If you are not one of the five million people who have listened to Serial, you’re missing out. Trust me.
For the uninitiated: Serial is a podcast produced by NPR that investigates the murder of an 18-year-old high school girl named Hae-Min Lee that took place in 1999. Narrated by journalist Sarah Koenig, each episode looks at a different angle or character involved in the case. Long story short, a grand jury found a 17-year-old Pakistani-American Adnan Syed -- Hae’s ex-boyfriend -- guilty of first-degree murder.
Although the subject matter of Serial is dark, the weekly podcast finished as the most downloaded podcast of 2014. There’s a lot of grey area in the prosecution’s case against Adnan and although it won’t do Adnan any good -- he has spent the last 15 years of his life in prison while staunchly maintaining his innocence -- it’s fun to play detective along with Koenig and her company of investigative journalists.
Reddit, specifically r/SerialPodcast, has provided a convenient forum for listeners to gather and share their thoughts on the case. Most importantly, r/SerialPodcast has granted fanatics with an audience for their theories as to who actually killed Hae. Some theories are flimsy at best, but there are some extremely detailed and well-thought out theories that are corroborated by evidence, as well.
The most popular alternate explanation tabs the prosecution’s key witness in the trial -- a 20-year-old named Jay Wilds -- as Hae’s real killer. The specifics are too lengthy to discuss here, but in a nutshell, Jay testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body and pointed out to police where Hae’s missing car was located. Due to a lack of physical evidence, Jay’s testimony was essentially the state’s entire case against Adnan. But due to the inconsistencies in Jay’s testimonies and a few questionable actions by Jay himself, many listeners have bought into the theory that it was actually Jay -- not Adnan -- who murdered Hae. Again, you need the context of the case by having listened to the podcast.
There’s nothing wrong with playing detective and I’ll readily admit that I’ve toyed around with the case in my mind as well. Much of the evidence in this case is open-ended and I would even contend that playing “Whodunnit?” along with Koenig is the whole point of Serial.
But as Serial reached critical mass in terms of listenership, it ventured from a niche podcast into national relevance, which tracked along the ugly costs of mass entertainment. Jay, Adnan and Hae’s tragedy became social currency, something to share with friends, not unlike a movie or TV show. As with just about everything else on the internet, the case of Hae’s murder morphed into a shareable piece of content for consumption. With that, the very real humanity of those affected was spent.
As I said above, I’m not here to break up the party, but these aren’t characters in a play or fake celebrities on a magazine -- they’re real humans. They’re humans with very real lives, who we’re using as puppets for entertainment. It’s just a story to listeners, but to those involved, it’s reliving a lucid nightmare.
It’s affecting people like Jay, who the state considers an innocent man regardless of claims laid out by anonymous listeners on Reddit. In a recent interview with the Intercept, Jay revealed that he caught a number of trespassers trying to take pictures of his house. An anonymous Reddit user also posted what they claimed to be Jay’s home address onto r/SerialPodcast, although luckily it was removed within a few hours.
It’s also affecting the family of Hae, who find themselves at the behest of fanatics interested in the victim’s family’s side of the story. In truth, their story is simple: they lost a member of their family and nothing can change that. But that point is lost on so many who pester, which drove someone who claimed to be Hae’s brother to make a post on r/SerialPodcast pleading for listeners to stop harassing him and his family. As if such a plea ever needed to be made; Hae’s family’s decision to not to speak to Koenig for the podcast was a clear sign that they didn’t want to be involved.
Attacking the fringes misconstrues the populace, which is not my intention regarding Serial listeners and r/SerialPodcast. My only beef is this: there’s a very real cost to using unconsenting humans as social currency. Enjoy Serial for what it is -- entertainment. But know to respect the people at play, because they’re unwilling actors in a tragic tale.