Participatory Storytelling

In a recent post about photojournalist Aaron Huey, I described how he uses Cowbird.com to chronicle his project on the Pine RidgeIndian Reservation. Cowbird.com is a web-based product for “a community of storytellers” that, by offering users storytelling tools for free, will “automatically find connections between your life and the lives of others forming a vast, interconnected ecosystem.”

To be honest, I’m struggling with the concept behind Cowbird. It seems to extract individual perspective from a story, leaving information (such as images, sounds and text) for the viewer/listener to interpret and make sense of. In a sense, the narrator has vanished — or maybe proliferated — and what remains are story elements that we (as viewers/listeners) need to assemble & compose into story.

But I’m running into similar themes elsewhere. 

In a September 2012 post on PBS.org, author Sue Shardt in “Public Media Reinvents Itself With ‘Full-Spectrum’ Storytelling” describes a reinvention of storytelling within public media involving citizens as participants — not merely recipients — of documentary stories:

We are working in accordance with the fact that citizens are not only consuming radio and television over the air, they are downloading, creating, remixing, and sharing all kinds of media on small and large screens, and increasingly, in the street via mobile devices… Text, image, audio, video and dynamic user-generated submissions are all converging, spawning dynamic new media life forms.

Sue Shardt, as executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio (“AIR”), explains how AIR’s Localore is one of the “boundary-pushers”. Localore is a platform for independent producers to distribute documentaries about events affecting their lives.  Similar in nature to the qualities inherent in Cowbird, Localore provides a mechanism for collaboration and participation in the documentation that is underway. Shardt explains:

There are more than 120 station-based, community, technology, and field producers operating out of our station hubs. The work underway recognizes the full spectrum. From a storytelling standpoint, there are multiple access points for citizens to not only experience, but to contribute as documentarians of their own lives. One operating principle for our work is that these access points should be identified, at least for a time, “outside” the current public broadcasting structure — both physical public media buildings (onto the “street” plane) — and also outside the broadcast space.

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