Creating Technology for Social Change

A simple idea, a well-crafted prompt, a beautiful collaborative storytelling project

What are the elements of an appealing invitation to participate in a collaborative storytelling piece? What would motivate you to share a personal story with an unknown audience? How do we prompt people in a way that elicits contributions of a kind we are imagining?

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My dear friend Olga Nunes recently ran a beautiful and enormously successful campaign, a simple call for memories relating to smell to which people responded with touching and deep memories. She says, “We are all made of stories” and underlying all of her artwork is some expression of this sentiment. She’s an artist who draws you into semi-fictitious lives that she spins through songs, poems, visual art, experiences. In this project, she helps draw stories from you through your memories, making apparent the fabric of stories that weave us together.

Olga put together a gorgeous project together with a small badass team in SF. In the streets of the SF Mission, they set up a scavenger hunt for love letters, leading you through a physical tour of SF and the journey of romance and broken hearts. Sigh. Here’s her reflection on this: I’m copying in directly the lessons she learned:


  • It’s not the cops you have to worry about, it’s the thieves.
  • If you build something with many moving parts, many of those parts will break
  • Surprise! You won’t know which ones
  • There is only one of you. There is only one of you. There is only one of you.
  • Let people help. Seriously. Do it.
  • Your idea will change
  • That thing about unknown unknowns? Will become very relevant to you.
  • You will fail. When this happens, don’t take it personally. Keep moving.
  • You will succeed. When this happens, remember to enjoy it.

She was hoping to bring people into the story as they hunted for letters. In a conversation we had, she explained that one of the surprises from the scavenger hunt project was that you can work on something for months, spend sleepless nights tying giant red balloons to bottles into which you carefully placed love letters that you took months to craft from the romantic scrawling of yours and others, and it might be the project that you spend just a day on and that involves a simple prompt, a voicemailbox, and an email to a big list of willing participants that really captures people’s imaginations and gets them into the story.

What happened

Olga is on the Listserve ( — a list of 21,000 artists. Each day, one person on the list is chosen to send an email to the list. Olga asked the Listserve to share memories of smells.


Her prompt

In her prompt, she models the kind of story she wants people to share. She tells a short story of how a smell elicits a memory for her. She gives people time, in this prompt, to reflect on a smell and memory in their own life and asks for people to contribute. Not everyone who calls leaves a message, some seem to hang up and call again later. There might be something in asking people for memories instead of stories. It seems more accessible — we all have memories, but stories have clear starts and ends and lessons learned, they are harder to construct, and harder to share with strangers.

You can call the number to hear the prompt and leave your memory: 415-857-0589.

You can listen others’ memories here:

Llisten to the March 10 story on To The Best of Our Knowledge in which Anne Strainchamps interviews Olga about this work:

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