The Cowbird Way

Writers everywhere can relate to how good a clean, simple, and crisp writing interface feels. Twitter gives simple tools for social commentary, Facebook offers a large space for autobiography, and Tumblr allows for an infinite amount of personal blogging. But none of these online spaces embraces the art of literature like cowbird.com. Cowbird presents itself as a “witness to life,” a space for sharing life experiences in the form of short stories.

According to its homepage, “Cowbird is a public library of human experience, offering a simple set of storytelling tools — for free, and without ads.” As if the phrase “without ads” isn’t enough, Cowbird certainly delivers the experience and simplicity it mentions as well.

The homepage, like many websites, is wide-angled- it stretches to the perimeters of the computer screen. This gives the site a cinematic vibe that reflects its purpose of artful storytelling. While users may find themselves a bit lost by the homepage content, Cowbird’s simple color scheme and sharp images help direct the line of sight.

The “Daily stories,” “News,” and “About Cowbird” sections of the page are all underneath a light yellow toolbar. Like reading a book, a new user’s line of sight is directed from top to bottom and left to right. Upon first glance, the title “Cowbird” (with a cute little logo) stands out the most, for it has the biggest and boldest font in the top lefthand corner. Then, the yellow toolbar assists new users by displaying all the information they would want to know more about.

After creating an account, this yellow bar, with the heading “What to do next,” appears as a navigation guide. Fresh members of a new community would never want to feel left out, so the site lends a hand by showing them the ropes. The toolbar includes links to all of the site’s main functions: editing your personal profile, learning the Cowbird culture, “loving” stories, joining a storytelling group, and, of course, adding onto the Cowbird library.

Cowbird welcomes newcomers in a rather unique style. It, unlike many online membership sites, emphasizes the storytelling community as a whole. From the very first confirmation email, the site makes an effort to mold the new user into a true Cowbirdite.

When asking for a username, Cowbird does away with anonymity, as it expects users to post using their first and last names. With this, Cowbird conveys a sense of ownership with work that people will publish on it. Much like a physical community of people, Cowbird embraces true identity and personal experience. From writer to writer, the sharing of life stories is the main objective of the its platform, so why not make the Cowbird experience as real as possible?

The user is now part of a whole, and being decent, humble, legal, and yourself is part of the contract for unique storytelling. Under the “Learn Our Culture” tab of the lovely yellow bar is a page explaining the Cowbird etiquette more in detail. Here, Cowbird makes its rules and conditions quite apparent. The tone is even a little strict (points for clarity!). However, the payoff is a modern, crisp, and, frankly beautiful website that features detailed pictures (which by the way must be at least 10MB) and an endless stream of short stories to feast on.

While these features appear cutting edge and simple to interact with, one has to wonder: Who is this for? The writers or Cowbird? While exploring Cowbird further, I began to realize that it does alot to look nice. And the site manages this by discreetly taking away some of the agency an author would normally have on, say, a blogging site. It’s as if Cowbird is a large mosaic made up of an ever-increasing amount of publications users make. Cowbird is made pretty by those who use it to publish.

At some points, Cowbird seems to put more attention into its image than into its delivery of content. For example, the homepage has a search bar with an animation of search terms being typed in. The words that appear range anywhere from “nature” to “rape,” and “birds” to “suicide.” As a new Cowbird writer, one would see these and think that the site offers a wide array of topics and niche subjects. However, the distribution of stories isn’t actually that balanced.

The “Topics” page has a long list of possible search terms, accompanied by their number of related posts. This list appears to prioritize the the terms using font size. The more popular subjects are in large text at the top of the page, and the the lesser used ones are small and pushed to the bottom. In doing this, Cowbird advertises the more popular human experiences, rather than treating every experience as equal and worth reading about.

Surprisingly, the terms “rape” and “suicide” are not even close to being near the top of the “Topics” page, despite their presence on the homepage search bar. Cowbird at first seems like an eclectic space for storytelling and an archive of myriad subjects. But it misleads users. In reality, this website is more about the “love,” “life,” “family,” and “travel,” of the world. As a new member, I wonder whether or not I should just stick to these topics. After all, the Cowbird community seems to like them. I don’t want the community to get the wrong impression of me.

To reflect its “diverse global community of authors,” perhaps the site should display a more varied selection of stories. To a Cowbird newbie, the prioritization suggests that the community prefers certain topics over others. Of the top 50 topics listed, only two would be considered negative: “death” and “depression.” Pretty normal concepts in society. But some people might want to share even darker experiences.

This brings us to the “Stories” page:

This tab features a familiar tile layout, much like Windows charm bars or Tumblr archives. It’s neat, aesthetically pleasing, and the pictures even zoom out when the cursor is over them. This artistic tiling of pictures is great for Cowbird’s curb appeal, but what about the actual authors? As a new user, my eyes were not drawn to any particular stories on the subcategorized “Daily Stories” page; rather, I mainly found myself marveling at the interface as a whole. I felt the need to run my cursor over all the story icons, side by side like a neat digital library shelf.

This section of the “Stories” tab is dedicated to those stories that have at some point been featured on the homepage, and have been archived in the default subcategory “Daily Stories.” Likewise, the same display style also appears in the “Most Loved,” “Most Viewed,” and “Multipage” subcategories. So what about the newbies?

As it turns out, the “By Newcomers” subcategory is not advertised as much as the previously mentioned ones. At the same time, the stories in this section, lined up as tiles, aren’t as appealing as those of the other sections as well. Many of the newcomers do not post pictures, and most of the writing is on a single page.

The default subcategory “Stories” is coincidentally the one with the most vibrant pictures, the most “loves” per story, and is filled with multipage works of art. Cowbird sets a standard by displaying the featured and most visited stories more prominently. While this further uplifts the overall image of the website, new writers might find themselves at a loss for having created an account. If my writings will never have a chance to be featured, then why would I write using Cowbird? What enjoyment is writing online without sharing or getting shared?

Well, there’s one thing I could do about that…

Love. Community. Diversity. To the average member, Cowbird provides a blithe environment that is easy to navigate and add on to. But there’s one more step a user can take to become part of Cowbird’s upper echelon: citizenship. Thankfully, the site does not allow advertisements. So to support the site, members can either pay $60 a year or $7 a month.

As I tried posting my first couple of stories, I noticed that there are some features not yet available to me.

With citizenship status, I will be able to:

  • Plant seeds (write a prompt for other users to write about)
  • Assemble collections of stories
  • Write multipage stories
  • Color my story pages
  • Choose a nickname (Cowbird makes users pay for anonymity)
  • Be advertised

Aha! So becoming a more prominent author on Cowbird requires a weekly/monthly payment. By becoming a citizen, authors “are featured in positions of prominence around the site,” such as the homepage and on the default “Stories” page.

So is it worth it? Well, the site itself has some quirks, but to be a bigwig in such a professional, clean, and artful community is definitely something to be proud of. The last thing a writer wants is to feel discouraged, so perhaps citizenship is a step in the right direction. Regardless, Cowbird will remain a fountain of life experience. No matter how uplifting or depressing or how advertised or underrated a story is, it will still be a story among stories. And this is how it should be.


Originally published at medium.com on November 4, 2015.

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