Talk: Connecting people and stories
To explain how a story collection can help communities, bear with me while I extend the a-story-is-a-seed metaphor much further.
|In a natural ecosystem, the soil seed bank is the community of living seeds present in the soil.||~||In a human ecosystem, the mind story bank is the community of living stories present in the minds of people.|
|The soil seed bank is constantly being updated by new seeds falling and being churned deep into the soil by water percolation, decomposition, and disturbances such as falling trees. As the soil churns, old seeds come to the surface and germinate.||~||The mind story bank is constantly being updated by new stories being told and churning deep into minds by the percolation of ideas, reflection, and disturbances such as relocations and deaths. As minds reflect, old stories come to the surface and are told again.|
|Soil seed banks are like living museums of the plant community, places where dormant organisms are held in memory for future growth and in safety for use after a cataclysmic event.||~||Mind story banks are like living museums of the human community, places where dormant stories are held in memory for future understanding and in safety for use when they are most needed.|
|A soil seed bank is a reflection of what is going on above the soil. Studying the soil seed bank can reveal patterns that give us important insights into the community and its unique characteristics and needs, and it can give us a glimpse into the past and future of the ecosystem.||~||A mind story bank is a reflection of what is going on in the world of human endeavor. Studying the mind story bank can reveal patterns that give us important insights into the community and its unique characteristics and needs, and it can give us a glimpse into the past and future of the community.|
|One of the problems with large-scale commercial agriculture is that though it produces short-term vigor, it reduces diversity in the soil seed bank. This impoverishes the system and reduces its ability to help the plant community survive and recover from catastrophe.||~||One of the problems with the large-scale commercialization of storytelling is that though it produces short-term entertainment, it reduces diversity in the mind story bank. This impoverishes the system and reduces its ability to help the community survive and recover from catastrophe.|
|A seed bank is an artificially created collection of seeds maintained by people in order to preserve diversity in the face of depleted soil seed banks. One of the challenges in managing seed banks is the need to constantly replant seeds in order to maintain the viability of the stored seeds. In particular maintaining the endosperm layer surrounding the seed embryo, which provides sustenance to keep the dormant seed alive and able to germinate, can be a challenge. Seeds whose endosperm is lost cannot survive.||~||A story bank is an artificially created collection of stories maintained by people in order to preserve diversity in the face of depleted mind story banks. One of the challenges in managing story banks is the need to constantly retell stories in order to maintain the viability of the stored stories. In particular maintaining the contextual layer surrounding the story embryo, which provides memorability to keep the dormant story alive and able to be told, can be a challenge. Stories whose context is lost cannot survive.|
As you can see, this explains a lot (at least to me!) about why putting a system in place to collect and redistribute stories on an ongoing basis can be so helpful to a community (of people).
Building and maintaining a story bank
Stories germinate in minds
An "artificially created collection of stories maintained by people in order to preserve diversity" can vary all the way from one simple web page to an online community as large and complex as eBay or Facebook. One of the best ways to decide what sort of story bank you want to build is to look around on the web for examples. Type into a search engine:
- "tell us your story"
- "share your story"
- "what's your story"
- "X stories" where X is whatever topic you are interested in -- e.g., birth stories, divorce stories, bereavement stories, abuse stories, innovation stories, homeschooling stories, diabetes stories, etc...
By looking through what comes up from those searches you should be able to find examples that give you ideas; and after looking at some examples you should be ready to answer these questions about how you want to build your story bank.
Will you use the web?
That's kind of a funny question since it seems everybody uses the web nowadays. But you can put out story collections in other ways: by printing books and brochures; by displaying posters and running kiosks; by staging performances where stories are retold; and so on. It's not a foregone conclusion that the internet (though it has clearly changed the world) is the best vehicle for your project.
Will people see answers to questions?
If you have asked people questions about the stories they told, do you want to include their answers? Doing so can be useful to readers, but it may be distracting, and it may reveal things about the storytellers that they might not like published.
How will people navigate through the stories?
Do you want to provide some means of navigating the stories based on the answers to questions, or other things about the stories like themes, or just have the stories in a list? For example, you might present the stories sorted by location or the teller's age, or by what happened (in some way that matters to the people reading the stories), so that people can find exactly what they want. You may also want to provide ways to link stories to each other so that people can follow pathways through them.
Navigation can be by fixed categories that never change, or (with some more work) you can allow people to do searches and sort stories by all answers to all questions. It depends on what you think the people reading the list need and how many stories you have (or expect to collect). If they will be well served by just reading stories in order, you don't need special navigation systems. But if you have lots of stories, or if the stories vary widely in such a way that people may need to choose only a subset, you may want to think about ways to help people do that.
