Seven years ago, an anonymous post on the Reddit Bureau of Investigation garnered a fair bit of interest. A user uploaded a picture of what vaguely resembled a garden or a lawn, with no details. A single question accompanied the photograph: where was this clicked?

The post triggered a digital chase on the online message board. While some members wrote in that they had tried to analyse the picture on websites like Foto Forensics, a few others studied its flora closely (Was it Spanish moss? Pecan? Live Oak?). After a fair bit of probing, the flora investigators came up with an answer: South Carolina.

In faraway Kottayam, Naveen Cherian eagerly watched the investigation unfold, all the while taking notes. He was hooked. The engineering graduate, who had grown up reading mystery novels like Enid Blyton’s The Five Find-Outers, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, knew he wanted to contribute more to this online world of sleuthing. So, in 2016, when the opportunity arose, he decided to become a moderator of the Reddit Bureau of Investigation, or as its members call it, the RBI.

In his cherished role Cherian, who is now a content developer in Bengaluru, has watched around 400 mysteries born and most of them die still a conundrum. But in this time, he has also seen several puzzles put together by resolute RBI members, until the complete picture was revealed. Only last year, in a thread co-moderated by Cherian, the RBI seemed to have tracked down the dead owner of a wedding ring that was picked up by a child from a parking lot in Missouri, United States, more than 20 years ago. The clue that helped crack the case was the engraving on the ring – RBI members traced the name to a marriage certificate.

“Moderators are rarely too excited or anxious about one mystery,” Cherian said. “Once we contribute to it, we move on to the next one, but, yes, once something has been solved conclusively, we are happy.”

Naveen Cherian.

Enforcer of rules

The Reddit Bureau of Investigation is one of Reddit’s 1.2 million subreddits, with 1.13 lakh members. It is a cohort of anonymous, amateur online detectives – or “crowdsourcing investigators”, as Cherian describes his ilk – who use their sleuthing skills and online investigative tools to help solve “real-world problems” like hit-and-run cases, mysteries and missing items.

Cherian’s role in this – as one of the six moderators – is to make sure that all members adhere to the subreddit’s guidelines. The ground rules are clear: all criminal matters must be handled by the police, no personal information must be revealed, and interactions must be civil. “We delete, ban or mute an errant member and remove threads that break rules,” said Cherian. “If we are not careful, Reddit will brutally shut us down.” It was a lesson re-emphasised painfully in 2013, when Reddit wrongly accused a young Indian-American of perpetrating the Boston Marathon bombings.

Indian presence on RBI is tough to gauge – Reddit declined to share information, citing user anonymity – but Cherian, 27, is positive he is the only Indian, possibly even Asian, among the moderators. “Although anonymous, we communicate with each other,” he said.

The first page of the subreddit.

But this does not mean that India has no presence on the subreddit. The country, in fact, has gained notoriety as the centre of scam calls. “Scammers pose as Internal Revenue Service officials, and we get at least two new posts on this every day on the sub,” said an exasperated Cherian. “We got so fed up with discussing the same topic over and over again that we added a sticky post titled ‘Scam calls are a thing’ – it’s the first post you will see on the sub.”

Fraudsters typically target vulnerable senior citizens, who are duped into paying $5,000 to $30,000. “Sometimes, victims ask us to identify whether they are genuine calls. They never are. The Internal Revenue Service will get in touch with a taxpayer only through post. I advise them to contact their local authority and then usually the Federal Bureau of Investigation gets involved.”

Whole new world

It was a US-based cousin who had first recommended Reddit to Cherian in 2008. A school student in Kottayam, and later Kochi, he had made peace with his dial-up connection, Orkut and Facebook. “Reddit opened up a whole new world, with subs for diverse topics like news, technology and even jokes,” he said. Unlike most consumers of the internet with fickle obsessions, he was a regular visitor to the website, although he created an account only in 2013.

When Cherian first discovered the Reddit Bureau of Investigation, it seemed perfect for someone who was perennially consumed by mysteries and puzzles. “I always wanted to do something different with my life.” Besides sleuthing, the RBI also combined his other interest: technology. “In Grade 8, I got the first prize in a competition organised by St Joseph’s Institute of Information Technology, Pune, to write C and C++ programs. I think I was the youngest person to win it.”

He followed the subreddit like any other member, until there was a call for more moderators and he, along with two others, were chosen. A training programme followed, conducted online by its creator who, Cherian says, remained anonymous throughout.

The South Carolina case.

The Reddit Bureau of Investigation is not a very large community (for comparison, the sub r/funny has more than 24 million members), but what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in spirit. At the time of writing, a post that had been up for seven hours titled “How did someone get my friend’s personal details during a flight?” had 47 comments (“Facebook” responded many). One of its most popular posts on how a “men’s help company teaches people to get away with sexually assaulting women” had 376 comments.

When they are not busy sleuthing, members form threads to discuss investigative tools of all kinds: genealogy sites, property information assessment systems, websites to look up licence plates, ways to trawl through census records. Tips like these gradually taught Cherian the art (and science) of detection. “I used Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, Gimp and other tools to colour correct pictures, get the negatives, glean information from CCTV footage and decipher inscriptions on metal objects like jewellery and licence plates,” he said. Of late, he has been focused on the subreddit’s backend operations.

One mystery he distinctly remembers is a case similar to the verdant image from South Carolina. In 2016, a photograph of a greenscape was posted on the Reddit Bureau of Investigation with few details. “Members pitched in by scanning hiking trails on Google maps. It looked like [the picture] was clicked at a wildlife park, so one member visited its website to confirm.” Fifteen hours after the question was posed, the answer was found: Oklahoma.

One of RBI’s most interesting cases.

His favourite mystery remains one in which a user purchased a book that had a romantic letter hidden between its pages. It was penned by an army soldier and the user wanted to track down the writer to return it. “We got his records from The United States Department of Veterans Affairs and found out which section of the army he belonged to and which town he lived in,” said Cherian. “Our job ended there. But later, one user posted the information on a subreddit dedicated to the town, where his grandson happened to be an active member. He personally connected the two.”

Verifying this, or any such story, on Reddit is hard because of the very nature of the forum. Attempts to track down the thread were futile and the only thread with similar details did not reflect such breathless developments that befitted a romantic mystery. “Reddit search results are not always accurate,” explained Cherian. “It’s not easy to track threads as tools have been updated several times.” For him, much of Reddit’s allure lies in its anonymity. “You can be yourself. Sometimes, I use the common account moderators use for anonymity, or else original posters tend to get vocal against specific moderators.”

Cherian survives on roughly four hours of sleep, while juggling his day job and moderator duties. He compares his work with the Bureau to going to a panchayat office and agreeing to help fill out someone’s form. “Suddenly, everyone wants you to help them out. Its voluntary work, but it’s also rewarding.” His only grouse is that a few investigations do not meet a satisfying end, through no fault of theirs. “Sometimes users say thank you and disappear without updates.”