Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Pop!Tech: Jonathan Harris and digital storytelling

Jonathan Harris is an artist and storyteller. He shows us his past storytelling, using paint to tell imaginary stories as a child. His main storytelling medium these days is sketchbooks, which he fills with “dead flowers, watercolors, ticket stubs”, interviews with people. The beautiful pages serve as “windows into experiences” that he’s had.

The project he shows at Pop!Tech is of a trip he took to Barrow, Alaska, to document a family of ten Inupiat hunting for bowhead whales. He travels from Newark to Barrow, Alaska to live with this family for a week, then moving to a camp on an ice flow, where the sun never set and the temperature was about -22. Throughout the trip, he took photos at a five minute interval, even when he slept (using a timer.) When things got very exciting, he would raise the rate of speed to as high as 37 every five minutes.

He’s organized the photograps so they can be searched by character, concept, context, color, time, date and his excitement level. The 3214 photos are arranged along these axes, allowing a viewer to see all photos that involve red – the wallpaper in his bedroom in Barrow, the blood of the whale – or all photos involving each of the characters in his story. It’s a very beautiful way to sort time in different ways, a lovely, elegant interface that invites exploration.

Harris may be best known for his work on a project called “We feel fine“. He searches for blog posts around the web where someone says “I feel” or “I am feeling”. His engine generates about 20,000 posts a day and searches for whatever he can find about the author – demographics, location, photographs. The interface expresses each utterance as a color related to the emotion of the expression, sized to the length of the statement. You can zoom in and see each statement, search all the statements made in sunny places. One interface offers a montage of statements with photos, the utterance overlaid on an image it was found with.

Harris turns the theatre into a storytelling platform, flashing an image of photo and statement and inviting the Pop!Tech crowd to react with stories and emotions. It takes a moment or two, but people are quickly talking about their fathers, their loneliness, Second Life avatars. It’s a daring way to give up the last five minutes of his talk, but it works surprisingly well.

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