Comparing two digital storytelling methods

This weekend I performed a small digital storytelling experiment.  I created one story and published it through two different venues.  Which worked better?

The story is a simple one about Vermont’s winter passing unusually quickly, giving way to a surging spring.  I took photos, rewatched this video clip I shot, wrote up and recorded a voiceover track, then  sketched out an outline combining the images and audio.  Then I headed to the pair of platforms.

Cowbird logoFirst, Cowbird.  This is a multimedia authoring site which lets users combine images, text, and audio into a linear but non-video format.  It’s very, very easy to use.  I like the way it displays images, encouraging viewers to dawdle with them.

Normally I make stories in Cowbird with images and text only, but this time I included the audio file.  Here’s the story.  (Apologies for the lack of embed; Cowbird’s still working with iFrames, which WordPress resists.)

Second, YouTube.  I took my raw materials and imported them into iMovie (the newest version, yes, so I’m still wrestling with what’s been done to it).  I started with the audio track, then added images in the same order as the Cowbird sequence.  After tweaking them for timing, I didn’t like how that turned out, so I rearranged the order, took out a couple of photos, added one I didn’t use in the Cowbird version, then set to work with video-specific features: clip timing and titles.  When I felt it was somewhat coherent, I uploaded to YouTube, with appropriate tags and additional text.

Here’s the result.

I’m not sure which one I prefer, as each has its own affordances.  Cowbird lets you take your time through the image sequence.  It encourages you to mouse around inside of each image.  And it provides easy to read text.  YouTube, on the other hand, constrains viewing/listening, being video.  Both seem to embody what I was getting at when the story idea first came to mind.

Which one do you prefer?


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19 Responses to Comparing two digital storytelling methods

  1. CogDog says:

    Only 2 different venues for telling a story? I once tried 50 and never found the definitive answer to what is “best” 😉

    You have spectacular imagery, those slabs of ice, your poetic writing, and the atypical imagery of your globally weirded landscape. I’d actually ask questions about your use of audio. In Cowbird, the audio and text are the same, and to me, a tad redundant, whereas in video, the audio is the narration. In Cowbird the audio is not synchronized at all with the visuals/text, so it either allows for the free roaming, but also for others might be discordant.

    If it were me, I might make more use of the ambient sound as a layer to the story. Your first video clips has a full on ambiance of the sounds of rushing water (when it should be frozen), why do you know use that as a background audio element? Why not some subtle bird sounds when you mention them? If I were making this story in cowbird, I would either layer in the water sounds with the audio (and skip the text that you are reading) or skip the audio narration in lieu of water sounds alone.

    But also (and I feel like I am getting super critical), it’s an observational piece– I sense you are wanting to share your views of your atypical winter, which you share well– but maybe what’s missing is the Bryan in this- where is the personal connection? What does global weirding story mean at a human level? It feels like part of a story, an opening to a story, what is *your* story.

    PS- if you reclaimed your blog from to your own domain you could freely iframe!

    • Thank you for the feedback and critique, Alan.

      Sound: as you know I love sound. But I’ve been struggling to get iMovie to successfully detach audio from video. We’re talking about this off-blog, so hopefully I can get it to work.

      Personal connection: that was deliberate this time. Like a few of my recent Cowbird pieces, I’ve been trying to emphasize the landscape as a ground for my humanity.
      If it’s not succeeding, I should rethink.

  2. I’d never seen Cowbird before, so it’s a new tool to me.

    As a hearing impaired user, I lean toward tools like Cowbird. For users who cannot hear the voice-over narration, the appearance of the text on the screen makes it very easy to follow along and the user has the added bonus of being able to linger over a particular image (and even play around with the perspective a bit) if they so desire.

    While I do prefer tools like Cowbird, YouTube is always a great option as it is familiar to all users and totally device/platform agnostic. Furthermore, YouTube has come a long way in their automated closed captioning. It’s still far from perfect, but usually does a fair job of creating a closed captioning track that somewhat resembles what’s really being said. Another drawback to YouTube is that even though one can tweak the YouTube captioning, it doesn’t allow for any text formatting, so it’s difficult to really emphasize words or parts of the narrative for the hearing impaired. A platform like Cowbird, on the other hand, as long as you include the text slides, enables the user to follow the narrative more easily.

    I realize that’s more of a design thing than an inherent component of the platform, but it’s always nice when folks take the time to make sure the hearing impaired don’t lose anything in the translation. 🙂

    (Just a footnote and explanation, I lost hearing in one ear about 18 months ago and have a cochlear implant in the deaf ear. So I’m not fully deaf, but it is difficult sometimes to follow along without the aid of some sort of text to guide the way.)

  3. CogDog says:

    Yow, thanks Rodney for bringing to attention an obvious situation I overlooked (again), that having the same story in both audio and text on screen brings the story to people with audio accessibility issues.

    The nice thing about cowbird is you get to choose to listen to the audio or read it. It is a lovely platform for intermixing words and imagery (and audio too).

  4. Diane Convery says:

    Personally, I liked the Youtube result.

  5. Well, I was marshaling my thoughts when I saw that darned @cogdog beat me to it!
    First off, I don’t agree with his “Where is the Bryan in this?” At all. This narrative is spot on for the nature writing genre. Your voice is exactly right for it.

