Moderator of "Serial" subreddit: "It's terrifying to think how much time I've spent researching this"

Salon spoke to redditor Jake White about the podcast's conclusion and how he's helped to shape the narrative online

Published December 18, 2014 6:20PM (EST)

The "Serial" phenomenon wouldn't be what it is without its fans. It's the show's obsessive, extensive fanbase that has turned "Serial" into a cultural phenomenon.

And the home base for "Serial" fans over the past few months has been the show's Reddit forum, or subreddit, where a team of especially active listeners congregates to parse clues and share theories about Adnan’s case. In honor of the show's final episode, we tracked down Reddit user Jake White (jakeprops), one of the most visible moderators on the "Serial" subreddit, to find out a little bit about what it has been like being a key member of this highly visible online audience. Like many of the subreddit users, White is keenly aware of the ethical issues that the show, and his own listening, raises, and so he has been instrumental in developing the Woodlawn High School Scholarship Fund, a charity that allows "Serial" fans to give back to the community from which the story arose.

This morning, we spoke with White about his moderating duties, the main debates within the online community, and how he felt about the show's shocking final reveal meditation on the nature of truth.

What did you think of the finale?

I think it came out how we expected. I can’t say I was too surprised to hear Sarah say that she thought he was innocent but can’t say definitively, I think that’s kind of the impression she gave over the course of the whole season, and I think that’s my impression also. Obviously I give her way more credit because she’s looked so much more deeply into this than anyone else.

What has general consensus or mood online been about Adnan’s guilt or innocence?

I don't think that you can classify the mood as one way, I think there are definitely distinct camps. There has been a staunch guilty camp for almost as long as the subreddit’s been around. There are people that distrust Rabia, they distrust Adnan, they see that a guy was convicted in court, he’s guilty and he’s guilty because the court says he’s guilty. And there’s people who have been unwavering about that. its really hard to weigh whether that’s the majority opinion; I think that’s a minority faction. I think theres a lot of really thoughtful observers that have really middle-road opinions like my own. There are a lot of users that are listening to the evidence and weighing it and are thoughtful about it and they say "I think he’s innocent but I can’t say for sure." I think the only thing you can say about the majority of the users is that everyone’s really looking for justice, everyone wants to make sure that the right person is held responsible for it, and that’s really all we have in common.

Have there been any particularly major points of contention or major sticking points between redditors?

When Rabia was contributing she was always a polarizing figure, and I think unfairly so. She clearly stated that she was coming from the “Adnan is innocent side” she made no qualms about that, so she would try to present things from her side and people would just relentlessly bash her for not being impartial. She never claimed to be impartial, she was just providing evidence of her side. So that was always a sticking point. It’s the internet, internet commenting is just going to be what it’s going to be, everyone knows that it can be very negative. Although I think on the whole it’s been very respectful, although there’s certainly people that haven’t been like that. As for a specific part of evidence about the case, there’s people that fell on both sides of the pay phone issue, whether they thought it was there, whether it was possible. I mean really every single bit of evidence or even allusion to evidence has been debated one way or another on the boards, I think that’s kind of the lovely thing about the subreddit, they can really dig down and have conversations about every little fact of the case.

What is the most crazy obsessive stuff you’ve seen people do on the subreddit?

Crazy is hard to say, I mean people put their energies towards different enterprises in any number of names. One of the most crazy things is that I’ve seen some incredibly lengthy incredibly well-researched and thought out, point-by-point analyses of the case that are just mind-blowing in their complexity, and that’s just people spending time doing some hobby that they’re interested in. I have seen people driving out to the Best Buy and taking photos around the parking lot. I did see a user posted a letter that he’d exchanged with Adnan that he sent him money in prison.


Yeah, and his response. But I surely wouldn’t categorize it as crazy because the dialogue they had was very civil and polite, he wasn’t invading his privacy, he didn’t ask anything personal, he didn’t even express an opinion one way or another as to whether he’s guilty or not, he just thought that this guy deserved some commissary money.

You don’t have a problem with that?

