There was a boy who was new to the internet and his name was Lurker. Lurker wanted to join all of the social media platforms. He first joined Facebook and made a lot of friends. Then he joined Twitter and followed lots of funny people. Next, he ran into Reddit. Now when Lurker went onto Reddit, he was confused. The whole site looked like a mess of links, posts, and arrows and a UI disaster. Lurker persisted and found a myriad of content to peruse, with many humorous comments about the content. He still did not understand the concept of “upvotes”, “karma”, and “Reddit Gold”, since there were virtually no benefits resulting from them. However, as Lurker began to comment and post new content, he constantly kept track of the number of upvotes he received. He would always compare the amount of upvotes his comment got while adjusting his comments to receive the most amount of upvotes. Eventually, Lurker started to change. He posted inside jokes that would net him a lot of upvotes while downvoting people that disagreed with his content or popular opinions on Reddit. He would try to comment “reposts” on multiple articles of content in order to increase his Reddit Karma. All he knew was that upvotes = good while downvotes = bad.
Why do 243.63 million people in the world care about Reddit upvotes, karma, and gold? First, we need to understand how the system works. The Reddit upvote / downvote system, otherwise known as imaginary internet points is basically a thumbs up or thumbs down button for a comment or content post on the website. Karma is a term used for the accumulation of all of your thumbs up or down, so the more karma you have the more thumbs up you have. Reddit Gold is a shiny gold sticker that gifted to a comment or post by another user who spends money to purchase it. The money is one of the only sources of revenue for the website (besides ad revenue, but most of the users use Adblock anyways).
When it comes down to it, there is almost no value to any of the Reddit upvotes or gold, yet the site continues to grow and people continue to do everything they can to grow their karma. One user, /uAWildSketchAppeared constantly draws funny sketch renditions of content, garnering over 2,200,000 comment upvotes in over 4 years. He also has started his own subreddits, /r/GottaSketchEmAll and /r/requestasketch where he will sketch any request, presumably for nothing except karma. Another user named /u/Unidan was one of the most popular users on the website, ranking second place overall. He was a biologist in real life who would post fun facts about animals. Unidan got into an argument about whether jackdaws could be referred to as crows (he specializes in researching crows apparently) and was ousted for using alternate accounts to downvote the opposition and upvoting his own comments.
Many users, along with AWildSketchAppeared and Unidan spend hours on trying to increase their karma but what is the reasoning behind it? Selfishness. According to Steemit, over 80% of social media posts are about the original poster. The goal with self-posting stems off of creating an envy from other social media users alike (similar to how you tell your mom to watch you do a cool dive off a diving board at the pool). The upvoting system specifically is similar to the Pavlovian experiment, as we associate getting upvotes as a reward for “doing well” with comments. The “reward” you receive is dopamine from your brain, which is the same reward you receive when you receive money, have sex, or do drugs. The gold system is just an extreme example of user envy as it literally is just a shiny sticker that screams “someone thought my comment was cool / funny / important enough to spend real money on”.
This alone is not an explanation behind upvoting similar opinions and downvoting unpopular opinions on Reddit, a phenomena known as the “hivemind”. In a study done by Popular Mechanics, they found that artificially upvoting a comment by a single score would boost its final upvote count by 25%. The opposite was not true as downvoting actually had the opposite effect, as users would upvote to counteract and balance the score. The general manager of Reddit argues that the herding encouraged by upvotes is a positive, since it has the ability to change opinions and also increase voter turnout (in terms of voting up or down vs abstaining). Once a post gets a couple of upvotes, it snowballs out of control and becomes wildly popular.
Companies are actually trying to take advantage of this by creating advertisements, viral videos, or just Reddit threads promoting their new product. The most classic example is an AMA, otherwise known as an Ask me Anything. Actors and bands promoting their new movie or album will answer questions asked by the users as a way of promoting their new material. However, this must be done with caution as the Hivemind is very picky, as they ripped up Morgan Freeman’s AMA since it was done by a PR person. The more sly way of promoting products on Reddit is to reach the front page with a viral video. Many companies today are trying to come up with content that the majority of Reddit users would upvote. If enough users upvote a silly company video, the snowball effect would take over and it would be seen all over Reddit.
An imaginary point system is dumb, but the intricacies that result from it are fascinating. There seems to be no end to the continued growth of Reddit, so who knows, maybe one day we’ll be paying for our food with karma.