    I don’t use Cowbird, so you were halfway through the narration before I noticed there were slide arrows to click. Then the English teacher in me was bothered by periods and commas misplaced outside the quote marks (me wondering, is he Canadian?), as well as the pronoun shift first to second, which I hadn’t noticed in the YouTube version…but I am at that twitchy moment in the term when I have just finished plowing through finals and no miscreant comma misses my bleary red eyes.

    Do you have an iPad? The iMovie on it works great. The audio can be easily detached from the video, and audio clips can be stacked three deep. You can add fades ins and outs, video in video and other useful moves. Everything Alan suggested can be done on your iPad…and on your Big Mac, too, but the learning curve is less and more fun on mobile.

    Truth telling moment: I loved the narration and wanted to download it and make a very different digital story using my own as well as your media because I just love your voice and the story you tell.

    I often-to-usually feel very much alone (though not lonely!) in my consistent obsession for digital storytelling using homegrown narration and video. It seems to me to carry the wavelength of soul in a very special way.

    Thank you!

    • My dear Sandy Brown Jensen, thank you for these sweet words. Please go ahead and have fun with my tracks.

      No, I don’t have an iPad, and that’s by choice. I need a keyboard. The virtual keyboard works badly for me, and if I’m going to attach a physical keyboard I may as well have the real deal.
      iMovie is frustrating, but I’ll persevere. Despite my fond memories of teaching it to folks, when it was a splendid app for newbies.

      Question: should I start doing audio only work as well?

      • iPadPro has a keyboard–just sayin’! Mostly though I am subliminally mind beaming Peter about my birthday in May!
        In order to detach the audio, your YouTube video needs to be set on a CC license. Better yet, e-mail me the audio file! On the iPad, I simply long touch the file, and it opens in iMovie ready for deep play. Can’t tell you how much I love that!

        There is only one answer when I go to a party and the host asks, “White wine or red?”
        The correct answer, of course, is “Bofadem!”

        So it is with Cog That Dog’s Fifty Ways! How does the spirit move you in the creative moment? Is the ear longing to only hear the flow of story and language? Or does the soul crave the multi media experience of full emersion? Listen to your heart and slowly select your tools. Fall into the flow…

  6. I favored the YouTube version – by not having to click to navigate, and not having the words engaging the reading portion of my brain, I could instead focus on the listening portion, and focus on the voice and the words as they were spoken, which has different nuances than the words as they are written. Plus I could better connect spoken word to visuals by having them processed at the same time as opposed to separating the written word from the visuals. It’s the old Split-attention effect (Sweller et al, 2011 “Cognitive Load Theory”). If the text had been overlaid on top of the visuals, I could have better listened to the words and read them at the same time, all while connecting the words directly to the visuals intended, and not needing to navigate back and forth to put the pieces together.

    • I should also bring up Baddeley’s working memory model, where the text processing can interfere with both seeing pictures and hearing narration.

      • That’s excellent, Chad. Thank you.

        I think Kathy Sierra has been urging audiences to make visual-heavy products (video, photos) for a while, based on these cognitive angles. She also argue that they were better at eliciting emotional engagement.

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  8. lisalebduska says:

    Bryan–Your work inspired me to share the experiment with my writing class at Wheaton (Massachusetts). I asked students (all under 22 years old) to compare, blog, then read CogDog and blog a bit more. (Ungraded, informal.) Their responses fascinated me: thus far 4 prefer the Cowbird version and 3 prefer the YouTube; one, I think, is neutral. I wrongly assumed that they’d all prefer YouTube, but their responses showed a range of relationships to writing/viewing and composing. Some talked about wanting control over their viewing experience; some talked about wanting to experience certain modes in isolation; one even contrasted the composer’s needs to those of the viewer.

    Most have taken the option to keep their blogs private, but if would help I can ask if they’d post here. Mostly I want to thank you for sharing this experiment, which, along with my students’ posts have given me a great deal to think about, and I will follow up on the many helpful posts here. Wow.

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  10. straylight6 says:


    First off, beautiful story in both content and deliverance – I agreed with Sandy that your narrative is prosaic and your tone and pacing fit this well so, I hope we’ll see more.

    Second, I’ll agree with those above who preferred the YouTube version. However, I fear I am tending toward this because it’s more akin to traditional TV-generation experiences we have all grown up with which usually entail a ‘Ken Burns’ effect photo- and video-stream with voice-over narration. From a technical aspect, I’ll also reiterate Chad and Sandy’s thoughts above that the timing in image to spoken word is critical and Cowbird has me working controls to move through the imagery which takes away from my enjoyment of the narration. I am also one of those people who cannot read if the TV is on in the room so I wasn’t able to listen to the audio ~and~ read the same words written on the page – thus, that was not working for me in Cowbird either. With all of that said, Rodney’s hearing-impaired point is excellent and adding your own text, in your own style (as opposed to a CC bot adding it into a video automatically), would have a great deal of value to that audience I would think.

    I’ll guess that there is no ‘one stone’ method for DS and the correct vehicle for the job will depend on the elements the author wishes to include and the experience they are trying to convey. I prefer to sit, focus and absorb while others prefer to listen to podcasts while they chop wood so, in the immortal words of Joe Zolner, ‘it depends…’

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