Helping people take good care of their stories.

First: where the name comes from

Rakontu is an Esperanto word that communicates an exhortation to tell a story. The -u at the end conjugates the verb rakonti (to recount, tell, relate, narrate) in the "volitive mood," meaning that it expresses a wish or command; so the best translation of rakontu is something like "Won't you tell a story?" This makes it a fitting name for software that encourages people to tell stories to each other. Esperanto also has the advantage of having been constructed for the express purpose of building peace and international understanding, a goal Rakontu shares.

The basic idea of Rakontu

Not long after I started working in the field of organizational narrative at IBM Research in 1999, I gave a talk about supporting organizational narrative with software. One part of the talk was about "story circles": an idea for software to help small groups of people share stories to meet common goals. (You can still see the talk here.) Some of those ideas are embarassing now (good sign, I'm making progress) but some still make sense.

The story-circles concept never became reality, but I spent the next ten years researching ways to help people share and work with stories. I ended up helping clients carry out over 50 projects working with collected stories to derive insights, discover opportunities and solve problems. I also wrote proprietary software (for clients) that helped people collect, organize and make sense of stories.

Over the course of those ten years, I noticed three things that all came together to make it clear that Rakontu simply had to be built.

Observation One: Story projects come in all sizes

Even though I was grateful to be paid to help large corporate and government clients to collect stories and work with them to suit their (beneficial) goals, I also wanted to help people without budgets gain at least some of the same benefits. That's why I wrote the free e-book Working with Stories in 2008.

Observation Two: Storytellers need their stories too

In the story projects I helped people carry out over the years, the storytellers rarely saw their stories or the patterns they formed after they were collected; the insights went elsewhere. Even Working with Stories is about extracting stories from their original environment in order to work with them. I increasingly felt that the people who tell the stories should have the same access to tools and techniques as the people who ask them to tell stories. I thought: what if the knowledge in Working with Stories was embodied in a tool that the people in every small group could use on their own stories?

Observation Three: Online storytelling is in a sad state

All during this time, I kept looking at how people told stories over the web. This is what I found: stories embedded in miles of discussion posts; stories piled up in heaps and accessible only by slowly reading one story after another; stories of personal experience hidden among factual articles; stories measured by their creative-writing "quality" instead of utility in moments of need; stories organized in simple, static, purely factual categories that offered little help for people in need of complex solutions and perspectives.

This was a stark contrast to my work with clients, in which I found that the juxtaposition of factual elements with elements of resonant collective meaning has huge utility for helping people make sense of complex topics, discover patterns that reveal insights, find perspectives that relate in meaningful ways to their unique situations, and come to informed decisions.

To give one example of how better organization of online stories could help people in need: say a story site for disease sufferers asked people questions like this:

A person in need of help facing their unique situation would find much more help from such a site than from one organized only by factual categories. Even this one change - better metadata - would give online story collections far greater utility to people in need of support and understanding.

What happened next

In the fall of 2008 I spent nearly two months writing a 100-page concept and design document and getting valuable feedback from several colleagues in the field. Then, in the spring of 2009 I began programming. In October 2009 we started beta testing of the Rakontu system. This lasted until January 2010, when I had to stop putting so much time into Rakontu and do some paying work. I closed the beta sites in June of 2010 and wrote a lessons learned report (scroll down to access it).

In 2011 Rakontu woke up briefly and we worked on some initial design documents for a rewrite (architecture, visual design). It then fell back asleep due to our needing money to pay the bills.

What is going on now

Nothing: Rakontu the software is fast asleep. Everything: Rakontu the idea is out there, maybe growing somewhere in some new minds, and perhaps preparing to surprise us all. Who knows?

Rakontu's future

While the proximate goal of Rakontu is to build a software package and help a growing number of communities benefit from the hard work of Rakontu supporters, my ultimate goal in starting it is something larger. I would like to contribute to a cultural shift in beliefs and expectations regarding storytelling. I would like to see people think of storytelling more as a natural part of family, group and community life that is available to everyone everywhere, and less as a consumable product created by commercial vendors. I would like to see people taking good care of their stories again.

White papers

These white papers are available on the Rakontu project:

These papers are out of date but may still be of interest.