Serial: a spontaneous transmedia story or more like Dave Egger’s SoulSearch?

I only discovered Serial last week and have been listening to episodes every day. Suddenly cleaning up the kitchen and making the kids’ lunches is a part of my day I look forward to, because I can listen to Serial. I’m up to episode ten, nearly caught up. This Thursday the last episode of the season will be released. I’m already worried about what I’ll listen to next to make housework more interesting.

Serial-podcast-screenshot

Screenshot of the Serial podcast website showing the first three episodes.

If you haven’t listened to Serial, it’s a lot like watching a really good television detective series, you know, the sort where you either binge-watch episodes because they’re so good or you’re waiting impatiently for the next week’s episode. But Serial is sound only, and it’s the story of a real crime: the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan was convicted of the murder, and is still in prison, but the case against him had quite a few holes. Sarah Koenig, the journalist and host of Serial, spends the whole season exploring the story of the murder, using audio recordings from the original police interviews and the trial as well as a lot of new interviews with people who were involved and others who help interpret evidence. And hey, Serial is an online-only spinoff of This American Life, a radio show telling short stories about real people made by the excellent public broadcasting  station WBEZ in Chicago. I listened to WBEZ a lot when we were in Chicago. They make really good radio.

Although I’m fascinated by Serial itself, what’s really interesting about Serial from a digital culture perspective is its reception. It’s the most popular podcast ever, with apparently about five million listeners around the world. And a lot of those listeners are adding to the story. That can lead to ethical issues. For instance, Sarah Koenig respects the wishes of important people in the story to not be interviewed, but listeners aren’t bound by journalistic ethics: they dig into court records and find a lot of details about these real individuals that are not mentioned on the show. The Reddit group discussing Serial has collected a lot of information, but also has a very clear rule: no doxxing. Here’s an example of a thread follows that rule in the sense that explicit personal information is not shared, but it is quite clear that the poster has found a lot of personal information about the people involved, and its shared in a general way. Similarly, the subreddit’s list of people involved in the story doesn’t include links to private information but does include links to public websites, news stories and even the Reddit user profiles for some of Adnan’s friends, who have told their versions of the story on Reddit as well. Saad, Adnan’s best friend in high school, even has an open thread inviting people to ask him questions.

Other media than Reddit have stories too, of course. Huffington Post has a collection of photos of the main characters in the story, including a very brief television interview with Hae. There are YouTube parodies – here’s an excellent one by comedian Paul Laudiero pretending to be Sarah Koenig cold calling, well, just anybody, to see whether they have information about the case. There are several podcasts about Serial. But Reddit seems to be where most of the speculation is happening.

It’s interesting and disturbing how journalistic ethics fall by the wayside once you open up a real murder case to public speculation as is happening in Serial. There’s something about the structure of the murder case that invites us to treat it as an ARG, an alternative reality game, where you’re supposed to go looking for clues. Except this is real life. Sarah Koenig talks to us listeners very directly, using “you” to refer to us frequently. She invites us to help solve the mystery, to pay attention to the clues along with her. She wants us to play along. Did she realize how far listeners would go?

What if this case is re-opened? Is there any way a new trial could be fair after this level of speculation? Or would that be more fair? Is crowd-sourcing justice a good idea?

I’m reminded of a scene in Dave Egger’s 2013 novel The Circle where our protagonist, Mae, leads a crowdsourced global hunt on a random fugitive from the law. She announces to the millions of viewers:

“In seconds, the computer will select, at random, a fugitive from justice. I don’t know who it will be. No one does. Whoever it is, though, he’s been proven a menace to our global communicity, and our assertion is that whoever he or she is, SoulSearch will locate him or her within twenty minutes. Ready?” (446-7)

A billion people are watching as a 44 year old British woman is selected. She locked her children in a closet and let them stave to death, but has not been found by the police, ten years  after the crime. Users around the world work to find any information about the woman, and within a few minutes a photo was found that matched the passport photo. They knew her address and her alias. 79 watchers lived in the same town as her. Someone said she worked with her. At the request of Mae, our host, she turns on her camera. The fugitive realizes she is being chased.

“Follow her!” Mae finally yelled, and Gretchen Karapcek and her camera began pursuit. Mae worried, momentarily, that this would be some botched effort, a fugitive found but then quickly lost by a fumbling coworker. The camera jostled wildly, up the concrete stairs, through a cinderblock hallway, and finally approached a door, the white sky visible through its small square window.

And when the door broke open, Mae saw, with great relief, that Fiona Highbridge [the fugitive] was trapped against a wall, surrounded by a dozen people, most of them holding their phones to her, aiming them at her. There was no possibility of escape. Her face was wild, at once terrified and defiant. She seemed to be looking for gaps in the throng, some hold she could slip through. “Gotcha, kid-killed,” someone in the crowd said, and Fiona Highbridge collapsed, sliding to the ground, covering her face.

(..)

“Lynch her!” someone outside the laundry yelled.

“She must be kept safe,” Stenton hissed into Mae’s ear.

“Keep her safe,” Mae pleaded with the mob. “Has someone called the police–the constables?” (450-451)

Lynch mobs are an obvious concern when it comes to crowdsourcing a murder investigation. So far, the speculations around the murder of Hae Min Lee seem reasonably safe. The clear rules on the subreddit seem to be being followed. There may well be other, more hidden sites that are less circumspect, but they’re not popping up on my relatively surface level Google searches, and if most people aren’t seeing them we probably won’t see lynch mobs. Of course, it doesn’t take a physical mob to do serious damage to an individual in the digital age.

In The Circle, the crowd wants another target after their first success. This time they pick a civilian – a friend of Mae’s. He wants nothing of it, though, and in trying to escape the furious people chasing him, drives himself off a bridge, falling to his death (The Circle 450-461).

Let’s hope we’re not that hungry for the chase in – or after – Serial.

15. December 2014 by Jill
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