• "Horizontal Storytelling"

    [TEDx Talk]

  • While you wait for your Uber to arrive, there's a moment. How do you spend it?​

  • You probably open your phone and scroll through your Facebook newsfeed - maybe there’s a politically charged article your aunt likes, maybe there's a marriage announcement from your college friend and maybe there's a ‘suggested’ brand page to like because your second cousin likes PokemonGo - but do you really find the stories that matter to you? Increasingly, I'm seeing a world where the story’s profoundness means less, and its surface level value means more.

  • There’s the story (what actually happened), the news (accurate or inaccurate details about what actually happened) and the medium (how and when we consume story and news).

  • You - like never before - can be the storyteller of your own story.

  • although you may not endorse the advertisement above it, below it, before it, after it, or hidden in the story itself.

  • On Facebook, people want to get likes. People want to be perceived as enjoying life, prospering or whatever persona you believe the world should see you as. In life we weren’t always fortunate enough to be able to share our selfies, bikini bodies and family photos. The right to share stories with many people at once used to be a right of the select few.

  • Storytelling is the sharing of the human experience. Every community tells stories. Nothing exists in a vacuum.


    It’s how we make sense of anything that happens. Processing facts. Connecting the dots. Our brains are evolved to consume data points as narration, things as characters, and characters as people that remind us of people we’ve met before.

  • In order to communicate, every step of the way we ask ourselves: What happened? Why does it matter to us? And how does it affect me?


  • When I started in the newspaper business as a reporter at the bottom of the food chain, a lot of responsibilities weren’t reporting.

  • I would crowdsource the events calendar, paginate the weather page, retitle the re-published advice columns from the Associated Press, and of course, edit the obituaries (or death announcements). I processed the payments for these death announcements from bereaved families. There’s something about dealing with the near death that always gets dropped down to the low man on the corporate ladder. One night - a few months into the job - after I submitted my day’s obituaries, my managing editor ran over to my desk. “What happened to Tom? This guy was 28.” I didn’t even think to ask the family what happened. When it came to summarizing the life of a dead person, I had always left it to the surviving family to tell the story. My editor said, “When young people die it’s news, find out what happened to Tom.” Before that, I didn’t take my managing editor too seriously - mainly because he was the first person I ever met who regularly fell asleep while pooping in office bathrooms - but this journalistic inquisition stuck with me: for when does a story need to reach a new larger audience? So I talked to the police and Tom’s friends, only to find out that he died in a dirt bike accident. Nothing too scandalous for middle America. It wasn’t a full story, but I found out what I needed to know to send the paper to the printing press - everything about a day in the newsroom operates under deadline of printing before sunrise.

  • Tom’s story lived in the obituary section AND the local news section. At the end of the short local news article it referred to the obituary to learn more about Tom, the man, from the community that knew him best, his family. Time was the limiting factor. His story to our subscribers was what we knew by the 2 AM after his death. And that’s how his story lives on...

  • From Vertical Stories to Horizontal Stories

  • Let’s not get too hung up on the way stories used to be.

  • The internet as a medium has made story less like a river, and more like raindrops everywhere. It just splatters. Tragedies, like the needless violence in Orlando Florida or Nice France can feel ongoing because every minute a new detail comes out and every second another line of commentary unfolds.


  • Status updates are... raindrops on the crops of the countryside.

  • Status updates are...

  • raindrops against the passenger side window in the city,

  • all trying to reach


  • the ocean of the ever elusive full story…

  • The internet is inherently participatory — to read a story you have to create a storytelling account — login with facebook, login with Google, and boom, the anonymous newspaper reader is now encouraged to comment, to contribute, to join into whatever.

  • With the likes of Facebook, the noise of Twitter, the screenshots Snapchat, we “the-mass” in the term “mass media” have injected ourselves into the stories as storytellers.

  • We’re all publishers to our communities, and we all create an interest in our perception.

  • Like days before TV and newspaper, word of mouth is again the distribution of story.

  • In the beginning, story distribution used to be limited to: can you physically visit my home?

  • Cave paintings have been around for over 40,000 years. Facebook’s been around for 12. That’s how fast our story consumption is changing. There’s much debate on the reasoning behind the first cave paintings. Many think they started as “hunting magic,” a term meaning that if people paint animals on the walls, more animals will just show up for them to hunt.

  • This touches on the self-fulfilling prophecy that storytelling can create the future, as people care about stories because they care about themselves. Maybe cave paintings emerged because of “hunting magic” or maybe they emerged because we knew

  • recalling what had happened yesterday would benefit ourselves when we woke up the next morning. When you wake up in the morning, what do you do?

  • Bathroom, water, phone? In what order? How often do we catch ourselves reaching for our phones before our bodily needs?

  • When we wake up, there’s an urge to know how we’re connected to the stories that happened while we slept. What’s my newsfeed say? Who messaged me? What’s on my wall now?

  • In today’s world, the writing on walls can be read by anyone - not just the visitors of our cave. In the digital age, everything is ephemeral, saved somewhere, and also subject to change at any time. No story can ever truly be dead because the publisher can edit it, the social media platform can delete it, or in the most common scenario, another person will re-write it to serve herself. And what version of story is yours? We are fed happenings. We are fed news. We are fed stories. We are fed the curations of the pages we follow. Curation is a form of sacrificing choice, but it saves us a few minutes of our day, so great. Every curator, like every publication has an interest. What’s in it for the poster? What’s in it for me?



