The Power of Collective Storytelling Online
Mikkel Stjernberg, Bjarke Myrthu and Joachim Bøggild designed and built The Everyday Projects new website, with the financial support of Photowings. We spoke with Mikkel and Bjarke to learn more about their experience, philosophy and latest project, Storyfriend.
Beyond our short attention spans and “likes” Mikkel Stjernberg believes we crave context, especially on the Internet where he says there is plenty of sugar but not enough vitamins.
After writing speeches for Denmark’s Deputy Prime Minister for two years, in 2008 Mikkel found himself in the personal development industry, one rife with scams and savvy savior-like personalities. Yet Mikkel imagined a type of personal development that didn’t depend on a facilitator but a tool. After a phone call with his friend and colleague Bjarke Myrthu, he realized stories could be this tool.
“We inspire each other on a much deeper level through stories than we can do through information,” Mikkel says.
Mikkel and Bjarke met in 1999 in the cafeteria of the Danish School of Journalism. At the time Internet journalism was in its infancy. Print, radio and television stories were being published online, but the duo saw more potential in the Internet than a simple republication of traditional media. They sat in the cafeteria, yearning for a type of storytelling native to the Internet. Then they realized they could be part of inventing it.
The power of editors was declining and self-publishing was becoming possible. Mikkel inherited some money from his grandmother and used it to start Scandinavia’s first critical Internet magazine in 1999. Bjarke partnered with two other journalists to create an interactive web documentary that won an American Online News Award in 2004, competing against major news outlets.
“It was not about having a big publishing platform behind you,” Bjarke says. “It was a matter of what you had in your heart and your mission.”
After university their paths diverged. Bjarke reported for a Danish business daily, then moved to New York City to work for Magnum for five years, establishing the company’s Internet platform, Magnum in Motion. Mikkel stayed in Denmark and had his first child. At the time, Mikkel says, he was frustrated that he was “doing what everyone else was doing”. Now he says being a father has given him perspective and a professional edge. He has mastered long-term strategy and, as he read to his children, he was reminded of the power of story.
“You begin to dream when you are a kid and you are told stories,” Mikkel says. “You begin to exchange stories with other people, and I think that for me looking back that experience of exchanging stories was probably the most powerful thing.”
After various endeavours, Mikkel and Bjarke came back together in the beginning of 2012 to talk more about this concept of using stories to better connect people and ideas. Storyfriend was born.
Storyfriend is an app (downloadable for iPhone only, for now) that allows users to create three-part stories from original or existing content on social media. The app is visually driven and designed to facilitate interaction among people with shared interests through the use of hashtags.
Bjarke compares Storyfriend to sitting around a campfire. Before the printing press, he says, stories weren’t linear. Sitting next to the flames, you might broaden your world, find a job, hear a great story or meet the love of your life.
They hope Storyfriend will merge the campfire concept with modern technology to become one of the next big platforms.
“The long term dream is to create a new media industry basically,” Bjarke says.
“We have very humble ambitions,” Mikkel jokes.
“The short term dream is to get to 200 users,” Bjarke laughs.
Just as the dozens of Everyday accounts on Instagram strive to demystify stereotypes and give context to the headlines, Bjarke and Mikkel constantly talk about the power of people from different places coming together to tell a more complete story.
“What The Everyday Projects is representing more than any specific project in the world today is a collective narrative,” says Mikkel.
But as the Everyday concept spread across the globe, Everyday Africa co-founder Peter DiCampo yearned for better integration. The collaborative element of The Everyday Projects caught Bjarke’s eye and eventually he reached out to Peter with the belief that he could somehow lift both projects. Not long after, Bjarke and the Storyfriend team designed and built The Everyday Projects’ new website.
“Having the new website makes us so much more of a force,” Peter says. “To paraphrase something photographer Ruddy Roye said to me two years ago when The Everyday Projects first gathered in New York, we’ve got all these fingers, we need to learn to close them and make a fist. It’s been a challenge to find the best way to organize what we have, which is a global movement of like-minded people more than a singular organization, and this site is a huge step.”
Peter says the key to creating the website was aggregating material in a specific way that could be applied across an enormous community of users. The tools Mikkel and Bjarke have used and developed to create Storyfriend were an ideal fit in building the new website for The Everyday Projects. They were also ideally suited for encouraging the community to grow.
“We’ve always wanted to find a way to foster the participation of anyone that follows an Everyday feed,” says Austin Merrill, who created Everyday Africa with Peter. “Storyfriend allows that to happen — and the project will be richer for it.”
Both Mikkel and Bjarke agree that many technology and media giants are missing out on opportunities for collective storytelling, including Apple.
“If Apple really wanted to create a game changer today they should claim stories the way they claimed music in 2001 with the iPod and iTunes,” Mikkel says, “Music has always been around. It will always be around. It is a necessity of humans, and you could say the same about stories. So since Apple is not doing it, we are. We are claiming stories the way Apple claimed music.”
In creating a story-driven app, Mikkel and Bjarke also hope to generate a new type of data they call “story data”. Mikkel compares big data to looking at a highway from above. He says right now we can generate data that tells us when a car enters the highway, where it is now and how fast it has been going, but we don’t know why it’s there or when it will exit.
“When you tell a story you tend to tell a story about your dreams, where you are going, your wishes for the future and your goals,” Mikkel says. “So that generates a new set of data and when you combine that with existing big data you get a third data set.”
This human data would allow corporations to build very focused relationships with potential consumers. With permission from the user, they plan to sell the data anonymously. The money generated from the sale of the data would end up in the user’s pocket, with Storyfriend taking a small cut.
But for Mikkel and Bjarke Storyfriend is more than the first step in creating a new media industry or generating story data; it’s also about creating a better world. Bjarke says when we know more about the people around us, hate and the violence stemming from it are less likely. Mikkel says through the stories we tell, hear and share, we find our much-needed vitamins and ultimately evolve as humans.
“And if we don’t evolve, we stand still,” Bjarke says.