Michael Spaeth: Slow down with Cowbird

By Michael Spaeth, Columnist
Published October 9, 2012

On Thursday, Facebook officially announced that the site surpassed 1 billion active monthly users, which means that roughly one in seven people on the planet has an account with Facebook. It’s a truly remarkable feat for a website that was created only eight years ago. Facebook employees and users are completely justified in feeling proud of this milestone.

However, a much lesser-known social network has been experiencing some modest growth of its own. Cowbird, which has expanded from 5,000 users in January to nearly 20,000 users in mid-October, is a social network that emphasizes beauty and genuine emotion over speed and constant connectivity. Cowbird’s stated goal is “to build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as part of the commons, available for this and future generations to look to for guidance.”

Cowbird users tell stories with a short body of text, ranging from a few words to a few paragraphs, a relevant picture and an optional audio clip. The picture fills a large portion of the screen, drifting up or down along with the computer cursor, and is sometimes accompanied by the sounds of people’s voices or the sounds of the natural environment in which the story takes place. The audio and the motion of the image often make readers feel like they’re physically present in the story's location, moving their heads up or down as they examine the people and the scenery in the background. In every story, the auditory and visual combination can be heartwarming, haunting or absolutely mesmerizing.

The story itself is usually short but powerful. In one popular story, a father has a conversation with his young daughter about how much he loves her. Some stories reflect on trips abroad, falling in love for the first time, spending time with family or brief descriptions of beautiful moments in everyday life. Others tackle weightier topics — the war in Libya or the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example. The stories are short enough that they can easily stick in readers’s minds, and they often end with a phrase that leaves readers pondering for a few minutes — as the ending of a short story or poem should.

Every time I visit the Cowbird website, I'm deeply moved by the time I logout. This is partially because virtually every Cowbird user is a good writer — right now, prospective users have to describe themselves and the stories they’d like to write before becoming members of the social network. But the main reasons that Cowbird has such a powerful emotional impact on readers is its simple design and focus on common humanity — the universal experiences and feelings that we share in one form or another. Facebook seems to be trying to create a similar experience with Facebook Stories, a semi-user-generated advertising campaign. But as @cowbird tweeted shortly after Facebook Stories was created, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery ;)."

In an era when speed and superficiality reign supreme, Cowbird is a much-needed breath of fresh air. While the college social scene is often filled with hook-ups — as The Statement examined last week — Cowbird provides glimpses into the toils and triumphs of genuine, loving relationships. As many politicians and pundits across the country focus on trivialities and emphasize what divides us during the final weeks of the 2012 election, Cowbird highlights the essential human qualities and experiences that unite us. While Facebook is a place to feverishly check the latest updates, Cowbird is a place to quietly contemplate. As Melissa Bell of the Washington Post wrote in February, “Amid the clamor of most social media sites, on Cowbird everything slows down. There’s no rush. With that kind of beauty, why should there be?”

I’ve written in the past that Facebook has some beneficial purposes, and I’m definitely not saying that Cowbird should try to compete. As Daniel Griffiths of Forbes Magazine wrote in August, Cowbird “is the antithesis of the Facebook model of going big.” But Cowbird has a valuable role to play in the world of social networks; it creates a refuge for people who want to explore the subtle beauty of life instead of checking the next status update. Particularly during the stress of midterm exams and the heat of the election season, it’s nice to have somewhere to go that so beautifully reminds us why life is worth living.

Michael Spaeth can be reached at micspa@umich.edu.