Here’s the story before the story.
Years ago my son and I wrote, illustrated, and hand-bound a book for my wife about a character she had invented and used for telling stories to our son.
While the gift was special to her, what was special to us was making it: the collaboration, the tweaking, and the excitement of something so simple meaning so much.
That event was the inspiration for Storybird, a new service that a group of us are about to release as version 0.1.
We describe Storybird as “collaborative storytelling.” The premise is simple: you and I take turns playing with words and pictures and voila—we have a story that means something to both of us. It’s digital, so it’s easily shared; but it can also be printed and kept forever.
Storybirds are hybrids. You can read them like books, watch them like television, send them like greeting cards, or play with them like games.
Mostly, though, Storybirds are about connecting people through stories.
For families—and I could extrapolate this to society—stories are the bedrock of communication. Kids use them to contextualize and understand the world. Parents depend on them to frame issues, pass on family values, and entertain. Stories are a currency, passing back and forth among us, trading in an idea for something tangible, permanent, and valuable.
Most of us think about books and movies when we hear the word “story.” Curling up with your kids to read Where The Wild Things Are or tossing popcorn at each other while watching re-runs of Mary Poppins are staples of growing up in Western culture. But stories are traded in less obvious ways throughout the day: over dinner or on the phone, while playing a board game or taking a drive to see Grandma. We’re constantly narrating our lives to each other, largely to ensure we stay connected.
Connection, and how stories act as glue between us, is fascinating precisely because that glue runs a little thin these days. With a divorce rate hovering around 50 per cent, many of us live apart. A mobile society has meant we travel more, so calls from a hotel room or airport have become routine for kids trying to hear mummy or daddy’s voice. And when we’re lucky enough to be together, rituals like a bedtime story or nighttime walk get shooed away as we hurry to prepare for the next day.
Amidst this pace and chaos, networks like YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook have mushroomed largely because they help us grapple with fragmentation. They give us a chance to glue together our relationships and keep some context in our lives. And, intriguingly, they’re also new forms of storytelling. Blogs are our diaries, Flickr is the new documentary, and Facebook is the new sitcom.
For families, though, these new services and storytelling mediums don’t quite have the right form factor to provide the intimacy, context, and power of reading, making, and sharing stories together. You can upload or forward a funny clip to your kid through YouTube, but it’s microbroadcasting at best and doesn’t enable the subtle back and forth nature of shared stories. (And that’s if the kid actually noticed the email link in the first place. They’ve likely got their head stuck in Club Penguin, Habbo, or Gaia—the new Saturday morning cartoons.)
Cue Storybird. Our goal for our fledgling friend is to take smart design, game mechanics, networks, print-on-demand, and the power of distributed platforms to reconnect the disconnected and give storytelling a rightful place in the art of making healthy families.
Precisely how many chapters our story has is a mystery (we plan to get far beyond chapter 11). What characters we’ll meet remains to be seen (we expect dragons, faeries, monsters, and heroes, but aren’t sure which ones will be VCs, customers, lawyers, and programmers). But of this we are sure: this is a good story, a fun story, and a story worth telling.
That’s the prologue. The story before the story.