Early on in class this year, we talked about how we have a tendency to associate with people similar to ourselves within our online communities. When this discussion occurred, my mind immediately turned to Reddit. Reddit was founded in 2005 in Medford, Massachusetts, and describes itself as “the front page of the internet.” It is a social news aggregation and discussion website where users can upvote, downvote, comment, and discuss posts, images, videos, and links. The website is divided in to “subreddits” that unite users that are passionate about similar subjects. For example, I am passionate about my favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers. On Reddit, I can subscribe to r/GreenBayPackers, and get the latest news on the Packers from links and posts other Packers fans have posted. I can discuss the team with other fans online across the world before, during, and after the game if I choose to do so.
This format presents incredible opportunities for people to connect with others across the world with similar mindsets. If you are interested in trying to home brew a beer, but are not sure how, there are thousands of subscribers on r/homebrewing ready and willing to discuss steps, recipe ideas, what equipment they used, or anything else you would be interested to know. This format extends for thousands of different passions across the world, with everything from gardening to music to computer building, and many others. Imagine what we could learn by uniting our common knowledge (wisdom of the crowds, anyone?) on subjects like chemistry, mathematics, etc. With the enormous potential of a platform like this, I decided to look in to Reddit further and see how it has been used as a platform, and analyze the implications of such an online community, as well as analyze what some of the most popular subreddits are and what that says about our online society.
To date, Reddit’s platform has been used for a multitude of different purposes, both good and bad. One of the shining moments in Reddit history was when President Barack Obama hosted an “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) session on the site back in 2012. Reddit users from around the country were able to ask the President any question they wanted, and have the opportunity to have the President answer them directly. The President answered a multitude of questions, such as “What was the most difficult decision you had to make during this term?” and “How are you going to help small businesses in 2013 and 2014?” After the experience, the President claimed that it was “an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy.” Other notable Reddit AMA’s include Bill Gates, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and astronaut Chris Hadfield, who did a Reddit AMA while onboard the International Space Station.
Of course, on a website that is essentially run by its users (due to their control of what stories are seen or not through upvotes and downvotes), every moment in Reddit’s history has not exactly been rosy. One of the worst moments in Reddit’s history was the site’s reaction to the Boston Marathon bombing. Many users of the site took it upon themselves to aid in the manhunt for the bombers, analyzing photos that the FBI was releasing and doing whatever else they could from behind their screens to try to identify the bombers. In terms of analyzing the photos released by the FBI, one Redditor claimed “I would rather have 10,000 [Redditors] than one FBI guy.” While the wisdom of the crowds is positive and helpful in many situations, in this case Reddit’s fervor went horribly wrong. Not surprisingly, a bunch of people behind their computer screens with no experience, inside knowledge, or expertise got the wrong guy. The community falsely identified Brown University student Sunil Tripathi as the second suspect. The student had been missing since March, and the Tripathi family was subjected to days of accusations online. They were even forced to take down the Facebook page dedicated to their son’s safe return. Tripathi was later found dead. This occasion showed the dangers of anyone being able to publish anything, and the ability to have it widely distributed, unverified, at rapid speed.
The implications of this community are very clear. The ability to unite people with similar opinions and passions opens up the potential for great conversation, progression, and growth. However, the nature of the site being open to anyone, and the breadth of distribution of the posts being left fully to the democracy of users, means there is potential for inaccurate or undesirable posts to achieve widespread viewership and engagement. The wisdom of the crowds can be fantastic in terms of occasions such as educational developments, but can very quickly go very poorly, as it did during the Boston Marathon bombing.
Outside of these few notable examples, what does day to day life on Reddit look like? What are we using this platform for on a daily basis, and what does that say about our online society? To answer this question, I went to a list of the most popular subreddits in order to see what most people were looking to obtain out of the site. The most subscribed subreddits, perhaps unsurprisingly, are a mix of things that further our knowledge, and memes/pictures/entertainment that we can use to waste away some time on our computers or phones. Within the top 20 subreddits, there are subreddits such as r/funny, r/gaming, r/aww, and r/movies. However, r/todayilearned, r/worldnews, r/askscience, and r/books are all also within the top 20. I think this dispersion is a good representation of what we as a society use the internet for in general. We certainly use the internet in order to further our education, learn something new, keep up with the world, and enhance our knowledge. At the same time, we as a society also spend a lot of time playing online games, looking at funny accounts on social media, and other things online that serve little but to help pass the time. It will be interesting to see how the Reddit community will continue to evolve.