April 22, 2008
Children as Storytellers: The Making of TikaTok (Part Two)

I recently shared with you an interview with CMS alum Neal Grigsby and MIT Media Lab alum Orit Zuckerman, two of the key players in a new startup company, TikaTok, which is working to encourage children to create their own books and share them with other young readers. In this followup post, also cross-posted from my blog, we get a bit more personal as the two share their sense of how their MIT education contributed to their current projects.

Your site also seems to promote opportunities for collaboration between young authors and illustrators. Is this a way of introducing young people to the world of collective intelligence?

Neal: It certainly is, and although it was always on our road map to add this feature, necessity made us move it up the schedule. Our users demanded it. Drawing, and getting an illustration up on the site, can be a creative and technical challenge for many. The team went back and forth for a very long time about the possibility of providing a digital drawing tool before finally coming to the conclusion that it was a bad idea for several reasons. But if you could use the illustrations that other kids had already provided and pledged to the community, if only until a time that your own drawings would be ready, it would really help.

Now we are seeing writing and illustrating as potentially two separate modes of participation, and it is quite exciting. Of course there will always be children who enjoy writing more than illustrating, and vice versa, and this gives both groups the ability to engage deeply on the site and not feel like they're missing a big part of the experience. I also suspect that for many users their first experience with collaboration will be almost accidental: they will use someone's illustration, or someone will use theirs, and the system will automatically attribute the illustration credit. And then once those two kids see the power of this passive collaboration, it may pave the way for a more deliberate collaboration like co-authorship of the text, which the site also supports, or even "massively multiplayer" co-authorship with a large group.

It is certainly possible that we will provide even more modes of participation in the future--one could easily imagine introducing analogs to the traditional roles of editor, copy editor, layout and design artist, and even publicist--but we haven't determined yet which of these would be the most meaningful to our community.

In a "Mother's Welcome," Sharon Kan suggests that this project emerged from the experience of "two mothers who wanted to create a place where children can write, illustrate, publish and print their own books." What specific experiences did you have as mothers which pushed you to start this company?

Orit: As mothers you see your children grow and their brains develop. It is one of the most fulfilling experiences to look at the world from a child's view. From very young age children try to express themselves in pictures and in stories. When I sat with my daughter and we created a story together, she knew exactly what she wanted to say and draw; she enjoyed creating a story and was very happy when it was presented to the world by her proud parents. Even though it wasn't storytelling as we see in books that are written by adults, the ideas that come out and the simplicity of the storyline was very interesting. I also noticed that through kindergarten she was always encouraged to draw, but when she went to first grade the emphasis went to reading and writing only, and all that talent of telling stories by pictures was neglected. Then I looked at my daughter's bookshelf. She loves books, yet all of her books were written by adults, edited by adults, and published by adults with adult priorities in mind. Why aren't there books for kids by kids? They clearly tell stories differently but no one publishes it? This is what led us to think that creating a platform where kids can tell their stories, bind them into real books, and be active in a community of book lovers would be a great thing to build.

Neal, you are in the process of becoming a father yourself. How is that impacting your perception of this project? What would you say in a "Father's Welcome" to the site?

Neal: In an interesting coincidence, the day that I learned I was becoming a father was the same day that we launched the private alpha release of the site. So you could say that both baby and website have been gestating for about the same amount of time. As you might expect it has been an incredibly busy and exciting time, and I approach the future with a sense of deep responsibility but also optimism.

Since learning of my impending fatherhood, I have been following blogs like Parent Hacks and GeekDad, and have been inspired by the ways those sites integrate this resurgent DIY culture with parenthood. From the stereotypes, one might expect a geeky parent to be particularly disengaged or self-absorbed, but these blogs almost show geek parents as the best hope for our future; they show passionate and caring parents who involve their children in projects of investigation, exploration, and invention.

If I were to write a "Father's Welcome," then, I would express my hope that the families who use our site embrace the opportunities it provides for parent and child to share a creative experience together. I am fully aware that, especially when he becomes a teenager, computers and the Internet will become tools of autonomy for my son. The old man will be embarrassingly uncool, as it is my destiny to become, and he will forge his online identity largely outside my direct supervision. Many sites for young children already reinforce this model, requiring the parent only for his blanket permission or his credit card. I hope on Tikatok a parent can hone a different facet of his relationship with his children: he can assist, collaborate, and inspire.

