Cowbird is a simple tool for telling stories using images, text and audio. It was created by Jonathan Harris, an artist and computer scientist known for projects like We Feel Fine, I Want You To Want Me, and The Whale Hunt, which use vast amounts of data to create new forms of narrative. Cowbird, which may look simple, is made up of around a quarter million lines of code. We launched in December 2011 and as of now more than 50,000 stories have been told on Cowbird, by about 20,000 people from around the world. 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.
If you’re an audio producer, Cowbird gives you a way to combine your tape with an image, and a beautiful way to share your audio pieces with the world. Here is our collection of audio stories, which should give you a sense of the range of voices on Cowbird and the narrative possibilities of playing with image and sound.
I’d like to talk about the practical aspects of sharing your audio using Cowbird; then I’ll get back to the stories.
First, Cowbird is a great way to create a gorgeous portfolio of stories, like this one. Unlike a personal website – which, let’s be honest, few people look at – your Cowbird stories have a life of their own. They are being read by people around the world, who can offer feedback by loving them or by joining your audience. To reach people who aren’t on Cowbird, you can share your stories individually over Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or by sending them in an email directly from Cowbird. If you’re not a photographer, you can use illustrations or colored panels alongside your audio.
Second, Cowbird isn’t just a place to get comfortable with multimedia storytelling, it’s a perfect way to develop a project, or share one that would otherwise just sit around on a drive somewhere. Audio producer Aengus Anderson has shared his Decisions Project — a series of short pieces that listen in on people talking about the hardest decision they’ve ever had to make.
Editors and producers are browsing Cowbird all the time (using the amazing DNA search tool, which allows you to find exactly what you’re looking for). Marketplace, Snap Judgment, and Third Coast’s Re:Sound have all encountered stories on Cowbird and featured the authors on their shows. This story, by Transom Story Workshop alum Whitney Jones, was featured on Re:sound and has been viewed more than 5,300 times. Also, it’s one of our personal favorites.
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
Finally, Cowbird is a place to create strong connections with other producers and learn about their work — starting, say, with people who have identified themselves as radio producers or multimedia producers. Lately, we’re loving the work of Leila Day, Tina Antolini and Catie Talarski. That’s not to say you should limit yourself to audio producers — if you’re looking for exciting audio experiences, check out Aaron Huey’s stories (we adore this one) and Sebastian Meyer’s story about a bomb dropping in Libya.
Now, a few thoughts on multimedia stories. Over the last year, I’ve gone through tens of thousands of stories on Cowbird. Too many people think ‘multimedia’ means jamming a bunch of media in one space. In the best multimedia stories, the media are integrated: the audio gives you an insight into the image that makes you look more closely at it, and deepens your understanding of what you’re looking at. The key is to make different media speak to each other, like Scott Thrift does in this story. That doesn’t necessarily require a lot of production. Sara Curtis pulls that off masterfully with a short sound byte, here.
Here’s a simple principle I’ve come up with — ‘Your image is the cow, your audio is the bird.’ In other words, your image is the still point that offers viewers a place to rest their attention and ruminate as they listen to your tape. Your audio, meanwhile, is a way to bring movement, change and life to the image.
This fall we’re partnering with Radio Diaries to gather stories from America’s teens, the best of which will be featured on NPR later this year. Here’s a little more about that, including a step-by-step guide to how to add your own story to the project, if you’re a teenager. This is our second media partnership. Our first, with National Geographic, was the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project. Photojournalist Aaron Huey extended this storytelling tool to residents of a Native American Reservation in South Dakota, who told their stories on Cowbird, in their own words.
Cowbird was recently chosen by TIME as one of the 50 Best websites of 2012. It’s completely ad-free and independent. If you’re interested in supporting our project, you can become a Cowbird Citizen. And if you just want to learn more, you can start here.