Clueless in the digital age

Lam Thuy Vo
15 min readApr 21, 2016

Below is the edited text of a keynote I gave at the Verhalende Journalistiek conference about storytelling in the digital age on April 22, 2016, in Amsterdam. I hope that it can be useful to folks who are just starting to experiment with online storytelling.

(Totally ok to not know)

Thanks so much for having me here in Amsterdam. I love that we’re all here to tackle this question — how to tell stories on the web. Honestly, the more heads we can get together to find an answer to this question the better.

I want to start this keynote with a fun fact. This fun fact is probably the premise of why I’m here. It’s why my inbox is regularly filled with emails from people asking me whether they can pick my brain or inquiries about whether I can teach a course or workshop like the one yesterday. What do you and all these people have in common?

Well, you all seem to think I know what I’m doing.

I can see where you might have gotten that impression. I have learned how to navigate a few software and some coding languages: I know how to make a chart from a spreadsheet. I know how to turn the footage I shoot into an animated gif.

But you really shouldn’t equate technical skill with having figured out a magical formula for telling stories on the web. And… since, we’re all friends here. I want to tell you a little secret…

… I actually don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. I make it up as I go along.

I’ve talked to producers of wildly popular podcasts. People who create animated explainers for Snapchat. Social media journalists who have managed online communities and have crowdsourced some incredible projects.

We all feel like we’re having to adjust our approaches all the time. We have to try and fail and hope that next time we succeed. We have to be these mad scientists who tackle narratives and innovation one story at a time. In this day and age, that lack of knowing the path and knowing exactly what you’re doing might not necessarily a bad thing.

To quote Amy Webb’s Nieman Lab prediction for journalism in 2016. Novelty is the new normal and “News organizations, and the communities they serve, must cope with hundreds of first-time situations driven by technology at a pace unmatched in any other time in history.”

Change is constant.

Just so you understand where I’m coming from, I wanna take you a quick journey through the past 15 years in the world of technology. In the past decade and a half, technology that has completely changed how we consume stories, how we tell them, and when and where stories reach us.

Here’s a quick overview of the past 20 years in innovation.

These companies have and continuously are transforming how we do journalism.

Until 2007, telling stories using Adobe Flash was all the rage. Then Steve Jobs decided to simply not support it on his iPhone. This made the software and a good chunk of my graduate school education irrelevant.

Or take multimedia. The journalism awards circles and ad sales people loved audio slideshows and long-form documentary. Then, in December 2013, Facebook introduced a feature that automatically played videos on a person’s timeline and thereby ushered in the age of 45-second, animated explainer videos.

Each new technology seems to introduce new jobs and fads, new exciting strategies that sometimes live on and sometimes die an unfortunate and quick death. And all this disruptive change happened in the amount of time it took a person to go from a toddler to being an adult — 18 years.

I started my career in the middle of that technology boom in 2008 and since then have been a full-time video journalist a major newspaper (Wall Street Journal), a graphics artist and visual content producer for a radio station (NPR), an interactive editor and a reporter who tells stories through code for a television station (Al Jazeera America) and now I’m back at a newspaper telling stories with pretty much everything but written articles (Wall Street Journal).

All kinds of jobs

There’s been no real constant in my journey as a storyteller and there’s likely been no constant for many other online storytellers. But there IS one thing I learned.

To stay on top of my game and to stay sane, I have had to devise a strategy that helps us stay in tune with technological change. And here is this three-pronged strategy:

1. Have a rich and varied media diet.

I might be fairly short but I’m telling you I’m one omnivorous media consumer. Any interactive producer, videographer and social journalist I know who is worth their money constantly consumes different online media.

We read long and short articles and subscribe a number of magazines. We watch documentaries online and in theaters and watch animations on Facebook. We burst into tweets during events and sometimes play around with snapchat — for me that’s mostly when I’m a little tipsy.

We also try to venture outside of journalism. We follow comedy accounts on instagram. We binge on comedies and dramas on Netflix. We watch how movements unfold on Twitter. We observe how people share on Facebook. Basically, we try to consume as much rich media as we can.

Through that avid consumption we amass this wonderful library of clever and interesting storytelling techniques in our heads — anything from interesting visual tricks to unique ways of tackling a story — and then, when the time finally comes to produce a story, we can reach back into that bag of tricks and use them.

Any great news apps developer will look into the code of a great graphic to know how it was made. Any filmmaker will see interesting ways in which a documentary was cut. Any social journalist will recognize a smart Facebook campaign. It’s the same way any writer will recognize brilliant literary structures or wonderful turns of phrases.

So one way to stay on top of the game is simply through avid consumption of all media.

2. Story is still everything

Never lose sight of focusing on what your story is. Everything else — from flashy animations to novel approaches — should be in service of the story and if they are not, they are superfluous, beautiful nonsense.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, bespoke interactive graphics — they are all just mere platforms for content; despite of what people keep on saying about how you have to use each medium; content is still king and without a solid story even your flashiest storytelling experiment will fail.

