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Posted on 02.14.2012

Cowbird Debuts New Saga on Valentine’s Day

If you’re still trying to wrap your head around Pinterest, a booming visual bookmarking site that has grown almost 400 percent in the last four months, then the mere mention of a new social site might cause your eyes to glaze over. But before you click away, hear me out. Email and text messaging have left many of us accustomed to instant gratification when it comes to communication, though impulsive tweets and status updates often lead to regret. Our methods of communication have evolved so rapidly, many of us can now tweet about anything (or nothing) within a few seconds. In the era of 140-character updates, when the lingo has become so foreign that you may need a translator to follow Twitter conversations, have our messages lost their depth? Jonathan Harris thinks so – and says his new project, Cowbird, houses personal, searchable storytelling – and may someday be the one-stop shop for an inclusive public library of human experience.

In an interview with Fast Company, Harris said, “It wasn’t clear to me how there was going to be another level of compression after tweets, unless we reverted to monosyllabic grunts. I thought we would hit some kind of wall, bounce back in the other direction, and people would start craving a little more depth.” The project is comprised of three parts: stories, diaries, and sagas. Cowbird is presently in beta mode – and storytellers are hand selected by Harris after filling out a brief bio. Once you have been accepted, you’re free to create your story. The more stories you add, the more your page begins to resemble a personal diary – in fact, that’s how Cowbird began – with Harris photo-documenting each day for a year, prior to the project’s launch. The layout of a Cowbird story page is intentionally uncluttered – and emphasis is placed upon the single photo. In some instances, the photo tells the author’s story more concisely than his words. The Kitchen, by National Geographic photojournalist, Aaron Huey, is a magnificent example of this.

The one-photo post illustrates two women, surrounded by friends and family, dancing – and if the black and white image with the accompanying tale is not enough to capture your attention, the audio track that begins soon after opening the page surely will. The Washington Post references this photo and its ballad in a summary of Harris’ new project: “Amid the clamor of most social media sites, on Cowbird everything slows down. It asks its viewers to linger over the single image of the women dancing and listen to their songs. There’s no rush. With that kind of beauty, why should there be?” I’m a fan of “following” authors, such as Huey, to receive updates when new posts are published. As an author, you can flip-flop between public and private story-telling modes until you’re ready to share your tale.

What really makes Cowbird stand out from other forms of blogging or sharing, such as Tumblr, Wordpress, or Flickr, is its method of cataloging personal experiences to make the stories searchable. If you’ve got a particular topic or location in mind, Cowbird’s search feature makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. All of the stories are interconnected through a series of tags, timelines, maps, and dedications. Explore the site’s first saga, the Occupy movement, and you’ll find hundreds of personal stories from the nationwide event. Sagas are designated by the site as monumental events affecting the population on a national – or global – level, and authors are encouraged to contribute their perspectives. “These types of rapidly changing events are hard for the mainstream media to write about because they tend to take a 10,000-foot view and summarize it, rather than getting in any real depth,” Harris said. Unlike sagas, stories can be about any topic or comprised of any tag – such as birthday parties, first cars, or wedding days, to name a few.

Today, a new saga debuts – fittingly titled First Loves. “A lot of the self-expression that happens online today feels more like self-promotion, and we didn’t want Cowbird to feel like that,” Harris said. “We want to tell the kind of stories that will still resonate in 100 years.” Our messages are continually shortened through limited-character posts – does Cowbird have what it takes to bring back the depth? And is anyone willing to give a new social network the chance? Let us know what you think.  

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