Reddit has emerged as a breaking news platform, but its users are starting adopt norms that echo traditional journalism.
In the hours and days after the Boston Marathon bombing, the hive mind of Reddit sprang into action. Redditors studied pictures from the scene, listened to police scanners and pieced together information in attempts to identify the suspects. It was the culmination of what had become a popular pastime on the link-sharing site — compiling breaking news reports from disparate sources to provide what its users considered to be a richer and more timely picture than mainstream news reports.
The series of Reddit posts about the explosions and the aftermath is primarily remembered for culminating in the accusation of an innocent college student, who had been missing for about a month before the bombing. (He was later found dead, but police said foul play was not suspected.)
More than a year later, Reddit’s breaking news platform is helping the site live up to its slogan: the front page of the Internet. Armed with a new live thread system built by Reddit engineers, a group of volunteer moderators have elevated the site to the forefront of the real-time news movement.
“When Reddit introduced their live content tools, when they gave that to us ... I think that really it was a tremendous help. It was great," said Tyler Lawrence, one of the most prolific moderators of news on Reddit. "I think really when Reddit designed that, they embraced their upcoming role as a live performance platform."
The tragedy in Boston is not far from the minds of Reddit’s news moderators. Each moderator that Mashable spoke with was candid on the topic; they said
the way the situation spiraled out of control majorly impacted its current operations.the way the situation spiraled out of control majorly impacted its current operations.
“It really developed our policy to the future. We actively work to stop witch hunts,” Lawrence said.
Ethan Rosen, one of the more experienced moderators of news subreddits, expressed a similar sentiment on what happened in the wake of the Boston bombing and how it changed newsgathering on Reddit.
“It was a disaster and it became a witch hunt for completely innocent people, and I think since then Reddit has taken a much more skeptical approach to this,” he said.
Critics pointed to this as the worst Reddit had to offer. Andrew Leonard at Salon wrote, “a bunch of amateurs playing with photographs on their computer are tarring innocent people with potential responsibility for a horrible crime.” Alex Madrigal at The Atlantic opined, “There's no excusing it with reference to bits or tubes: It is plain, old vigilantism with no place in our society.” Erik Martin, general manager or Reddit, posted an apology on the site’s blog in the the days following the bombing, admitting the situation had devolved into “online witch hunts.”
Redditors realized that while many who got involved meant well, it only took one piece of false information and a healthy dose of confirmation bias to undo Reddit's reputation. The posts and the backlash served as a flashpoint for the popularity of breaking news on the site but also underscored the need for norms and structure moving forward.
The mod squad
Lawrence and Rosen work with a group of other moderators on Reddit’s live threads and subreddits of the conflict in Ukraine and the civil war in Syria, which have emerged as exemplars of the live thread platform’s capabilities. "Mods," as the moderators are known, comb through tweets, pictures, videos and any other digital evidence they can acquire.
Moderators are not appointed by Reddit and receive no compensation for their participation. To become a moderator, one must be active in the community and the chatrooms of the subreddits. Each subreddit has its own rules usually set by the moderators.
The news moderators have evolved a particular way to run their subreddits and live feeds. First, moderators survey a variety of sources for news, primarily Twitter. They sit in an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) in which they discuss findings and attempt to verify new information. Those rooms are technically open to the public, so moderators also use Gchat and Skype chat to talk and coordinate privately. The content is then discussed among the group, vetted and eventually posted if it is deemed legitimate.
Many of the moderators, who previously would start live news threads and spend hours overseeing them, helped inspire Reddit's live thread platform.Many of the moderators, who previously would start live news threads and spend hours overseeing them, helped inspire Reddit's live thread platform.
"People have been using the self-text threads to do continuous updates whether its around sports or breaking news, really pushing the limits of that tool," said Reddit's Martin.
The system has already surfaced some important sources, including video of a government attack in Syria that was believed to include chemical weapons.
The live thread platform sits apart from the subreddit system, the first major undertaking of its kind by Reddit. The page automatically updates (without hitting refresh) and can handle embeds of almost any kind, including text, links, tweets, video and galleries. There are no comments, although that feature may be added in the future.
Martin added that while Reddit was not getting into the news business, it did hope to see the live thread tool used by journalists.
"We were just looking at giving people better tools to be able to update stuff, to see who made edits, to be able to discuss more and in different places," he said. "We’re making tools that we hope and we think will be interesting for a wide variety of professional journalists."
The Reddit-style newsroom
The shift to a focus on finding breaking stories has not only helped legitimize Reddit's news credibility, but also made its pages even more intimidating to the casual reader.
Before the emergence of moderators like Rosen and Lawrence, Reddit's news pages were just about posting links and commenting with few checks or balances.Before the emergence of moderators like Rosen and Lawrence, Reddit's news pages were just about posting links and commenting with few checks or balances.
“Reddit then was mostly a place where you shared links and then you could comment on the links, but really I think the focus of it for news at least was about users sharing links to other websites,” Rosen said. “It definitely wasn’t a place where news was generated.”
