Reddit: it’s about time we talked about it
A critical analysis of the political, economic, cultural and social impact of “the front page of the internet”
Despite the rise in popularity of sites bringing in the “new media” and web 2.0, Reddit had its’ layout, format and goals entrenched in the early programs of the web.
Reddit has transformed its users opportunity and means of political engagement, the vertical integration of media style of traditional media, has given birth to the closest approximation yet to the cyber utopia envisaged by early technological optimists, whilst also betraying social trends that have carried over into it. Indeed, it will be each of these areas which I will unpack in this article.
Talking History: Reddit’s own history and its role in the story of participatory culture
First, lets situate Reddit’s creation historically. Reddit is part of the participatory culture movement which embodies a holding in tension of “a naïve altruism and optimism regarding the communities with which they engage but may remain intensely distrustful of larger institutions” (Massanari, 2015). This meant that the platform was born out of cynicism of mainstream media corporations and media producers which were founded in a “one to many” ideology.
Participatory culture has been all about interactivity and engagement with “produsage” becoming a key defining term of Web 2.0 platforms. Produsage being both users and consumers of the platforms creating the content which constitute it.
Reddit is a bridge between early internet programs and web 2.0. It draws strongly on the format and styles of earlier internet sites and programs yet holds strong to characteristics of interconnectivity, sharing, participation and convergence that characterise web 2.0.
“Reddit does post content from traditional news organisations, but much of the activity revolves around the sharing of original/remixed content such as memes (/r/AdviceAnimals, /r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu, /r/lolcats), pictures of animals (/r/aww, /r/babyelephantgifs), solicitations for advice or information (/r/AskReddit, /r/askscience, /r/explainlikeimfive, /r/IAmA, etc.), or niche interests (/r/PenmanshipPorn, /r/hihopheads, /r/bicycling, /r/Make-upAddiction) in both public and private subreddits” (Massanari, 2017, p. 3).
Talking Economy: is Reddit subverting vertical integration?
Old media has had the power to define and shape the news and what gets air time. Due to major broadcasters and press working off corporate models, paying for air time and print space has been a strong driving factor in media revenue. Not only this, but with the exception of public broadcasters, producing content that sells was the main goal rather than valuable, educational and civic structured material was central to their business model.
Most web 2.0 services have had significant continuity in this model with the majority of their revenue coming from advertisements. And with the introduction of cookies and other data harvesting technologies, the rise of targeted advertising has tapped into a whole new level of market breakthrough that has been unprecedented.
Reddit is not too dissimilar. With an opportunity to understand in depth what a users interests are through the subreddits they subscribe too, advertising space on these subreddits can be very targeted and therefore hopefully more productive for advertisers. These spaces are auctioned off and generally increase in value based on numbers of subscribers as well as general interest in that space.
Where Reddit stands apart is that it hands power to its users in deciding what is newsworthy, what is valuable (based on ratio of upvotes and downvotes combined with recentness) as opposed to being forced to stick to a specific editorials prescriptions. The content that is on Reddit is mostly self-produced and can even lead to informing old media platforms of what is newsworthy as seen below when Yes Theory (a group of youtubers) created a fake piece of news about Justin Bieber and made it go viral via Reddit before spreading elsewhere:
Fake news created on Reddit gets broadcast on Old Media from YouTube by Yes Theory licensed under all rights reserved.
However, it is not only news that draws traffic to Reddit making it an attractive space to advertise, nor does Reddit solely make value judgements on news content. Another example is meme valuation.
Subreddit /r/MemeEconomy is dedicated to the curation and valuation of memes. This points to a newfound source of value that may not be tangibly monetary (Literat & van der Berg, 2017). Instead, it would seem that new and possibly greater weight is being placed on social and entertainment value as people are willing to spend increasing amounts of time and energy on projects and platforms which seem to bring them no financial returns.
This new sense of value reflects on society and where its priorities lie. Now we’ll explore how this shift in value might be tangibly impacting society.
Talking Society: Crowdsourced journalism on Reddit
Reddit has a provided a space for a great exchange of information, entertainment and social interaction. Interestingly, because a lot of the content is original, a lot of material is being created and provided by non-experts and non-professionals and yet still achieving, at times, impressive high quality.
A powerful example of this “mob expertise” is in journalism. This adds a new competitor to the media market. The power that Reddit has brought to crowdsourced journalism is phenomenal. The magazine The Weekly Review is judged to seem completely professional on its analysis of the Syrian war by Mitchell & Lim (2018).
Mitchell & Lim argue however, that the constraints of crowdsourced journalism must be recognised. They point out that these projects are embedded in the broader power structures and influences of other power flows in tradition media and that algorithms also have a hand in prioritising and deprioritising specific narratives and facts (Mitchell & Lim, 2018).
However, this new level of engagement and accessibility has quite a profound impact on the political interactions and how politics is engaged with.
Talking Politics: Reddit’s political activism and controversies
When it comes to the internet, there tends to be two camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The initial hype of a cyber-utopia has quickly been moderated as real world conflict has shaped and impacted online spaces. However, the potential for new online political debate has been opened by the internet contrary to the pessimistic view that the online space would provide an opportunity for unfettered violence and aggression without social norms to keep them in check.
Reddit is a special space allowing for dynamic political engagement and has proven that an agonistic approach to conflict is a more productive way of approaching conflict in political discussion and reveals the transformative nature of Reddit in the political field.
“Agonistic pluralism recognizes that plurality brings conflict and that the best way to deal with such conflicts is to allow them to find political expression” (Smith, 2017, pp. 99-100).
This view seems to be held in tension between deliberative democracy and ultra-politics.
Deliberative democracy promotes that politics involves rational decision making which, so far as people are willing to engage in rational discussion, can lead to a consensus. It would seem that this is what the cyber utopians envisaged.
The dystopians on the other hand fall into the camp of ultra-politics. Ultra-politics is politics in combat mode. It sees dissenters as the enemy, unable to engage with or debate as they are already set in their ways and are merely to be destroyed.
Reddit provides for agonistic pluralism in that, although there are fears around echo chambers forming isolating people in supportive bubbles that filter out conflicting worldviews, although the opportunity move in smaller subreddits that are very tailored to personal interests and dispositions the far broader subreddits such as r/politics (3 million subscribers) are the ones with greatest engagement and subscribers (Smith, 2017). This speaks to people’s interests in engaging in topics that produce conflict but are of high interest.
This raises political questions regarding the contrast between democratic means of upvoting and downvoting content to gain exposure versus the autocratic means of censorship and rule setting. But we’ll discuss this through a cultural lens.
Talking Culture: is Reddit’s culture toxic or is there just toxic criticism?
It may be a difficult argument to propose that Reddit is a single culture. However, that is the approach that Massanari takes in his work. He points to a misogynistic and dark side of the white, male, nerds that he proposes mainly populate Reddit.
Massanari is highly critical of the structure of Reddit as a contributing factor to the emergence of such a toxic culture. He references subreddits (if you don’t know what a subreddit is, find out here) including Gamergate and the fappening. In these examples, the dark side of the platform was grossly exposed.
Reddit provides a lot of power to a small group of people called moderators. They are generally the founding members of subreddits and are allowed to delete posts or curate the page in order to suit their interests.
This is often explained under the guise of maintaining a high standard of quality of posts. However, it has drawn criticism from various sources who approach reddit from a feminist critical lens.
The argument goes that despite the “democratic” means of upvoting and downvoting content conflicts with having moderators to curate content leads to a perpetuation power structures from the non-digital world. A clear example of the male oriented nature of Reddit culture is the Not Safe For Work (NSFW) content.
NSFW content can be either:
- graphic medical content or explicit descriptions of bodily functions
- sexual content
The sexual content is practically all pitched towards a male audience, objectifying women by reducing them to images or referring to them in ways which belittle, possess and deny them agency. /r/gentlemanboners is meant to be a classier version of the “male gaze” which Massanari argues permeates Reddit’s culture.
Nevertheless, there are also incredible examples of humanitarian aid, charity and genuine wholesomeness across different subreddits. There may be value in suspending damning judgement and redefining Reddit’s culture as a culture of many cultures.
Summary: Reddit the underestimated overachiever
Reddit has been an incredibly transformative social news sharing service. Not only has it crossed an important bridge between the internet’s historical roots and a movement towards the future, but it has gone on to have influence in the media market, politics and our very social interactions. What needs to be highlighted is that this technology has had a mixed bag of positive and negative aspects which mirrors our human experience of the world. Maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising given that a new space does not mean new creatures.
Reddit and charity: most active particpants on the internet??
Accessed 19/10/2018 https://www.dailydot.com/society/reddit-charity-alexis-ohanian-list/
Mitchell, S. & Lim, M. (2018). Too Crowded for Crowdsourced Journalism: Reddit, Portability, and Citizen Participation in the Syrian Crisis. Canadian Journal of Communication, 43, 399 – 419.
Nadler, A. (2016). Popularizing News 2.0 in Making the News Popular: Mobilizing News Audiences, University of Illinios Press, p119-147. 7
Jurgens, P. & Stark, B. (2017). The Power of Default on Reddit: A General Model the Influence of Information Intermediaries. Policy & Internet, 9(4) 395-419.
Smith, T. G. 2017. Politicizing Digital Space: Theory, The Internet, and Renewing Democracy. Pp. 99–121. London: University of Westminster Press. DOI: https:// doi.org/10.16997/book5.e. License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Kienzle, J. (2016). The Technological Factors of Reddit: Communication and Identity on Relational Networks. Communication Studies, Theses, Dissertation, and Student Research. Department of Communication Studies. University of Nebraska – Lincoln. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/commstuddiss/38/ accessed 20/10/2018
Adrienne L. Massanari Participatory Culture, Community, and Play—Learning from Reddit. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2015. 215 pp.
Literat, I. & van den Berg, S. (2017). Buy memes low, sell memes high: vernacular criticism and collective negotiations of value on Reddit’s MemeEconomy, Information, Communication & Society, 22(2), 232-249. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1366540