April 21, 2008
Children as Storytellers: The Making of TikaTok (Part One)

Considering the interests the Consortium has in issues such as participatory culture and innovative distribution platforms, I thought they might be interested in the first part of an interview I just ran over on my blog. I will share the second part here on the C3 blog shortly as well.

When our son was three years old, we began the practice of having him compose stories for us before bed. We traded off nights. Some nights we'd read him a story. Some nights he would make up a story which we typed out on the computer for him, word for word, without changes. Sometimes he would take a few friendly prods to get moving but we were very careful to preserve the structure and details of his imagination. We would print out the stories and have him draw pictures to illustrate them. We would then photocopy the whole and send them to his grandparents on birthdays and other major holidays as a time capsule of his creative life.

The process emerged, no doubt, because both his mother and father were fans and we knew the value of fan fiction. It benefited us as a family because it gave us a regular time when we could talk about the media he was consuming -- trust me, key themes of the stories came from television shows, movies, and from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyworld, which was a core influence on his thinking from early on. It allowed us to share our values with him, including the sense that he was empowered not simply to consume media but to rewrite it. And it helped him develop skills and a self identity as a writer which he has carried over into his adult life. I included an essay we wrote together in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. He also wrote and published an essay about his evolving relationship to professional wrestling in Nic Sammond's Steel Chair to the Head.

All of this came back to me when I went on a walk recently with Neal Grgisby, who graduated a year ago with a Masters from the Comparative Media Studies Program, and has now taken on a job as the Director of Online Community for a startup company, TikaTok, which is trying to promote the idea of children writing, illustrating, and editing stories to share with other children. Interestingly, he's ended up working for a company started by an alum of the MIT Media Lab, so part of the story he shared with me had to do with the value of collaborations between the two groups. In the interview which follows, Neal and Orit Zuckerman, the company's CTO, talk about what they are trying to accomplish and in the process, they share some cutting edge thinking about how and why we can help children discover the power of authorship.

Tell us about your goals for Tikatok. What do you see as the core needs your company serves? What age groups are your targeting and why?

Orit: Tikatok's goal is to give young children (ages 5-12) a stage to show their creativity, cultivate it, and create a continuum of creativity and creation into their adult life. Young kids are encouraged to draw, to tell stories, and to let their imaginations go wild, yet when they start going to school this creativity tends to fade away (unless they have exceptional talent). We find that every child has a story to tell and a picture to show, and you don't need to be an exceptional talent to interest other kids in what you have to say. We believe that an active community of kids who like books can support this activity and give each other the confidence and help they need in the book making process.

Neal: I would add that we provide a space for younger kids to get in on what many of their teen siblings already enjoy: the ability to share their creative content on the Web. Due in part to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, children under 13 are explicitly prohibited from contributing to sites like YouTube and MySpace, and the sites made for younger children like Webkinz are so restricted that meaningful personal expression is nearly impossible. We believe that it's possible to protect the privacy of children without depriving them of their voices. Picture books provide a form that they are very familiar with and that can grow out of the kinds of activities they already enjoy. It is essentially taking digital what children have always done at their kitchen tables.

What do you see as the value of allowing young people to become authors at
such an early age? Are there any disadvantages?

Orit: The value is showing to the world the amount of creativity that this age group has in telling a story. If you look at their stories, especially the younger ages, you see they are truly creating from within with much less external influence than older kids have, and the results are fascinating. The disadvantage is that in many cases the stories are not in a format or quality we expect a story to be, and sometimes the stories make sense only to the parents. I believe, though, that we are not in a place to judge those stories because we look at it with an adult's eyes while they are intended for the eyes of children.

Neal: Right, the advantages and disadvantages are nearly one in the same. Their lack of experience and prejudice gives them such a fresh and unadulterated perspective, but it also means they haven't fully developed the strategies and tricks that an author uses to work through a story. The blank page can be really intimidating, so we try to provide them some support and structure if they want it. Also, children are computer novices at this age, so we can't overwhelm them with complicated tools - the editor has to be very elegant and intuitive, which is a huge design challenge.

How does Tikatok fit within the ongoing conversations about the value of participatory culture? For example, what similarities and differences do you see between what you are doing with younger children and what teens and adults do through fan fiction?

