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Digital Culture: Inside the Subreddit Obsessed With Solving the 'Serial' Case

Hamilton Verissimo, a software engineer from New Zealand, joined Reddit just to participate in Serialpodcast, a virtual home for tens of thousands of subscribers with theories and interpretations about the hit podcast.
(Photo: Jeff Keacher/Flickr)

(Photo: Jeff Keacher/Flickr)

Season one of Serial ended last week, but you wouldn’t know it by the continuing buzz of its dedicated discussion thread on Reddit. That subreddit, Serialpodcast, remains full of users posting evidence, theories, and interpretations about whether Adnan Syed, the Baltimore teenager convicted of killing ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999, is really guilty. Though the finale ended inconclusively, creator Sarah Koenig has announced that the hit podcast’s second season will feature a different storyline.

With no professional reporting muscle on the case, Syed’s story may well continue to play out on Serialpodcast. With nearly 33,000 subscribers and, it’s safe to say, a healthy lurker contingent, the fan community has regularly floated ideas and made connections that end up on the show a few episodes later. Whether the information was uncovered by redditors or in parallel isn’t always clear; though Koenig reported the story as she produced it, as unaware of its end as her listeners, she has said that she doesn’t read the subreddit—but that some of her staffers do.

"At some point everybody around the world was waiting for the new episode to be up, and they started discussing that very episode [on Reddit], and I said, 'It's not available; how'd they manage to get access to that?'"

Either way, the intense crowdsourced investigations surrounding the show became intertwined with the experience of listening to it. In the words of the Daily Dot’s EJ Dickson: “[T]he ‘Serial’ finale was hugely disappointing. Not because it failed to reach any resolution about the case, as many fans featured, because even worse, it was just boring. Thanks to Reddit, it was all old news.”

Despite essentially being handed the case, the surging popularity of the subreddit (in a story about the site in early November, it had less than 6,000 followers) may end up being its downfall.

“I notice that as the show gained popularity, the ‘Serial’ Reddit community became more of a noise that signal,” says Hamilton Verissimo, a regular participant in the forum. “So it's really hard these days to go there and find something fresh and new and articulate. It's just a lot of people posting theories that have been posted 300 times.”

Verissimo, a 35-year-old software engineer in New Zealand, joined Reddit for the first time to delve into the show’s primary sources with fellow fans. What had been a relatively tight-knit group that waited for new episodes to drop together has become more of a free-for-all, he said, less a community of amateur sleuths than one of wild-eyed theorists. Still, Verissimo continues to check the site daily, “just to see if a smoking gun—a new thing—showed up, and I'm not left behind.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

How did you get hooked on this show?

I listen to This American Life and other podcasts regularly, and I wasn't really paying attention to the show. But one of the Sundays, This American Life replaced its own episode with the first Serial episode [“The Alibi”], and that's how I got hooked.

When did getting hooked on Serial lead to signing up for Reddit?

I think it was about episode four. I wanted to see if there was more information available about the trial transcripts or the interview—the police detective’s interview. And I think somebody linked to Reddit on Facebook on a comment about Serial somewhere. That's how I knew about its existence.

When did reading turn into making a username based off of the show?

"It can be somewhat dark at some points, and very adversarial, and I think that's why Rabia [Chaudry, who first brought the story to Koenig’s attention] gave up on Reddit."

At some point everybody around the world was waiting for the new episode to be up, and they started discussing that very episode [on Reddit], and I said, “It's not available; how'd they manage to get access to that?” And then I created an account and replied to that thread and said, “Where can I get it?” and then somebody explained in a private message that somebody managed to gain access to the mp3 file before it was made public.

The people who manage the website found the issue and they fixed it in like five minutes. So what started happening was people on the Reddit site started distributing among themselves the mp3 file through private message—not publicly.

Can you describe what it's like to be part of this community?

It can be somewhat dark at some points, and very adversarial, and I think that's why Rabia [Chaudry, who first brought the story to Koenig’s attention] gave up on Reddit. But I remember especially killing hours, killing time before the new episode would come up. We would be on the episode thread and just discussing random things. I remember somebody explaining her ritual to go to bed ... it's totally not related to Serial, but it helps with bonding, I guess.

Have you made friends on the subreddit?

No. I didn't even try to be closer to people. It's got a politics behind the scenes that I don't really want to be a part of. It's very easy to build a circle of people that support each other if for no other reason just to “up” comments or links that you post there. And you do that so they do the same to you. I didn't want to play this kind of game.

What's the most time you've ever spent on it?

I think the day before the last episode was the one where I spent the most hours.... It could be up to four hours if I sum it up.

Why do so many people care so much about this case from 1999 in Baltimore?

The story is captivating. Depending on where you are, it's either one life that was destroyed or two lives that were destroyed, and there are so many angles. There's the justice system angle. There's the pervasive sentence angle.

Another angle is just, when you're just fed little bits of information, you hunger for more. You can't make up your mind; you can't be conclusive. I read the documents. I read the Jay and Jen transcripts—but those are not enough to state conclusively, “Oh, now you have the full picture. Now you have the whole story and this person is definitely guilty. Adnan is definitely innocent.” I think the hunger is the one that feeds this whole obsession.

Is Adnan guilty or innocent?

I'm undecided, but I'm leaning toward “not proven guilty.”

The subreddit has been given credit for reporting out the case ahead of Koenig. And now, after it’s over, people are still busily posting research and theories. Why are people still talking about this?

I hope they never stop talking about it until we have some more conclusive facts. But I definitely agree that they were ahead of time. I remember they mentioned those serial killers way ahead—episode four or five they were already talking about those guys.

When were they mentioned in the show?

Last week. They were also able to track the fact that the Nisha Call could be an unanswered call that was billed. That was around episode six that I think [Koenig] first mentioned the Nisha Call, and they were able to track very old articles on some newspapers of people suing AT&T for billing them for unanswered calls. So that could have been a possible explanation—we don't know for sure. But they tracked that and they surfaced that really early.

Do you think this will continue to be a vital community, or do you think it will just be a bunch of, like you said, noise, as opposed to signal?

Eventually it will lose momentum, just like happens for every TV show or something. I hate the comparison with TV shows, but the human behavior can be compared.... It's definitely losing its value.

Digital Culture is a series of interviews about digital subcultures and communities.