The Reddit enigma
Good vs evil: what makes Reddit tick?
What motivates anyone to buy a Christmas present for a complete stranger? I’m not sure, other than a streak of innate human kindness, and that isn’t something I’m often accused of. Yet, there I was, with more than 100,000 others, exchanging presents as part of the Reddit Christmas Gift Exchange 2017 – more out of curiosity than anything else.
I’m paired with a young woman from Nottingham, who shall remain nameless for soon to be obvious reasons. “I’m a little bit wacky, little bit weird. Surprise me. Go mental,” the information shared with me in her Q&A reveals, before adding: “Don’t look through my Reddit history. It’s embarrassing.”
Well, that’s a red rag to a bull. And it doesn’t take long to find what I’m guessing is the embarrassing stuff. Candid revelations about sex on a balcony with a boyfriend, and more disturbing posts about suicide bids as a teenager and abusive partners. What makes anyone want to put this stuff out there, least of all to practically signpost it to someone who now has their full name and home address?
And that’s Reddit in a nutshell: a living online museum of all human life. At its best, it’s a gathering of people so infused with goodwill, they’re prepared to send gifts to random strangers, spend hours colourising old photos of other members’ dead relatives or even talk others out of taking their own life.
However, there’s also a darker, seedier side. Not my giftee’s frank confessions, but entire subreddits (se e Reddit lingo boxout) devoted to sharing pornographic videos where the actor’s face is convincingly replaced with that of a celebrity, or “jailbait” photos of underage females. Both only removed after media firestorms.
“We stand for free speech,” said the former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong. “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.”
Is Reddit any better or worse than the sum of its millions of parts – that is, us?
A random snapshot
Reddit is perhaps the most eclectic site on the entire internet. So it’s fitting that the fifth link in from the top left of the website is labelled RANDOM: clicking it will plunge you into one of the 1.2 million subreddits on the site.
I click on the button and these are the first three subreddits to appear. The first is /r/BeforeNAfterAdoption, “a place to share the amazing difference a loving family can make on an abandoned or mistreated animal,” and is full of people gushing over cute animal photos. Cat pics on the internet, who’d have thunk it?
The next subreddit is more left field. Called /r/delusionalcraigslist, it’s devoted to highlighting overoptimistic sellers from the online car boot sale – the kind of people who attempt to sell ten-year-old beds for $5,000. It’s niche, certainly, but with 40,000-odd subscribers and a regular stream of new posts, there is no shortage of people willing to shame sellers of used false teeth (bids start at $15) or heavily soiled mattresses ($70, no timewasters).
The third is borderline disturbing. /r/RegularRevenge is a subreddit devoted to ostensibly real-life anecdotes with a “form of revenge or karma in them”. Over 20,000 “revenge enthusiasts” subscribe to this litany of tales about shooting farmers’ cows or threatening childhood bullies. Most of it stays just the right side of the moral line, but it’s a strange old world where people actively seek out stories of revenge like Agatha Christie novels.
The problem – or plausible deniability on Reddit’s part – is that anyone can set up a subreddit once they’ve had an account for 30 days and have a sufficient quantity of “positive karma”, the site’s reward scheme for making comments and posts. Subreddits must not contain pictures of violence, gore or anything
illegal, although that didn’t stop fake celebrity porn appearing. As the site’s FAQ explains: “If the subreddit is participating in legal activities, it will stay despite your qualms about its contents, due to the diversity of Reddit’s users and the many things everyone finds offensive.”
And so I, for example, am now the moderator of a subreddit called /r/pcproreaders – created for no other reason than because I could, but you’re welcome to hop aboard. I can kick you out for no reason, nuke your comments on a whim or let as much of your offensive waffle go as I like, and
“We are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious”
as long as we fly under the site-wide mods’ radar, we’re going to be able to publish what we like. With nearly a million of these on the site, staying under the radar isn’t too tricky.
A problem with women?
You might think that explains why Reddit regularly finds itself at the centre of media storms when it’s found to be publishing stuff that’s at best unsavoury, at worst immoral. But there have been several occasions over the past decade when Reddit didn’t seem particularly keen to rid itself of unpleasant content until it was practically forced to.
In 2008, the /r/jailbait subreddit – a section devoted to provocative shots of teenagers – was voted as “subreddit of the year” in the site’s user poll, so it can hardly have escaped the attention of the site’s overworked moderators. Indeed, Reddit’s then general manager, Erik Martin, defended the continued tolerance of such content. “Personally I think they are gross,” he replied when asked on the site what he thought of jailbait and another self-explanatory subreddit called /r/picsofdeadkids. “[But] we’re a free speech site with very few exceptions (mostly personal info) and having to stomach occasional troll reddit like /r/picsofdeadkids or morally questionable reddits like jailbait are part of the price of free speech on a site like this.”
However, when jailbait became the focus of a CNN report in 2011, creating a traffic surge of 1.7 million views of the subreddit in a single day, the moderators decided to closed it down, along with other such subreddits, including /r/teengirls and /r/ niggerjailbait. So why did it take Reddit three years to act and who decided the “price of free speech” was exposure in the mainstream media?
