Tokoni Takes Storytelling in New Direction

Tokoni came out of a year-long beta in October 2008, and favorably impressed a number of reviewers with its approach. An interesting hybrid of social networking, blogging, and community, the site has been compared to Gather and Associated Content. It’s a place for telling stories…so what story does it have to tell?

Tokoni is backed by former eBay executive Mary Lou Song and former Skype president Alex Kazim, who serves as the company’s CEO. Indeed, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and eBay itself made investments in the hybrid web community. Why would employees of an auction site, and even the site itself, be interested in this kind of business? To hear Kazim tell it, it comes down to glass ducks.

There is a story behind the glass ducks, of course – of a special gift given to a daughter, of losing everything in a fire, of seeing the exact same type of ducks again on eBay selling for a little too much money, of a deal worked out with the seller to buy one duck at a time – and then getting the ducks in the mail all at once, because those in the community who heard the story were so touched that they bought the ducks for the community member. Kazim and others realized that eBay, by the nature of its market, is full of such stories, but it isn’t the best place for them.

Enter Tokoni. This web site bills itself as a place for users to tell their stories, be they about family, fashion, health, hobbies, education, worthy causes, pets, relationships, science and technology, and so forth. Users can sign up and tell their stories, much as they would with a blog. So how exactly is Tokoni different from a blogging site? Who are they trying to reach?

HyveUp noted back in October that, although 900,000 blog posts are made every 24 hours, 60 to 80 percent of blogs are abandoned within a month. Tokoni, then supports the once-a-month blogger; someone with a story to tell, but without the time to spend on writing significant entries at the rate required to keep a full-fledged blog alive. Other reviewers have noted that Tokoni provides a very easy interface, friendly even to Luddites. Let’s take a look and see what they have to offer.

{mospagebreak title=Looking for Stories}

Stories are very easy to find on Tokoni. I wish I could show you a full screen shot of their home page, but I’d have to scroll down to get it all.

Over on the left-hand side we have the navigation. You can find stories by categories, genres, and keywords. A little bit of web magic rolls each of these methods up and down without forcing a reload of the screen. The “genres” classification is very cool; in the mood for a story that resembles a comedy? B-movie? Film noir? Romance? Sci-fi? It’s all here and more.

In the middle you see three options: share a story, connect with others who have had similar experiences, and explore stories – yet another way to get you reading. Below that, you’ll find featured stories. On the right, you can sign up, see what’s happening right now on the site (such as stories receiving comments), and check out requests for stories. Across the top (cut off in this image) are links to stories, collections, and hubs. The story link takes you to a list of the latest stories; the collections and hub links function similarly.

And what are collections and hubs? A collection, according to Tokoni’s help page, is a way for users to create their own personal “libraries” of stories. Yes, you can have more than one, and it can be public or private. You can add a story to a collection directly from the story’s page. A hub, on the other hand, “is a place for Tokoni members…to collaborate, share and discuss stories around a topic.” Creators name a hub, give it a description, and can add images, video, and categories. Users can join hubs, and hub members can add links and web resources to the hub. The description reminded me a little of the “groups” for users I’ve seen on other sites, such as Yahoo and Searchles.

Most of the stories I clicked on were just one page long, maybe six paragraphs. I’m sure not all of them are so short, but that’s what I saw. The stories are as individual as the voices telling them: reflective, thankful, critical, intensely descriptive, and more. To give you some idea of how they’re set up, here’s the start of one of the stories I read:

{mospagebreak title=Getting Involved}

Before I forget to mention it, in addition to the various categories and links to recent items, you can find stories by putting a keyword into the search box. That’s how I found stories from fellow diabetics, and even learned a few things I didn’t know before. Also, as with other communities, users can give other members “tokens” if they like a particular story, or rate stories. As distinct from rating a story, tokens come in several different types (“Been there,” “Good to know,” “Thanks for sharing,” etc.) and are a way of letting the writers know that their stories are appreciated.

Joining is simple; all they want is a username, password and e-mail address. You also have to pass a captcha and read the terms of use. Here’s a nice point: you retain all of your ownership rights in your user submissions; Tokoni gets a “worldwide, non-exclusive, fully paid-up, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, sublicenseable, and transferable license” to your content.

After you join, a fourth link appears across the top of the page: my tokoni. Clicking that link took me to an empty profile page, which looked something like this:

Okay, again, I apologize for the lack of clarity. On the left, you can see one of the stock pictures the site provides; you can upload your own user pics. Below that there’s an “About Me” section, with nothing in it (yet). Under that, under “My Tokoni,” I could update my profile, update my account, set my email notifications, email fans (if I had any) or create a hub. The three rows of tabs to the right concern stories, collections, and fans.

I figured I’d start by filling in some information on my profile, and then perhaps draft my first story. I also changed my stock photo and modified some settings. The filters on the site, when you search for content, can be set to high, medium, or low, and you can choose to permit viewing of adult content. (Users can flag content as adult; it’s the kind of self-policing system I’ve seen on other sites, and it seems to work). Finally, I set my email notifications; again, as I’ve seen other places, you can be notified for a variety of events, and you can receive notifications instantly, in a daily digest, or in a weekly digest.

So how do you add a story? Well, once you’re signed in, you see a bright orange link on the upper right hand side that says “add a story.” Clicking that link takes you to a pretty basic-looking editor; anyone familiar with a word processor or content management system will be right at home. Below the text box, there’s a selection of stock photos you can use to highlight your story, or you can upload an image of your own.

Below the text box, you choose your story’s category, genre, keywords (for that there is a small text box, unlike the other two, which offer checklists), tell where the story happened, and hit a checkbox to note whether it has adult content. You can then add the story, save it as a draft, or cancel.

And after telling my story and taking care of all the details, it showed up on Tokoni’s home page:

{mospagebreak title=Monetizing Tokoni’s Content}

So everybody has a story. But they’re all on different topics. How do you monetize a site like that? For the moment, at least, Tokoni doesn’t seem to be doing that. I didn’t notice any ads. This being the Internet, however, that’s likely to change.

One reviewer suggested that Tokoni might work out some kind of revenue-sharing agreement with its members. In exchange for permission to post some kind of advertising either next to, or within, a story, the writer gets a share of the revenue. How many writers telling their stories out of love would turn down the possibility of getting a little money on the side for it?

Matthew Humphries, writing for, noted other ways that Tokoni might generate revenue: “With such a heavy eBay involvement…you’d expect some kind of buying service to spring up too. It could be that they will start offering story collections in book form, or even launch a store for users to buy books and other items related to their interest areas and stories they have written.”  As near as I can tell, there’s nothing in the user agreement that prevents Tokoni from doing this.

Certainly the people at Tokoni understand the potential of advertising. I first heard about the community through an ad on LiveJournal. I would call that some very well-targeted advertising.

Tokoni also has a valuable audience on its hands. Writing a story to share with others can be a cathartic experience, one that users will want to have more than once – and reading other people’s stories can be by turns enlightening, amusing, entertaining, and many other things depending on the story. Above all, a well-told story invokes an emotional reaction, and to judge from cave paintings, we’ve been telling stories since before we could really talk. How much do you suppose an advertiser would pay to reach an emotionally engaged, carefully targeted audience? Tokoni may not become the next Facebook or Myspace, but I expect its story will be filled with success. 

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