Wednesday, June 27, 2012

TIL: The Pentagon Is Building a Reddit Knockoff


For years, the military has struggled over what to do about social media. One response has been to create dull, Pentagon-controlled versions of popular websites Facebook and YouTube. Now the Pentagon is preparing to launch its own version of Reddit, in another small step in the military’s quest to strip the fun out of everything on the internet.

It’s called Eureka, and it’s supposed to be a rough analogue to the ginormous social news site where users vote on which content rises to the top — or which content falls to the bottom — of user-generated feeds. (Disclosure: Wired and Reddit are both owned by Advance Publications.) Though Eureka looks to be a much more restricted and focused variant. Instead of choosing to upvote or downvote, well, anything that’s not blatantly illegal, troops will vote on “ideas,” according to Lauren Biron of Defense News.

What kind of ideas rise to the top? Those that improve training, or solve the “problems that plague the military and hamper efficiency,” Biron reports.

“Seems like a perfect fit!” writes Reddit general manager Erik Martin in an e-mail. “The Reddit format and the military both love acronyms. I can actually imagine a decent military version of TIL (Today I Learned), IAMA (Ask Me Anything), and ELIF (Explain It Like I’m Five), but the military version of MLP (My Little Pony) gives me nightmares. I do have high hopes for RAOMRE (Random Acts of MRE),” he added.

Eureka will also be firewalled, which means you probably can’t get in, unless you’re in either a member of the reserve or active-duty military, a civilian defense worker, in the National Guard or are an eligible contractor. Same goes for the rest of milSuite: the set of Pentagon social media sites like its Facebook and YouTube variants. And milWiki, the Pentagon’s version of Wikipedia.

MilSuite also includes a news blog, and resources for storing knowledge “that might be lost during the drawdown of troops and eventual exodus of leadership.” The same thinking is going into Eureka, as upvoted Eureka posts work their way (in theory) into updated field manuals.

Think more of a teaching tool and resource database than an object of troops’ leisure time. Every upload to MilTube, formally known as TroopTube, is screened. The last time Danger Room checked in on it, the selection was ruthlessly tame. Brutal battlefield video uploaded by soldiers to YouTube and its shock-site counterpart, LiveLeak, are not allowed.

“It could be powerful if done right, but getting the critical mass of active engagement necessary to make something like this work is tough,” writes Martin. “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.”

But on the other hand, Eureka doesn’t sound that much different from Reddit’s unofficial military forums.

“Many of the visitors to /r/Navy use the site to ask questions about a variety of topics that pertain to their military life and career,” writes Anthony Genovese, a former Naval Academy cadet and moderator of Reddit’s Navy subforum. Genovese says he likes the idea behind Eureka, because an official site with support from the military “can really help these people get the correct information the fastest way possible.”
The unofficial military subreddits, including unofficial forums for the Army, Marines and Air Force, also seem to be fairly well self-regulated, with various rules: no violations of OPSEC (operational security), no derogatory terms, no politics, and no gore. The subreddit for general military topics has another rule: “No posts encouraging you to lie to your recruiter.” But there’s one important difference: Almost all of the users are anonymous.

“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,” Genovese writes. “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.”

But it could be that we’re missing the point about what the military is trying to do. Instead of just providing alternatives, these services seek to steer soldiers away from non-approved sites. The Pentagon would rather troops not visit Reddit at all.

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