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Fear and loathing on Reddit

Reddit is one of the most fascinating social experiments on the internet. But it has some tough choices ahead of it if it wants to win the web. For many, Reddit is the modern day equivalent of reading the newspaper except that it’s participatory, user-generated and curated. It is responsible for reporting some of the most timely and entertaining stuff on the web and its content is increasingly driving more of the news agendas than some news outlets might like to admit.

With more than 55 million unique monthly users, it demonstrates the best, worst and weirdest things that happen when human adults and teenagers are left to their own devices.

Reddit is just as likely to provide you with up-to-the-minute details of the Boston Bombing as pictures of birds with arms.

Power to the people

Redditors like to credit Reddit as a perfect case study for anarchism in action.

Users are in charge of quality control. What hits the front page is controlled by users upvoting and downvoting the content continuously generated by its members.

Users are in turn rewarded for viral content with imaginary badges – ‘karma points’ – and those karma points can be cashed in for… nothing. Absolutely nothing. They are supposed to stand for a badge of honour.

Mostly karma points are used by volunteer moderators who lord over other users, rounding up ‘Reddit armies’ to up vote and down vote content on demand.

And while Reddit can absolutely be a source for good, it really only gives people the illusion of control.

A 100 per cent customisable news feed means hundreds of millions of people are being encouraged to hand-pick their news, and therefore hand-pick their facts.

The site is structured so you never need waste time on a sub-Reddit or item you dislike or disagree with in anyway.

The potential for manipulation is ever-present and it becomes harder to check the authenticity of content at any given time. Reddit encourages a group think mentality that can be very healthy and very dangerous.

In one corner of the web, politically-activated citizens discuss healthcare and the failings of the US government, in another users donate free-pizza to or pay the bills of other Redditors in need.

But in one of the site’s darker corners, users upload victims of domestic violence, boasting about the ways in which they abused their spouses and discuss why men need to reclaim their power from cuckolding, money-grubbing females who have systematically emasculated men over decades taking with it their pride and their power.

Freedom of speech

Image of the Reddit alien logo

Reddit: taking a stand for free speech or creating a portal for the Internet’s seedier side? (via Reddit)

Reddit refuses to take down or censor any content across the site. After Gawker outed the site’s most notorious troll “Violentacrez”, AKA Michael Brutsch, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong refused to ban “distasteful content” and criticised the site’s volunteer moderators for banning Gawker links from the site.

“We stand for free speech,” he wrote on private subReddit, ModTalk.

“This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that’s the law in the United States – because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it – but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that’s what we want to promote on our platform.

“We are clarifying that now because in the past it wasn’t clear, and (to be honest) in the past we were not completely independent and there were other pressures acting on reddit [sic]. Now it’s just reddit [sic], and we serve the community, we serve the ideals of free speech, and we hope to ultimately be a universal platform for human discourse (cat pictures are a form of discourse).”

Not long after Reddit back-pedalled and in December 2012 banned child porn from the site, but the gore porn, incest, racist and violent content remains.

Knowledge is power

I love Reddit and have spent many hours getting stuck in subReddit spirals. But for the longest time I’ve found the site impossible to crack from a participatory standpoint.

Part of the reason I find Reddit such an alienating place sometimes is because snobbery is literally hardcoded into the site’s structure.

Reddit punishes users for being ordinary.

It uses an algorithm to pre-determine the interestingness of any given post. If your post isn’t up to scratch it not only refuses to let you upload it, it bars you from the site for a period of a time.

This can last from nine minutes up to one day, more for badly behaved users who receive lots of down votes.

This in turn encourages users to down vote, attack and identify users with whom they have a problem.

The site was widely-criticised for falsely naming an Indian American student as one of the suspected Boston Bombers.

Again, after American teenager Amanda Todd committed suicide, Anonymous members went after a 32-year-old man and alleged stalker thought to be responsible for her death. The suspect was later identified as a 19-year-old.

Reactions range, but in the most extreme cases have resulted in bullying, identity theft, threats of rape and violence. Web programmer Kathy Sierra’s home address and social security number were circulated by hacker and anti-semite Andrew ‘weev’ Auernheimer, who made false statements about her being a reformed prostitute and doctored photos of her to make it appear as though she was performing sex acts, with a noose around her head, causing men to send her emails threatening to rape and kill her. Some even showed up at her door in the middle of the night.

Obviously these are some of the more extreme examples.

I’m not suggesting for a second the site be shut down due to a few isolated incidents however I do think it speaks more broadly to the problems of internet culture and if Reddit is the future of social networking, we need to think carefully about how the kinds of behaviours different forms of social-engineering work.

Reddit: Be the change you want to see in the world

On a more micro level, the social snobbery of Reddit’s ‘content popularity’ algorithm enforces social snobbery in users and while it may have initially done a lot of the leg work when it comes to quality control, it’s a huge risk to take when it comes to community building.

It’s like going to a party and being forced to wait outside for half-an-hour because they didn’t like the kind of wine you brought, only to get home to find a bunch of hate mail in your post-box threatening to kill you if you ever bring that shitty merlot to dinner ever again.

I hazard a guess that most people would just say “screw this” and go drink their metaphorical wine with friends who do appreciate them on other social networks like Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.

The site isn’t exactly easy on the eyes, either. Like something out of an early ‘90s web forum, it seems deliberately designed to keep n00bs out.

But if Reddit wants to continue to be the front-page of the internet it must find new ways to engage with less savvy users. A site-design could obviously fix this, but that comes with its own dangers.

MIT Technology Review found that site-design can make-or-break a social network. The study found a much hated site re-design caused a mass-exodus of users causing early 2000s social network Friendster to collapse.

Interestingly, Reddit has spawned a social-network of its own and the behaviours of its users differ greatly to that of Twitter.

A social network for the front page

Image of the Imgur logo

Should Reddit take a leaf out of the book it created, Imgur? (via Imgur)

Imgur is the site Redditors use to upload images to Reddit. The site has become so popular it has become a social network in and of itself.

It works the same way except unlike Reddit, which is mostly text based, Imgur is a real-time feed of images which are then up and down-voted at will.

Like Reddit, it also rewards people for strong content, but it is missing the narky “OMG that is so old I read it weeks ago” element and forges community based on common interests.

Users revel in Imgur in-jokes like blaming that bastard, Dan, for all of the internet’s ills. They try to outdo one another on GIFs, and comfort one another in times of trouble.

Sure content disappears as quickly as it is submitted but it is a thoroughly pleasant place to be.

Some canny web consultant can make a lot of money teaching Reddit how to integrate the best aspects of Imgur and minimise ‘Violentacrez’ type incidents.

For the future of the web, Reddit has some big choices ahead of it. The choices it makes over the coming years will inform how the web evolves.

About the author

Claire Porter is an award-winning journalist. Previously the tech editor of news.com.au, Claire has had her work published in some of Australia’s biggest websites and newspapers.

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Comments (1)

    Chris Bradley

    Wednesday 12 February 2014

    About the snobs. You seem to be mistaking Reddit for a social site. As far as I can see, it isn’t really about making friends. Its more for when you’re in the mood for reading about things. I rarely look at the comments.