Friday morning, after news broke that a gunman burst into a midnight showing of the Dark Knight Rises and shot and killed at least 12 people, a Redditor named themurderator posted a link to a photo of what he claimed was his blood-stained T-shirt (Warning: graphic) under the title “i am one of the 50 wounded in the aurora theatre shooting. here are a few photos of my very lucky but nonethless [sic] terrifying brush with death. my thoughts go out to those less fortunate than me.”
As I write this, the post has 7,701 comments and counting, ranging from statements of support to glib jokes to political screeds. It wasn’t always like this.
In 1999, when two high school seniors went on a shooting spree in nearby Columbine, Colo., Reddit, Twitter and YouTube didn’t exist. Those desperate for updates had to keep their eyes glued to the major cable news networks.
Soon after news of the shootings began surfacing, Reddit users began contributing to a post titled “Comprehensive timeline: Aurora Massacre,” a crowd-sourced account of what happened in Aurora posted by user integ3r, who was later identified by BuzzFeed as 18-year-old Morgan Jones from the Denver area. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more complete minute-by-minute breakdown of the shooting. It includes links to news stories, tweets, YouTube videos, audio from emergency responders, statements from government officials and more.
Also included in the timeline are first-person accounts from people who say they witnessed or were near the shootings. Reading them is a strange experience. Anonymity encourages frankness, both in how users recount stories and how commenters respond to them. The problem, of course, is that these accounts are hard to verify. Granted, anybody can walk up to a news camera and fabricate a story, but there is some accountability that comes with having your face and name exposed.
Still, the pictures posted by themurderator certainly look real enough. A post titled “I was at Century 16 tonight. Here’s my experience.” recounts the experience of a user named WaterSnake, who says he was sitting in a nearby theater in the same cineplex when he was told to evacuate after smelling gas:
People were getting mad, and I thought someone just pulled the fire alarm to be a prankster and ruin everyone’s night. As we got into the main lobby, everyone started coughing. It was difficult to inhale, and it didn’t feel like regular smoke (I now know this was from the smoke bombs he set off). There were some people sprinting around me, but for the most part everyone was kind of quick walking … After some more waiting around, we saw a police officer run towards the building with a shotgun.
As to the veracity of his story, it’s impossible to tell whether or not WaterSnake is telling the truth. He admits as much, saying he could upload “some shitty photos of the place that I had texted my friend,” but “Sadly I left my ticket in the theater, or else I’d post that.”
Regardless, the post soon turns into an AMA (ask me anything) session where he answers questions like whether or not people around him panicked and whether he saw the shooter. This is what Reddit offers readers that major media organizations never can. You can’t ask a witness in a newspaper story how he felt during a disaster or offer condolences to someone you see on cable news.
Is everything you read on Reddit true? No, but as Redditors like to point out again and again, neither is everything you see on the nightly news or read in a newspaper.
Reddit won’t replace traditional media. For the time being, there is still a need for paid professionals who — with their reputations and jobs at risk if they’re caught lying — track down and interview witnesses and officials during tragedies like this one.
But no news organization or social media site currently offers an experience that’s concurrently as immediate, engaging and thorough as the one offered by Reddit. This crowd-sourced model of disseminating information is, for better or worse, now part of how we experience news of traumatic events in this country.