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Putting The Mass Back In Media

Lance Weiler launches the online storyworld Robot Heart Stories to educate elementary school students from across the globe as they unite to help a lost robot return home.

A boy carries a robot and sets her down in front of London Bridge. He rests her on a railing and pulls a camera from his bag. In Switzerland a girl puts the finishing touches on a small knitted version of a robot. Satisfied, she sets the tiny robot down on a piece of moss — then steps back and snaps a picture.


Photo credit: Jasmine Lyman

Meanwhile in Sydney, a mother and her daughter assemble a robot that shares their passion for "Brains," their feisty Jack Russell terrier. While it takes less than 5 minutes to make their robot, they spend half an hour attempting to photograph "Brains" with his new tiny friend.



Photo credit: Evelyn Saunders

I know these stories because each of these people took time to play in a storyworld that we’re co-creating entitled Robot Heart Stories.


Designed as an experiential learning project, Robot Heart Stories uses collaboration and creative problem solving to put education directly in the hands of students.

At-risk students, a robot and an actual space launch sit at the center of a fun and educational co-created storyworld that is controlled by 5th graders. The two classrooms sit a continent apart and must work together to get a lost robot home. In order to do so they will need to engage a global community to accomplish the mission.

The experience begins when a robot crash lands in Montreal and must make her way to LA in order to find her spacecraft and return home. One classroom in LA (English speaking) and one multimedia workshop for children in Montreal (French speaking), will use math, science, history, geography and creative writing to help a robot make her way across North America.

At the same time, Robot Hearts Stories extends beyond the classroom, as the project welcomes involvement from a global audience. Participants of all ages can share their own passions in the form of a creative act involving a robot that they can print, customize and document. For each photo or piece of art featuring the robot that is submitted, the "signal strength" of the robot grows stronger and enables her to return home.

Robot Heart Stories is the first in a trilogy of participatory storytelling experiments I'm working on, in an effort to better understand storytelling in the 21st Century.


Robot Stories Site

Photo credit: Northern Army


The rapid democratization of the tools used to create has dramatically challenged the role of authorship. Many of those people formerly known as the "audience" feel as if they are their own media companies because now they are able to create and then push the button “publish” for the world to see.

Within my work I'm constantly challenging myself to experiment with the way in which I design, produce, and distribute the stories I wish to tell. It is part of a Story R&D (research and development) process where storytelling meets design methods often used within software development. I filter parts of the creative process by designing “with” instead of designing “for."

Co-creation is often a messy thing.

Knowing how to filter your creative vision and when to let go, which are common within the traditional filmmaking process, are actions that are now amplified and very public due to real-time interactions and can impact the stories you want to tell. But this isn’t new.

Social media has been fueling and shaping social change, emergency response and news for the last few years. What is new is the opportunity to tell stories and build worlds that are storytelling agnostic. Here the richness of a storyworld moves fluidly from one screen to the next as well as spilling out into the real world without a dependency on a traditional media source.

Part of the struggle with co-creation is firmly rooted in a lack of infrastructure, as the tools to co-create are often limited. The grammar used to tell these emerging participatory stories is still emerging. It is like the silent era of film and we’ve just realized that we don’t need to shoot actors on a stage —  that we can take the camera off the tripod and carry it outside to start experimenting with the grammar needed to make participatory stories emotionally relevant.

But in order to make a participatory story emotionally relevant you need to know how to collaborate with others and in some cases with large teams working across different disciplines.

Robot Heart Stories currently has over 50 collaborators in eight different countries. The team was quickly assembled via a number of tweets and postings to educational and transmedia groups. All the collaborators are working for free and our logistical design for Robot Heart Stories is a cross between something like Amazon Turk and the way open source software projects are run.

Tasks are listed and collaborators take on as little or as much as they can. The project is broken into teams focusing on different core areas — production, education, storytelling, technology, and social media. Most of the communication is centralized through 37signalsbasecamp collaboration software.

Basecamp is good for certain types of collaboration but is not really suited for the group work around a storyworld. Therefore we are utilizing google+, google docs and wikispaces to make up for a lack of features found within basecamp.

Here are some things we’ve learned so far:

1.    Establish a style guide to help collaborators understand the overall vision for the project.
2.    Establish simple and clear calls of action — it is important for people to know what you need help with and what you don’t.
3.    Develop milestones and assign them to collaborators, but also establish a check-in system so collaborators can follow up with each other.
4.    Set weekly catch up calls and make sure to centralize all the communication so that it is easy for people to jump in and out of the project with ease.
5.    Develop a simple database of skills, contacts and what collaborators can access. For instance our NASA lead came directly from a collaborator.

As we move forward with our trilogy of participatory storytelling projects, we plan to document and share as much of the process as we can. One thing is clear so far — if you can communicate your needs and you have a story that hits an emotional chord, there are numerous people waiting to collaborate with you — the key is you have to be ready to let go.


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