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Can a Military-Run Reddit Knockoff Revolutionize Military Research?

Written by on Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Mark Zuckerburg became a berjillionaire after creating Facebook. Since then, hundreds of other social media websites have popped up, each with varying degrees of success. One thing that that past two decades have made abundantly clear is that humans love social media websites. And whenever you have millions of people visiting a website, you’ve got a great opportunity to take a magnifying glass to human nature. Behavioral scientists have been going ga-ga over the research opportunities presented by social media, but it looks like the Pentagon is ready to get in on the action, too.

We already know that the top USAF scientist believes that we can use social media to predict what a society is going to do, but there’s another aspect of social media that is currently underutilized by the military: opinions.

If there’s one thing that the Internet (particularly social media) has in abundance, it’s opinions. Just go to any YouTube video and read the comments section to spot opinions that border on extremism. There’s just something about the Internet that encourages people to express their mind in the most direct and in-your-face method imaginable.

Reddit.com, a popular social media and news website, uses popular opinion as a way to share news stories. For those of you who have never been there, it works like this: A user submits content to the website, and then other readers up-vote or down-vote the content. Articles and pictures that get a lot of up-votes appear at the top of the page (the equivalent of seaside property in the digital world), while those that get a lot of down-votes vanish into digital no-man’s-land.

Well, the Pentagon wants to create a Reddit knockoff under the logic that the military can use all of the advantageous qualities of Reddit with military personnel. This new website, Eureka, will use the same user-generated content and up-vote/down-vote system. The only difference is that instead of posting funny pictures and Internet jokes, users will post ideas — or, more accurately, solutions.

Whenever the military has a problem, they typically have to throw millions of dollars at it in order to come up with a creative solution. Once Eureka is up and running, they should be able to get military personnel to help them brainstorm. The most popular ideas will get up-voted, giving the Pentagon a cheap research tool and think-tank resource.

As great as this idea is, there are a few problems with it right from the start. There are already a few other military social media sites, such as MilTube (think YouTube but replace rants from teenagers with soldiers’ cheap cialis buy digital diaries) and MilWiki (like Wikipedia, but with a focus on sharing military expertise). These sites have, at best, experienced moderate success because of how the military handles them. Rather than setting them loose and giving Internet users full access, a powerful firewall and staunch moderators keep the content precisely within the constraints of what is considered acceptable.

I understand that’s how the military works — you can’t just have somebody post content on YouTube about sensitive military information — but that’s not how the Internet works. The Internet relies on the free exchange of ideas and anonymity to thrive, and once you take these things out you’ll probably end up with a dull website.

Of course, the DoD hopes to overcome this hurdle by creating incentive programs to motivate people to visit. Will it work? Well, nobody can really say for sure, but odds are good that it will only be kinda-sorta effective. It’s probably the case that the more freedom the military gives users, the more popular Eureka will become.

Erik Martin, the general manager of Reddit, has other advice for Pentagon web designers: “For best results they should keep everything, or at the very least voting pseudo anonymous, otherwise you’ll have the same problems you have with offline politics and group dynamics. If they want to take a lesson from Reddit, they should make sure users can create their own subcommunities (subreddits) since that’s where the real innovation happens. Also, I hope they took advantage of our open source or something similar instead of paying some contractor a lot of money.”

He points to the subreddit community of /r/Navy, which has evolved to become an excellent resource for people seeking out information about a military career. It’s become a thriving online community — much like what the Pentagon would like to create — but the forum’s moderator, Anthony Genovese, is afraid that the military’s heavy-handed approach to Eureka will just end up strangling the life out of it. He writes, “People also come to /r/Navy to gripe about the chain of command, poke fun of military life, or just vent about a bad day at work. Reddit is anonymous. I imagine the Eureka project will be tied to a person’s ID number. People may be afraid of posting things on Eureka for fear of retribution.” The Pentagon really should take his advice, or the advice of other top-notch social media experts if they want Eureka to be a success.

To wrap this up, I’m going to borrow from a popular Internet joke:

-Social Media

Choose two.

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