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Dot Dot Dot: When Reddit becomes the news

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Cultural convulsions like last week’s bombings in Boston force us to take a hard look at the world we have created.

One of the many elements of our collective response that we are evaluating closely is the role of social media in the aftermath of the bombings.

Influential finance blogger and social media enthusiast Felix Salmon wrote on Monday that the Marathon tragedy marked a watershed moment in the history of the Internet:

“The Boston bombing and subsequent manhunt was in many ways the first big interactive news story. It wasn’t the first big event to be covered obsessively on social media, but it was the first big event where millions of people became part of the story themselves.”

Speaking in some sense for those millions, Reddit General Manager Erik Martin took the extraordinary step of apologizing for Reddit’s role in the bombings.

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Martin was apologizing for Reddit users’ attempt to “help” law enforcement. Immediately after the explosions, users all over the Internet, principally in 4Chan and Reddit, began scouring every bit of available footage to identify the perpetrators.

As it turns out, the FBI is better at this than a bunch of amateurs (I wasn’t sure either). Because pretty much everyone that Reddit fingered was innocent.  The FBI got fed up fairly quickly and asked redditors to lay off.

It got even more out of hand from there. Two young men happened upon each other at Massachusetts General Hospital—where the body of the first bomber was taken. Upon realizing that they were both Redditors, they took it upon themselves to keep Reddit updated, and began searching for the second bomber and posting updates to r/FindBostonBombers.

The thing is, Kevin and Luke’s “adventure” was just one extreme case in a phenomenon spreading across the Internet like wildfire. The moment the first explosion occurred, the Internet was absolutely obsessed.

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In turn, the mainstream media became obsessed with the Internet.

Everyone —from the tabloids, including the New York Post, to the most respected name in news (says they), CNN—was soon reporting on the Reddit activity. Worse, they were sometimes reporting Reddit’s findings without clear and specific attribution to the Internet’s self-deputized investigators.

Of course, it was only one of many ways that many major news outlets failed to follow even the most basic rules of professional journalism.

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There are really two parts of this moment that are revealing for where our culture is heading: first, there’s the Internet’s reaction itself; and second, the “real world’s” reaction to the Internet.

When it comes to first, the Internet’s own reaction, I think we can expect more of the same in the future. When these things happen, it’s human nature to want to get involved. The same impulse that drove record military enlistment in the wake of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor will continue to drive social media users to try to “help,” whatever that may mean. Social media will continue to offer many new ways to do so (most of them good, by the way). We must not forget about the people found, hospital bills paid, and pizzas delivered by social media.

But with the sweet, comes the bitter. After just about every major U.S. event in the last two years—the Aurora theater shootings, for example—some redditor has taken it upon himself to report events. These people have, in the past, often done an excellent job and have been widely recognized for their efforts—on Reddit, on the Daily Dot, and in the mainstream media. Kevin and Luke, our two friends of r/FindBostonBombers renown, most likely saw those citizen journalists and decided they wanted to get some of that famo for themselves.

The “real world’s” reaction, however, will likely never be the same again—well, okay, maybe not never. True, it can take a few times for us to learn our lesson, but eventually we will realize that a conversation on Reddit is no different than a conversation in a bar. I guarantee that in bars across the country, crowds on stools were also carefully watching security footage on CNN, playing amateur and crowd-sourced detectives.

This is not to say there may be nothing worth paying attention to in that bar—whether you’re a journalist or not. In fact, it reminds me of one of my favorite newsroom stories. A managing editor that I used to work with once told me that when he started at the paper, one of the older reporters mentioned to him that she was the first person in the county to know that Kennedy had been shot. She happened to be standing at the Associated Press wire machine when the news came across.

“What’d you do?” he asked her.

“I want to church and prayed,” she said.

“Then what’d you do?” he asked.

And, in a tone that suggested it was a foolish question, she said, “I did a 'man-on-the-street'!”

The pages of Reddit, the feeds of Twitter and Facebook, the videos on YouTube—today, these are the street. They are where life happens, and they will forever more be a part of these stories. But just as the street isn’t, they won’t ever be the whole story, either.

Photo via Imgur