Jonathan Harris: A Better Way To Tell Stories Online

Jonathan Harris: A Better Way To Tell Stories Online

New media artist explains the redesign and simplification of his popular multimedia narrative sharing site Cowbird.

Jonanthan Harris, Number 27
  • 9 october 2012

It has been a real joy to witness our community evolve over the past ten months, from a small gathering of personal friends to the global family of storytellers that Cowbird is today.

I built Cowbird because I wanted a beautiful tool that I could use to tell my own stories, and no other tool felt right. I was interested in creating a space on the Web that could be a sanctuary for a deeper, longer-lasting kind of self-expression — a refuge from the clamor, clutter, vitriol, superficiality, and competitiveness that plagues so much of the online world today. Together, I believe we’ve made such a space. Some of you have written to me and called Cowbird, “churchlike,” or “a contemplative, almost sacred environment,” or simply said, “It’s just so human.”

I set out to build a tool, but I realize now that I was actually building a community. Tools are extensions of who we are, and Cowbird is an extension of all of us who use it, who make Cowbird what it is.

We launched Cowbird on December 8, 2011. There are nearly 20,000 of us now. Collectively, we have told nearly 40,000 stories and given over 400,000 loves.

I’ve learned a lot over the past ten months — about tools, about community dynamics, about companies, about money, about anonymity, about commitments, about time, and about all of you, many of whose stories I have read and loved. And through your stories, I have also learned more about life.

A few days ago, we released a new version of Cowbird, which Dave, Annie, and I have been developing over the past six months. We’ve gotten lots of feedback on the new version (most great, some bad), and I’d like to explain some of our decisions — what’s different, and what’s stayed the same.


The main idea behind the redesign was to simplify Cowbird down to its essence — the simple act of telling stories, and connecting those stories to other stories. Cowbird’s mission has always been to build a public library of human experience — and not to build another social network (the Web is full of those). That’s why, from the outset, we chose not to have comments, and not to have a messaging system. We wanted Cowbird to be a silent, contemplative, and reverential place for meaningful stories that stand on their own — the kind of stories that will still resonate 100 years from now.

Over time, we noticed that Cowbird was starting to feel like a popularity contest, and many potential authors were finding Cowbird intimidating. They felt like people were overposting to increase their love counts and audience members, and that the same small group of authors were increasingly visible on the site, creating a cycle in which the rich got richer, and newcomers had trouble fitting in. This dynamic felt inconsistent with our ideals of equality and inclusiveness. So, in the new Cowbird, love counts and audience members are slightly less visible (though still just one click away), so the browsing experience is less about authors, and more about great stories. It’s still easy to see who loved a certain story, but we’ve moved that information to the “Connections” panel, so the experience of viewing a story is totally pure. You can also still see a given author’s audience members and other numerical statistics, but we’ve moved that information to the author’s profile page (here’s mine), which feels more appropriate.

About six months ago, we introduced an experimental feature called “Sprouting”. Authors could “sprout” a new story from an existing story. This was meant to mimic the dynamic of being around a campfire, and following the natural flow of conversation, where one story leads to another, and so on. We made the mistake of introducing this feature without giving any good examples, and so it ended up being used primarily as a messaging system between authors. Some people used sprouting in beautiful ways — to hold storytelling challenges, and to echo other authors’ stories, saying, “I hear you, and this is what happened to me” — but the vast majority of sprouted stories were not really stories at all — they were more like personal public messages from one author to another. Again, this felt inconsistent with our mission to build a public library of human experience, in which every story should actually be a story — and not a personal message.

In lieu of sprouting, we’ve introduced a new feature called “Retelling”, which allows you to “retell” a given story to your audience, along with some commentary. You can think of retelling as a way to pass along really excellent stories, and also as a way of adding your reaction to a given story — like the one-sentence blurbs on the back of a book. We think retelling is a more natural way of handling the semi-public communication between authors, and will cut down on “stories” that are not really stories.

As for the other ways that people were using sprouting (e.g. to hold storytelling challenges and creating groups of their own stories), we’ve introduced another new feature, called “Collections.” Collections are handpicked assortments of stories, curated by a single author — they’re kind of like your own little mix-tapes or magazines, organized around a particular topic. Using a combination of tags and collections, we should be able to conduct some really interesting experiments in collective storytelling.