Depending on the reason you are building your story collection, you may actually want to thwart the way people want to read the stories. For example, you could make it difficult to avoid reading stories told from other viewpoints in order to introduce people to new and unfamiliar perspectives. Here's an example that made that point brilliantly way back in 1857. From George Eliot's novelette Janet's Repentance (in the book Scenes of Clerical Life):
Mrs. Linnet had become a reader of religious books since Mr. Tryan's advent, and as she was in the habit of confining her perusal to the purely secular portions, which bore a very small proportion to the whole, she could make rapid progress through a large number of volumes. On taking up the biography of a celebrated preacher, she immediately turned to the end to see what disease he died of; and if his legs swelled, as her own occasionally did, she felt a stronger interest in ascertaining any earlier facts in the history of the dropsical divine -- whether he had ever fallen off a stage coach, whether he had married more than one wife, and, in general, any adventures or repartees recorded of him previous to the epoch of his conversion. She then glanced over the letters and diary, and whenever there was a predominance of Zion, the River of Life, and notes of exclamation, she turned over to the next page; but any passage in which she saw such promising nouns as "small-pox," "pony," or "boots and shoes," at once arrested her.
Notice how Mrs. Linnet chooses stories by steps: first by message (the secular portions); then by the climax of the story (what the preacher died of); then by plot points (whether he had fallen off a stage coach, etc); and finally by environmental elements (boots and shoes). What is funny about this passage (and why Mrs. Linnet serves as the comic relief in the story) is that she thwarts the purpose of the religious books entirely: she goes straight for the elements she values most. In developing methods for navigating story collections, normally one would expect to help people quickly meet their particular needs. But on the other hand, there may be cases where there is a message the story collection wants to get across, such as getting along with people from different groups, and one might not want to make thwarting the central point of a collection as easy as Mrs. Linnet found it.
Will contributions be allowed?
Will you allow people to contribute stories to the collection, or will it simply present stories already collected? Most web story collections permit contribution, but in some cases, for example if they are stories about an event that had a limited duration, you may not want to keep them open.
If contributions are allowed, will they be moderated?
If people are allowed to contribute stories to the site, you can either have the stories read before they are placed on the site or not. Moderation is usually necessary to keep out spam and other undesirable input, but allocating someone's time to babysit the site may not be something you can afford to do. Another option is to have a peer reporting system where site visitors can mark stories as inappropriate, at which time they become hidden until someone in charge of the site goes over them. Most of the smaller sites I've seen opt for having a moderator as gatekeeper.
What technology will you use to support the site?
There is a huge array of software available for supporting online communities, much of it free (search for "open source forum software" or "open source wiki software"). Many packages can be adapted easily to supporting a story bank. For example, you can take any of several free forum or wiki software packages and, by using some common rules about how a story is represented and categorized, make it possible to find stories about particular topics or search for different answers to questions. Semantic wikis in particular are useful for supporting stories with associated answers because they support adding metadata (answers to questions) to texts (stories) and searching and browsing on them.
This is all easier if you moderate submissions, but you can also ask people to adhere to rules about how to write and annotate and place stories. It depends on your membership. If your storytellers are familiar with using the web and filling out forms and using forums and wikis, you can ask them to do some pretty elaborate things like use structured text to format questions and answers in templates. If your audience is mixed or unfamiliar with web technology, it's best to use email submission or other lower-technology methods to help stories get to where they need to be.
Some other questions might be:
- Will everyone be able to read every story, or will you help people use "circles of trust" or other mechanisms to say who can and cannot read their story?
- Will you clean up stories to remove identifying details or leave them alone?
- Will you support multimedia content or just text?
- Will you help people find patterns in stories themselves (for example by giving them means to count up how many stories fit selection criteria)?
- Will you allow people to discuss stories? Some wikis have "talk" pages attached to each article, and you could envision such a thing for each story in your story collection.
My final suggestion for helping people exchange stories is to start with a simple project, see what issues come up, and then build something larger. Your community and your purpose are unique, and it will be impossible to anticipate what obstacles you will face until you get started. It's better to have to start over again and learn from early mistakes while you still have energy left than to have to abandon an overly ambitious project that got one critical thing wrong. I think the mistake I've seen more often than any other in watching people carry out story projects is trying too hard and expecting too much at first. Start with a small garden before you plow that field.
For further reading
Reader comments, tips and advice can be found on the Talk: Connecting people and stories Google Group page.