StoryCorps: Crowdsourcing to Preserve Humanity’s Stories

StoryCorps drives product and content generation through physical and digital crowdsourcing of human stories

In 2003, Macarthur “Genius Grant” recipient and career radio producer Dave Isay launched StoryCorps, a non-profit initiative that records and preserves “humanity’s stories” to create a lasting repository of personal oral history.[1] Lamenting the lack of opportunities to document the lives of ordinary individuals, Isay conceived of a space in which a trained facilitator could interview one or two people about a life story or essential experience. The program launched with a recording booth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City and soon expanded to permanent recording booth locations in other U.S. cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta.[2] It also operated a mobile recording booth housed in an Airstream trailer that visited cities throughout the U.S. for special events. In 2005, StoryCorps’s work gained mainstream popularity when NPR’s program Morning Edition began to feature segments comprised of compelling stories recorded in StoryCorps booths.

A StoryCorps user builds the initiative’s primary “product,” namely, a recorded narrative of a defining life experience. As audio content, the majority of these stories serve one of the organization’s stated goals, “[to create] an invaluable archive for future generations,” and are preserved on the site’s database and in the U.S. Library of Congress.[3] However, StoryCorps staff also selects a small number of recorded stories to be featured on the program’s website or shared through its partner channels, including NPR. The promoted stories drive traffic to the StoryCorps platform and compel additional users to record their stories; effectively, StoryCorps crowdsources both its product development and its marketing content development.

In 2015, StoryCorps used a Knight Foundation grant to develop a story-recording app, instantly amplifying the organization’s crowdsourcing reach – within two weeks of its launch, users uploaded stories exceeding twenty percent of the total annual interview capacity of the physical recording booths.[4]  While it had taken twelve years to move to digitally-enabled crowdsourcing from crowdsourcing via real crowds gathered around an Airstream trailer, the traditional recording method presented a compelling user experience in which the act of creating a StoryCorps story was an event in and of itself. A StoryCorps booth or trailer attracted prospective users and engaged them in the StoryCorps product development process through a hands-on, participatory experience; an app intrinsically did neither.

Recognizing that its ability to meet the goal of creating a vast repository of recorded oral history depended upon broad adoption of technology-enabled crowdsourcing rather than an expansion of its facilitated in-booth recording, StoryCorps undertook initiatives to promote use of its app at home. After launching its app in 2015, StoryCorps piloted the Great Thanksgiving Listen, partnering with high schools in 50 states to deliver to encourage students to record an interview with an elder relative over the holiday weekend.[5] StoryCorps developed an accompanying lesson plan to enable teachers to use the exercise as an assignment and has expand the program each year with support from corporate sponsors. At the same time, StoryCorps has relied on sizeable awards from foundations to further its expansion plans via app- and website-enabled crowdsourcing of its recording process. Following app development in 2015, StoryCorps directed funding from its $1M TED Prize to support global expansion through its digital platform, a target initiative in the organization’s second decade.[6]

While crowdsourcing can catalyze initial adoption or user engagement, it can experience diminishing incremental success over time.[7] As a product and content development pipeline for StoryCorps, the digital platform’s continued relevance requires that the size of the crowd from which stories are sourced continues to increase. StoryCorps has committed to continually adding new app features like expanded language support and transcription to enable it to be a platform that reaches more people.[8] However, it must ensure that it sufficiently invests in external factors that drive prospective users to join the digital crowd, such as campaigns and challenges in the spirit of the Great Thanksgiving Listen. StoryCorps leadership can pursue partnerships with interest groups ranging from veterans’ networks to retirement associations and senior-care provider organizations, enabling joint campaigns to promote story-recording around specific themes. To expand upon its successes in creating a cycle that develops both products and marketing content, StoryCorps can promote contests to find the most compelling untold stories for a given theme, occasion, or holiday.

Ultimately, StoryCorp’s efforts to record oral histories of everyday individuals requires an ever-expanding crowd of those individuals but also a sustained base of users who are committed to documenting those individuals’ stories. In balancing crowdsourced product development, StoryCorps must consider the perspective of both its app-enabled content creators (the interviewers) and their interviewees, continually seeking to understand what compels someone to elect to be either. What that motivation might be – and how it might differ for various demographics – are the essential questions about StoryCorps’s growth potential.

[1] “About StoryCorps.” Storycorps.org, storycorps.org/about/.

[2] Haddock, Dean. “StoryCorps: A Model for Capturing Community Voices.” Knight Foundation, 21 Sept. 2017, knightfoundation.org/articles/storycorps-a-model-for-capturing-community-voices.

[3] “About StoryCorps.” Storycorps.org, storycorps.org/about/.

[4] Shu, Catherine. “Smartphones are helping this nonprofit keep a generation of memories alive.” Tech Crunch, 3 April 2015, https://techcrunch.com/2015/04/03/there-are-no-ordinary-people/?_ga=2.122970510.404189322.1541877217-1898207503.1538513567

[5] “StoryCorps: The Great Thanksgiving Listen.” PBS Learning Media, mass.pbslearningmedia.org/collection/storycorps-the-great-thanksgiving-listen/.

[6] Schwartz, Ariel. ” 11.17.14 The Founder Of StoryCorps Is Getting The $1 Million TED Prize.” Fast Company, 17 Nov. 2014, www.fastcompany.com/3038681/the-founder-of-storycorps-is-getting-the-1-million-ted-prize.

[7] Roberge, Mark. “Startup Bootcamp Design Workshop.” HBS Startup Bootcamp, 3 Nov. 2018, Harvard Innovation Lab, Cambridge.

