Crashing the Reddit Party
By Janet Kornblum
I’ve played a tourist in the land of Reddit a few times over the years.
I’d passed through the land of the red-and-white alien, my screen filled with links, all blue and white and deceptively simple.
I’d clicked once. Maybe twice.
But my journeys were short. I didn’t stay to explore.
All that changed this week when I decided to take a trip -- a real voyage this time. Now that I work for the Daily Dot as an editor and writer, I needed – I wanted – to dive in, explore this new world.
But you know how it is, diving in can be shocking. You just don’t know what will be there once you do. Will it be cold and turbulent? Who else will be there? Will I know what to do? Will the locals be friendly?
The only way to do it, as they say, is to do it.
I don’t always have that feeling of joining something when I explore a new site. I did, however, with Reddit. Because, as I learned, it is a real community, a real place with its own culture, its own language, its own people.
But I’m jumping ahead.
When I landed, I was once again confronted with the simplicity. I have mixed feelings about this. I love Craigslist because of its plain-Janeness.
But I also can get nostalgic thinking about my first trip to MySpace many years ago. People often complained of the chaos: the crazy colors, flashing screens, loud music. But that’s what I loved about it. It was like getting sucked into the vortex of someone's psyche. It was sensory and felt like a real destination, not just a two-dimensional image on a screen.
Reddit, at first glance, anyhow, was no MySpace. It was neat, orderly, perhaps even dry. But I will give it this: It was easy. And there is a lot to be said about easy.
I started clicking on headlines. I’m not ashamed to admit that at first I was a little confused. Where was I clicking? Why was the headline separated from the comments?
And what the hell was this karma thing? Did it have anything to do with, you know, actual karma? Was it some hipster thing?
It didn’t take long for me to understand get it: Reddit’s karma had something to do with what other people thought of what you posted. I had mixed feelings: I found it to be a useful tool for finding the really good stuff.
But I felt more iffy about the whole idea of competing for karma. Are people trying to “win” at Reddit? Are they trying to share—or just rack up points?
I get that many sites are based on our competitive nature. And I think there’s a place for it. But the idealist in me, nurtured in the pre-dawn Web era, also longs for that utopian vision of the Internet equalizing everything and people sharing information for information’s sake.
But then, I thought, who am I kidding? With so much bullshit out there, maybe a little competitive weeding is a good thing.
Back to the nuts and bolts: I noted there were other terms I would have to figure out: “upvote,” which seems obscure until it is paired with “downvote.” (Similar to the “like” button on Facebook, the obvious difference being that Facebook has yet to implement the “dislike” button.) Then there was all this slashy stuff I would have to learn. Ugh. More symbols. Just when I thought I had hashtags down.
And can we talk for a minute about the usernames? When I saw that there are no real names, my hackles went up. Anonymity can be great for people who are oppressed or just repressed. But we all know it can be a tool for the bullies and idiots of the world.
My last big journalism gig was at USA Today where bulletin boards are rife with assholes who seem to be participating in their own anti-karmic contest for the nastiest, dumbest and most off-topic comments. I used to warn the people I interviewed not to read the comments because they were so nasty and off point.
And USA Today is not an exception. Many -- maybe most -- newspapers have terrible comment boards. And most people who work there know it.
So I continued to read with a little bit of a jaundiced eye. Sure enough, there was some name-calling and juvenile comments. And there were posts that held no interest for me. The massive beehive that once lived in someone's chimney was kind of cool—but not the commentary on it.
I had a moment where I wondered who had the time to spend on a site like Reddit. Then I realized that you could ask the same question about every community -- on- and offline, frankly.
Useless drivel and silly in-jokes are the bedrocks of any community—especially online. In fact, the in-jokes that I saw on Reddit just showed me that Reddit was, in fact, a community. It felt like I was attending a party in a foreign country where I may have known the language, but didn’t know enough culture to understand the humor.
If you walk into a café or playground or office anywhere in the world, you’ll hear the same scraps of conversation dropped carelessly as crumbs. Look at Facebook where if you have enough friends, you have to scroll through all sorts of meaningless shit (I don’t care how you’re doing in your Mafia game, OK?) before you get to the stuff you really want to see, like a meaty news story or a picture of a friend’s new baby.
And headlines started grabbing my attention. Who could resist this post: I daresay I may have found the biggest asshole on Reddit? Not me.
It turned out to be a compilation of posts by this user named “trixxie” who systematically posts misogynistic drivel. I’m a proud feminist but realize the baggage the term now carries. I don’t like appearing humorless, but sometimes outrage is necessary. And trixxie’s posts were indeed, outrageous. They also seemed to prove my point about anonymity being a dangerous thing.
But then I read through the comments and saw that people were telling the poster that trixxie was merely a troll—a familiar Internet persona who thrives on negative attention. They advised the poster to stop paying attention to trixxie. Ignore him (or her, but probably him). In other words, these anonymous community members were actually being, well, supportive. And thoughtful. And maybe even nice.
I talked to Reddit general manager Erik Martin about the whole anonymity thing. In Reddit’s case, the anonymity allows people to have a voice who maybe wouldn't otherwise. And it’s the up and down voting system (the karma) that keeps them in check, he said. If newspapers did the same thing, they might actually find that their comment boards were a little more friendly. That’s something he’s told more than one news executive.
There would still be idiots commenting, but the commenting system pushes their stuff down to the bottom and “the more on-topic intelligent comments are on top,” he said.
He added that anonymity really does free people: In a lot of communities where a person’s identity is tied to their real-world identity, people are “not free to get involved they're afraid to say what they think.”
When put that way, it is hard to argue. Plus, I could see what he was talking about. Once you get past the usernames, Reddit clearly is filled with real people.
I clicked over to see what was popular -- um, I mean, what had the most karma this month. And my hard journalistic heart melted a little bit more. The top story featured a story about the injustice done to an exonerated Texas inmate who spent 18 years on death row only to face charges for not paying child support while on death row, among other indignities.
Isn’t that what community is really about? I clicked around some more. I saw a story about a guy who lost a bunch of weight – and most Redditors, as the site’s users call themselves, were supporting, rather than making fun, of him.
I still feel like as much of an alien as Reddit’s mascot. But I now get the draw. I don’t quite know the terrain. I don’t know the rules. I can’t fully navigate. But I did try voting a few times. I’ll admit it felt kind of good. So I’m going to continue learning. And maybe soon, I’ll get all the jokes.