I don’t have a problem with that because I’ve heard through Rabia that Adnan likes to get mail from the podcast listeners. I absolutely have a problem with the people who are out there looking for these peoples’ houses and trying to fins Jenn Pusateri on Facebook for example, I absolutely have a problem with that. But the privacy situation has been my primary concern from very very early on. So yes there are these obsessive users who are going to track down all these people on Facebook and send them friend requests and message them, and I find that completely offensive and inappropriate, and when I saw that on the reddit I tried to make sure that wasn’t happening. We certainly discouraged it and we certainly removed links when we found them.

Can you tell me about the map that you made of the key locations in the story? I know it’s become very popular within the subreddit.

Yeah, well I thought the person list and the map would be the two most obvious things we could create as a subreddit to make things more visually understandable as well as useful to people, so — and I created it pretty early on — I went back and listened to all the episodes and tried to make a list of all the places mentioned, I started from the stance of making it as accurate as possible and putting the points on the map, and very early on someone raised the privacy issue which hadn't really crossed my mind yet. and so when i realized that we really needed to protect the privacy of people mentioned in sarah’s podcast, i also realized that we needed to keep personal addresses of the map, so that was one thing. I could put the address that Adnan’s family lived in but I wouldn’t put the actual address of his house. We certainly don’t want people visiting his house and disturbing his family. But other stuff — the Best Buy location? I’m going to nail that down. And I can put the pointer exactly where the high school is. And I think, I don’t know if it’s the same for everybody, but certainly the visual of looking at the map and seeing how far the mosque was to his high school or the Best Buy to the high school, that’s very useful to me. I can hear Sarah talk about Leakin’ Park but that doesn’t mean anything to me until I see how big it is, how the road runs through it, where it is in relation to the city and the high school and to Woodlawn. The Best Buy and Leakin Park and the high school are what made me want to make a map and put it up.

But you didn’t go out to Baltimore County?

No, No, I live in New York. But even if I did in Baltimore I don’t know if I’d be the type of person that would do that.

How did you get into the podcast in the first place?

I think it’s safe to describe me as a podcast junkie, I listen to hours and hours and hours of podcasts every single week and I have for years. So I’ve listened to TAL and I heard that they were going to be releasing this back in September before the first episode came out, so I was probably one of the first people to download it. And moderating the subreddit — I think the same as everyone else who found it, I wanted to have a conversation about it or at least hear what people were saying or I wanted to do a little more research about the case.

Do you have a background in crime or in journalism or anything?

No! I don’t have a background in it at all, I don’t have any experience moderating online communities. I’m a fairly proficient internet user, I’m out there a lot. But no, I went to college, I studied theater, I work on Broadway as a stage hand, I never got into crime, I’m not a lawyer or policeman or anything. But I’m also just a rational person that wants to see people treat each other civilly, and I think just coming from that viewpoint has made me a productive moderator.

What do you think it was about this case that really captivated people and turned them into amateur detectives?

I think it’s a combination of a couple things, I think as Sarah points out in today’s podcast that this isn’t just her putting a magnifying glass up to any case, I think there was some significant issues with the police’s investigation and our criminal justice system didn't really seem to function as designed, so I think that’s part of it. But I also think that Sarah Koenig and TAL are compelling storytellers, that they could really look at very mundane objects and stories — which they have done in the past — and make them into very compelling stories that I want to listen to.  I do believe that they could talk about any normal life, I mean thats what TAL is, just telling stories about average American lives.

But "Serial" really took off in a way that other podcasts haven’t.

I’m sure that has to do with the format, I don’t know that I’m any better to comment on this than anybody else, but it’s just gotta be the serialized format, that’s the only thing they’ve really changed, they tell compelling stories all the time but this is told in a format that’s similar to police procedurals we see on television. The comparison’s been made before to “Breaking Bad,” except that it’s a true story, in that their telling a certain story arc over a certain number of weeks.

I want to ask about that because so much of the narrative around "Serial" has come to be about the listeners, and the Reddit community especially, how they’ve sort of become part of the story. And there have been a lot of questions about people online treating these peoples’ lives like a detective story. 

