Collaborative Storytelling

Jennifer Hollett is the Atkinson Associate on Civic Technology. An award winning broadcast journalist, Jenn uses social media to increase participation and mobilization in politics and social issues. You can contact her at

At the heart of the internet, if you look closely, people are having a conversation. Whether it’s asking Google a question, on anything and knowing you’ll get a decent answer quickly, or chiming in on a Facebook comments thread around the breaking news story of the day, we’re are talking to each other more than ever before.

In this new era of information, we are witnessing a power shift, from a top-down broadcast model to a bottom-up collaborative one. Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans wrote about this for a Harvard Business Review cover story, contrasting old power with new. “Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures. New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes.” (h/t to Stanford Social Innovation Review)

Atkinson is an almost 75-year old foundation, trying to think like a startup, exploring new ways of communicating, connecting, and collaborating. In 2014, we started working with photojournalist Nick Kozak. We asked Nick to spend a day with support workers Acsana and Doreen, Dr. Danyaal Raza, and community organizer Rick Ciccarelli to see and learn what they do, and to use his camera to document the experience.

Normally in photography we refer to the people as subjects, or in journalism we say sources. Both terms quite technical and detached, again reflecting a power dynamic. Sometimes, they are named in a caption but not always. Acsana, Doreen, Danyaal, and Rick were collaborators, not subjects, from the start. They were full participants in project meetings, given honoraria or compensated for missing shifts at work if necessary. I was asked to join the team in 2015, after the photos had been taken and selected, to see how we could weave their stories together into a cohesive narrative about decent work. Through a series of interviews, research, and meetings we decided to go where people were already sharing photos and having conversations about their jobs: social media.

Inspired by Humans of New York, we used direct quotes from interviews on Facebook to share reflections on work, offering a personal portrait and welcoming reflection. We also told the story on Medium, a rising social network of writing founded by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, to go deeper. Both our Facebook campaign and Medium story had sign-off from everyone involved.

If new power is a current, we felt the electricity. While it took much longer than a traditional communications project, our experiment in digital storytelling was patient, participatory and peer-driven from start to finish. It started conversations and built relationships in new ways, beyond a traditional headline and deadline driven culture. It also allowed Atkinson to personalize decent work, often an abstract and academic concept, showing what it looks now and into the future. In daring to see what’s possible by opening up and sharing the storytelling process, we did just that.

Explore further:

Decent Work Facebook Series

Medium: Worried Sick About Work