What role did the website reddit play in the aftermath to the Boston Marathon bombings? It depends who you ask.
GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram maintains that in crowdsourcing the manhunt for the bombers, reddit was practising a new kind of unruly journalism. Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic feels that in mistakenly identifying an innocent man as a suspect, reddit was guilty of reprehensible vigilantism. Reddit’s official blog has called the campaign a “witch hunt,” scrubbed the thread from its servers and apologized. Others feel reddit has no need to apologize.
I think they’re all wrong. “Reddit” didn’t do anything. The site is an open, anonymous forum where anyone can say anything. It’s comprised of millions of people, using pseudonyms to link to stories, make comments, share content and rank each other’s input. When someone on reddit is saying one thing, someone else is saying the opposite.
When we blame or applaud reddit for the /r/findbostonbombers thread, are we blaming “oops777,” the user who started the thread? Is he “reddit”? Or is it the user who pointed a finger at the wrong guy? What about the thousands of users who participated in the thread (some of whom did so in order to criticize it), or the millions who followed the thread without contributing to it? This audience contained dozens of journalists covering the story, some of whom ran with the erroneous information they found there. Is reddit to blame for this spread of false information onto Twitter, Facebook, and then into mainstream news reports?
It’s a ridiculous question. For our purposes, in making sense of what happened last week, reddit doesn’t really exist. It’s not an organization or individual of any kind. It’s as useless a noun as “the Internet,” or “humanity.” Is humanity to blame for the Boston bombings? I guess so, but that’s a pointless way to think about it.
A couple of dudes are the culprits, allegedly. Similarly, people are individually responsible for each act of analysis, documentation, rumour mongering and hysteria that occurred during those frightening hours. Whether they were pursuing these actions on reddit, Twitter, or the nightly news is beside the point.
Despite what the headlines say, reddit did not apologize for what happened. It can’t, any more than the city of Boston can apologize for what happened. Like reddit, Boston is just a place where things transpired. Reddit’s staff regrets some of what happened on its service, and that’s fine.
But the lesson for me, as someone who’s as guilty as anyone of using this easy shorthand, of ascribing actions or motives to Twitter, to Anonymous, to 4Chan, or to the Internet itself, is that the practice should stop. It’s fun to say “the Internet” loves authenticity or that “Anonymous” has targeted so-and-so. Perhaps there was a time when it meant something, when the Internet itself had a certain culture, or when Anonymous was a specific community. No longer. On this point at least, technology critic Evgeny Morozov is right– the Internet does not exist. The Internet is almost everyone now, which also means that it’s no one.
I need to find new language to talk about these things, as difficult as that will be.
Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown