OurStory: A Bigger Story than I Thought

When I first heard about and saw OurStory, I labeled it a "social scrapbooking" site. That wasn't intended to be pejorative in any way. Rather, I observed it was a site created to help manage existing relationships and intended to appeal primarily to women. But upon talking to CEO Andy Halliday I discovered that I wasn’t entirely accurate about the nature or the appeal of the site. In fact, it's quite a bit more interesting than my original characterization.

In the recent Pew report, "The Strength of Internet Ties," the firm said this about how the Internet is affecting social relationships:

Our evidence calls into question fears that social relationships — and community — are fading away in America. Instead of disappearing, people’s communities are transforming: The traditional human orientation to neighborhood- and village-based groups is moving towards communities that are oriented around geographically dispersed social networks. People communicate and maneuver in these networks rather than being bound up in one solitary community. Yet people’s networks continue to have substantial numbers of relatives and neighbors — the traditional bases of community — as well as friends and workmates.

The internet and email play an important role in maintaining these dispersed social networks. Rather than conflicting with people’s community ties, we find that the internet fits seamlessly with in-person and phone encounters. With the help of the internet, people are able to maintain active contact with sizable social networks, even though many of the people in those networks do not live nearby. Moreover, there is media multiplexity: The more that people see each other in person and talk on the phone, the more they use the internet. The connectedness that the internet and other media foster within social networks has real payoffs: People use the internet to seek out others in their networks of contacts when they need help.

OurStory is effectively a multi-media blogging site that encourages people to share personal histories either publicly or privately with family and friends. It also allows for participation, via email, by those who don’t have an account or the inclination to use a “social media” site.

For example, if I’m creating a narrative for a life event – say a parent’s 70th birthday – I can gather photos, stories, etc. on the site to be related at the actual event or to be shared with family and friends online. People who might have valuable contributions but who have little use for the Internet can still participate via email and their text is captured and added to the narrative timeline.

There are many more such uses. And there are lots of little tricks and tools like that to encourage participation and build content.

The platform is flexible enough that it could actually be used as a wiki by professional colleagues, but the culture of the site wouldn’t generate that use case.

Halliday took me through some of his own uses of the site and how it has affected his own life. Some of the stories he related were quite moving, an experience I haven’t had on an analyst call before. Indeed, the nature and culture of the site cause people to share very personal and sometimes painful information about their lives:

  • A personal journal by an adolescent struggling in high school
  • Siblings trading stories about a deceased parent

As Halliday and I discussed during the call, the challenge for OurStory is to reflect this rich content and the site’s potential to those who haven’t used it and the media, which, as I did previously, would tend to lump it into a growing category of social media sites without looking more closely. But the site tour goes some distance toward conveying the site's potential.

Regarding the business model, the site is free and offers a nice range of capabilities at that level. There’s a premium version that offers more features and options for $39.95 per year. For those people who sign up and use the site regularly, I don’t think OurStory will have difficulty converting them to the paid version.

Andy Halliday seems sincere in having created something that is devoted to a larger goal than simply capitalizing on a hot online trend. And there is something quite fascinating and I would even say profound going on here. As the Pew report quoted above suggests, people are increasingly using technology and the Internet to remain connected with one another. OurStory, for its part, seems devoted to creating a platform or opportunity for people to share, in many cases, quite important information about themselves and their lives.

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