For years Reddit has been redefining how citizen journalism works online. But it took the tragic shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo., to finally make the mainstream media take notice. For the Dailiy Dot's first anniversary, we wanted to look back at what makes Reddit special as a journalism platform and the unique limitations it faces.
A kid fresh out of high school, Morgan Jones began Friday, July 20, like any other, staying up late playing computer games. By the day’s end, he was one of the most important news voices of the year.
When Jones heard reports of a shooting at the Century 18 theater in Aurora, Colo., early that morning, he plugged in to a live of feed of police and fire scanners. Something just “didn’t sound right,” Jones remembers thinking, as he listened to voices of emergency personnel.
He took what he was hearing and began posting it to Reddit, the massively popular social news site, weaving it together with news reports and first-hand accounts. He worked through the night in front of the lonely glow of his monitor at his parent’s house in nearby Denver.
“I saw the news and I thought this is something people need to know about,” Jones told the Daily Dot.
The suspected shooter, James Holmes, 24, had killed 12 people and injured another 59 in one of the worst shooting sprees in American history. In the cacophony of media voices that rang out immediately following the Aurora shootings, Jones hit the right note at exactly the right time.
As the popular consciousness of the nation and much of the world zeroed in on the tragedy in Aurora, Jones was doing something that no one else was: He was organizing the horrific mess of news, rumors, and panicked speculation bit by bit—correcting, fixing, managing as other redditors jumped into the comments, correcting him or chastising him or just helping out with news and first-hand knowledge.
In doing so, Jones instantly became the most-read news voice on a website with 35 million visitors a month, with the best live summary on the Internet. And he was a complete amateur, an 18-year-old getting ready to start his freshman year at Rice University whose journalism experience amounted to writing for his school newspaper and designing its website.
But Jones isn’t the future of journalism.
He represents the future of something less vague and more important. What he and the Reddit community demonstrated is the future of the Internet as a public newsroom—a place where information is processed and organized and fact-checked by a staff of hundreds and thousands of volunteers. It’s Huffington Post-style aggregation, hyper-powered by the Internet hive mind.
It’s a place where a kid can school the mainstream media just because he feels like it.
Reddit as public newsroom
There was nothing new in what Jones did on Reddit. NPR’s Andy Carvin wielded his tens of thousands of Twitter followers like an army of amateur reporters during the Arab Spring a year ago. Like Jones, Carvin—who is, in contrast, a seasoned professional—came to symbolize a new moment in journalism. Some called his Twitter feed a “newswire,” but Carvin bristled at the term:
“I get uncomfortable when people prefer my twitter feed as a newswire. It’s not a newswire. It’s a newsroom. It’s where I’m trying to separate fact from fiction, interacting with people. That’s a newsroom.”
Reddit may actually be a more perfect realization of Carvin’s idea of the Web as a newsroom. Twitter is fractured and disjointed and ephemeral; tweets come and go with the rapidity of a light show. You’ve got work to follow the news—scanning tweet histories and making sense of the mess of disparate pieces of information. At the very least you’ve got to follow the right person at the right time.
To understand what Carvin did during the Arab Spring, you had to be there. To understand what Jones did on Reddit, you just have to load the same URL you did on Friday morning:
On Reddit, information is fact-checked and assembled in a single, static location, usually referred to as a “self-post,” or text-only post. Others help out in the comments section, adding context or correcting mistakes. A post’s visibility isn’t limited to who you follow or what you see retweeted. Information surfaces based on popularity—what redditors have chosen to upvote or downvote—so essentially anyone under any name can post and make major waves.
In a recent interview, Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager, hinted that this was a key part of Reddit’s success during breaking news events:
“On Twitter or Facebook you need to have a built-up audience of followers, or you need to get noticed by somebody who has a lot of followers to spread information. On Reddit, that picture that the kid posted from the hospital got to the front page and was seen by hundreds of thousands of people in well under an hour, and that doesn't really happen that quickly in other places.”
An ongoing revolution
Jones’s work, and Reddit’s as a whole, isn’t revolutionary. Internet users have been doing this kind of thing for 20 years, since the first days of Usenet and bulletin boards and even LISTSERV groups. The Internet has proliferated across the world because it has untethered news and information, making them free and accessible from anywhere at any time.
Ten years ago a blogger running a live feed would have done much the same as Jones did on Reddit, plugging in facts as they arrived: from readers, an RSS feed, or clever Google searches. Users of Fark, who usually just look for something weird to lampoon, aggregated all the news from 9/11, in a single thread on that Web forum.
Jones’ work is a new expression of an age-old instinct: Share the best information you' havewith the community you care about.
Reddit’s strength is that it takes the fundamental precepts of what makes the Internet powerful and juices them up with algorithmic steroids: Information doesn’t flow; it roars in a deluge thanks to a population of 35 million information addicts, all of whom have their hands on the pressure valves. They upvote and downvote, filtering out (ideally) the good from the bad. The comments section is similarly ruled by that simple up-down duality.
At its best, Reddit becomes a competition for rightness and veracity, where assertions are tested and verified in the comments section. This one-of-a-kind ability to collect, disseminate, and verify information on a massive scale makes Reddit the digital newsroom non pareil of the moment and the model for the future.
But are redditors journalists? As the world becomes saturated in public information, “journalist” loses exclusivity. It’s all-inclusive. There are instantaneous and accidental acts of journalism happening all the time online. New York University’s Jay Rosen has argued this is a very good thing, that journalism gets more powerful the more people it involves.
