Essentials of a Web Sleuth
Recent Netflix documentaries Don’t F**K with Cats and Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Hotel Cecil have brought attention to a small collective on the internet known as websleuths: fellow humans who investigate real-life crimes via the web. Specifically, in the form of discussion groups, where details pertaining to various crimes can be found, discussed, and in rare cases, solved. Because it’s the internet, websleuthing also breeds misinformation and conspiracy theories, but that’s part of the culture. The better you are at sifting through that kind of BS, the better a web sleuth you’ll be. This may sound like an incredibly niche interest, but web sleuthing could serve you in your freelancing life. This doesn’t mean you should drop everything to become a web sleuth, but taking it up as a hobby could not only be fun, but help you build essential skills that apply to your career.
ON THE CASE
It’s essential that a web sleuth has research to back up what they’re reporting. This type of research requires a lot more than a cursory google search. You’ll need to delve into press releases, news stories (sometimes from decades ago), obscure internet discussion forums, and even police and fire scanners. Web sleuths are dealing with real-life crimes, and so can’t take the research portion of their work lightly. Genuine lives could hang in the balance. The last thing you want to do is fall down the rabbit hole of some conspiracy theory. In many cases, you might need to get up off your desk chair to seek out important documentation that isn’t on the web, or get interviews with important subjects. Asking for information deemed sensitive can be daunting, but you’ll never know if you don’t try. If faced with an information roadblock, be determined, but respectful.
Investigating like a web sleuth is a perfect way to build your research skills. Pick a topic you’re interested in and start diving deep. The topic could be anything from the cutting edge of quantum physics to a political interest story that piqued your curiosity the other day.
Web Sleuths, in many ways, are amateur reporters. They need to know how to write well. However fascinating their discoveries might be, they will garner no attention if the writing describing them is garbage. To be an accurate and reliable web sleuth, you should be able to translate your findings into logical, written content. If you’re having trouble writing your thoughts out cohesively, one place to start is to read more. A writer who reads a lot has a better understanding of vocabulary, notices subtle differences between styles, and can discern between good and bad writing. Through reading other people’s work, we develop our own voice and tone as we type away. There’s no “correct way” to write, but you want to be clear and concise, deliver facts, and of course, entertain.
If you’re a freelance writer of any kind, all this applies to you as well, and continuing your web sleuthing project is a great way to practice writing. Once you’ve collected an amount of research you see as sufficient, start distilling that research into a story. You can start chronologically, although as you write you may find the story would be best served being told out of order.
THUMBTACKS & STRING
Every good web sleuth has a room in their home with photos and newspapers glued to the wall like a serial killer. Kidding, but it is important to give yourself some visual space so you can see the bigger picture, put different facts together, make connections, and at the end of the day, solve the case. There’s a reason detectives in movies stick things on walls (thumbtacking you might call it) when working on a case. It actually works. Diving super deep into research is incredibly important, but it can make you think narrowly, on a micro level. Sometimes we need to view everything together on a macro level.
No matter the type of freelancer you are or what project you’re working on, you can benefit from this same method. To finish your web sleuthing project look at the research and writing you’ve done. Try to view your work all at once, or in one document if you can, as it will allow you to better visualize the final story. The process of thumbtacking will probably occur throughout your web sleuthing project, but it’s important to take this final step of total visualization before completion. You’ll get insights you wouldn’t get without it.
Web sleuthing can be time-consuming and difficult, but as a hobby it’s fun and can genuinely improve some important skills. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to get really smart about a specific topic, or up your trivia game, there may be no better way.