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Netflix’s Making a Murderer: the internet loves a mystery it can’t solve

Steven Avery's mug shot.
Steven Avery's mug shot.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When the Boston Marathon bombing occurred in April 2013, the unknown became a great equalizer. News organizations, police chiefs, the FBI, people on the scene, people watching news coverage from their living rooms — no one had any idea what was going on. Then people began to check the internet.

The internet and its crevices — specifically social media platforms and forum-based websites like Reddit — become a magical place when something big happens, for better or for worse. Photos and theories are posted. Twitter brims with 140-character descriptions of the scene or event. And in the case of the Boston bombing, a Reddit forum called "Find Boston Bombers" became a go-to place on the web for aggregating, sorting, and quantifying information related to the attacks.

Within days, members of that forum were poring over hundreds of images, discussing potential culprits, and creating intricate profiles of primary suspects — just as fast as any established news organization.

But along the way, their theories and findings wreaked havoc on the family of an innocent man named Sunil Tripathi, whom redditors accused of being involved with the bombing (and who would later be found dead of suicide). The forum was also partially responsible for the New York Post's incorrect labeling of two innocent men, Salaheddin Barhoum and Yassine Zaimi, as the "bag men" behind the bombings; like Tripathi, they were suspected by members of Reddit of committing the crime.

"Overall, it was a disaster," the redditor known as "oops77" — who founded the Find Boston Bombers subreddit — told me in 2013, explaining the witch hunts and dead ends the forum created. "[The effort to find the bombers] was doomed from the start."

In the end, the only worthwhile assistance the forum may have contributed to the hunt is that it found a Facebook photo that showed suspect two, whom we'd later find out was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, fleeing the scene in his infamous backward cap. However, this was after the FBI released initial images of the alleged bombers; Reddit didn't solve anything or identify anyone.

Ultimately the forum was disbanded, and Reddit general manager Erik Martin issued an embarrassing apology, the scar of one of the most shameful moments in the site's history.

However, even though oops77's forum failed to meaningfully aid the investigation of the Boston bombing, it unintentionally provided a blueprint of sorts, a preview of human behavior in the age of social media.

Looking back at disparate news and cultural events that have occurred since the Boston bombing, including the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the launch of addictive true crime podcast Serial (about the case of Adnan Syed), and now the nationwide fascination with Netflix's true crime documentary Making a Murderer (about the case of Steven Avery), they all share one thing: an unquenchable, crowdsourced crusade to find the truth — not to mention the confidence it will be found — that's just as present as it was in the aftermath of the Boston bombing.

Unfortunately, such quests, while noble in their intentions, are accompanied by the probable outcome that their findings will be at best misleading and at worst entirely wrong.

Making a Murderer is a perfect fit for internet consumption

One of my favorite forums on Reddit right now is the one for "Making a Murderer." You can visit multiple times a day and find links to new stories about evidence, transcripts, or interviews with the lawyers involved in the Avery murder case. Someone has even compiled a detailed Google Doc outlining various topics pertinent to the case, like EDTA testing, false confessions, and victim Teresa Halbach's RAV4.

In a way, Making a Murderer runs counter to how popular television shows typically operate. There's no burning desire to watch the episodes live. (This was also the case with Serial, its predecessor in terms of recent true crime stories that have exploded in popularity.) And there's no real-time social media experience as there is with shows like Scandal or even Game of Thrones; Making a Murderer is a sprawling beast of a show that isn't easily GIFable or quotable.

Further, Making a Murderer is difficult to discuss in person. You can talk about the miscarriage of justice, the flaws of the legal system, class issues, false confessions, the conspiracy theories, questions about Halbach's brother, rebuttals against prosecutor Ken Kratz's promises of new evidence, speculation about who the real killer might be, and everything in between. People are definitely discussing the show. But you need much more than a 10-minute conversation with someone just to scratch the surface of those subjects.

Of course, just because Making a Murderer doesn't lend itself to live-tweeting and tidy watercooler breakdowns doesn't mean its fans are any less social.

Where Making a Murderer lives and breathes is on the internet — in forums like Reddit's, which allows for in-depth examinations of the smallest facets of the show and infinite space for discussion. Reddit's Making a Murderer forum has more than 50,000 subscribers and around active 1,000 readers at any given time. The top post features the jury transcripts from Avery's murder trial, and it currently has more than 400 replies.

It's a place to get lost in, a place to have the conversations that you can't quite get into in person. True crime stories like Making a Murderer and Serial often leave us in the present with open-ended conclusions; examining the show like this feels like the logical next step.

There's also a real-time aspect to the forum, and a strange sense of community. There's a thread titled, "Is it possible the real killer is here on reddit reading what people are saying about the case?" where a user has stumbled upon the greatest of conspiracy theories.

"Yes. Anything is possible. Is it possible he is posting to ask what we think about him doing that? Yes that too," the first response reads.

How the true crime genre has changed to accommodate our human thirst for closure

One of the scariest television shows of my childhood was a true crime show called Unsolved Mysteries. Running as a regular series on NBC from 1987 to 1997, Unsolved Mysteries featured the deeply creepy voice of Robert Stack, who narrated each episode. For a certain generation of viewers, Stack reading the phone book would sound just as spooky as The Babadook.