Neal: I definitely see Tikatok as helping to lower the barriers to creation and circulation of creative works for this cohort of kids Like many fan fiction communities have done, I hope we can encourage a culture of peer support on the site that will help kids refine their abilities in a less formal or judgmental atmosphere than they may be used to at school. And of course, writing is not a niche cultural practice, so I believe we can really foster multiple affinity groups within the community around any number of genres and styles, that is, we can bring kids with similar tastes and goals together in a way that will be very motivating.
Recently some members of the team were browsing the magazine Stone Soup, which is a really amazing thing: a literary magazine that publishes the best writing and illustrations of authors up to 13 years of age. I think we share many of the same ambitions of the editors of that magazine: to show that children can create works of real value, to give those works visibility, and, as a result, to give other children the confidence to create. But equally meaningful to us is the work that doesn't necessarily meet universal editorial standards, work that may be of more personal value to the child or the parent, or that may just represent a small step in a child's writing development. On the Stone Soup website they claim that they receive, and therefore reject, tens of thousands of story submissions from children a year. That figure really brought home the importance of an approach that is different but complimentary to theirs, one that only digital media and print-on-demand can provide.

What kind of relationship do you picture evolving between readers and writers? What do you see as the values of kids reading and responding to each other's work?

    Orit: I believe that some people will be more active writers waiting for fans and critique, while some will be avid readers that collect favorite books and authors. The immediacy of the internet will evolve this relationship to more of a co-dependency rather than that of a remote creator-reviewer. The creations of the writers will be highly influenced by the readers because they can see the unfinished product and even be part of the creation. The readers are not just bystanders, they are more involved and as such their reading experience is completely different.

Neal: First of all, I can personally admit to being surprised by just how excited kids are to read books by other children that they don't know. I think my niece and nephew have literally read every book that has been shared with the community (authors have the option to keep their books to themselves or to their network of friends), and when they find a book that they like they become filled with curiosity about the author; it has really been great to see them so engaged.

My own hope is that reading will become a way into writing for our users--that a child will be sent a book by a friend, or will spend some time browsing and reading the books on the front page, and will eventually become inspired or provoked enough to respond with his or her own story. Of course there is no contradiction between being a writer and a reader--far from it--and we hope that the community of writers will grow to support each other by posting constructive criticism, making creative suggestions, and becoming fans of each other. It is a huge motivator for kids just to know that other people are reading their books.

I think it will be incredibly valuable, personally and intellectually, for these kids to get and give feedback. Commenting and contributing to discussion is another vital form of participation on the site, and it forces a child to put into words what may begin as a gut feeling about a given book. Even if the initial way of giving feedback is just to say "I like this," eventually he will run into an author who will respond with, "thanks, why?" And there he will have the beginning of a conversation that will likely get both the reader and writer to reflect and articulate something about their tastes and develop their ideas about storytelling and design. Especially if a child is both an engaged writer and a reader, having to shift perspectives from one to the other will likely make him better at both. It will give them a more personal stake in their literacy learning.

And as a site for the youngest of Internet users, I think the reader/writer model is a fairly powerful one for learning about the ethics of online participation. Like many online communities our site has community guidelines--the rules for participation--but instead of just providing a simple list of do's and don'ts, I tried to ground our rules with reference to this paradigm. So instead of decontextualized commands like "don't copy another user's work," the guidelines begin with some thoughts about how great writers stick together and respect each other. We still have rules, of course, but we try to show how they grow naturally from an ethical framework, and hope that they will remain relevant to our users as they discover other communities and have other opportunities for participation.

You describe Tikatok as "where kids channel their imaginations into stories." How would you respond to critics who felt your templates did too much to "channel" young imaginations into particular narrative formulas. Some evidence suggest that children conceive stories in different terms than adults. Do your templates teach them to find what adults see as stories or allow them to articulate their own imaginations?

Neal: It can be a thin line between scaffolding a child's ability to express herself and shoehorning her into a certain mode of expression, and we try to be very sensitive to this in our designs and the creation of the templates, which we call StorySparks. The templates themselves are relatively minimal: a smidgeon of character and setting, the beginnings of a conflict, and some hints about where they might want to take the story next. Few provide guidance beyond what you might call the "first act" of a story. They are written to be inspirational rather than prescriptive.

We do have plans to add other ways of scaffolding that are less textual. Probably the way that most kids tell stories is not through writing or drawing at all, but through objects. You put GI Joe in the Barbie dream car and put Barbie in the tank, and you have a scenario just ripe for a story. I'm very excited about our designs for a story scaffolding system that is more improvisational and object oriented.

Until then, user choice has really been an overarching design principle. Using a StorySpark is optional, and for those that do choose to write with a template, we have a huge library to choose from. In writing the templates I tried to pull ideas from everywhere to compliment any personality: mythology, fairy tales, classic literature, pop culture, etc. Once a template is chosen, we prompt the child to personalize it with their own character names and genders. Any aspect of it can be changed or ignored, and we have good evidence to show that kids are comfortable with taking what they need from a template and going in their own direction. At Tikatok you can definitely draw, and write, "outside the lines."

