers to page through narratives, catching an event from all kinds of angles and circumstances, like a computational Rashomon.

Harris sees an application here for participatory journalism. When an event happens with globe-spanning resonance, Cowbird can create “Sagas” which act as an umbrella for these collective events. The first event which Harris has chosen to demonstrate this capability is the Occupy movement. Cowbird had already been in development for nearly two years when the protests started, but Harris says that after spending time at Occupy Oakland, it was clear that the mainstream media was incapable of communicating the actual feeling there.

“The loosely organized, decentralized, quickly changing, unpredictable, and networked dynamic of the movement is exactly the kind of story that Cowbird was designed to tell,” he says, “As the thing is happening, I believe the best you can do is to record real experiences.”

None of these experiences will communicate the whole story, but as visitors see and hear enough of them, Harris thinks a certain feeling will emerge which gets at the emotional truth of these events.

Any computational collection is only as good as the metadata put into it, and here, Harris sees community as just as much a part of the UX as any UI element. Through six months of private beta-testing, Cowbird has built up a collection of posts which can act as examples of best practices. By starting with that seed and offering tips on how to write in a Cowbirdy style, Harris hopes to build a culture unique to the site.

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“A lot of the self-expression that happens online today feels more like self-promotion, and we didn’t want Cowbird to feel like that,” he says, “We want to tell the kind of stories that will still resonate in 100 years.”