The Unexpected Journey

Stories told to oneself or others can transform the world. In her book Number Our Days anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff explains that everyone has a story. Helping others tell their stories means "no one could be regarded as completely dull, no place people lived in was without some hope of redemption, achieved by just paying attention."

Successful storytelling depends on the give and take relationship between the storyteller and the audience. In the oral tradition, this relationship is explicit as the teller responds to the reactions of the audience. Written works, on the other hand, create an abstract and implied relationship between the writer and the reader.

Storytelling in an interactive and networked context changes the dynamics between storyteller and audience by creating a symmetrical relationship in which everyone has the ability to be both teller and listener, writer and reader. Understanding, facilitating, and enhancing this dynamic is the focus of my work.

In 1989, I began exhibiting an interactive family album called We Make Memories that simulates the way my great-grandmother told stories. Inspired by playwright Bertolt Brecht’s notion of breaking the fourth wall, I was convinced that interactive media was the key to engaging audiences in a new way. While We Make Memories may have broken some new ground in interface design and exemplified the potential for the computer to be a personal storytelling medium, the interactivity was limited to a narrow path of predefined branching narratives.

However, the piece had an unanticipated impact as a strong catalyst for people to tell me their own family stories. Yet, I could not be physically present every time someone interacted with the piece. Even when I did hear the stories, there was no way to capture them to include them in the narrative mix.

I created a companion piece called Share With Me a Story in 1991. This new work ran on a separate computer and enabled people to scan a picture, record an audio story and type a caption. While I continued to advance the "audience as collaborator" agenda, the piece fell short of my goals in several ways. First, the catalyst material and audience’s stories needed to be more seamlessly integrated. Second, the story sharing process was too cumbersome which created bottlenecks and frustrated the audience. Third, once the exhibit ended, no one had any further access to the stories.

Apple Computer’s introduction of QuickTime in 1992 made it possible to create site-specific installations that enabled people to tell their stories in a one-step video recording process. The bottleneck was minimally addressed but the other issues remained.

By 1994 the World Wide Web eclipsed the need for site-specific kiosk installations. Suddenly, it became possible to create an environment that was open all the time, accessible from anywhere in the world on any type of computer, and enabled multiple people to view the work concurrently.

In 1996, I launched Bubbe's Back Porch, a web site dedicated to personal and family storytelling. Bubbe, who is modeled after my own great-grandmother, welcomes people to the site, tells her own stories, offers tips on personal storytelling, and suggests themes that help people organize their stories and find connections with each other.

Bubbe ( has daily email contact with her visitors. From my perspective, this immediate contact with the audience is the single most revolutionary aspect of working in this medium.

Sharing photo albums online has recently caught the attention of large corporations such as Adobe, Hewlett Packard, and Kodak, along with startup companies such as Zing, Shutterfly, and Snapfish. These commercial efforts to reach a general audience are important but they lack the intimacy that creates a sense of place and a sense of ownership for the audience. Few sites facilitate the telling of stories which is ultimately where meaning is created and connections are made. Without these multiple levels of meaning and connection, a photo album is just a set of personal artifacts collecting virtual dust on the World Wide Web.

Facilitating the transformation of personal media artifacts into universal stories helps us find redemption and meaning. Creating convivial environments allows anyone to be both artist and audience thereby democratizing new technology and transforming the ways in which we create and share our cultures, beliefs, and values.

Abbe Don is an interactive storyteller and interface designer. She can be reached at <>


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