Since then, Reddit has been involved in more controversies, many involving the exploitation of women. The /r/creepshots subreddit – a forum to post sexualised images of women without their knowledge – ended up with the moderator being outed by Gawker and Reddit’s then CEO defending the subreddit, once more on the grounds of free speech.
The /r/beatingwomen subreddit was closed in 2014, but only after moderators were discovered to be sharing users’ personal information. And /r/ TheFappening was closed after a month in September 2014, but only after naked photos of female celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton had been seen by millions of users. A similar controversy erupted earlier this year, when the /r/Deepfakes subreddit of pornographic videos that have actors’ heads convincingly superimposed on them was widely exposed in the media. Only after sites such as PornHub had banned the videos did Reddit decide to close the subreddit.
Why is Reddit so slow to act against subreddits that demean women in particular? The site declined to comment on this article.
Despite a decade of controversies, Reddit’s reputation remains largely intact. Its AMAs – short for Ask Me Anything – has little trouble pulling in big names. Barack Obama, Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough and Bill Gates are among the many well-known figures who’ve submitted themselves to an AMA grilling over the years. Indeed, Gates is now the plum draw in the Reddit Secret Santa every year, dolling out Xboxes and other great gifts to a lucky recipient.
But it’s not the big names that are the real draw on Reddit. It’s the massed ranks of redditors – over half a billion monthly users – and the vast number of topics you can discuss that brings people back. If you’ve got an interest in it, Reddit’s almost certainly got people willing to talk to you about it. There are 31,000 Honda car enthusiasts at /r/honda; more than 14,000 “nords” sharing dad jokes about the game Skyrim at /r/ skyrimdadjokes; 39,635 readers sharing their photos of and affection for red pandas at /r/redpandas. It’s hard to envisage a topic so niche that it couldn’t sustain its own subreddit. (Although /r/pcproreaders may stress-test that theory.)
And there’s no shortage of acts of generosity or compassion that are carried out on Reddit, providing a much-needed counterbalance to the more unpalatable stuff. Take the teacher who two years ago turned to Reddit because one of her students seemed to “have lost almost all motivation and joy in his life”, aside from the one thing that made him happy –playing
Counter-Strike. “I know basically nothing about it, but was wondering if you folks know of anything I could suggest to him to support this one happy thing in his life.”
Within hours she was offered a batch of equipment from accessories maker Steel Series, offered a PC pre-installed with a copy of the game to help her play along with the student, and she was flooded with suggestions for eSports communities he could join to bring him out of his
“That’s the enigma of Reddit. Funny, cruel, kind, abusive – it has all facets of
bubble. “I’m completely overwhelmed (mostly in a good way!) by the support and suggestions, and have a lot of thinking and casual chatting to do,” she wrote later.
Then there are the subreddits created specifically to reach out to people in need, such as /r/ SuicideWatch. It acts as a tightly moderated online support system for people considering taking their own life, perhaps providing someone to talk to where none exists in real life. The subreddit is necessarily very strict on the kind of comments it permits: no “tough love”, no pro-suicide posts, no religious proselytising. And if visitors are uncomfortable posting publicly, even behind the easy-to-maintain veil of Reddit anonymity, they can privately message the moderators. “We will be glad to talk with you privately, or help in any other way that we can,” the subreddit’s guidelines read.
Is such help effective? It’s impossible to tell, but the number of threads in which the original “suicidal” poster is still engaged in conversation with people days after they first posted is encouraging.
At the opposite end of the scale, it’s the humour of the commenters – and crucially a system that floats the most highly voted comments to the top of the pile – that keeps people addicted to Reddit. “TIL [today I learned] two babies were switched at birth, one family was rich and the other poor, the rich couple’s biological baby became a truck driver and the poor couple’s biological baby became a CEO of a company,” read one recent post on the site.
“So, picking your parents is really the most important decision you can make,” replied one commenter.
“I literally just picked the first mom that showed me her boob,” replied another in the same thread.
“Exact same strategy I did when I choose my first girlfriend,” added a third commenter.
That’s the enigma of Reddit. Funny, cruel, kind, abusive – it has all facets of human behaviour, largely because it has more than a decent sample of the population among its active userbase. Reddit’s an online mirror of the very best and the very worst of us.
Could it do more to disguise the dark side of human behaviour? Certainly. But it wouldn’t be the same site if it did, either.
ABOVE Reddit captures the ups and downs of human nature like no other site – it can be funny, kind, cruel and abusive
ABOVE One of our five best subreddits ( see opposite), /r/dataisbeautiful is a celebration of graphs, charts and infographics BELOW Over the past few Reddit Secret Santas, Bill Gates has dolled out Xboxes, cookery books – and a toy cow
LEFT Reddit can also be altruistic – more than 100,000 users exchanged Christmas gifts with complete strangers last year