Reddit fits that paradigm: The scope of its citizen journalism has improved as it’s grown in size.
Redditors have been acting as citizen journalists for a long time, in fact, well under the nose of big media.
They’ve chronicled important site-specific events all their own, with similarly collated and edited timelines that feed off the feedback and fact-checking of commenters. Take, for example, the recent kerfuffle between Reddit celebrity Shitty_Watercolour and influential moderator karmanaut, who'd banned him from the popular live interview forum, r/IAmA.That battle stretched multiple communities on Reddit, and the events were summarized brilliantly and hilariously by redditor khnumhotep.
Redditors also routinely conduct interviews, like those at the famous r/IAmA, or delve into breaking science news with real experts.
While redditors may stumble into their roles as citizen reporters, that doesn’t preclude them from forming complex ideas about the state of journalism and their place in it.
"When you log on to any website that relies on user based content (YouTube, forums, Reddit), you randomly assort different experts, fact finders, and real world people into one place. What is unique about reddit is that there are so many people that you will almost always have an expert on everything, although the chances of them showing up are random. Think of it as a giant spider web with a colony of spiders, whenever there is a vibration, tons of spiders jump to the source and give their input. World wide web at its best."
The most philosophical of redditor reporters is BitchslappedByLogic, the Toronto resident who bested that city’s professional news outlets with reporting on a shooting there July 17.
The redditor’s collection of tweets from victims didn't read like a traditional news story: He or she assembled the news as it came in, citing amply and working in corrections as they were received. For BitchslappedByLogic, the open information on the Internet and the immediacy of the public's fact-checking public serve as both a new source for original news and as a check on mainstream media’s facts.
BitchslappedByLogic's reporting, in fact, directly contradicted statements from Toronto mayor Rob Ford, which were later repeated verbatim in the Toronto Sun. The shooting wasn’t an isolated incident, as Ford claimed: Tweets from the victims showed they lived in a world permeated by a fear of violence.
BitchslappedByLogic told Toronto’s The Grid:
“Mainstream media coverage of this event implies a belief that the public does not deserve accurate information, and the public will accept whatever information institutionally legitimized figures feed to them. This is a huge problem that journalism needs to address quickly, because we live in an age where information is easy to obtain.”
The Toronto Star’s public editor claimed the paper was well aware of events happening on Twitter, but “much of what was published in the Reddit post is not publishable in the Star, given our current journalistic standards.”
The Internet’s unimaginably vast network of information has long represented a crisis for mainstream media. To a certain extent, BitchslappedByLogic’s post demonstrates the continued failure of old media to adapt to technology, both in terms of how they report and what they choose to report. For good or bad, the Toronto Star no longer decides what is or isn’t news. The Web’s million of independent voices do.
The term “newsroom,” is a great way to describe what Reddit does when news happens, but it isn’t the right word for the site as a whole—it describes a 20th-century workplace that is rapidly disappearing. In that regard, it limits our understanding of what Reddit really is: a centralized, aggregated hub of stuff people have found on the Internet.
Most of Reddit isn't citizen journalism. It’s entertainment. For every edifying live interview or discussion, there are hundreds if not thousands of stolen images, reused jokes, or smut pics. The front page is a glorified imageboard, and hard news is usually buried under a mountain of irreverence and eye candy.
Reddit’s not designed to replace mainstream media, and it never will. Jones was happy to admit as much, and he gave a great amount to credit to journalists whose reporting provided was a big part of his aggregation work.
“I certainly think that mainstream media has been a huge part of these updates ... I think the Internet's power to quickly aggregate links and find connections between things—that’s something that most of the time the mainstream might not have access to.”
Most people don’t come to Reddit to be reporters. They come for fun.
And when Reddit does report and fact check news, users don't necessarily part with their upvotes and and downvotes in line with some logical ideal. As in the real world, Reddit's democracy is messy and imperfect. The facts you see on the front page aren't necessarily the facts you need to see; they're the facts people most want to see.
Reddit's cultural biases are so strong, in fact, that multiple counter cultures have sprouted up to fight them: r/circlejerk, r/circlebroke respectively mock and analyze the rigid thinking of Reddit’s hive mind. The most controversial community on the site, r/shitredditsays, calls out instances of racism and bigotry that have been upvoted in popular subreddits.
Ideological enemies follow one another across the site. Some even write programs that downvote foes en masse.
For Reddit to cover a breaking news event well, it requires someone like Jones or BitchslappedByLogic to stand up and earn the public’s trust, to add facts based on their veracity and not the public’s emotional proclivities.
“My main role has been aggregating,” Jones said. “Making sure timeline stays accurate and up to date.”
Jones’s run as aggregator-in-chief is petering out. He’s on number 13 of his running updates, but the news on the shootings is slowing down. Jones said he’s not sure if he’ll ever do aggregating work like this again. He’s not even sure, if you turned back the clock, he would choose to cover the Aurora shootings again.
The New York Times will always have someone to cover an event like the Aurora tragedy. Reddit won’t.
“I wasn’t expecting any of this to happen,” Jones said. “Not in my wildest dreams.”
Jones’s brief role as Reddit’s most trusted voice in news was an accident of time, place, and motivation. That’s the nature of the Web as public newsroom—and its greatest limitation.
Yet while events like these may just be happy accidents, the likelihood of the next great moment in Reddit journalism increases every time a newbie clicks that innocuous, blue “register” button.
Photo via Morgan Jones