Cowbird

“Cowbird is a simple tool for telling stories, and a public library of human experience.” Jonathan Harris’ latest project, just released, Cowbird is a gorgeous new platform for individual and collaborative storytelling. As Harris describes it on his site,

“Cowbird is a small community of storytellers, interested in telling deeper, longer-lasting, more nourishing stories than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the Web. We are building a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as part of the commons, available for this and future generations to look to for guidance.

Cowbird is also experimenting with a new form of participatory journalism, allowing people from all over the world to collaborate in documenting the overarching “sagas” that affect our lives today. Sagas are things like the Japanese earthquake, the war in Iraq, and the Occupy Wall Street movement — things that touch millions of lives and shape the human story. We believe the real story of a saga is the story of every single person touched by the saga. But it’s never been possible to tell that kind of story — until now.”

Harris is best known for We Feel Fine, “an almanac of human emotion“, created by sampling the world’s blogs every few minutes for the words “I feel fine” or “I am feeling”. The work, created with Sep Kamvar, made a stir when it was launched in 2005 and soon became an iconic piece. Still live, We Feel Fine still impresses for its innovation and for its realisation, bringing computer science, data visualisation and storytelling to bear on content that is unlocked by tapping into the common metadata structure of blogs.

While studying computer science at Princeton Harris noticed that, ”suddenly people en masse were leaving scores and scores of digital footprints online that told stories of their private lives; blog posts, photographs, thoughts, feelings opinions…so I started to write computer programmes that study very large sets of these online footprints.” The beautifully simple idea of sampling the blogosphere was one way Harris went about this, working with the human data in the snatches of self-expression being accrued moment by moment on social media platforms. I Want you to Want Me (2008) continued this line of inquiry, examining contemporary love and desire through the content that people post on dating sites. Since then Harris has explored the space where storytelling,human and machine meet in a number of fascinating projects including The Whale Hunt – a Nanook of the North for the digital age. You can explore them all on Harris’ site.

Cowbird enters a field which, partly inspired by Harris’ past work, is becoming busy.  Storify looks like a similar proposition but is about storytelling through aggregation rather than considered narratives by individuals. And Storify is a less alluring proposition. Cowbird is elegantly realised so that you want to explore (though I haven’t had time to yet). But I’m uncomfortable with the invitation based membership. It will no doubt guarantee a high quality of content, but it seems at odds with the project’s professed remit. A “small community” can no doubt tell some great stories. But can it be inclusive enough to build a “library” of “human experience”? I guess we’ll find out.

There’s an interview with Harris about Cowbird on Design Mind.

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