I think it’s a very important issue. It’s been one of my primary focuses on the subreddit, that they’re not characters in a story, that you can throw out wild stories and get funny, and people having conversations in groups and talking about how excited they are about the new episode is on a basic level very distasteful. Yeah. That we’re consuming destroyed lives for our own entertainment, I think that’s a problem of the form. That podcasts are a combination of radio and journalism and entertainment and it’s a very similar feeling that Sarah and the producers have had to consider and grapple with. And so in dealign with the subreddit I tried to , at every opportunity, turn and tell the users to behave respectfully and treat each other civilly, and I can only do what I can do. There was a time I tried to put up a photo of Hae on the subreddit as a motion to remember her centrality in the story, and I was met with a lot of backlash, people thinking we were misappropriating her image for our own ends, which may or may not be a fair point. But I use that example to try and illustrate the efforts we made to try and make it a civil discourse. And to be honest the vast majority of the users were very respectful and were happy to see a civil online discourse as much as possible.

I understand there was a dispute over the name because the family didn’t expressly permit calling it the Hae Lee Scholarship Fund?

Yeah that was a contentious issue. I guess I can take responsibility for that, I was distressed by it. I didn’t personally find it offensive, although I guess it doesn’t really matter what I thought, the users did, and there was no reason to stick and to keep a perceived controversy for my own ends. And all we really want to do is do something positive, and if the money can still go to the fund by calling it something else, I’ll call it whatever you want me to call it.

How much time would you say you’ve spent cumulatively researching and doing stuff on "Serial?" 

That’s terrifying to plumb for myself — probably well more than is healthy. I do recognize, and my wife will back me up on this, that I tend to have an obsessive personality, that I’ll focus on things for a lot of time. So I couldn’t say, I’ve probably spent multiple hours a day on average, every day, since the first podcast came out. Whether it’s just taking on reddit duties… to be honest, once I started becoming a moderator my interest shifted away from looking at individual details of the case and debating and weighing things, although I do maintain interest in that, and more to just maintaining the dialogue and maintaining the conversation online. and really boring stuff, there’s actually some web coding and filtering negative comments and boring stuff like that.

Were you sad when the show ended?

To be honest, I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks. I want some of my time and some of my days back. To use the same Breaking Bad reference, you’re always a little disappointed when your favorite program’s over, but I think it was appropriate, I think it was about the right length, and I’m sure we’ll probably hear updates in the future about the progress in the case, but for me personally I’m not disappointed that this season’s over at all.

Do you think people will keep using the subreddit?

Yeah I do, I think the Innocence Project will probably communicate updates as we have them, and I think one way or another we’ll probably hear news in the mass media about Adnan’s appeals. But the interesting thing about the subreddit and how it goes into the off season is the way we consume media these days is so much less on a time frame. It’s a podcast, it’s built like a radio DVR, people are going to be listening to it and discovering it well into the future. And then they’re going to want to go and have a place to talk about it. I fully expect that there will be a vibrant community going forward, even into the second season.

Do you feel this whole process has enriched your life in any way?

Sure, I’ve certainly learned about the criminal justice, I think I’ve learned about this community and we’ve seen a unique insight into Muslim communities that a lot of us that aren’t muslim don’t normally get to see. I’ll think about it time to time but I don’t think my life has been deeply changed by it.

Are you still itching for a resolution to the story or are you satisfied with how much we learned and how Sarah presented it?

No I mean it’s instinctual that I think we all look for a resolution. And yeah there’s some small part of it that’s unsatisfying, to not have a conclusion. Everybody wanted to know in the final episode "this guy did it," whoever that guy is, and I think we all saw that that wasn’t going to happen. So a small part is unsatisfying and if we do have some movement, if someone is ever able to tell us 100% we think it’s this person, that will probably be very satisfying. But I also don’t probably think that’s going to happen. I’ll certainly be listening to find out whether Adnan is released from prison, I also think that’s really quite a longshot. But Sarah also makes the point that if she was on a jury she would have voted to acquit him even if she thought he was guilty, because the evidence wasn’t there. SO there’s always going to be some level of dissatisfaction and ambiguity — that nobody who knows who did it except the guy that did it, and that’s just the way it is, and at the moment I think coming to terms with that is the healthy thing to do,.

By Anna Silman

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