I have been having discussions for the last year or so with my friend Alan Martin about recording one’s family history as an alternative or adjunct to writing it. I have been writing my ancestor’s family history through blog posts on my two family history websites for years. I fully intend to write a book about one branch of my tree, hopefully soon.
In any case, I was intrigued by his idea and asked him to answer a few questions below about using audio in documenting one’s family history. I have started recording my own autobiography using his product Audiobiography, and it is very easy to use. I hope to finish mine this year.
1. Hello, Alan. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Could you provide a short history of the Audiobiography company and product and its mission?
Very happy to, and thanks for the invitation. The inklings for Audiobiography actually started with my kids. I began recording them in audio when they were small using the voice memo app on my phone. I knew the way they thought and talked was fleeting and I wanted to capture these pretty normal, everyday moments. But video felt wrong. Audio felt easier, and more importantly, it felt authentic. Over time it became obvious just how valuable this had become to our family. Other experiences convinced us similarly that audio had the power to bring the people we loved into our life and transport us back in time. So, we had this growing pile of digital recordings of my kids, and a realization that audio connected us deeply to those we love. Then a twist of fate gave me and my oldest brother and his sons (who are exceptional software engineers) the time to come together and bring an idea to life that would be part physical, part digital, and totally novel. We turned our idea into a Kickstarter campaign, and that Kickstarter campaign led to the launch of Audiobiography. That was almost two years ago now, and we’ve expanded our product line fairly quickly since then. In simplest form, we build easy to use tools to help stories be told and shared that otherwise likely wouldn’t have. And audio is always a key component.
2. There are a lot of websites and other applications that are emerging with the goal to capture life stories and publish them. Some in hardbound books, others including video, etc. What prompted your audio approach?
Audio is so powerful. Hearing someone’s voice is actually the closest you can feel to them, without physically touching them. Many of us have experienced this. Think of the voicemail from someone you love who has passed on that you’ll never delete. Or the contact in your phone that you’ll never remove because even the thought of hearing their voice on the other end of the line is too powerful to let go. Audio captures the very essence of the people we love in ways writing and even video cannot. It seemed obvious and right that we should orient our products around audio. And it happens to be a technological benefit that audio is lightweight so it can be very reliably and inexpensively stored, backed up, shared, and transferred around over time, etc.
3. Could you summarize the process for recording a life story in audio, using your product?
We marry the physical and digital worlds together in a novel way. Our books for example are a 90 page life interview. Questions are written on every page to prompt memories and experiences. But instead of writing the answers, you scan the page with your phone camera, hit a record button, and just talk. That’s it. It’s as easy as having a conversation with a friend. Your answers are recorded in your own voice and linked to the page. Two really important things happen at that point. First, if anyone opens that book and scans the page with their own phone camera, your recorded answers become available to play.
This lets others take an audio journey through your life while holding the physical book. But even more important is that your story is saved digitally and can be shared with family and friends worldwide, for free, just like a podcast. There’s no limit to the amount of audio that can be recorded per page, and you can come back and add, delete, rearrange, rename, and more throughout your life. The outcome is remarkable; a life story told in first person audio and shareable worldwide. And of course privacy settings ensure sharing happens only how you want it to.
4. Could you describe how the content is stored?
We store and serve all content from the cloud. We’re built atop the Google Cloud Platform to be exact. But you can also backup a copy of all of your content at any time and as often as you want from within your account. This serves two important purposes. First, it gives you a personal local backup so you can rest easy knowing you have an extra layer of redundancy. And second, it’s common to take parts of a life story in audio and upload them to other websites.
5. Is there a way to incorporate photos?
Yes, photos are a big part of Audiobiography. Some of our products allow unlimited photos. Others have a limit. But in any case photos are always part of the experience. Case in point, one of our products is called Audiostickers. They’re audio enabled stamps that you stick to anything physical and record audio to. Think physical photographs, photo books, scrapbooks, and the like. Just peel, stick, record. Listening to someone’s voice alongside still pictures of them or the places they’ve been is transformative. It’s hard to fully understand until you’ve experienced it, but there’s something about removing the cognitive overhead of a video, and just sitting with nothing more than a person’s voice and photographs. It’s intimate. It’s a very different dimension of connectedness.
6. I notice that you have a new product called “Memorial”. Could you summarize that?
We actually have our customers to thank for Memorial. We had been asked consistently if we had something that could attach to a headstone. After a lot of time both at the drawing board and in the shop, Memorial became our answer. It’s a small, clear, weatherproof plaque that attaches directly to a headstone and links to an unlimited amount of information about a person’s life. This includes pictures, audio recordings, embedded videos, and text. The link to it can be shared across the globe so friends and family can contribute memories and tributes with no content limits. Anyone visiting the resting place simply scans the headstone with their phone camera to access the tribute page where they can see the content, and add their own tributes on the spot or later when they get home. Memorial is essentially a limitless digital canvas that brings those we love back to our hearts and mind and memorializes them in a way they deserve. It’s something we’re super proud of, and grateful that our customers pushed us to develop and make it available.
7. One big question is, how do I ensure that my audio “story” will be maintained and available after my passing?
The good news is technology is making this more and more answerable all the time. Nobody can guarantee the future, as much as we’d like to. But we do know at least two things. First, our products do an exceptional job of pulling the story out of someone. Stories go from untold, to told, every day with Audiobiography. We actually consider this the biggest challenge. And second, even though we maintain the story securely in the cloud which has become phenomenally secure and reliable, we give users a very simple “download” button inside their account and we encourage them to use it. Once a story is told, it should be downloaded. Once it’s downloaded, it can be uploaded to other, totally different platforms (i.e. family search and the like). It can also be stored locally and placed on more than one type of physical media, shared as an email file with family who can then place it in their own family history repositories, and so forth. The cost and reliability of storing and sharing digital content have come so favorable, that really the harder part of the equation is simply telling the story in the first place.
8. Is there anything else that potential users/customers should know?
We always say that whether you use our products or not, just start recording your stories in audio. It is the ultimate medium and you’ll feel the power and value in it the minute you do it. You can get started by using free resources like the voice memo app on your phone. At some point those stories will become tremendously valuable, and they’ll be heard and shared and told and re-told. If those stories ever end up organized and shareable in an Audiobiography product, great. If not, that’s OK too! Just hit that record button and capture your stories starting now, even if that means storing long-term and and sharing later.
Thanks to Alan for this interview. As I stated at the outset, I am a big fan of the audio approach for “writing” a personal history, especially for yourself. I encourage you to take a look at Audiobiography.