The Bottom Line: Crowdsourcing, Crime Serial and Critical Solutions

December 12, 2014
By Maryann Lawlor
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Compelling content invites audience participation.

Podcasts are the audio on-demand equivalent of video these days. They are a bit more portable because anyone with a smartphone or tablet can tune in and catch up on episodes—not only all the time but also wherever they want. It’s a bit difficult to watch a movie while driving, although it’s been done. Podcasts also feature one other capability that on-demand viewing does not facilitate: audience participation.

Case in point: Serial. For readers not familiar with the 12-part podcast, it is the story of Adnan Syed, a teenager who was arrested and convicted of killing his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. When Lee disappeared on January 13, 1999, they were both in high school; on June 6, 2000, Syed was sentenced to life plus 30 years for her murder. Sarah Koenig, host and executive producer of Serial, is a former reporter and was the producer of This American Life, a National Public Radio show, for more than 10 years. In other words, she’s no novice to digging for facts and presenting them in a compelling manner.

Koenig's talents as a journalist are evident in her curiosity and line of questioning. But, she could not have foreseen how this series would result in a level of audience participation—crowdsourcing, you might say—that rarely occurs. Serial is more than an entry in Wikipedia. The Facebook page has more than 100,000 likes, dozens if not hundreds of discussion groups appear on Reddit and conversations on Twitter fly furiously immediately after the latest episode is released each Thursday morning. It is the top podcast on iTunes.

But in addition to the feverish pitch the podcast has reached on social media, Koenig also has been receiving texts and emails with opinions about Syed’s case while the story continues to unfold. She weaves some of the comments she’s received into subsequent episodes, which of course causes more people to participate in the discussion, usually with a comment such as “I thought of that, too!”

Conversations not only are taking place online. Friends, family members and coworkers also are conferring about the case. Serial devotees may not openly share their indescribable addiction to the podcast—as if listening to it is like surreptitiously listening in on a party line—but once they find each other, they most willingly share their opinions.

This is an example of crowdsourcing that certainly has applications in the military and in government agencies. What if this intensity to offer perspectives and ideas was brought to solving problems such as interoperability? What if, instead of trying to untangle the acquisition process by convening committees, the toughest issues were laid out as a puzzle to solve with thousands of experienced experts invited to work on it? What if, rather than trying to balance a budget in chambers, governments enthusiastically invited businesses and agencies to the e-table and regularly shared information?

The bottom line is that the intense discussions this single podcast series has inspired among people from various backgrounds should be taking place over the tough issues that militaries and governments face every day. Although an overabundance of information can confuse the matter, it brings about enthusiasm and increases conversation, which gives birth to a dedication to finding the ground truth and a camaraderie among people with the same objective. Exploring numerous possibilities doesn’t solve every mystery. Even Koenig admits that she isn’t sure if Syed is guilty or not guilty. But addressing the persistent problems that nations face today could benefit from opening the conversation, listening to different ideas and exploring new possibilities. If nothing else, describing ongoing trials would bring them into the limelight. It’s an approach that's certainly working for Serial.

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