Small town America is vanishing.
A hundred years ago, 72% of us lived in small towns. Today? Just 16%. Behind those statistics are thousands of stories. We’re partnering with State of the Re:Union and Hollow to create a narrative tapestry of the rise and fall of rural America, through the eyes of the people who live(d) there, left, or stayed.
If you’ve ever lived in a small town, we want to know: what’s the one thing that made you leave, stay, or return? We’re launching a new saga, Small Towns, to try to answer these questions.
Start your story with, “The one thing that made me [leave/stay/return]…” Keep your story short (50-250 words), add pictures and/or audio. Before you hit publish, remember two things: add a location, and add your story to the “Small Towns” saga. The best stories will have a shot at ending up on NPR.
Happy storytelling, no matter where you live.
Spring is in the air.
It’s been said that New Orleans will punch you in the face and then hand you a rose. And whether you’ve called it home, hammered nails in the Lower 9th Ward, or simply strolled down Frenchmen Street, you’ll probably agree it’s a city that leaves a lasting impression on your heart, soul, and liver.
As part of the Land of Opportunity project, we’ve been documenting the epic journey of post-Katrina reconstruction for more than six years. We’ve filmed folks from almost every corner of the city, including public housing residents, immigrant workers, artists, community organizers, politicians, and businesspeople. In the process, we’ve discovered that New Orleans is utterly unique but that its story is also the story of urban America everywhere: a story of hope, heartbreak, and ever-shifting landscapes.
This month, on the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we’re partnering with Cowbird to launch their first place-based saga — New Orleans.
Please share a story, memory, or moment that defined your own experience there, whether it was a weekend visit or a lifelong relationship. In words, images, and sounds, tell us how this city charmed, challenged, seduced, and changed you — or how it spat you out.
We’re excited to watch this saga unfold into a beautiful mosaic of stories as powerful and diverse as the city that inspired them.
With a rose,
Homes, families, schools, gangs, teams, boards, tribes, marriages, nationalities and occupations — these are some of the groups we use to define us. They are clusters of human beings with similar experiences, values, and goals. Most would agree that everyone wants to be a member of one of them, a part of something. But then there comes a moment when we aren’t.
Some of us were outsiders briefly, for a day or a semester. Maybe we were outsiders until someone sat next to us, until our government allowed us to go back to our country, or until our family let us come home for the holidays. Others are cursed with minds and hearts that keep them outsiders forever, and some even like it that way. Some can’t recall ever having been an outsider, and so to them, outsiders don’t seem to exist.
My past and fallibility have left me with a heart for the struggle and the struggling, and I often focus my energy on people who live on the margins of this great big world and its various classifications. I’ve learned that these people, who often go unseen, sometimes have the most to teach us about humanity and being alive — there is a raw wisdom and insight that comes from isolation. I’ve also learned that no matter how marginalized a person might be, they almost always want to share a story of their experience.
Today, we launch our fifth saga — Outsiders.
Please contribute your stories of being, observing, or embracing the outsider. If you look hard enough, you’ll probably find a piece of yourself in every outsider story.
The Voices of Pine Ridge
For the last eight years, Aaron Huey has been photographing life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, culminating in this month’s beautiful cover story for National Geographic Magazine.
Aaron has been using Cowbird to help the Pine Ridge community tell their own stories directly, and starting today, you can find hundreds of their own, unedited voices on National Geographic’s website, as an embedded Cowbird collection.
We hope this collaboration demonstrates a model that many other journalists and news organizations will follow for many other communities — using Cowbird as a way to give those communities a voice alongside the “official” account of their story. If you’re interested in piloting a project with us, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can browse the voices of Pine Ridge here — enjoy!
Today we celebrate storytelling legend Studs Terkel. With his seminal 1974 book Working, Studs gathered stories from over 130 Americans in different professions, exploring new and old ways of working.
As a birthday gift to Studs, who would have turned 100 today, we just launched our Working Saga.
This saga includes more than 400 stories - with beautiful images - from around the world. Like Studs’s ground-breaking book, this collection offers a glimpse at people working in many different places—in offices, airplanes, hotels, factories and call centers. Our saga also includes portraits of people who have kept the skilled trades alive, a cheese-maker and a street performer. With this globally crowd-sourced call to action, we’ve explored how people work today, and how that work shapes who they are. Explore the entire saga here.
Thanks to all of you, we did Studs proud.
Handpicked: “Hearts and Minds”
Charles Eckert is a photojournalist based in New York. His stories capture the people we don’t see when we turn on the news, like the Afghan soldier in this story, who created a makeshift radio station in his barracks using just an antenna, a cellphone and a microphone.
Charles discovered this story while embedded with an American tactical training team in Southern Afghanistan in 2008. The team was training Afghan soldiers to use new M16s when Charles first noticed Miya Gul. “One of these guys was so proud of his new rifle, he taped his photo to it,” Charles told me.
"One of the American trainers told me, ‘Not only is he a great shot, but he started his own radio station.’ These guys were being fired at from the next town over, so he decided to try to reach them and get them to stop. There was a homemade antenna sticking out of their barracks. I went in and asked Miya Gul if the radio station was still operational — and he started playing music from a cell phone. He seemed really smart. He thought one way to reach people was playing music, because it had been banned [under the Taliban]."
For two weeks before the First Loves Saga launched on Valentine’s Day, I stayed up late at night reading your love stories. Without number crunching, I can report a few trends.
