By Andrew Shaffer
In two weeks, as students across the United States are enjoying their Thanksgiving break, StoryCorps wants to give us all a bit of homework. Calling it the Great Thanksgiving Listen, they are asking high school students to use their mobile app (available in iTunes or Google Play) to “preserve the voices and stories of an entire generation of Americans over a single holiday weekend.” Being both excited about the idea and curmudgeonly skeptical about the value of crowd-sourced oral history, I decided to try out the app to see what all the fuss is about.
Opening up the app and setting up the recording is very straightforward. When creating a new interview, you can enter the names of the participants, as well as an estimated time limit, which can be used or ignored during the actual recording. Perhaps the most useful part of the pre-interview process is the extensive list of questions to ask in an interview, as well as the ability to add in new questions. They’re divided into multiple categories, like “Warm up,” “Family heritage,” and “Remembrance,” with questions ranging from the very light (“What songs remind you of summer?”) to the incredibly heavy (“How do you imagine your death?”). Since I was interviewing my still-very-much-alive mother for this test run, I chose to avoid the morbid questions and stick to slightly lighter fare. Once the questions have been selected, the app allows you to arrange them into a logical order before starting the interview.
During the recording, the app works wonderfully. It begins with a basic prompt asking who is participating, then presents the questions you’ve pre-selected. You can swipe through the questions as you go, and drop markers into the interview timeline to easily find where topics shifted. When the interview is over, the interview can be uploaded to the StoryCorps website or kept it on the device for future enjoyment.
Shortly after I started the recording for the first time, my mom had a few questions about what exactly we were doing again. This required a bit of explanation, so I tried to pause the recording while we discussed it. There is no try, however, nor is there a pause button. There is only do, and what I did was press the stop button, which completely ended the interview. Once the interview stops, it’s done. There is no going back to restart it. The audio can’t be edited. Once it’s done, it’s really done. This was frustrating on its own, but the biggest annoyance came when I realized that I couldn’t copy the interview and start again. Instead, I had to start from scratch, selecting the questions and adding in the metadata. Allowing the questions to be copied over from one interview to the next, as well as the ability to make interview templates, could be useful when interviewing multiple people about the same subjects.
Some more quirks arose after the recording finished. The app asks you to take a picture of both interviewer and interviewee, and won’t let you move forward until you’ve taken one. It also doesn’t allow users to upload previously taken images, even if both you and your mother have already changed into your pajamas after a very long day and you don’t particularly want to have a picture taken at that moment. Additionally, you can choose to upload the finished interview to the StoryCorps website or keep it in the app, but there is no option to export the audio without first uploading it to the website. This makes sense for an organization whose primary interest is preserving the interview, but it is frustrating for an end user who may not want their awkward questioning and terrible puns to be forever preserved in the Library of Congress.
More familiarity with the app could have helped to circumvent these issues, but these minor annoyances add up to a somewhat less pleasant experience than should be reasonably expected from such a friendly looking application.
Aside from a few kinks, the app works great. It works great, that is, when it works. After using the app for a few days on my iPhone, I updated to Apple’s latest and greatest software, which completely disabled the app. For a couple of weeks, the test interviews I had done were locked deep inside my phone, inaccessible until the developers could fix the problem.
The long awaited update finally came; however I was frustrated to find out when I opened that app that the interviews I had conducted were gone. In the process of installing the update, the app had decided that what we really needed was a clean slate to move our relationship forward. To be fair, I could have avoided this fate by uploading the audio to the StoryCorps website. I had intended to, but it was the beginning of the semester and I hadn’t had the time to finish filling in the summary and metadata before the update came out.
The interview I used to test the software is now gone forever. For a light hearted conversation between a mother and son, this probably isn’t a major loss. But the app’s downtime and the possibility of erasure could seriously derail a more time sensitive or serious oral history project. The bugs all seem to be worked out now, so hopefully the Great Thanksgiving Listen can go off without a hitch.
If you decide to try out the app, or have experience with other similar applications, we’d love to hear from you! Consider submitting your experiences to the blog, or chime into the conversation in the comments below, or on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Google+.
Update: Shortly after this post was published, StoryCorps updated their FAQ with instructions for getting audio files from the device. Following their instructions (available here) we were able to salvage the previously lost audio. Thanks to Janneken Smucker for the tip!
Image Credit: “Story Corps” by Omar Bárcena. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.