Wizards and the CDC: Collaborative Storytelling Towards Change

I’ve made the case previously for how stories can play a role in your efforts to bring about social change or individual behavior change. One of the best ways to draw people into your story is to provide opportunities for them to participate — whether they can contribute to building a rich storyworld, or actually have a role in the direction of the narrative. When someone feels like they are part of the story unfolding around them, they can vicariously experience what is happening to the characters. This type of immersion done well can evoke empathy, get an individual to think about how they would respond if they were in a particular situation, and/or frame their conception of how the world should work.

Collaborative storytelling is an experience in which multiple people contribute to the course of a narrative. There are many forms this could take – an exquisite corpse project, in which one person picks up the story where the last person left off; LARPs (Live Action Role Playing) and other role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons; interactive stories where the audience can vote on what action the characters should take next;  and shared storyworlds, in which parallel or intertwined story-related content may be created collaboratively by a group of people.

As I’ve been involved in several transmedia projects – both on the inside and as a participant from the outside – I’ve been struck by how emotionally invested people can get in the story and with the characters. I wanted to give other social marketers and health communicators a taste of how a participatory storytelling project might work, so in advance of the CDC’s National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media (HCMM) in Atlanta, GA on August 7-9, I set up an experiment to run concurrently with the conference.

I created a site on Tumblr that provided some background on the story [the Hogwarts Conference on Muggle Medicine (HCMM) was happening at the same time as the other conference] and how to participate. By following the @HCMMstory Twitter feed and using the #HCMMstory hashtag before and during the conference, participants (both in Atlanta and virtually) could contribute tweets written as though they were attending the wizard version of the conference. Some of the sample tweets included:

  • Think I grabbed a wonky portkey on my way to the conference. I ended up in the penguin pen at the Georgia Aquarium. #hcmmstory
  • Heading to the panel on “A Sock on Every Head: Addressing Health Disparities Among House Elves.” #hcmmstory
  • Don’t miss the Quidditch yoga session happening at dawn. An active wizard is a healthy wizard! #BYOBroom #hcmmstory

The story started a few days before the conference as the wizards were gearing up to head to Atlanta, and continued through the end of the conference. The @HCMMstory Twitter feed ended up with 23 followers, about 10 people contributing content, and about 40 tweets to the story. Most of the tweets were in the days before and first day of the conference. As time went on and conference fatigue set in, fewer and fewer tweets were posted to the hashtag. I found it increasingly challenging to follow the CDC conference and simultaneously come up with clever content for the story, and was so busy at the event that I didn’t have much time to devote to rallying the troops to contribute. I’m hoping that the other participants found it fun and that it was a taste of what could be done on a larger scale with a clear behavior change objective.

You can see the tweets on Storify to get a sense of how the story played out.

Rick Austin at the KTExchange did a short interview with me at the conference about why storytelling is important for researchers, and about the HCMM Story experiment.

A great example of this type of participatory storytelling for change is happening right now at Ed Zed Omega – a collaborative online “thought experiment” following the stories of five young people who have dropped out of school. Created by Ken Eklund, who was also behind the collaborative alternate reality game World Without Oil, Ed Zed Omega encourages participants to interact with the characters via social media and to submit blog posts and other content sharing their perspective and advice on school and education.

I also love the model used by Beckinfield, which encourages people to create video diaries as a character they create themselves living in the fictional and supernatural town of Beckinfield, CA. Weekly emails provide participants with updates on what is happening in the town, from which they can create their character’s storyline and collaborate with others. Those who just want to view the content can do so, jumping from character to character to experience the story from different angles. Imagine this model being used for a community imagining how to tackle a shared problem like youth violence or pandemic flu, with different types of characters — or people responding as themselves — addressing the issue in their own ways. In responding to a fictional prompt (or an actual situation), people would have to think through the possible courses of action and their implications, and see how their decision plays out with the other participants.

If you want to see how the Harry Potter theme could be played out more fully to incorporate social change objectives, take a look at what the Harry Potter Alliance has been doing. By framing social issues as challenges from the series, the HPA rallies fans to take action in the real world and be heroes like their beloved characters.

Think about how your own projects could benefit from bringing people together to tell their own stories and how weaving a new narrative out of the separate strands could catalyze change for good among the storytellers and those who engage with the story.

Photo Credit: Scott Smith

Submit a Comment