Orit, you recently completed a degree at the MIT Media Lab. Can you describe the work you did through the lab and what you learned there which has contributed to the current venture?

Orit: Part of my research in the media lab was creating a unique communication system for kids to involve remote relatives with their daily routines. Communication systems as we know them were designed for business use, later on they were adapted to home use, but without any changes to the basic design. Looking at what children need to communicate led to the development of a very unique video system that created contextual video correspondence between relatives. For example, a grandmother would read a story to her grandchild on the other side of the world; and then the grandson would get that message when he went to bed. The system would know the right time to connect between the relatives and thus create a more meaningful connection between them. Looking at things from the user's point of view creates a different product all together. With Tikatok, I tried looking at storytelling from a childs point of view and create something that would be easy and fun to use.

Neal, you recently completed a Masters through the Comparative Media Studies Program. Can you describe the work you did with us and how it has contributed to the current venture?

Neal: All of my work at CMS was united by the program's commitment to multidisciplinary thinking, and for putting theory into practice. It was really invaluable experience to me as I began work on Tikatok.

The research project I worked most on was the Project for New Media Literacies. As your regular readers well know, it is a project very much created to address the challenges of participatory culture. As a graduate student researcher it was my responsibility to create educational media and associated curricula that would illuminate media production practices for a youth audience. I produced materials around blogging and science fiction authorship (using BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow as an exemplar), public art and graffiti, Wikipedia, and video games. The project forced me to think of creative ways to teach both the practical and ethical dimensions of media production, and that experience has certainly come in handy for designing materials that engage and instruct our users. The project also trained me to see these processes of creation and expression not only as individual processes, but as social process that occur within a context. This perspective has frequently come in handy when, as a team, we discuss new features and priorities for the company. The community illustration database is the perfect example. Do we solve the problem of illustration uploading with a tool that allows individual children to create digital drawings instantly? Or do we provide a more powerful way for kids to work together and take advantage of their unique abilities? My work with NML helped me provide an informed opinion on this decision and others.

I also worked briefly at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab as the design lead for a team of Singaporean and MIT students charged with creating a multiplayer video game for mobile phones. GAMBIT really prepared me for the kind of rapid, iterative product development within a small team that is characteristic of many startups, including our own. My GAMBIT experience also gave me a heightened appreciation for the extreme importance of user interface design and QA. I believe that video games really have some of the best user interfaces of any interactive media. There are design principles common to video games that designers of websites and virtual worlds should ignore at their own peril. The multidisciplinary approach I learned at CMS has allowed me to recognize relevant connections between these different media modes.

Finally, there was my academic work. My thesis explored "Narrative of Adolescence Across Media" and its final chapter, which imagined video games as a platform for a new kind of player co-authored coming-of-age story, articulates many of the same goals that we are trying to meet with Tikatok. For someone whose thesis was inspired by Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age, in which a young girl is aided in her development by, essentially, a digital platform for collaborative storytelling, it has been exciting to bring my research to bear on one of the closest real-world examples of such a platform that I have encountered.

What has been the biggest surprise as you've explored the intersection between these two MIT-based approaches to media?

Neal: The biggest surprise to me, I suppose, is how compatible the two approaches have been. If I were to believe the Media Lab stereotype, it would be that the folks there put too much faith in technological solutions. Certainly there is a huge technological optimism behind projects like the One Laptop Per Child, and it's important to peel away the layers of hyperbole to assess its potential impact. In starting a new company, it puts you in the position of having to promote yourself and your ideas, and it can be tempting to let your high aspirations get the best of you and let the hype flow unchecked. But I have never found myself battling Orit over unrealistic expectations. I think because the project is so grounded in her commitment to making something cool and worthwhile for her children, it makes her a sharp judge of what really works vs. what we want to work. She's not making something for "the children," she's making something for her children.

And while Orit works on a very intuitive level, the CMS approach has allowed me to bring a multitude of theoretical frameworks to the project, and helped me articulate what we are trying to achieve, sometimes to people on the outside, but sometimes even to the team. In that sense it is a nice marriage of a more bottom-up, creative approach with a top-down, analytical approach. But even that is a simplification - I think we both bring creative and analytical skills. As MIT media scholars I think we definitely speak the same language.

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.