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Smart mobs telling stories, a tool with remarkable potential.

Current’s newest TV show, Bar Karma, is an evolution in storytelling. The show is a platform for community contributions, ideas and amplified cooperation. The creators leverage contributions, recommendations, pitches and votes through a platform created by video-game great Will Wright.

The project is powered by a tool called Storymaker, which would be very useful to journalists, video game developers and narrative designers.

You may not be familiar with Current TV, Al Gore’s television channel is not carried in the default package by all cable subscribers and is often ignored by other media outlets. It is best known for its focus on community created content. Current produces some pretty high quality shows, the most notable of which are Vanguard, an excellent documentary series, and infoMania, a clever cross between The Daily Show and The Soup.

As of this week, Current adds a new show to their lineup, Bar Karma. The show comes from the mind of SimCity creator Will Wright and ex-Nickelodeon president Albie Hecht. Oh and Current Creation Studio’s medium-sized community of story-writing hopefuls and invested contributer-viewers. The concept for the show itself came from Current’s contributors, as does every single episode, in various levels of detail.

The site provides web-based software called Storymaker to allow people to create story ideas, pitch episodes and create concepts for various in-show artifacts. Professional producers then take the community contributions and use them as the kernel around which to base a show. They also have used community ideas to build a mythology for the titular Bar Karma creating an ever-expanding playground for contributors.

The first episode premieres this Friday and only then will we really begin to get a sense of if Bar Karma will be a success. I’d recommend watching it. All that being said, the most interesting part of Bar Karma is not the cast, producers or the community on the site. It’s the tool.

Storymaker: a serious tool for communities, multi-thread storylines and group content creation

I’ve spent a few weeks exploring the Bar Karma site, even trying out its iPad application. It is no exaggeration when I say that Storymaker is one of the most fascinating story-building tools I’ve ever seen. It provides excellent functionality in three areas: story-building, contribution display and community management.

Building narratives with Storymaker

Building narratives with Storymaker’s cards tool is one of the most organic experiences you can have. Each card represents around one minute of screen time and allows you to add an image from an easy search tool to help visualize any given scene. You can create descriptions of scenes, or out-and-out screen-play style text.

Storymaker Card View

Storymaker Card View

Each card can be commented on, reported or individually recommended. Writing in each card is easy and mostly error-free. In writing 30 cards, I experienced data loss three times, but it was because I was frequently clicking in and out of Storymaker with multiple screens, copying and pasting for spellcheck. It’s not a normal use case and it is no longer required, as they seem to have now integrated spellcheck into the system.

When looking at an individual scene, you can even shuffle other people’s cards, to see what they’ve suggested. The system is aware of other cards in the same position and allows for threads to emanate from cards at any level of the system.

Storymaker tree view

The story tree view gives you a view of the various storylines in the system, allowing you to see various branches of stories from each points and all the available scene cards, via the visualization image. Besides being used for community-empowered storytelling, Storymaker could be an excellent way to plan out complex multi-branching storylines that are common to modern video games. It would also be useful for showing a timeline of events, how one event spurred a series of other occurrences, literally visualizing the chain reactions in history. It could be a great tool for journalists who want to break down complex stories into simple sets of events.

Storymaker’s pitch system

The tool seems to handle two types of content: short and long pitches. With short pitches, users throw out a brief idea which can then be recommended by other viewers. There is a maximum length and multiple short pitches are often created by the same person. The other type of pitch uses Storymaker’s primary function. You create your collection of cards and submit them for viewing by other users.

A Storymaker submission

Once submitted it shows up in the pitch request’s thread and can be shared, printed or ‘played.’ In the latter, users can choose one of three speeds and watch the story play itself automatically. They can also flip through the individual cards themselves, scrolling through any long text.

Recommendations and Community building with Storymaker

Storymaker presents a positive-only system for dealing with members of the community. There are no opportunities to vote or be voted down, instead you can only recommend content or choose not to recommend it. In addition, threaded commenting is present throughout the system, to allow you to comment on pitches, cards and full on storyboards.

Recommendations, along with selections and credits from the producers, display on a leaderboard.

You can vote on your own content only once and numbers are not displayed next to the content itself, though you can order most threads by ‘Most Recommended.’

Overall, I suspect that the positive reenforcement is highly beneficial to the community. If there was any backbiting or anger displayed, I didn’t see it in my browsing.

The future?

Very soon we’ll see just how much of the community input is taken into account in the first few episodes of Bar Karma. I suspect that will decide whether the show is a success of failure. I intend to post about this again once I’ve seen the first episode.

Either way, the Storymaker tool is really something remarkable. I’d love to see Current and Will Wright open source it, or at least give away a package that others can play with on their own.

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  1. AramZS on Tuesday 8, 2011

    Hey, right after I posted this the announcement went out that Keith Olbermann is going to Current TV. I guess Current TV will be getting more attention soon.

  2. […] new. Aram Zucker-Scharff, head of new media at journalism mentoring site UPI University, who reviewed the Bar Karma StoryMaker tool from a transmedia perspective offers some insight into the attention paid to […]

  3. april14344 on Tuesday 8, 2011

    hmmm this intrigues me…i haven’t seen this tv show yet. i think i might go and see if it’s in youtube.