Some are not very surprising. Around a fifth of the 390 stories posted to date feature photos or drawings of couples. A good number of first loves took place in high school and college. And hearts are all over this saga. Painted, carved, photo-shopped, shaped between two hands – you can’t escape them. Other popular images are flowers, flames, birds, and beaches.
Click on any of these images, though, and you’re likely to get something different than you expected. See that nice photo of a nesting bird? It’s a story about divorce. And that luscious purple blossom? It’s about not having a first love. Romantic love can be complicated, and possibly as a result, many authors have dedicated their stories to tried and true loves: their children, fathers, mothers, and dogs.
Another surprise is that only two authors have admitted that their first love began on the Internet. In a generation, that may change. For now, people still remember meeting the old-fashioned way — by chance: at a kibbutz, a music store, a convention center, backstage at a theatre, even at a cemetery. In love, as in storytelling, beginnings are important.
Cowbird, Inc., A Love Story
Today, Valentine’s Day, 2012, marks two important milestones for Cowbird.
First, we are announcing our second saga, First Loves, consisting of stories from people all over the world about the first person with whom they fell in love. It is a beautiful saga already, filled with hundreds of heart-stopping stories — like Aaron Huey’s impromptu wedding on a Russian tank hours after facing death by the Taliban; Annie Atkins’ clinical diagnosis of heartbreak; Whitney Jones’ rhythmic recollection of 28 firsts; and my own decision to break a long silence with my Dad. Take your time, have a look, see what you feel, and add your own story of first love.
Second, today we are creating a company to solidify the little labor of love known as Cowbird. Since launching Cowbird two months ago, the response has been tremendous, and it’s quickly become more work than I can do alone. My dear friend, Annie Correal, has joined Cowbird as our full-time Community Manager, and Dave Lauer has been a hero in keeping our servers alive. We need to pay these folks for their excellent work, and there are many beautiful things that we want to build, for which we’ll need some resources. So we’re planning to raise a small amount of money over the next few months to help propel Cowbird into the future. We’ll continue to take a slow and thoughtful approach to everything we do, but there will be some exciting additions coming soon.
I never thought I would find myself in the position of starting a company, but it seems to be the path that makes the most sense. We considered keeping Cowbird as an art project, but that would limit our ability to grow and evolve. We considered starting a non-profit, but the prospect of constant fundraising and bureaucratic red tape felt like a costly distraction. Starting a company felt like the most nimble and flexible approach. But don’t worry, we’re going to be a nice company!
We still have the same threefold mission: to build a space for a longer-lasting kind of self-expression than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the Web; to pioneer a new form of participatory journalism grounded in the simple human stories behind major news events; and to build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as part of the commons.
In the long-term, we believe it’s crucial that Cowbird be self-sustaining financially. We’re committed to keeping Cowbird free of advertising forever, but we have some other interesting ideas around building a creative economy (without selling your personal information), which we’ll introduce at some point down the line, when the time is right.
We’re not sure where this path will lead, but we’re incredibly excited for the journey. In the words of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, “There are thousands of paths. They all lead nowhere. You must ask yourself one question: ‘Does this path have a heart?’ If it does, the path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use.”
Here’s to a path with a heart,
Behind the scenes at Cowbird
Julie Shapiro: 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 Cowbird 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.
Keep on Occupying!
Last fall, after 2+ years of solitary programming and soul-searching in various far-flung corners of the world, Jonathan was putting the finishing touches on Cowbird when a movement suddenly hatched. A handful of protesters set up camp in New York City’s Zucotti park, and Occupy Wall Street was born.
As the movement grew, it gave Cowbird its first saga — Occupy — and helped us articulate a vision for the platform as a place for the public to tell its own account of the events that shape human life on our planet today.
Jonathan started by documenting his own experience at Occupy Oakland — its faces, its stories, its observers, its jokes, its teachers, its heroes, its accidents, its funerals, its opponents, its gatherings, its arguments, and what happened when the tensions overflowed.
He contacted people in other cities and asked them to post stories about what they were witnessing in their own camps — and word of Cowbird spread from Boston to Missoula to Oklahoma City to Spain.
Some authors used Cowbird to record the messages of the movement for posterity, while others played the part of observers, capturing the people who joined the movement, its unforgettable scenes, and how the protests opened the floodgates for new conversations.
In the late fall, the police response to the Occupy movement swelled. The public was riveted by news accounts of hundreds of people arrested in California and New York, and Cowbird recorded this later stage in the movement as well.
Now that winter is upon us, and the protests have mostly moved indoors, we at Cowbird are seeking stories that go beyond the cardboard signs and the strident cries, going a little bit deeper into the underlying problems facing our society today, and which inspired the Occupy movement in the first place.
If you quit a job out of disgust with the financial system, like this man, or if you know someone who lost his or her job or life savings because of the economic crisis, we invite you to tell that story. Other good stories would be those of foreclosed-upon homes and businesses that have had to close during the last few years. The chronic unemployment of our younger generation is another topic that we’d like to explore.
As you start thinking about how to chronicle your particular experience of complicated events like Occupy, remember that the best way to tell a complicated story is simply.
The story of your community, your family, or your life path can be analyzed in abstract language, but it can also be expressed much more directly: through the image of the worn fingerless gloves you wore when you camped out at Zuccotti, a photo of the bruise left by handcuffs, or a picture of a simple meal eaten with strangers.