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It was just after midnight. 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 by now has 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.