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    Anatomy of a Number One Post on Reddit

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    It was about 12:30 at night, and I was reclining in bed, alone and bleary-eyed, hammering out a quick blog post to publish early next morning. Behold the glamorous life of an online journalist. See, while Motherboard publishes great, long-form features and reported news items, we also comment on breaking stories and big think pieces that get published elsewhere first. Because, you know, it's a blog.

    So I did exactly that—I'd flagged a Bloomberg piece earlier in the day that pointed out that most serious terrorists weren't actually using Verizon, Skype, or the other platforms the NSA was spending so much bandwidth monitoring. I thought the sentiment was worth sharing widely, so I excerpted the story, linked to it twice in the text, and readied a post called "Sorry, NSA, Terrorists Don't Use Verizon. Or Skype. Or Gmail."

    It went live at 9 a.m., and apparently struck a nerve, because it proceeded to spend much of the day perched atop the front page of Reddit. Which has by now actually earned its slogan as the Front Page of the Internet. That's what it is. Now, I've had stories hit the front page of Reddit before, but I've never a) seen this kind of engagement, b) seen one get stuck on the top spot for more than an hour, or c) been in front of Chartbeat (the real-time analytics tool) while the madness unfolded.

    And it is madness. Without getting into specifics, it was a traffic volcano that never stopped spewing. In a single day, we're measuring unique visitors to that single post in fractions of millions, easy. And such is the current ubiquity of Reddit, friends from all over, who'd seen the post independently, texted, chatted, called me. Nice work, man. Friends across the country, friends that lived on other continents, friends that are next-door neighbors.

    In terms of exposure, it is the modern, DIY, 20-35 demographic equivalent of getting a story on the front page of The New York Times. And it had taken me about 20 minutes to write.

    Which is why, throughout the day, my moods blew through both euphoric gusto and guilt-stained anxiety. I didn't really deserve this, but it's pretty goddam nice that it's happening. I didn't meticulously report out a story or agonize over a compelling line of op-eddy thought to an equally compelling conclusion.

    I mean, I do those things too—in the same week-long period, I'd interviewed scientists about record-sized dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, parsed new research about the economic implications of natural gas extraction, and considered at length Obama's plans for climate change. Each of those articles received a respectable but modest amount of visitors—maybe about half the amount of traffic the NSA post got in ten minutes atop Reddit.

    As such, the backlash began. Soon, the top comment on the Reddit thread accompanying the article was a critical one.

    User Marcus Halberstram88 wrote, "Ok, I feel I have to speak up." So he did. He wrote a multi-paragraph complaint, of which this is the core:

    Most people who see this post will only read the title and not follow the link to the article (even though the title sensationalizes the article). If someone does actually click, this post links to a Motherboard article, which basically just cites, summarizes, and links to a Bloomberg article. The Bloomberg article cites, extrapolates, and links to AIVD UK (a Dutch website). Said Dutch website (finally) links to the actual report that all these different sources are supposedly reporting on. That report was by the General Intelligence and Security Service for the Dutch Ministry of Interiors and Kingdom Relations.

    The actual report itself is just shy of 30 pages long and dedicates one of its four chapters of findings to "How does online Jihadism work?" (roughly four pages). I think four pages discussing where and how (it is thought) 25,000 Jihadists gather online is one thing. Making a blanket statement saying that terrorists do not use Verizon, Skype, or Gmail is another. But anyone who just reads the title of this post, or just reads the article that the post links to, or even the article that that article links to, may believe otherwise.

    They're right about much of this—that "Dutch website" is just the hosting page for the report, but whatever—it is a fair criticism, and underpinned that guilt over reaping such outsized rewards. My post piggy-backed on the Bloomberg piece, which indeed had relied on that report for much of its critique. I'd scanned the repot, but found it easier to quote the better-written Bloomberg article. Internet content daisy-chains like this aren't rare, but they can nonetheless splatter the contents of a report across a winding digital trail—the result rendering the conclusion presented in my headline far short of anything ironclad.

    And yet. I found myself maintaining faith in contents of my post: That we are sacrificing our privacy so domestic spies can police channels terrorists almost never use. After all, the report (and other sources) offers ample reason to believe that sophisticated terrorist or paramilitary networks are tweeting out their plans or gmailing each other, or making wanton cell phone calls on standard cell networks. And even when they are, the NSA doesn't seem to be doing a particularly good job of tracking them.

    The most unsophisticated "terrorists"—say, the Boston bombers—may use Twitter and social media extensively. But Dzhokar Tsarnaev's "radical" delvings weren't done on Twitter or Facebook or Gmail, but on precisely the kind of deep web forums the report details. (It bears noting that the NSA apparently couldn't even track them down after they'd carried out their grisly work. It took turning half of Boston into a war zone to catch Dzhokar. After all, computational ecology experts have pointed out that for every one genuine "hit" these snooping programs get, they're liable to generate some 10,000 false positives.

    Even so, I never thought for a second my post would make it to the top of Reddit. If asked, I would have guessed that it would be modestly shared, accrue a few comments on Facebook, and generate only moderate traffic. Honest. It wasn't cunningly designed to usurp the Bloomberg article's message or the report's contents—just to share them with Motherboard's audience, who I thought would enjoy considering the questions they raised. But this guy's right:

    I should have probably cited the author's name, not just the publication.

    We're wading into the murky, mundane waters of internet citation ethics here, but I think few would argue with the fact that the modern media landscape has created a demand for some aggregation and quick, newsy commentary. Most magazines and websites traffic in such commentary, and we're no different.

    In fact, in some cases, I think that this is a good thing, especially if you're a competitive market free-for-all kind of guy. After all, what I'd essentially done was whittle the report's findings down, via a Bloomberg outlining, into a readable, digestible bit, with my own editorializing stamped on the beginning and end. In other words, the very definition of a re-blog-type post. The headline was a little aggressive, sure, but I wasn't breaking news, and, in my view, blogs are allotted a degree of playfulness that harder news outlets aren't. I don't think anyone reading that headline thought, 'Oh, no terrorists have ever used Verizon or Skype, that's interesting'—it was a bit of hyperbole to drive home a still-valid point.

    So, for whatever reason, Reddit users determined my distillation of the message was more compelling than the full Bloomberg piece—and while I'd gladly have had that one blow up and not mine, perhaps I had provided some value after all. Maybe this brief blast resonated more thoroughly for whatever reason, and I'd inadvertently and in some small way earned the slot. With the help of Dutch researchers, Bloomberg op-ed writers, and the internet, maybe I was hitting on something worthwhile. I stand by the story, and still think that the message it carries is an important one. We do seem to be sacrificing heaps of privacy to little end—intense domestic digital spying seems to be a horribly inefficient way to root out terrorists.

    In this cutthroat media landscape, let's face it—speed and quantity are placed at a premium. As other journalists/bloggers/editors are routinely forced to do, I made a quick decision to share the contents of that report, and I probably made a miscalculation or two in there. But I generally think it was the right one. And, guided by a couple digital predecessors, maybe it's okay that this post climbed to the top of the front page of the internet. Maybe it was more valuable than all those stories I reported out the rest of the week. If it was, it's only because the internet helped build it in the first place.