Storify: Collecting vs. Curating Content

When Storify (tagline: “Make the web tell a story”) launched in 2011, I thought it was really cool. Actually, I still think it’s kind of cool. Storify allows you to access public content from social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr—really, anything with a URL—and curate that content into a story. It seemed like an excellent tool to curate conference tweets, which is how I’ve predominantly used it (for example, to curate disability panels at CCCC for the past 3 years: #4c13, #4c14, and #4c15). But I also think it has a lot of potential in the classroom—particularly for assignments that require students to analyze digital media.

pedagogical application: revisiting the analysis “essay”

I’m not likely the only instructor who has received an essay where a student analyzes a song, video, or series of images and has thought, This medium really isn’t working.

Storify allows students to drag and drop media into their analysis, but to be successful (i.e., usable) texts, students need to do more than collect media. They need to curate it.

In WRT 301: Civic Writing, which was heavily focused on how folks engage with civic issues through digital platforms, I decided to use Storify as the platform for students’ Access Analyses. Here’s a little context from the assignment prompt:

After gaining some theoretical bearing in Unit 1—defining and redefining our understandings of civic engagement, participation, and action—we will begin in Unit 2 to think about the rhetorical, social, and political forces at work in civic issues. Specifically, we will turn our attention to civic spaces and how particular groups of people have historically accessed (or been denied access to) civic spaces and how writing influenced that inclusion/exclusion. That is, if writing worked to further exclude, whether writing mediated that access in any way, or even if writing became a way for unauthorized groups to empower themselves and join in civic discussions.

You will choose a current issue and explore how it has been addressed using different media outlets (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, CNN, Fox News, political blogs, local and national newspapers, public art). Using Storify, you will curate the different ways this issue has been represented, whose voices were included and excluded, and analyze the situation in order to highlight the tensions with civic participation across different sites.

Because I wanted students to analyze how a specific issue was represented across different media, I thought Storify would be a great way for students to integrate that media directly into their analyses. Of course, this also required that we schedule a few class periods in the computer lab so that we could talk about Storify and get familiar with the interface. Even though it’s a drag-and-drop interface, this lab time was key because students needed that functional literacy (shoutout to Selber) before they could think critically and rhetorically about the affordances of Storify.

Note: I also think it’s important to scaffold new media into a course. Before asking students to dive into Storify, I used it to curate their tweets to our course readings so that they would have a basic example of how the platform works.

As a drag-and-drop interface, Storify is pretty simple. But I think that ease of use also means that people take it up in simplistic ways. This isn’t a critique of Storify users or of Storify itself so much as an observation of most interfaces that are designed to be as easy to use as possible. For example, the easier WordPress becomes, the less you see people manipulating the interface in new and interesting ways.

scholarly application: curating conference tweets

When you search for a keyword or hashtag, Storify presents 20 results at a time and gives you a choice: “Drag and drop the best ones or add them all.” Particularly if you’re trying to curate a large quantity of media, the “add them all” function is attractive. When you click “add them all,” it imports all the tweets in reverse chronological order, which might make sense for some events. To return to the conference context, tweets from session panels (theoretically) follow a logical progression that a reverse chronological order disrupts. Plus, adding all the tweets and then publishing the story is difficult to navigate. If you’re curating a high quantity of tweets, Storify quickly creates a long, unwieldy product. This is why I like to make use of headers & subheaders to organize information and include a “how to read this text” statement at the top of each of the stories I create—to make an otherwise unruly document a bit more accessible.

An example of how I try to structure my stories: 1) story title, 2) a brief description of how I collected the content (which we might think of as the methodology), 3) a slightly longer description that introduces how the content is organized and how to navigate the text, and 4) the content itself.

When you use Storify to archive public conversations, you make decisions about what information to include (all of it?), how to structure that content (by session? by theme? in chronological order?), and what to exclude (do you include sessions on embodiment for a story about disability panels?).

And that takes me back to collecting vs. curating. Collecting digital media is not the same as curating digital media—that is, thinking carefully and critically about selection, organization, and presentation. When teaching with Storify (or, alternatively, using it for academic purposes), it’s important to think critically about arrangement: organization, structure, how to use text and headers to break up the media we incorporate. I still think Storify is a great way to curate conference tweets and is a good option for students composing analyses (particularly when those analyses involve digital media).

Just as we teach students to situate and provide context for their outside sources, we need to do similar work for the digital media that we include in our stories—to create stories that are readable & accessible.

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