Artist and computer programmer Jonathan Harris made a name for himself with unique projects documenting feelings and experiences. We Feel Fine scanned the world’s blog entries for the words “I feel” or “I am feeling” and organized a visual interface based on the subsequent words. I Want You To Want Me scanned online dating sites for an interactive installation, displayed at MoMa, about the search for love. Both projects cultivated huge amounts of data, but Harris has since moved away from this approach. “I saw data as a means of understanding the world,” says Harris. “That’s a belief I no longer have.” Later undertakings, like The Whale Hunt, a story of the Alaskan Inupiat tribe’s yearly hunt, was told through 3,214 photos taken every five minutes, illustrating Harris’s new, story driven focus. This December he launched his latest creation, Cowbird, a platform for people to combine picture, audio, and text to tell their own stories.
Harris has three main goals for Cowbird: First, “to build a space for deeper self expression”; one look through the delicate, personal tales on Cowbird shows it’s being used for exactly that. Second, Harris wants Cowbird to showcase a “new approach to journalism, based on the simple stories behind news events.” But, he says, “I don’t think we’re doing a very good job at that yet,” adding that this is his next focus with Cowbird. The third goal, to create a “public library for human experiences, like Wikipedia,” is one that, he says, “will come eventually, if we’re able to do those first two things well.”
Finding a balance between the personal and journalistic is a challenge, but the potential is there, especially in Cowbird’s “Sagas,” where stories with a similar theme are gathered. The very first saga, “Occupy,” has almost 500 separate stories about the protests, and features small, yet telling moments, events, and stories from people who were there. Valentine’s Day brought the next saga, called “First Loves,” which has almost 700 entries about falling in love, a saga that typifies the emotional types of expression that many Cowbirders use the site for.
Recently, Harris has tried steering the site towards his journalistic goals by implementing a checkbox for entries called “news,” which is meant to indicate to the community that “this is a factual account of a news event. We don’t have an editorial board, so we ask people to give their word of honor,” says Harris. Cowbird hasn’t pushed this feature yet, and so far not many people have made use of it. “Over the next year, we plan to encourage our authors to start posting their own experiences of news events, and we expect the news feature to become more widely used with time,” says Harris.
Perhaps one of the best ways to see the site’s reporting potential is by looking at the way some journalists are using it. Aaron Huey, a photojournalist who’s worked for such magazines as National Geographic, Harper’s, and The New Yorker, says he uses Cowbird to share parts of his reporting that never made it into a publication. “I see Cowbird as a way to pick up the pieces off the cutting room floor and give them new life,” says Huey.
He’s created a “Collection,” a way of grouping stories on Cowbird, called “On Assignment,” for all his entries that are tangential to his own reporting. One story, titled “Never Too Young,” features a young boy with his finger on the trigger of a gun larger than him, a photo Huey took while on assignment for Boys’ Life magazine, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. In the text, he describes how the camp’s “Armed Forces Adventure Area” asks kids for their personal information to “get a neat laminated ID to wear around.” Huey writes:
In the last screen on the computer before they take your photo you have to agree that the information will be used to recruit you when you get to high school. Everyone clicks “OK” because they want to get the laminated ID which they will need for the climbing wall and the first person shooter game where you kill brown people in the streets of a nondescript Middle Eastern town.
This is “exactly the kind of image the Boy Scouts wouldn’t run,” says Huey. “It was the dark side to that event.” Another entry from the “On Assignment” collection, titled, “This is Not a Story,” is centered on a disturbing image of a starving Ethiopian baby from a community experiencing “green famine.” Huey writes:
I remember the editors told me it wasn’t a story. No one wanted this one.
“We can’t sell it.”