A Story Grows in Brooklyn

A warm winter's welcome to NY Media Lab

By Miranda J. Smith


On a recent (and very frigid!) Friday night, I trekked to the multimedia epicenter of DUMBO in Brooklyn to participate in a highly collaborative process of creating and thinking about stories.

About 12 other hardy souls also made it to the Made in NY Media Center where Lance Weiler, founder of the Digital Storytelling Lab @Columbia, and his colleague Nick Fortugno, a game designer, teacher, and artist, spoke briefly about their ongoing work on the social/digital storytelling experiment, Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things. You may be familiar with this project from Sofie Andersen’s account from this past October. After a few moments of explaining the events of the evening, we jumped right in to explore story formation, rapid narrative experience prototyping and scoping.

Unlike the more improvisational story-generating techniques in Sofie’s session, there was very much an element of immersive gaming and game design in the session I took part in.

Here’s some of the storytelling highlights & process;

Pick a category: We started by choosing from among 4 categories: objects, people, spaces and activities, then to come up with an idea for the category we’d picked, as well as a one-sentence detail about it, and write it down. I chose people, and wrote “High school junior at LaGuardia, looking for an internship”. Another person picked a space, Damrosch Park Bandshell, someone else picked a toaster, another picked “recording noise outside”, and so on.

Find a story-mate: We stuck the post-its’ with our ideas to our sweaters, and went forth to gravitate toward those whose ideas that seemed mesh with our own to organically create a story. In conversation, each group made narrative connections between their activities, objects, spaces and people, then wrote down and placed these initial story connections onto a hand-drawn map of Lincoln Center.

Forming production groups: Next, everyone reviewed what the other groups had done, wrote out up to three skills they’d be willing to share in creating an experience onto post-its, and then had the chance to join a group whose initial story seemed the most engaging.

Developing a prototype: In our new groups, we spent about 15 minutes developing a prototype for a digital experience at Lincoln Center based on these initial stories. My group came up with an audio-based “find the missing person” on-site game, inspired by NPR’s Serial, involving my high schooler, another’s bandshell in the park, an audio recorder, and a mobile phone. All the groups then checked in with everyone to present their prototypes of experiences and took questions about them from other groups. We didn’t try to answer the questions, but rather used them to further scope out our prototypes.

Mapping the flow: Each group mapped out a flow of the experience form the first encounter either online or at the site - and when I say 'mapped, I mean literally making flowcharts with long sheets of brown kraft paper and a sharpie.

Presenting the ideas: To round out the evening, each team presented their concept to the rest of us. Though most were raw in the final presentation the goal was not only to use this collaborative storytelling process to see our own individual contributions reflected in the final experience, but also to eventually allow participants agency to create their own narrative threads. There’s more to come from this experiment, with more chances to build an exciting experience at the New York Film Festival in 2015.

This wasn’t my only foray into stretching storytelling boundaries that weekend. In my next post, I’ll be talking about being a creator as well as an audience member – and an early 1930’s speakeasy as the stage.

And here is more from Lance Weiler himself on Columbia's Lab.

- author