  • It’s called a newsfeed because it feeds us. We need what it offers. As a human, there is no living without stories. What we read, watch - or to more accurately say, what we consume - shapes what we post, snap, write, tweet, tag, message and frames our expectations of where the world is headed. We become what we consume. Every scroll through the newsfeed while we wait for Ubers to arrive. We become what we consume. Every morning when we wake up and newsfeed before the bathroom. We become what we consume. In these brief moments, how can we form any depth to our comprehension of story? This is the age of horizontal stories. What I mean by that: the story’s surface becomes more important than its profoundness. The vast majority of the time we consume headlines not articles, reviews not books, pictures not letters. How many times are we scrolling through Facebook, the headline ends in dot dot dot, and we can’t even bother to read the full title, let alone the article itself?

  • In this age of horizontal storytelling, we consume more headlines, tweets and video updates than ever before, but we rarely take the time to understand the depth of any of them. When policemen are shot in Dallas Texas, Fox News reports a lone gunman, activists of BlackLivesMatters report organized crime, and the public doesn’t know the difference.

  • So when the next headline enters our feed, can we comprehend the context? Do we have a better or worse grasp on the gravity of the stories meaning? The reach of stories grow based on (1) how viral they are, and (2) the interest of the platform. Both are viable reasons to populate a newsfeed, but at the same time, inherently flawed. For virality, the newsfeed relies on an algorithm that favors high consumability.

  • In simpler terms, technology monitors what people like you like and share, then surface stories based on what the machines think your demographic and behaviors will like.

  • On one hand it’s very democratic… likes and shares act as votes… but what if people don’t understand the story they are sharing? Or what if the platform doesn’t understand why the they are sharing what they are sharing?

  • Facebook tried to solve this problem with reaction emojis (I know how could I get this far in a talk about modern communication and not yet mention emojis??), but breaking down all possible reactions to a story into 7 emotions and expecting people to constantly submit an accurate reaction - is crazy. And Facebook knows this, so much so that they hired 700+ employees to be test subjects to better personalize your newsfeed.

  • The Platform’s Priorities

    vs. Your Interest

  • As Facebook puts more emphasis on “Trending,”

  • Twitter puts more emphasis on “Moments,”

  • Snapchat puts more emphasis on “Discovery,”

  • it’s overwhelmingly clear social media platforms are drawing firm editorial lines of what you should consume based on their business interests. Machine learning can make sense.


    As the internet knows more about the reader - her location, her browsing habits, her age, her race, her sleeping patterns, which stories she engages with - the ads of course have become smarter - and while the elimination of irrelevant ads is convenient- it also makes ads a more prominent part of the story.

  • In Hollywood terms, is the movie made to advertise products, or is product placement just a detail we happen to notice or not notice during the movie?

  • There are great societal dangers to a powerful storyteller with ill intentions. Great horizontal storytelling can function like a strobe light in our newsfeeds.

  • Someone like Donald Trump just keeps appearing. A violation of personal space. He creates engagement - much of which is negative - yet I can’t block him - he just keeps appearing in my newsfeed. People keep talking about and sharing whatever he spits out.

  • Trump is a testament to the effectiveness, power - and danger! - of horizontal storytelling. This flooding of the digital newsfeed has serious consequences in the real world. If Trump has a 50/50 shot to become leader of the free world, storytelling has a 50/50 shot to become the greatest danger to the free world. But it’s not storytelling’s fault. We have ourselves to blame. Our friends, our network, our community continued to engage with it.

  • The relationship between the audience and the storyteller used to favor one-time deep immersion - like sitting around a fire while a hunter finally gets his turn to tell the tale of how he killed the buffalo -

  • but now, storytelling, favors ongoing status updates that take little thought to understand yet keep seeping into our feeds day after day after day.

  • Modern stories take time to evolve.

  • The story of Kanye is not limited to him tweeting that his new album Life of Pablo is out. It’s him going on record every day - with controversial tweet after controversial tweet - leaving the news to report, “by the way his new album Life of Pablo is out.” He does this to “earn” your ongoing attention. Is this really the newsfeed you are looking for?

  • What’s It Mean for Storytellers?

  • Let me say with great optimism - our only limited resource is time. The newsfeed is a battle for a finite attention span, fueled by technology that tracks everyone’s activity.

  • And every choice Facebook makes in how the newsfeed functions is ultimately driven by revenue. Time Magazine called the Facebook newsfeed "the most valuable billboard on Earth." Do you agree? And yet I still think, there’s never been a better time to be a storyteller. Be selfish for a moment, as a storyteller ,

  • when in history could anyone reach hundreds or even thousands of people at any time of day with just the click of a button?

  • Why not let Facebook get theirs and use the newsfeed to say what you must to get yours?


    It’s media.

  • So the next time you browse your newsfeed, ask yourself:

  • why is this post in my personal space?

  • But if I must be advertised upon to reach the communities I want to reach, so be the future of media.

  • I will share where people consume.

  • What David Smooke Builds

    San Francisco based marketing firm, specializing in early stage B2B

    startups. We help scale your narrative with great digital storytelling.

    A network of 20+ publications, totaling 8,000+ writers, 90,000+ subscribers, and 1,000,000+ monthly pageviews.

    Write what matters. Current favorite quote: "“Recently took up ice sculpting. Last night I made an ice cube. This morning I made 12, I was prolific.” Email me.