What's interesting about Unsolved Mysteries is that it treated the unknown as something you should be afraid of. And my lingering, irrational fear of Stack's voice is a testament to how terrifying that unknown can be.

But after Unsolved Mysteries, some true crime shows tweaked the format a bit, deemphasizing what we didn't know in favor of what we did. Eventually series like The First 48 and Forensic Files veered away from the unknown altogether, giving us full stories with beginnings, middles, and ends.

"[E]ach episode ends with several talking heads testifying that they never woulda solved that case without forensic science," Henry Stewart recently wrote in Brooklyn Magazine, explaining the allure of these shows. "It’s satisfying not just because of the resolution, but also because producers present that resolution as empirically sound."

But Making a Murderer agitates the idea that with enough science, everything is easily solvable. It goes against what we've been taught and the age we live in: Cases, crimes, missing planes don't go unsolved anymore. There's ambiguity and uncertainty there — questions that aren't to be feared but are rather begging to be answered. The show left us hanging, and we need the closure.

We enjoy being detectives. We posit a theory, counter it, and then come back to it again and again. We join the 50,000 other people on Reddit and pore over the details the documentary might have missed.

In its second season, Serial changed up its subject from a true crime murder and pivoted to the case of alleged Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl. The buzz surrounding the season has been nearly nonexistent, even with host Sarah Koenig performing feats like calling the Taliban (which she did in episode two).

Perhaps it's the subject: Bergdahl's alleged desertion, while riddled with questions that have yet to be answered, is politically contentious and not as juicy a tale as an unsolved (depending on how you look at it) murder.

The internet allows anyone to play detective, even if they're not qualified to do so

One of the greatest moments in internet history happened in the wake of complete tragedy. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had gone missing on March 8, 2014, somewhere between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. No one knew where it was. No one knew where it had last been seen. A crowdsourced effort to scour satellite pictures of the sea quickly materialized to help find it.

"You — the person now reading this story — can help experts solve the mystery of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370," CNN wrote about the search.

Meanwhile, there were several theories about what had happened to the plane. They covered everything from terrorists and black holes to a faked flight plan.

A week and change later, Courtney Love, the lead singer of Hole and the widow of Kurt Cobain, announced she had found the missing aircraft:

Love, bless her heart, had not actually found the plane (debris from it has since been found, but there is still no conclusive evidence as to what happened to the aircraft). And though there's something funny in the way she presented her evidence (Microsoft Paint?), she's no different from the thousands of people who joined the search for the Boston bombers or the podcast listeners who believe Serial subject Adnan Syed is innocent and have rallied online to prove as much on his behalf.

Internet users have a terrible track record when it comes to figuring out unsolved mysteries. It's difficult to think of one instance in which the internet has solved a high-profile mystery where law or government officials came up short, and it's easy to point to Flight 370 or the Boston Marathon bombings to show how wrong they can be.

But we can't help ourselves. Our need for closure, combined with the opportunity to play detective, is addictive. And part of the reason is that the internet has become a hot zone for outrage and an outlet for swift justice.

Online attempts to "find the truth" can feel a lot like mob justice

Shouting into the internet that Making a Murderer's prosecutor, Ken Kratz, is a lying jerk isn't that different from yelling at Justine Sacco for a racist joke or leaving a scathing Yelp review for the lion-killing dentist. You can't physically go to these people and tell them they're wrong, but you can talk to everyone (or no one) online, convince them you're right, and see real results.

The internet has given us a speakerphone for our convictions and our conspiracy theories. They've always existed, but the internet has given us a way to close the gap between ourselves and the people who share our beliefs. It connects like-minded people with one another. And the response to Making a Murderer is a good example of that.

But one thing that Making a Murderer does differently than Serial is present its information a way that suggests its subject, Steven Avery, is innocent — the victim of a broken justice system and a corrupt police department — which elicits a more absolute response.

"For those people, and for others close to the original case, Making a Murderer seems less like investigative journalism than like highbrow vigilante justice," Kathryn Schulz wrote in the New Yorker.

Schulz's article offers a good examination of the show and the way it's framed. But it also makes us think about the pain the victims of violent crime and their families suffer by explaining the consequences of what many believe is harmless internet speculation:

That experience is difficult enough when the coverage is local, and unimaginable when a major media production turns your story into a national pastime. "Sorry, I won’t be answering any questions because . . . TO ME ITS REAL LIFE," the younger brother of Hae Min Lee, the murder victim in "Serial," wrote on Reddit in 2014. "To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night . . . and going to court almost every day for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying, and fainting. You don’t know what we went through."

Even though there's true pain in stories like Making a Murderer, it still doesn't outweigh the public's interest in the case. The thirst for justice has brought together perfect strangers and galvanized more than 129,000 people to signed a petition to the White House asking for Avery's pardon, but has done little to connect us to the humans on the other side of that violent crime. All that might get in the way of us "helping" solve an impossible mystery.