The Red­dit enigma

Good vs evil: what makes Red­dit tick?

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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.

Big-name at­trac­tions?

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

hu­man be­hav­iour”

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

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