3. Cast the right medium

Last but not least: once you have consumed the heck out of online media and once you know exactly what your story is, it’s time to cast the right medium for your story. In other words, use that bag of tricks we talked about earlier to inform how you will tell your story.

I know this all sounds very abstract, so let me walk you through a few examples.

I told you earlier, I used to work in radio doing everything but radio. I used to work for Planet Money, a podcast and website that explains complicated economic issues through surprising and quirky stories. One of the concepts we wanted to convey was that the U.S. was propelled forward as an economy, in part because of the technical innovation in its manufacturing sector. Technology made factories more productive and freed up people from manual labor.

And we wanted to tell this awfully dry and boring story in a way that might be more enticing. And so we decided to look at a potato chip factory.

Among the many technologies implemented at this potato chip factory, there was this one really awesome thing; this apparatus with which they packaged potato chip bags. It’s this machine that creates a tube of packaging. Carefully weighed portions of potato chips fall through this tube. Then two hot metal clamps heat-seal this tube at the top and bottom, creating these perfect little bags of potato chips.

This machine churns out about 100 potato chip bags per minute. And just so you understand how amazing this technology is: there used to be a person doing the job of that machine. They produced only about 3 bags per minute.

So we boiled down this big economic story into this individual piece of technology and we wanted to tell this part of the story in the most succinct and easily understandable way possible.

What we use to tell the story of this infinitely repetitive process? We need a type of storytelling format that captures the forever-looping motion.

Hold on, there is such a thing.

The animated gif!

The animated gif recently experienced a renaissance. It’s being used as a punchline in conversations. It’s being used to capture very specific movements and processes. And voila, we had our storytelling medium

So, how do you best tell this story? This is it:

One of five gifs we used to explain potato chip-related innovation

Seeing this technology in action. It’s so much more effective than me trying to describe it to you just in words. And what is the gif but a moving image, a snippet of video really — and here it’s being used in a way that maximizes its strength — we’re showing not telling you about a process.

So what we did here is consume and digest how animated gifs were used around the web and then when it was the right time, we used it to tell a story. Again: we consumed, we nailed down story and then we went back to our knowledge to tell this story in the most effective way.

Observing how people behave on the web involves a lot of social listening. Social listening is a term often used in marketing — it’s the act of monitoring digital channels and platforms to better target potential customers and consumers. For journalists, this can mean listening to a conversation and behaviors online that can aid both their sourcing and their storytelling.

@Echosight is an instagram account that combines images from two different places to create new interpretations of these locations. The account was started by two photographers, one in London and one in New York, who wanted to start a creative exchange in which they emphasized both the commonalities and the differences of two different worlds.

An echosight post from April 2016

Let’s shift to a different online phenomenon. #blacklivesmatter

Black lives matter is a social media movement that has sparked national discussions around the deaths of young black men and women at the hands of police.

At Al Jazeera, my colleague and friend Vaughn Wallace and I were discussing what we should do for the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting. Michael Brown was a teenager who was shot in Ferguson, Missouri.

Michael Brown’s death went from being a singular shooting of a young black man by a police officer to a symbolic event in a long line of police shootings of black men and women. His death sparked outrage and discussions around police conduct, the criminal justice system and race relations in the U.S.

A little less than a year later, 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a resident of Baltimore, died after he was arrested for carrying a switchblade and fell into a coma in the back of a police van.

We had been observing just how important social media was in this movement — from the vocal protests on Twitter through the dissemination of news and police footage via Facebook and instagram. We knew the story we wanted to tell: how have these places, Ferguson and Baltimore changed or been transformed, when they were connected through national events?

We decided to commission two black photographers to capture and tell us how their cities had and hadn’t changed after the deaths of these two young men. Instead of reporting and telling the stories ourselves, we simply wanted to curate and elevate the voices of those who were living this movement, similarly to how Twitter and Facebook have allowed for voices to emerge in ways that was not possible 10 years ago.

And so we created these:

The @Echosight collaboration with Al Jazeera America

We made 6 different ones to be featured in a web project and more to be disseminated on Instagram. Each of these visuals is a combination of photographs from Baltimore and Ferguson. It was an artistic re-interpretation of two places that echoed how both news events were reinterpreted through one another.

And because Twitter and Facebook captured the voices of those who were often not heard. We wanted to feature the voices of these two black photographers in the same way.

A snippet of the testimonials of the photographers who participated in the project

Understanding how the movement #blacklivesmatter used social platforms helped us learn how to tell this story in a way that is true to the movement. And again, we used our observations to adapt our way of telling this story.

For my last point, I want to talk about how your observations about how people behave online and how they conduct their lives online can help you in your reporting.

One of my favorite ways of looking for stories is by mining the social web. According to an MIT study, the average office worker produces 5GB worth of data each day. This data has been deployed by politicians, marketers and government departments to do anything from solving crimes to sending personalized political messages to selling us products. But we can also mine it for stories.

The way our sources talk to each other, how they maintain friendships, family ties and relationships is increasingly moving into the electronic realm. Twitter records the thoughts of roughly 305 million people. Facebook touts 1.59 billion active users every month. These are recorded histories of people.