I absolutely hope that the children will write stories that fly in the face of adult logic and I can't wait to read them. It is really the reason for the site to exist: to publish the authentic expressions of child authors. But for the kids that want the help, the StorySparks can be very useful in allowing them to overcome the tyranny of the blank page, or for getting them to think about conflict and resolution. Research shows that even very young children can recognize good stories--or, if you like, stories that track with what adults consider good stories--but that their ability to generate those kinds of stories lags behind. I think it would be presumptive of us to assume that children do not want to progress to more adult-like stories. It is the same with drawing: it is fascinating to see how children process the world visually and translate that into an illustration, and often the final result is far more colorful and beautiful than the most realistically rendered landscape. But at some point in one's learning, to take a completely random example let's say when an individual reaches his 30s, it is just frustrating to him that he can't draw better, and he wishes someone would have given him some tips.

Finally, I believe that adults are the ones who are most anxious about transgressing boundaries and authority. It comes naturally to kids. I am sure they will subvert whatever story idea I had in mind when I wrote these templates, and I welcome that.

One of your story templates features the arrival of a new and unknown game console. Many book lovers set up an opposition between reading/writing and game playing. Yet, here you are using young people's interest in games as an opening into writing. How do you think about the relationship between these two modes of engaging with stories?

Neal: That template has been the most popular choice for kids participating in our offline workshops, by far. Mostly I think it gives them the opportunity to follow that ages-old maxim: write what you know. Here is a topic that they are experts in, and they are so excited to have a chance to put their knowledge and experience to use.

The success of that template gives a certain credence to the theory that the experience of playing a game has some similarities to the task of authoring a story. Where there is overlap we have tried to exploit it in our designs. For example our decision to prompt kids to pick character names and genders for their templates was influenced by the fact that this is a standard practice in games; and we hoped it would help ease them into a situation where they have to take more control over the story. I would say you can put reading, writing, and playing videos games on the same spectrum where the axis is control. Reading a book gives you very little control over the outcome of the story, whereas writing a book gives you maximum control. Playing a video game, or at least a video game with a narrative, is somewhere in the middle. You and the designer are co-authors of the narrative experience.

But there is definitely a critical point along that spectrum that video games have not crossed, and maybe can never really cross. There are non-trivial differences between firing up the Wii to play Super Mario Galaxy and writing a story on Tikatok, even when using a template. At times we have been tempted to push further towards the gaming model, to give kids tools for point and click, branching-path story generation, but that is just not what our site is about. We want to challenge kids to really use their imaginations and focus. I see our task as not trying to make writing easy, because if it was easy it wouldn't be writing. Our task is to make it less intimidating and more rewarding.

That said, the success of games among kids has really paved the way to allow many people to understand why it is the right time for a site like ours. A decade ago maybe no one would agree that kids would be willing or able to do for fun something as complex as making a book, or that it would be a product for a very small niche of gifted children. Now we can point to games and say: kids routinely master incredibly complex systems and can't get enough. Not only are they willing to engage with these participatory forms of culture, but they will soon demand it from all of their entertainment.

Orit Zuckerman - Co-founder and CTO

Orit has designed online communities since 1996, when she worked for Gizmoz Networks. In 1999, Orit co-founded uTOK Inc., a San Francisco-based Internet startup that created a "decentralized blogging community." She designed the community product, and supervised the R&D team. Most recently, Orit earned her Master's
Degree from the MIT Media Lab, where she designed and implemented an innovative communication system for children. Orit has also exhibited her interactive portraiture installations in Milan, Monaco, Boston, British Telecom headquarters, and the National Portrait Gallery in London, England.

Neal Grigsby - Director of Online Community

Neal Grigsby worked for seven years at LookSmart.com, where he managed volunteers on a user-generated Web directory, co-managed partnerships and developed content for FindArticles, and designed education-themed search verticals. Neal recently earned his Masters Degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, where he produced educational media for the Macarthur-funded Project for New Media Literacies, and
designed video games for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Neal also holds a BA from UC Berkeley.


On May 21, 2008 at 11:54 AM, Florence Gallez Author Profile Page said:

Such a digital platform for developing creative and participatory skills as TikaTok is a perfect example of what children here in Russia can only dream of.

Despite a federal program to connect most of the country's schools to the Internet, many that are "officially" connected do not have real access because they have not been provided with computers. And since April 1, schools nationwide are now required to use filter technology that blocks student access to porn, extremist and pornographic content, in the vein of what I understand the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act is trying to do. The notion of "extremism," however, is poorly defined and many fear that the limits on access to such content will be very broadly applied--just as the Russian authorities used Russia's law on extremism to stifle criticism of state officials.

An enterprise like TikaTok would infuse a breath of fresh air and freedom in the increasingly controlled environment that the Russian Internet has become for old and young alike...

Florence Gallez
[Moscow-based journalist]