Ideas for online story sharing

by CynthiaKurtz on August 28, 2010

Hello everyone. I wish I could come and join you at what looks to be an amazing get-together (but as the mother of a small child I don’t travel much, yet). As a quick introduction to those who don’t know me already, I’m Cynthia Kurtz, and I’ve been working in the area of organisational and community narrative since 1999, on what I call the “listening side” of the field – meaning, I help people gather and work with stories for sensemaking, understanding and decision support. I’m located in New York. I’ve done something like sixty projects for corporate and government clients in this area, and I’ve had a hand in developing some of the ideas, methods and software in the field.

In the past few years I’ve been on a mission to bring the ideas and techniques I’ve come to rely on to the aid of every small group with a goal. The first part of that mission was my free book Working with Stories, the third edition of which I’m working on now (and posting new sections as I write them on my blog at The second part has been work on software tools to help small groups share and work with their stories. Last year I built, released and beta-tested an open-source story-sharing web application called Rakontu.

Patrick Lambe asked me to post something here about Rakontu because he thought it would be of interest to the group. I didn’t know what to say at first, because Rakontu is “having a nap” right now due to lack of funding, and it’s not in active use at the moment. But the fact is, I’m not all that worried if the software itself doesn’t survive. A lot of software doesn’t, and it’s the ideas in Rakontu that matter most. And it is those ideas that I think you all would be most interested in hearing about. So, I thought about what ideas from the Rakontu project are worth passing on. What I wrote soon grew far too long for a post here, so I posted the full essay on my blog. This is an abridged version. My hope is that these ideas will spark discussion before, during and after the conference as they mingle with those that come to the conference in person.

Supporting sharing over performing

The kind of storytelling I’m interested in supporting is the kind that leads to conflict resolution, perspective-taking, mutual learning, strong communities, and effective decision making. I call this story sharing to distinguish it from storytelling in which performance is a larger force. Over about a decade of observing the web, I’ve noticed that the highest sharing to performing quotients can be found in the still, quiet pools where long-term, somewhat coherent social groups meet, and in which people help each other through difficult conditions and decisions.

In Rakontu, I tried to increase story sharing by using a utility-based rating system, where stories were rated according to the goals of the group. This did not work! Even I myself felt the urge to perform for high ratings. I’ve now realized that if you set up a rating scale, it doesn’t matter what you call it. People evaluate everything, every minute of every day. It is what keeps us alive, and we can’t stop doing it. If I was to try this again, I’d keep the evaluation for utility, but I would pull it deep down to provide utilitarian mining without visible ranking. My guess is that one of the reasons plain-vanilla newsgroups and email work well for story sharing is that ratings play little part in the interactions. For some online communities and tasks, reputation and ranking are essential elements; but for story sharing, ratings draw attention to storytellers and storytelling events and away from stories. When attention is drawn too far away from stories, the experiences in them do not accumulate into the useful aggregations the group needs.

Building a café in a library or a library in a café

Story sharing is both a verb (storytelling) and a noun (stories). In off-line conversation, people are the cafés and the libraries in which stories live, and stories move fluidly from telling to remembering to retelling. When an old woman remembers a story she heard in 1923 and tells it to her great-grandchild, the passage of the story from memory to event is effortless and natural. In the online world, walls between event and memory reduce the capacity of the collective narrative machine to churn its content, which is critical to useful story sharing. What I see on the internet is either stories entirely absorbed in events and never transferred to memory, or stories stacked up in memory and never returned to the world of events. Spaces for on-line story sharing must be mixed-use facilities where café tables intermingle with library shelves. This is one of the central ideas of Rakontu.

One of the ways I tried to support intermingled event and memory in Rakontu was in volunteer roles as balanced packages of commitment. The four roles Rakontu members can take map onto Richard Bartle’s 1996 framework of member motivation in multi-user dungeons (MUDs). MUDs are like story sharing sites because people are building something and living in it at the same time. Bartle’s framework places the dimension of activity (acting on versus interacting with) with the dimension of focus (people to environment). Rakontu’s roles populate this matrix so each member can commit to activities that suit their motivations. The roles also create links between café and library elements of the Rakontu and help it address both memory and event.

Embodying knowledge about narrative

People vary in whether they tell stories, whether they think they tell stories, and whether they are good at telling stories. They also vary in whether they understand why and how story sharing matters. In Rakontu I did not try to explain any of this, but shaped the experience itself so that it embodies knowledge about stories and storytelling rather than trying to spread it. Probably the best successes of Rakontu so far have been in this area. One thing that seemed to work well was the system of typed annotated links between stories. In Rakontu, when someone sees a topic, they can respond to it with a story, and that link, and their annotated reason for it, is kept and can be reviewed and searched. When someone reads a story, they can tell another version of the events it recounts, tell another story it reminds them of, or explicitly link it to another story for any (annotated) reason. As I participated in building a collection of stories using Rakontu, I found these links an essential tool for “getting around” in the library we were building.

Another success was in Rakontu’s question-asking system. When anyone tells a story in Rakontu, and when anyone reads a story, they are presented with several questions that capture their interpretation of it, such as “How do you feel about this story?” and “Why was it told?” Some stories will only collect one set of answers, but relevant or controversial stories are likely to collect many sets that represent varied interpretations. This gives people a way to voice their diverse opinions about stories that can accumulate into useful patterns. It also creates a closer analogue to what happens to offensive stories “in the wild,” where stories are not “deleted” from memory but become weighed down with so much context-rich commentary that they sink into oblivion.

Building for commitment

Rakontu worked best when it was being used by people who knew each other, and this was as I expected. It is for this reason that I think story sharing sites like Rakontu will work best when they can be “seeded” with stories collected in more fluid conversation, both at the start of site creation and at intervals afterward. I’ve seen many story collecting web sites go up in which complete strangers post stories, and I’ve never seen one of these succeed – in the ways I would like to see story sharing succeed. They do sometimes succeed in the sense that people looking for information find what they need. But for working towards a common goal that will benefit everyone in a group, this sort of story collection lacks the connective tissue to build something larger.

In general I think web software has been wonderful for people finding and meeting people. It has been wonderful for people trying to draw more people to a cause. It has done a dismal job helping people who already know each other do anything but bring the most basic information together. In my opinion, Margaret Mead’s small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens trying to change the world are still waiting for their internet. If there is one thing I think could not be stripped away from Rakontu without ruining it, it would be its emphasis on helping small groups achieve common goals. Because it’s unique, because it’s needed, and because it’s what stories do best.

You can find out more about Rakontu and its goals and concepts at, and I’d be happy to talk to anyone interested in these ideas.