[8] Shu, Catherine. ” StoryCorps’ Oral History App Receives Knight Foundation Grant To Add New Features.” Tech Crunch, 14 July 2015, techcrunch.com/2015/07/14/more-stories-for-storycorps/.

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10 thoughts on “StoryCorps: Crowdsourcing to Preserve Humanity’s Stories

  1. The idea of crowdsourcing human stories is compelling and innovative at its core, simply because there is no one correct version of human history, but a collection of all those who have lived and who are living. Hence, I find the value proposition of StoryCorps to be powerful. Moreover, the way it has continuously reinvented itself through digital platform ( the mobil application ) exemplifies how technological tools helps solicit more feedback from crowd through careful orchestration ( e.g. thanksgiving listen). One concern I have is not on the outreach potential of StoryCorps but how humans make sense of the recording. In another words, the company has collected a vast amount of unstructured data, but questions remains as: what insights can we draw from the data, how the data helps human understand ourselves, and what can we do with such understanding. By answering these questions, StoryCorps can fundamentally bring open innovation to the benefit of humanity.

  2. Thank you for sharing this – it’s the first time I heard of StoryCorps, but I am now compelled to dig further into it. What I think is particularly interesting here is that while StoryCorps mission is to collect as many stories as possible, it also faces a conflicting lever – which by default is that the more you collect, the lower will be the average quality of the story. In fact, what often makes the story compelling is ability of the interviewer to ask the right questions, not necessarily the availability of storytellers. The more people are recruited to interview others, the lower quality the stories will likely be. While StoryCorps focus has been on developing tools that will allow to scale the collection effort, perhaps the secret sauce really is in finding the right interviewers, which AI may or may not be able to help with. While theoretically AI may also be able to help with deciding which stories are truly going become the hits, sometimes, nothing beats a genuine human word-of-mouth advertisement of the stories they heard. The cost of this, of course, is that some stories will never be told, but much like with everything we do in this world, we have to decide – what’s more costly to us, making type I (letting a dull story out) or type II error (not letting a good story shine).

    1. This is a great point and one that they will need to consider in light of their aims. However, I imagine that StoryCorps will always opt for more stories over fewer, leaving later generations to the challenge of sifting through the troves of unstructured data. In the meantime, they will continue to identify compelling content for the present moment at its point of creation by prioritizing stories recorded in person by trained facilitators.

  3. This is a great read, and a very informative introduction to StoryCorps. Preserving humanity’s stories seems like a perfect application of crowdsourcing given how disperse the data set is that StoryCorps is trying to collect. Driving engagement through rewards at TED talks not only is less costly than developing in house but also brings in engaged users who are more likely to connect with StoryCorps going forward. The balance between the interviewer and the interviewee is an interesting one, and I think StoryCorps can achieve this balance going forward by thinking of the interviewees as their “customer” and maintaining a customer-centric model. The interviewees are the individuals who hold the stories and StoryCorps should hold them in high regard as it continues to innovate and grow.

  4. I think StoryCorps has the potential to reengage its storytellers and encourage them to create story arcs of their family or their lives. As individuals become power users, it will not only increase the skills of each interviewer creating more quality stories, but it will also create buzz and spread the word about the organization. win-win!!

  5. I was thrilled to see that StoryCorps not only has a podcast to share its message, but that the podcast has over 500 episodes! I agree with SatoshiK’s question regarding the insights that can be drawn from these recordings, but with proper curation I do believe these authentic, approachable, and real stories can be quite powerful in opening up people’s eyes to parts of the human experience that they might not otherwise have been exposed to. Even without true insights, this outcome is a very positive one.

  6. I’d never heard of StoryCorps, and after reading this I’m definitely interested. This is an amazing effort and something that I’m certain future generations will be thankful for. As a fan of history, I’d be thrilled to have something similar from basically any time in the past. As I was reading, I was worried about diversity in their sample; only a small subset of the population would be able to find out about this program and then be willing to share their story. But programs like the Great Thanksgiving Listen seem to address that problem, and I hope they can continue to think of innovative ways to broaden their recorded experiences.

  7. Keith, wonderful essay. StoryCorps is a compelling use of open innovation and has an effective narrative (no pun intended) to sell to the audience (the world). Its strength relies in the democratized sharing and uploading of users’ narratives, a fundamentally personal action that transcends simple Snaps or Instagram posts into something more compelling and meaningful. This open innovation has the opportunity to harness other forms of media beyond audio, however. Could there be a way to add in photos or videos? I think another opportunity lies in using StoryCorps to document the hardships of those who have suffered unspeakable human tragedies. War, famine, and the like are often forgotten too quickly. Might StoryCorps use its platform to amplify the voices of the marginalized and those fading into the past before it is too late?

  8. I really enjoyed learning about StoryCorps and their vision for crowdsourcing an archived record of human storytelling. This is a thoughtful, reflective way to digitally save the messages and memories of people that hopefully will be juxtaposed with other digital footprints we leave behind such as Facebook. StoryCorps seems to cut through the clutter in a way that social media, which one could argue will also be an archived source of historical record, cannot.

    I agree with Student291’s about the opportunity that StoryCorps has to elevate the voices of those who have been marginalized. History has often been written by the victors and tech/crowdsourcing appears to be the democratized solution to that. Of course, it will be essential that these marginalized voices are preserved and we as a society continue to view them as valuable additions to the historical record we leave behind.

  9. Thanks for choosing this topic – it’s very interesting! I hope that as the digital world takes over, they continue to keep the physical booths. I agree with some of the above comments that as more stories are collected, there is the concern of quality. Also, I think it’ll be interesting for the company to eventually expand overseas. Of course, that brings with it a whole new level of complexity in terms of overcoming language barriers but I think it has the potential to bring different cultures closer together.

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