A chat from Lisa De Bode’s Al Jazeera America story Mothers of Intervention

This is how one mother communicated with her son.

The mother in question is Saliha Ben Ali, a source that my colleague Lisa De Bode interviewed for a story she did for Al Jazeera America.

Ben Ali is the mother of 19-year-old Sabri, who was radicalized and left Belgium to fight with an extremist group in Syria. After he left, she spent six weeks begging him to come home. They exchanged more than 2,000 messages and she pleaded with him to abandon his new-found role as a martyr, often three times a day.

If you’re observing how we conduct our lives every day — from using Whatsapp to using Facebook chats — looking for these stories on the web shouldn’t be a surprise. It should be common sense.

Telling the stories with these snippets can be incredibly immersive, too. Many of us know these interfaces and have used them. Seeing a chat like this can teleport you right into a situation, in a way that a paragraph might not be able to.

Here’s another example.

To document the inner workings of an international protest movement, I received permission to scrape the Facebook data of a Hong Kong exchange student who was living in New York.

Jeffrey Ngo was a student at NYU when his hometown became embroiled in protests. He was so incited by what happened during the pro-democracy movements, that he started forging relationships with other activists online. He got in touch with one of the main organizers in Hong Kong, Angel Leong, and started chatting with many others who lived in London, Sydney, Singapore and many other places. They all felt compelled to act when they saw peaceful protestors in Hong Kong be tear gassed by the police.

We sieved through 98.3MB of data — roughly 15,000 lines of code — to find out how many messages he had exchanged with Angel Leong, a core organizer in Hong Kong, as well as with other activists around the world. There were 28,545 messages between all the organizers. We did this with a few simple lines of code.

Jeffrey didn’t even remember how he met Angel, a protester in Hong Kong. But we were able to pin down the very first conversation he had with her.

And with the same data we were able to make this is a graphic of the chats of all the organizers. You can see the number of chats spiking when the Hong Kong police first threw tear gas at the student demonstrators in Hong Kong. You can also see how one chat room emerges over time to show how chaotic action at the beginning of a movement somehow turn into an organized political effort.

A graphic from the Al Jazeera America story The Umbrella Network

Again. Understanding and watching how our potential sources behave can hugely influence how we tell stories. From migrants who are using Whatsapp to stay in touch with their dispersed families to stories that unfold in a series of exchanges on Twitter or Facebook, understanding how we conduct ourselves online should inform where we look for stories and how we tell them.

These are all wildly different ways of telling long-form narratives. There’s not really one formula to conquer this kind of storytelling because each story requires us to emphasize something else. But knowing how to listen, observe and nail down a story are essential in understanding how to best tell these stories. Doing successful digital long-form requires you to be just as astute at watching developments on the web as it does watching and understanding your sources.

I want to leave you with a few more concrete guidelines that have helped me (and don’t worry, everything will be posted on my web site!):

Observation help: There’s plenty of great reading you can do on the subject of storytelling. Among them are the Nieman blog, and the Open News Source blog. Conferences and meetups that are helpful are Hacks/Hackers, the Online News Association, the Global Editors Network and the U.S. based National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporters.

Google is your best friend: when you see something being done on the web that you want to use, there’s likely someone who has already written about how to do it or made a tool for it. From animated gif generators to scraping web sites, there are tutorials and often tools for everything out there.

Forgive yourself: again, we face first-time situations all the time as journalists. Don’t expect to be great from the get-go. Start with a project and find your way towards excellence. We all started somewhere and perseverance is the best way to continue to succeed

You don’t have to do it all (though you may if you like!): I don’t think every journalist needs to know how to do everything. What’s more important is for you to understand the universe of technology and how technology can help your journalism. Once you understand those worlds better, ask yourself what you enjoy about journalism, what you would want to do on a typical Monday at 10 a.m. and then situate yourself in that universe.

So if you want to use data to bolster your reporting and tell investigative stories, you might want to start by learning Excel for data analysis and upgrade to coding languages like SQL or Python to better process and analyze data.

If you want to be a visual journalist who allows their audiences to learn from data visualizations or interaction, learning front-end development languages like HTML, CSS and Javascript might be a long but eventually rewarding journey.

If you love experiencing stories and be there when stories unfold and if you love spending time with people, learning how to do video shooting and photography are a way for you to move forward as a storyteller. You can start by filing footage for breaking news using your iphone and move up to digital SLRs and editing software to become better at audiovisual storytelling.

These skills all take some time to acquire. They take passion and a certain stubbornness to refine. So consume, understand what gets you excited about digital storytelling, try it out and keep working on it. The reward for learning new skills is the end product — your story.

If anything I hope that it helps that I know how you feel. Chances are, I’ve probably been where you were once and probably still am wrecking my brain over coding libraries and video formats. But the nice thing is that we can all be mad scientists together.

More teaching materials and information can be found here: Some fun tweets from the conference can be found here: Special thanks to Catherine Chao for all her patience and support!



Lam Thuy Vo

Journalist. German-born Vietnamese nomad who tells stories using data, visuals & words