Why the Internet’s Amateur Detectives Love True Crime

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If you haven’t yet watched Making a Murderer, the ten-part Netflix documentary that examines in detail the muddy and possibly fabricated murder case against Steven Avery, a notoriously wrongly imprisoned Wisconsin man, you’ve probably seen one of the many blog posts written about the series. Or maybe you’ve come across a heated discussion on Facebook about Avery’s guilt or innocence. Or maybe you’ve glanced at one of the many Reddit threads devoted to untangling some of the trial’s more complicated pieces of evidence. Or maybe you just know about it because the parody account devoted to Avery’s defense lawyers was retweeted into your feed.

The internet has taken to Making a Murderer just as it took to the This American Life podcast Serial and HBO’s documentary The Jinx. True crime, as a genre of nonfiction, is booming, and it’s thanks in part to an obsessive web culture essentially built to consume, discuss, debate, theorize, and riff on serialized narratives. But if the internet’s culture machine is perfect for prestige television and genre-film franchises, it’s less sure-footed when it comes to real-life stories of tragedy and injustice, and the sudden boom in Making a Murderer memes and theories has been a curious — and somewhat discomfiting — development.

You could trace the development of How We Talk About TV Online back as far as Star Trek, and likely farther, but the key product of the last two decades, as far as setting the tone for internet discussion, is Lost. That show, with its vague weekly hints and seasons-long mysteries, gave rise to a rabid pop culture obsessed with cracking the case, so to speak. As critic Andy Greenwald explained in his retrospective last year, Lost “arrived at a moment when Wikipedia-size wormholes were available to every viewer, when fan engagement migrated from the fringes to the very center of mainstream conversation.”

Lost was a show built for a growing class of digital-native pop-culture fans, comfortable with scrubbing through video slowly and repeatedly, and compiling databases of clues and theories, doing research away from the TV set. Audiences mined every image, character, and line of dialogue for clues, many of which never went anywhere.

That constant and ever-present conversation, barreling toward some unknown conclusion, has permeated the way that we digest popular culture online, and somewhere along the way, Theories became the main unit of discussion when fans talked about all entertainment, not just science fiction. Don Draper is D.B. Cooper, Megan Draper is Sharon Tate, and Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord. “What happened on the final episode of The Sopranos?” wasn’t just a five-minute watercooler speculation — it was also a mystery to be theorized, debated, and, over the objections of series creator David Chase, solved.

And in the past year or so, this once-obsessive, now-normal type of fandom has expanded to the genre of true crime, in ways that are entirely understandable and, upon closer scrutiny, pretty weird. This all obviously starts with and branches out from Serial, a legitimate cultural phenomenon that inspired thousands of amateur sleuths to investigate the murder of Hae Min Lee, for which Adnan Syed was convicted in 2000. It now includes critical and cultural darlings like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, both of which have feverishly attended subreddits devoted to their respective cases, and will also likely include upcoming bandwagon-hoppers like Discovery’s Killing Fields.

To the extent that the amateur-detective attitude is the internet’s dominant mode of cultural consumption, the only surprising thing about the sudden ascendancy of true-crime nonfiction is how long it took. The key innovation was probably the thing that gives Serial its title. The serialized narrative, riddled with gaps in which speculation and discussion can flourish, is the dominant cultural form of the social media era. A true-crime documentary that can be presented in the same terms as a fiction TV show — a gripping whodunit whose chapters end in cliff-hangers — will activate the same regions of internet obsession.

This is obviously intentional on the part of Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, Making a Murderer’s filmmakers — the ten-episode show could easily have been a two-hour documentary aired, and likely quickly forgotten, on HBO — and, as far as tactics go, it’s hard to argue against it. The series was obviously made to call attention to Avery and his nephew’s convictions, and it’s succeeded at that. Making the public more aware of the myriad failures of the criminal-justice system, and of unsolved mysteries or questionable convictions, is an unambiguously good thing.

The question is whether this particular kind of attention is the good kind. The internet’s aggressive need to solve and theorize isn’t limited to TV, after all, and while it can be harnessed for good results — as in the case of a John Doe positively identified 20 years after his death — the crowdsourced amateur investigation tends to misidentify and wrongfully accuse, often with tragic results. It’s one thing to use the resources of the web to expand your knowledge of the case or fact-check the documentarians. It’s another to treat the people involved like characters you can ship on Tumblr. Proposing Teresa Halbach’s ex-boyfriend as a suspect is the kind of message-board speculation that seems natural in the context of the long wait between seasons of a hot TV show. But Ryan Hillegas is a real, living human being, and accusing him of murder on evidence much less convincing than that which convicted Avery can’t possibly be the best way to address the wrongs documented in Making a Murderer.

The trending-topic single-mindedness of social media and the desperate need of publishers to adopt the vernacular of internet fandom to gain traction with audiences only exacerbate the slippage between real crime and fiction. And there are other obvious by-products of this flavor of obsession: Best Buy mistakenly tried to use its status as a crucial setting in the Serial investigation as a real-time marketing opportunity. When the New York Times sent a news update about Robert Durst’s apparent murder confession in the final episode of The Jinx, people complained of spoilers.

Making a Murderer has been subject to some of the same kinds of awkwardness: On Sunday, actress Kristen Bell tweeted a cutesy romantic image of Avery’s defense attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, whose spirited defense of Avery has received a huge amount of deserved admiration and respect. There’s a Twitter account devoted to Strang. Others have limited themselves to spending a good five seconds crafting the obvious joke.

It’s not that people are oblivious to the realities of true crime. When Best Buy sent that ill-advised tweet — “We have everything you need. Unless you need a payphone. #Serial” — the outcry was enough to force a public apology. Slate argued that the particular anger at Best Buy — and not at, say, Sesame Street, which produced its own jokey Serial tweet — was a result of the electronics store trying to financially profit off of a brutal crime.

But just because Serial or Making a Murderer adopt some of the same tactics as fiction TV shows we love doesn’t mean they need to be treated in the same way. If Making a Murderer were a several-thousand-word magazine article — and it’s not difficult to imagine it as one — it would be regarded as an excellent piece of advocacy journalism about the horrific state of the criminal-justice system, not as a mystery to be debated or definitively solved through crowdsourced amateur sleuthing.

And certainly not as a resource for memes or riffs. There are lots of unknowns surrounding that first season of Serial, but there are also many indisputable facts, chief among them that a teenager was violently murdered, her body left in a Baltimore park undiscovered for nearly a month. That fact is now never far from my mind when I see things like this graphic that BuzzFeed made for one of its Serial posts:

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That’s … fuckin’ weird, right? To see a doge meme that reminds you of a strangled teenager? I don’t think anyone created it out of cruelty, and arguably, the meme is actually “about” the obsession, not the murder itself. But the juxtaposition of actual tragedy with the glib, mechanical vernacular of internet culture just serves as another reminder of how ill-equipped the latter is to deal with the former.