How to tell a story

Lately I’ve become increasingly obsessed with two overlapping things: the genealogical history of my family, and how to put together a story in an interesting, multimedia way.

In short, I want to take all the resources at my disposal – photographs, audio and/or video recordings of people’s recollections and reminiscences, plus general online sources such as maps, Wikipedia, etc. – and put together a compelling, navigable story about my family history. And of course, it’s got to be viewable and editable by others in my family.

In parallel, I’ve been wishing for a tool that would allow me to do such a thing for any sort of story about a place or event (e.g. “my dives off Caye Caulker, Belize”, or “Dick and Jane’s wedding”).

None of this is particularly out of the ordinary. Societies and clans have always had oral histories (and legends), scrapbooks, photo albums, and dusty old chests in grandma’s attic to help individuals understand where we came from and where we might fit in the world. And given the recent virulent spread of capital-S Scrapbooking, not to mention the mainstream acceptance of blogging, podcasting, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, et al, you’d think that there would be a thousand tools out there to help the non-tech savvy human tell their stories. Nope. At least not that I’ve been able to find so far.

I’ve tried out two fairly popular storytelling software tools: Ancestry.com and MemoryMiner.

I’m not sure if GroupSmarts, the developers of MemoryMiner, are still working on it. In theory, the software allows you to tag all your media files (photos, audio, video, etc.) with metadata – names, locations, text, and so on – attach files to each other (e.g. this video goes with this photo) and then upload a Flash-based multimedia compilationto a website.

The Windows version I downloaded and demo’d was slow and confusing, and the publishable output was…well, lame. For instance, I tried viewing the sample stories created by the MemoryMiner community, and none of the movie files worked. Honestly, I gave up after an hour – none of it seemed worth my time.

Ancestry.com, on the other hand, seems worth the work. Since it’s targeted at a specific kind of story, media is structured in a meaningful way that makes sense: the family tree. I’m about to invite my less-techie family members to contribute. Stay tuned for results!

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