I always impose things that I like on other people. Music, YouTube videos, movies, websites, you name it. I’m always eager to make people like what I love. Admittedly, it’s a flaw in my character. But the neediness that this stems from is something we all share in one form or another. We all want to be heard and we all want to tell others about what we think is important.
Yet listening to people gets difficult when we are overwhelmed by a never-ending succession of status updates and notifications. In an environment that strongly favors the quick and shallow over the profound, it becomes necessary to consciously seek out more significant exchanges.
The founders of Cowbird.com would agree. They describe their website as “a small community of storytellers, sharing heartfelt, personal stories, and slowly building a public library of human experience.” Anyone anywhere can upload his or her story by juxtaposing sound, text and images to tell deeply private narratives to anyone who cares to listen.
My favorites are the ones that deal with romantic failure, like the story about a guy who married his high-school sweetheart only to divorce her a couple of years later or the one about a long distance relationship that failed. I feel strangely close to these people. I become convinced that, for the couple of minutes that I focus on their narratives, I really know them.
This is surprising because the stories in Cowbird are often commonplace. It’s stuff that could happen to anyone. But hearing them told by the very people who experienced them makes them feel specific and extraordinary in their own small way. Surely no one has had exactly the same experience as this guy whose voice I’m hearing, whose distress feels so authentic and whose tale of heartbreak makes me feel legitimately sad.
And maybe the fact that his story is not all that different from hundreds of thousands of other anecdotes is part of the point. This is about communicating, not entertaining.
Cowbird is an anomalous space in the web precisely because it allows for more meaningful interactions than the ones available through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. It’s about taking some time out to listen to people who have offered a significant part of themselves, instead of glossing over a 140-character tweet.
Jonathan Harris, the creator of Cowbird, explained this in a radio interview with To the Best of Our Knowledge.
“Throughout history,” Harris said, “communication has been getting shorter and shorter and more and more fractured … in a way we’ve reached the terminal velocity of how fast our communication can go and a question arises which is, well, do we stay there? Do we keep tweeting? Or do we hit some kind of wall and bounce back in the other direction, suddenly starting to crave a little more depth and substance again?”
Harris is no stranger to this search for substance. The author of projects like WeFeelFine.org, in which “every few minutes, [a] system searches the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling” as a way to make them easily accessible to users and represent feelings visually, or IWantYoutoWantMe.org, an exploration of online daters — he strikes me as a patron saint for the lonely. A hero giving hope to all of the people seeking a connection that goes beyond a “like” or a retweet.
And he’s not alone. The Moth, “a non-profit storytelling organization dedicated to the art of personal narrative,” recently won the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions for its attempts to “break through the cluttered media environment.” To do so, it fosters the sharing of individual stories that range from the difficulties that come with being asked by the First Lady to decorate the White House for Christmas to what it feels like to be randomly stabbed by strangers in New York. More importantly, The Moth asks you to listen. It demands ten or twenty minutes of your undivided attention.
So, see what I did? I showed you a bunch of stuff I love in hopes that you’ll like it too. In the words of Mr. Harris, I want you to want me — but in a more substantive way. I don’t feel like being compressed to quick sound bites anymore. It’s time to bounce back and say the things that don’t fit in a tweet.
Sara Brenes-Akerman is a College senior from Costa Rica. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. A Likely Story appears every other Thursday.