Soul of the City – ATX
Welcome back to the Studio. This blog post is a continuation in a series that tell the story of our Studio class project. We are working together with the City of Austin to develop solutions to improve civic engagement in Austin. For more details, read my last post on the civic engagement project.
This past week we kicked off our project prototyping. If you read my last post, linked above, you’d see two of the three projects I was considering at the time were focused on bringing individuals of different socioeconomic backgrounds together to share meals. The idea was that breaking bread together would develop a greater understanding and empathy across the socioeconomic aisle. After deliberation and conversation, I decided to pursue a project that I think has more likelihood for catalyzing engagement and connection across a wider variety of audiences.
Soul of the City – ATX
The working title for this project is “Soul of the City – ATX”. It’s a crowd-sourced storytelling project that is designed to cultivate a sense of respect, pride, compassion, and understanding amongst all Austinites through the creative sharing of personal, heartfelt stories.
What follows is a story in its own right to help elucidate the vision for the idea so far:
Joney is a UT Austin student. She’s glancing through her twitter feed one day and sees a post on Twitter sharing a podcast called Soul of the City – ATX. It’s been re-tweeted dozens of times and she decides to listen. What she hears is a beautiful narrative weaving together five stories from native Austinites recounting the mixed emotions they’ve felt as the city has changed rapidly before their eyes.
At the end of the story, there is an announcement about the next challenge. “We want to hear about what life is like as a Latina in Austin. Please upload your stories, from 20 seconds to twenty minutes, to Soulofthecityatx.com. The deadline is Friday!”
Joney thinks a bit and then starts recording on her phone. She decided to talk about how good it feels to be Latina in Austin. Joney was born elsewhere, where there weren’t many Latinos, and she wasn’t proud of her culture in that town. Here in Austin, she feels the pride of the Latino community and she truly has embraced her culture and her identity in a way that she could never quite manage before. When Joney finishes her story, she uploads the file to the website. She feels proud of her culture, and, in sharing her story with this project, she feels like a part of something larger than herself, a special feeling she hasn’t often experienced.
Friday has come, and here we meet Alan, a social studies teacher living in South Austin. He’s excited for the weekend, because now that the deadline for storytellers’ submissions has passed, the challenge is open to the ‘producers’.
Producers are the creative individuals around the city who decide to take on the challenge of weaving the submitted stories together. Alan signs on to the Soul of the City website and reviews the submissions. He has 48 hours to pull together a story that respects the storytellers’ truths while also editing them together to highlight their most special moments. He works for about eight hours over the weekend to produce his work, and he submits it just before the deadline Sunday evening.
The next morning, listeners on their morning commute pull up the Soul of the City podcasts and find there are ten submissions ranging from just four-minute mixes to forty-five minute full-lengths. Some weave together stories from two or three submissions, and others pull in even eight or ten submissions.
The podcast stories are filled with ups, downs, and revealing insights into how life really is for these Latinas in Austin. The listeners feel excitement and curiosity; the storytellers feel proud, a bit nervous and excited at the same time, and seen; and the producers feel accomplished, having contributed to the stories’ shine while also honing their craft. Soul of the City ATX releases the next challenge – “What is life really like in West Lake?” And the storytellers there nervously reach for their phone to share what life is really like for them.
Prototyping – Round 1
This imagined solution is just that – imaginary. Enter the prototype. How will we know if our solutions will work? We will test different aspects of them in small, low-fidelity ways to validate the assumptions inherent in them.
There are many assumptions in the Soul of the City story. Will residents feel compelled to share their stories? Will they share them based on themes? When, where, and how would they be most likely to share their stories? Will people feel drawn to be “producers” ? What kind of platform would enable producers to review, edit, and weave stories together? What about the sound quality? And how would all this be marketed?
There are umpteen obstacles to making this solution a reality. But we need to start testing the basic assumptions first.
Do people want to share their stories?
This is the question I investigated in my first round of prototyping. The following is a documentation of my work.
When given an opportunity to record a story that will be posted online for the purpose of representing Austinites’ stories, respondents will share their story.
This experiment will be successful if 20% of respondents share a story to be posted.
I will go to public places or to people’s homes, and, after introducing myself, will ask if they would talk about stories with me for a school project. After talking about the kinds of stories they enjoy and other matters regarding storytelling broadly, I will then ask if they would share a story to post online.
I completed the experiment as described above. I went to a coffee shop and interviewed three people there. I also went to the library and interviewed an employee there. Lastly, I went to a person’s house and interviewed her on the porch. I also went to a barbershop and was told to come back later.
In all, it was clear that users are interested in telling and sharing stories, even with a stranger. All five participants shared a story with me to post and share online.
Stories from participants
Matt is a minister and grew up in East Austin. He told a story about how much the city is changing. “I’m okay with change, but this amount of change for a community is traumatic.”
Listen to Matt’s story
Lance works at the library and helps people find jobs. He wanted to speak about how he’d like to be remembered. “I just want to help people… You have something in common with everybody. And I feel that especially for a lot of the young people that come through here. I’ve been through a lot of the same things they’ve been through. And I don’t want them to make the same mistakes that I made.”
Listen to Lance’s story
Sydney is a student in anthropology at the University of Texas. She told a story about her favorite childhood possession – Penelope. “My grandma was losing her vision really bad… and one time she sewed Penelope’s leg back on, so it’s terribly sewn back on. (laughing) But I’m not going to fix it, because, you know, my grandma, that’s how I like it.”
Listen to Sydney’s story here
Lisa is a fourth generation homeowner by 12th and Chicon. She owns a yoga studio in East Austin with her husband. She told the story of her home and the neighborhood. “This house has seen generations… My great grandfather was a contractor, and he built houses around the city, and he would bring extra supplies from those jobs to build this house. So the windows and the door frames and all of that stuff came from other places. The house is very unique.”
Listen to Lisa’s story
David is a writer and avid meditator. He felt it was important to tell the story of his break from the conventional to seek a life of his own crafting. “My path was cultivated for me. Now you go to school, you get this degree. It all just felt so curated. I felt like I needed to break that chain of events and choose my own life.”
Listen to David’s story
I spoke with these individuals about stories generally, and they all spoke of the importance of stories in their lives.
“Stories are what makes us human.”
“Stories say ‘I’ve been through it. I’m still here.’ “
“I like stories about someone’s life. Where they came from. What steps they took to make life better. That can help me. I use these lessons to make my life better.”
“When I read stories, I learn, and they help me decide how to be in life.”
Measure of Success:
It was clear that people are itching to tell their stories, even to a stranger who will post them online. All five of the respondents provided a story to me to post online, yielding 100% success as far as this measure goes.
I learned much more from the interviews than the fact that people will share a story to be posted online. I learned what kinds of stories people enjoy, why they seek out stories, and where they seek them out.
One of the challenges I think I will face is determining a platform or series of platforms that will reach the widest audience. Some individuals I spoke to said they have never heard of a podcast and don’t read or listen to stories online. They said they never heard of NPR either. These outlets are popular for some individuals and in some cultures of storytelling, but they won’t reach all individuals.
If this project will be inclusive and create value for all Austinites, it will need to be designed with this limit in mind. How likely are people without a smartphone or without interest in online storytelling to upload a story? Will they trust that the producer will preserve the truth of their story?
These are questions that will provoke my design ideation in the coming weeks. Each week, we will test different assumptions about our work, continuing to evolve the solution so that it will realistically work and add value for all those it touches.