#Occupy: Cowbird’s First Saga

In a previous post on Jonathan Harris, I mentioned his new project called Cowbird. Cowbird recently launched and it looks amazing. The site provides a digital foundation for long-form storytelling that begins with individual stories. These stories come together and become interwoven as they form meta-stories and sagas.  Fast Company recently wrote about Harris’s new “public library of human experience” in the article, “Storytelling 2.0: Cowbird Classes Up Our Communication.”

From the article:

Cowbird takes the deliberate, cow-like pacing of traditional storytelling media such as the novel, and gooses it with the quick-hit, bird-like qualities of Facebook and Twitter. Users within a small community of storytellers handpicked by Harris post images and accompanying text, and continue doing so until a larger narrative begins to reveal itself.


“There are things that happen now in the world which are so large and global and quickly changing and hard to really understand, but are touching millions of people’s lives in one way or another,” Harris says. For recent examples of such events, which he dubs “sagas,” Harris lists the earthquake in Japan, Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement. “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.”


The stories on the site are richly interconnected, complete with maps, timelines, dedications, and many other components. The basic structure of Cowbird consists of three levels: stories, diaries, and sagas. The basic story is a photo with text (although these can also include audio and other features). As more stories are added, they begin to comprise a person’s diary. Users can also flag some stories and diaries as being part of a larger saga–events like the above-mentioned Arab Spring–making them appear in two places. It’s a complex project that Harris has been working on for three years.

I highly recommend checking out this mesmerizingly interactive site. Click here to visit Cowbird.


On a side note, when I was researching Cowbird, I came across another Harris project that I had previously been unaware of.  It’s called The Balloons of Bhutan: A Portrait of Happiness in the Last Himalayan Kingdom.

This is an excerpt from Harris’s statement on the Balloons of Bhutan site:

Instead of “Gross National Product”, Bhutan uses “Gross National Happiness” to measure its socio-economic prosperity, essentially organizing its national agenda around the basic tenets of Buddhism… Given the seriousness with which this topic is treated, I thought it would be fun to do something a little bit silly, so in late 2007, I traveled to Bhutan and spent two weeks handing out balloons.


I asked people five questions pertaining to happiness: what makes them happy, what is their happiest memory, what is their favorite joke, what is their level of happiness between 1 and 10, and, if they could make one wish, what would it be. Based on each person’s stated level of happiness, I inflated that number of balloons, so very happy people would be given 10 balloons and very sad people would be given only one (but hey, it’s still a balloon). Then I wrote each person’s wish onto a balloon of their favorite color. I repeated this process for 117 different people, from all different ages and backgrounds.


On the final night, all 117 wish balloons were re-inflated and strung up at Dochula, a sacred mountain pass at 10,000 feet, leaving them to bob up and down in the wind, mingling with thousands of strands of prayer flags.

This project is stunning, and again, it’s very interactive. It takes hours to explore all of the interviews and photos of the hands and faces of the people who participated and gave their very unique wish to a balloon.  To lose yourself entirely in the Balloons of Bhutan, click here.

Coincidentally, this wonderful video about how Gross National Happiness (GNH) is calculated was posted on Facebook yesterday by happiness experts, @Iconic88 and @2morroknight.  Enjoy!

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