The Recollective had a great time this summer at the 4th & 1 Football Camps. Back in August we shared a sample of the stories we recorded at each of the two camps. Listen to the student-athletes in Mount Pleasant, TX right here and watch an audio-slideshow from East Lansing, MI right here.
After we packed up our gear and returned home, Vivian Chum, the Executive Director of 4th & 1 went one step further and began posting excerpts of the recordings on Cowbird. And what, you may ask, is a Cowbird? Wikipedia defines Cowbirds as “…birds belonging to the genus Molothrus in the family Icteridae. They are brood parasitic New World birds which are unrelated to the Old World cuckoos, one of which, the Common Cuckoo, is the best-known brood parasitic bird.” But producer Annie Correal has a very different definition and she shared it with us in a recent interview.
Annie: Every group has a different approach to Cowbird — but they all ask us about the name. So here’s the answer: We’re slow and thoughtful like a cow, quick and light like a bird.
The Recollective: So how did Cowbird get started?
Annie: Jonathan Harris is an artist and computer scientist known for projects like We Feel Fine, I Want You To Want Me, and The Whale Hunt that incorporate vast amounts of data to create new forms of narrative. He spent two years developing Cowbird at art residencies around the world, and in a small beach bungalow in northern California.
He built this storytelling platform from scratch. It looks simple, but there are a quarter million lines of code underlying Cowbird. We launched in December, 2011 and to date around 20,000 people have joined us. They can tell their stories using photos, audio and text, folded into beautiful stories that can be shared across the Web.
The Recollective: What is Cowbird’s mission?
Annie: Our goal is 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. When you tell stories on Cowbird, we automatically find connections between your life and the lives of others, forming a vast, interconnected ecosystem.
The Recollective: Is there a guiding philosophy behind Cowbird?
Annie: We build the world’s simplest and most beautiful storytelling tools, and we offer them for free to anyone who wishes to use them. By doing this, we hope to build a community of people interested in telling deeper, longer-lasting stories than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the Web.
We want to be as inclusive as possible, and are finding ways to extend this tool to people who are often written about, but who haven’t had a way to share their story in their own words—like the residents of a Native American Reservation in South Dakota, who told their stories as part of our first partnership, with National Geographic, the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project.
We’re interested in the kinds of stories like these, that will continue to resonate in 100 years. We’re not interested in selling data about people’s behavior, or using people’s stories to advertise products. Cowbird is completely ad-free and independent. We offer a premium account, which we call Citizenship, for people who want to support what we do.
The Recollective: Is Cowbird looking for specific kinds of stories or themes?
Annie: We welcome all kinds of stories. I would personally love to see more playful stories, by which I mean pieces that play with the narrative possibilities of combining image, text, and audio. I like illustrations, found sounds, stories that transform how you see an image, so that you undergo an actual change in perception by listening to them or reading them. Lisa Biagiotti does that in this story. Scott Thrift does that in this one. A lot of people who are starting to work in multimedia haven’t seized these possibilities. Too many people think multimedia means jamming several media in one space. The key is to make media speak to each other, to integrate them.
The Recollective: How can people contribute and in what forms?
Annie: To contribute to Cowbird, all you have to do is Join. Once you create an account, you can tell unlimited stories that can include image, text and audio. As an independent producer, I’m hoping to get a lot more storytellers who are comfortable working with audio. Cowbird is a fantastic place to post short audio pieces, to create a gorgeous portfolio of your work (I’m sorry, but no one is looking at your website) and to share these pieces individually over Facebook and Twitter. We’ve had Cowbird stories picked up by Snap Judgement, Marketplace and Re:Sound. You can tell stories for free. If you’re a Citizen, you can tell these stories using multiple pages, and in your own handwriting font.
The Recollective: What trends have you seen in terms of subject matter?
Annie: What you’d expect from people sharing personal stories, I guess—birth, love, loss, death. I think the most interesting trend, for me, is that there are a number of stories by young people about detaching from technology, stories by 20-somethings interested in creating a new way to live that’s more connected to physical presence, the world outdoors, tangible things. This story kind of sums that up.
The Recollective: Have you been surprised by who has contributed stories or by the stories themselves?
Annie: Absolutely surprised. We have people in every corner of the world telling stories on Cowbird, including China, where Cowbird seems to have flown under the radar. And we have stories about virtually anything you can think of — check out our DNA Search and you’ll see what I mean. Of the 50,000 stories added to Cowbird to date, there are of course thousands about family, love, and travel. But we also have 155 stories that mention a bomb, and 28 stories that feature a ladybug. I’m surprised every time someone chooses to share a secret on Cowbird. And kind of honored, actually.