The other big change is Citizenship. Let me tell you about that.

Eight months ago, on Valentine’s Day, we decided to form a company around Cowbird. We did this so we could hire Annie full-time as our Editorial Director, take on a few interns, pay our hosting and legal fees, and so Dave and I could devote more of our time to building Cowbird. We planned to raise money from angel investors, in typical Silicon Valley startup fashion. I went through this process, even though it was foreign to me. The meetings with lawyers felt cold to me. The meetings with investors also felt strange. But I did it, and after a few months of hustling, I lined up $500,000 from a dozen different investors. This money was going to pay Cowbird’s operating expenses for a few years, and allow us to grow, eventually finding a way for Cowbird to break even.

In mid-May, the papers were all drawn up and ready to sign, and at the last minute, I had to travel to Barcelona to give a talk at a conference. It was the first time in months that I’d left California and Silicon Valley, and the first time I’d stepped away from the Internet for more than a few daylight hours. I spent several days wandering the streets of Barcelona, sitting in cafes, walking cobblestones streets, watching old men play bocci at sunset, and observing old Catalonian couples, strolling hand in hand, wearing clunky black shoes and fedoras. In Barcelona, Silicon Valley felt very far away. The world of Apps and tweets and social networks felt superficial and silly. The pace of time was different. It was a rare chance to step out of the rat race, and it gave me a different perspective.

In Barcelona, I realized I didn’t want Cowbird to go down the path of every other startup company — it just didn’t feel right. Cowbird’s weird and quirky spirit is grounded in its independence, and I didn’t want to sacrifice our freedom to step on a treadmill where the only real outcomes are bankruptcy, acquisition, or IPO. None of those outcomes felt right for Cowbird, and, as Cowbird’s leader, I didn’t want to have to start making decisions based on page-views and profit, transforming Cowbird into a different kind of space, and likely one with ads. I had just published a series of essays called Modern Medicine, about software as a new kind of highly addictive drug — and the startup path we were on felt antithetical to many of the points I had made in the essays. I didn’t want Cowbird to have to become yet another attention economy.

So, I returned from Spain, and the next day I called our lawyer, and told him to call off the deal. I contacted each of our prospective investors, graciously thanked them for their support, but explained my decision not to take their money right now, and then Dave and I contributed some of our own money to pay Cowbird’s immediate expenses, while we set out to work on the redesign that you see today.

With the redesign, we’re introducing Cowbird Citizenship, which allows devoted members of our community to contribute $5 / month to help support the project. This amount seems fair to us — it’s what you might pay for a single latte one morning at Starbucks, and less than you’d pay for a movie.

We’ve also developed some beautiful new features, which we’re offering exclusively to Cowbird Citizens, to thank them for their support. Citizens can turn their handwriting into a font and use it in their stories (this letter is written in mine); they can tell multipage stories (great for photo essays, audio slideshow, and other storytelling experiments); they can assemble collections (handpicked groups of stories); they can add color to their stories (especially stunning when combined with handwriting); and they can choose a custom nickname (and secure the matching URL). We feel it’s appropriate to offer these special storytelling tools to those who help make Cowbird possible — but we’re committed to keeping the core Cowbird authorship free forever, for anyone who wishes to use it.

Dave, Annie, and I have put tens of thousands of hours of our own time into building Cowbird, and we’ve done this all as a labor of love. Annie gets a very small salary, and Dave and I work for free (though we’d love it if someday Cowbird could help us pay our rent). We don’t show ads, we don’t have sponsors, and we chose not to take money from outside investors. We’re committed to keeping Cowbird ad-free and independent forever, and — with your support — we hope that Citizenship will allow us to do this.

We think Cowbird is the most beautiful place in the world to tell stories, and we will continue to evolve and improve it, incorporating the feedback we get from all of you along the way.

Thank you for reading this, for your support, and most of all, for your stories.

Onwards to beautiful things!



See Jonathan speak about the original ideas behind Cowbird in this video from PSFK CONFERENCE NYC in 2012.


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