To the uninitiated user, the pages — just lines and lines of text headlines — can be difficult to traverse. At a time when websites like Vox are looking to explain the news and make it more accessible, the news subreddits serve the most dogged of news hounds.
If you're unfamiliar with Reddit and the varying norms of its different corners, you might not be able to make much sense of the postings. For instance, a recent r/SyrianCivilWar subreddit featured a variety of posts about Islamic extremists of a Syrian organization seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul, including a YouTube video purportedly from the streets of Mosul, a tweet from an ABC News producer and several news stories.
The pages are short on context. Links can be organized in various ways, such as submission time and upvotes (on Reddit, users can give "upvotes" to content they like or agree with, and "downvotes" to those they don't). Each post has an open comments section. Otherwise, much of the information is posted with little — if any — frame of reference.
The live thread tool, on the other hand, is a bit more intuitive. It tends to be just a running compilation of tweets, text, pictures and links. But the lack of context remains. This is up-to-the-minute information that might have more appeal to an editor than the layman reader.
The lack of user friendliness has not done much to dampen the popularity of news on Reddit, though, particularly in major breaking news situations. Four of the top 10 Reddit posts of 2013 by page views came from r/news. All were threads on the Boston bombing, generating a combined 11 million page views.
News as a whole is still a small part of Reddit's overall traffic.News as a whole is still a small part of Reddit's overall traffic.The Syrian civil war subreddit has received 1.5 million page views, and the Ukraine live thread generated around 3 million impressions in 2014, according to the site. As a whole, Reddit generated a total of 56 billion page views in 2013. Alexa reports it that it's the 21st most popular website in the United States.
Despite its considerable traffic, the Condé Nast-owned site has found trouble making money. The live threads, which remove the need to click through to new pages, could soon become embeddable, taking Reddit beyond its own site for the first time. But aside from boosting its reputation, the threads don't appear to do much in terms of generate new revenue.
Fast and/or accurate
The system developed by moderators in an effort to get things right helps maintain a certain level of accuracy and balance, but that does not mean it is foolproof.
“I think that there's trust in the moderation, and it's easy to find those people who want to contribute, who trust us, who think we're a good source," Rosen, one of the news moderators, said. "These people often end up becoming moderators or becoming administrator."
"As we've grow and as we've structured ourselves, we've gotten a lot of the extremes of both sides as well as some good people,” he added.
Mistakes still happen, particularly in times of breaking news that move quickly. Lawrence pointed to his own errors on a live thread he started about the most recent shooting at Fort Hood in April. As various pieces of information circulated, he published something that turned out to be false.
It is the existential problem for real-time news curators: Report the information that's out there, or wait for it to be verified?It is the existential problem for real-time news curators: Report the information that's out there, or wait for it to be verified?
“A few of the things I posted on the live thread were inaccurate. What I did in that situation was, I made an edit explaining the inaccuracy, took them out, apologized for posting them and that's essentially all you can do,” Lawrence said.
Reddit has also not entirely shed its vigilante streak, despite the rise of its news gatherers. The site shut down a thread in September after attempts to identify the suspect of the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard — something all too familiar to Boston.
It’s not just overenthusiastic amateur detectives that moderators must contend with. The topics of Syria and Ukraine are contentious, with a variety of different biased groups trying to sway the threads. The news subreddits have had to contend with various sources that attempt to co-opt the pages. Russia Today, Russia’s English-language news service, is one of the more high-profile outlets to be banned from the Ukrainian conflict subreddit.
“People get very partisan,” said Gissur Simonarson, a moderator on the Syrian civil war and Ukrainian conflict subreddits. “They get very stuck to their side and they just want to come on there and argue. They don’t want to add any information or value to the discussion. They just want to tear the other side down.”
“We don’t want this to become propaganda,” Simonarson continued. “The reason we started this is because there was so much propaganda on both sides, it was difficult to actually figure out what was happening on the ground."
This role puts moderators right in the crossfire of heated topics. Online, they are excoriated by people who claim they are biased or even agents for particular groups. Some of the moderators asked that Mashable not publish information such as the person's age or location due to these pressures.
Verifying digital information in a timely manner is an issue haunting both old and new media, said Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University.
“It goes both ways. Sure, born digital journalists have run into the same problems that newsrooms have always had: you have to move fast, you also have to be right,” he said in an interview conducted over Gchat. “At the same time, 'traditional' newsrooms take on some of the new problems created by digital media, like: how do you verify what comes from amateur or even unknown sources?”
In addition to Reddit, startups like Storyful, which was acquired by News Corp, have sprung up in attempts to find and validate on-the-ground sources of digital media.
With Reddit's news moderators now embracing the role of journalism trailblazer, the stakes have changed, Jay Rosen said. They now face the same challenges as old media.
“It doesn't surprise me that Reddit mods are worrying more about how to get stuff right, and prevent wrong information from spreading,” he said. “Once you say you want to be a news source, you have gone into the verification business.”