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StoryLab presents at the What If...? Conference

mobile storytelling, international relationships, storytelling, what if conference

On April 11, StoryLab founder Sarah Redohl spoke at the What If...? Conference at the University of Missouri. The conference aims to encourage social change by asking questions starting with What If...? Sarah's question was, "What if mobile storytelling democratizes a global narrative?"

Check out the full presentation here:

Here's the full transcript:

Before we dig in I wanted to ask who has their phone on their laps, in their hands, or otherwise, basically within reach. So, pretty much everybody. I want to say thank you, because chances are, you’re sharing what’s happening here today with the world. And that’s really amazing.


It’s hard to believe that the smartphones have been out for less than 10 years, but nearly everyone in this room has one. And this year, 2015, marks the year that more than ¼ of the world’s population will have a smartphone for the first time. That’s big news, because our smartphones are capable of so much more than checking the weather, Googling things and playing Trivia Crack? What if the stories we tell from our mobile phones could democratize a global narrative? To illustrate this, I’m going to take you on a short trip around the world.

In 2011, journalist Bruno Torturra was covering a series of protests in Brazil that turned ugly. He saw media crews covering the events from a distance in their vans. And that’s when he made the decision that the next time he would cover these protests, he would do so from within the fray. He wanted to share the raw experience of the event. And his livestreaming coverage was watched by more than 100,000 people.

From this, he created Media Ninja, a collective of experimental journalists all over Brazil who would share similar on-the-street style news. And that group grew to include hundreds of people, with a reach of more than 11 million timelines.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, a man named Ian Tomlinson died during the 2009 G-20 protests. He wasn’t a part of the protest. He was walking home from his job selling newspapers. The next day, the headline of one of the newspapers he’d spent 20 years read, “Police pelted with bricks as they help dying man.”

That’s what the official reports said. Within a week, video footage from a bystander’s cell phone proved this report to be false. It showed an officer hitting the man and pushing him to the ground.

Back in New York City this March, a smaller injustice occurred when a police officer lost his cool when pulling over an Uber driver. The passenger recorded the exchange, and the police officer was striped of his badge and gun and put on modified duty. Here’s one of my favorite commentaries on that event:

“[That officer] grew up in an era when creating video and 'broadcasting' it was something special, expensive and complicated. …60 Minutes did it, and you knew when 60 Minutes was recording. After all, they had a big crew of a dozen people, with lights and microphones, and Mike Wallace. …Now, the passenger in the back of the Uber taxi was Mike Wallace and his crew. Of course, all he had was an iPhone. It was all he needed. It is all anyone needs to become Mike Wallace.”—Michael Rosenblum

That’s from Michael Rosenblum. He trains field operatives from the United Nations’ Refugee Agency to shoot, edit and share videos using iPhones. Rosenblum knew that the operatives often begged the BBCs and CNNs of the world to send a reporter to show the world what has happening. And every once in awhile, a reporter would arrive, knowing very little about the situation, and produce a story. But Rosenblum also knew that the operatives knew the stories far more intimately than a journalist parachuting in for the day might be able to. And they were always there to cover the events.

These are just a handful of examples where, all around the world, people are using their smartphones to tell a more realistic narrative of events, crowdsource the truth, fight injustice, and tell stories worth telling.

These examples become the history of our existence—and that history is being catalogued from a wider variety of perspectives than ever before.

But there are some barriers that prevent mobile storytelling from reaching its full potential to impact our global narrative: lack of credibility; lack of access to the required tools, including devices, connectivity and training; and the difficulty of reaching a mass audience.

A journalist is someone who gathers, assesses, creates and presents news and information. That could be true of any of these situations. What makes a journalist different is the verification process and his or her newsroom’s credibility. So, how can an independent storyteller develop credibility?

Every minute, 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube and nearly 5,000 photos are posted to Instagram, alone. Just since I stepped onstage, that means 1,600 hours of video and more than 25,000 photos. When there’s so much content to wade through, how can we find the good stuff and prove it to be true. Even journalists have a difficult time wading through what’s true and what isn’t. Just look at the coverage of Hurricane Sandy. How can the average consumer be expected to do so?

There’s also the issue of access to devices, connectivity and training. If ¼ of the world will have smartphones this year, that still leaves almost 5.5 billion people without the technology to share their own stories. Less than half of the world’s population—around 40 percent—has access to the Internet. Far smaller still is the group of people with the digital literacy to produce their own stories—more than brief snippets of video and snapshots, which can be effective—but also complete stories, context, credibility, and all.

In the past, our attention was monopolized by only a handful of networks. But platforms like YouTube have democratized attention, and now anyone can publish their own content and use social media platforms to distribute it. But the vast majority of people still rely on mass media for their news. Yes, anyone’s story can go viral, but that’s not something anyone can bank on. How can we close that last mile to people who aren’t information elites? Often, these stories gain traction through traditional media broadcasting user-generated content.                 

But a study in 2014 found that 75 percent of journalists—the people making the decisions as to what user-generated content to share—say they feel pressure to think about their story’s potential to garner more clicks and be shared on social media, which results in advertising revenue for their employer. In this age of journalism, many journalists are forced to think about ROI—return on investment. But when you’re too invested in ROI, we forget about another very important I-word: impact.

What’s really amazing about mobile storytelling is that peole are telling these stories without any financial incentive. People are sharing their stories every day, posting photos, videos and updates to social media every day. And we aren’t doing it for the money. We’re doing it for the joy of creating the thing. And maybe, if we point our phones in the right direction at the right time—and enable others to do so—we could change the world.

Thank you very much!