Internet Deepdives: reddit

By Marcus Yeatman-Crouch

Reddit is a social media platform that tends to hang around the fringes of other popular sites like Twitter or Instagram, often escaping the public eye. This is despite having 330 million active users per month – the same as Twitter – and 168 billion page views in 2018 alone. While it is gaining popularity, reddit is often considered a bit of a niche for certain internet users, even though the platform revolves around user generated content and discussion. Aptly named subreddits serve as community hubs for an incredibly diverse range of topics and interests; from sports and photography to the stock market and surreal memes, one could logically join a subreddit to talk about anything. But why is it that reddit finds itself on the periphery of popular social media? Do the controversies that come with a platform allowing users to congregate around even the most profane subjects set it apart from the more regulated sites like Twitter or Facebook? 

It’s true that, with reddit allowing users to create their own subreddits, there is far more freedom for people to find communities centred around controversial, dangerous, and illegal topics. There are plenty of examples. r/imgoingtohellforthis was a subreddit focused on ‘dark’ humour memes, although it strayed far from acceptable limits as it included numerous threads with memes glorifying Nazism, making light of shootings and tragedies, and encouraging racism and sexism. As a very well known subreddit it often served as a stain on reddit as a whole, painting the entire platform as a haven for bigotry. It was only in March this year that the sub was ‘quarantined’ – made invisible to search engines and unable to feature on the front pages of reddit – and subsequently shut down. The quarantining and banning of derogatory and violent subreddits like r/imgoingtohellforthis is the first step in changing opinions on reddit, encouraging outside viewers to regard it more as a platform for free discussion and enjoyment of content. Controversial subreddits do crop up, but it appears as if reddit admins are becoming more and more proactive in systematically rooting out and banning them.

While r/imgoingtohellforthis was on the extreme end of controversial content on reddit, the platform finds itself in a more difficult position when it comes to political subreddits. Especially with the polarising nature of politics and the global interest in the American government, there is constant controversy as subreddits pop up and grow popular with both sides of the Republican/Democrat debate. Most subreddits intend to keep threads focused on discourse, with ones like r/politics, r/libertarianism, and r/communism containing strict rules aimed at preventing trolling, off-topic inflammatory conversation, and misinformation. 

Conversely, the infamous subreddit r/The_Donald – focused on users creating discussions and memes supporting Donald Trump – was banned recently after multiple years of harassment, targeted attacks, and frequent racist, misogynistic, and antisemitic conspiracies. Reddit has a clear policy against these ‘hate subreddits’, and r/The_Donald was one of hundreds that were wiped out in a ban wave a few months ago. The bans were aimed at stamping out hateful communities on the platform, whose purposes had veered away from any sort of real debate and now only featured harassment and aggression towards others. By removing hate subreddits and forcing their users out of the platform, reddit may become more normalised as a centre for multi-faceted political debate, while maintaining a strong stance that prevents hateful rhetoric. Nonetheless, any visit to parts of reddit dealing with politics should be made with a degree of caution. The very nature of the platform means that all threads are user-created, and all comments are made without initial moderation; contrary opinions will be encountered everywhere, and it is up to the moderators of the individual subreddits to monitor and intervene when argumentation turns to hate speech.

r/The_Donald was meant to focus on supporting Trump, but devolved into a hub for hate speech (Image Credit: Adweek)

Delving into the political side of reddit may seem somewhat intimidating, and it is usually from politics-related subreddits that most negative news of the platform comes from. It must be understood, however, that the subreddits I’ve highlighted are only a fraction of the reddit community. When looking at the most subscribed subreddits, the top 50 only have a couple that contain any form of political discourse, while most are dedicated to casual topics and hobbies like r/gaming, r/mildlyinteresting, or r/science. If you are a user who does not want to get involved in political discussion or even see it on your screen, you are easily able to curate your own feed of subreddits featuring new and popular threads that you are interested in. The benefits of reddit’s unique system, where content is added by the users, creates an intimate network of helpful information sharing where misinformation is quickly quashed and the real discussion – users coming together around a shared interest – can happen with minimal moderation. Verified news, leaks, and facts will find their way to the front page and earn upvotes as other users check sources and confirm that the primary information is true, and a level of trust is built up in the community. For instance, the subreddit r/soccer features constant updates on global football, and users will post news and gossip as it comes out, backed up by reputable sources that the rest of the users on the subreddit know and trust. Similarly, more official subreddits like r/PS4 have strict rules when it comes to classifying information as ‘news’, thus preventing fake or satirical pieces from making their way to the front page and being taken as literal by other users. 

As well as providing engaging discussion and news, many subreddits do not even need to encourage activity in their comments. So many subs such as r/pics, r/art, and r/aww, are dedicated to images, allowing a user to browse threads with nice artwork and cute animals without any need to enter discussion with other users. The variety of content available on reddit is what sets it apart from Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, as you can easily get a mix of deep discussion and switched-off picture scrolling all on your own custom feed.

It’s clear that reddit still has a way to go if it wants to be seen in the same vein as Twitter or Facebook. I can say from personal experience that the platform has a lot of advantages, and the ability to make my own feed with subreddits I have interest in allows me to circumvent much of the controversy reddit seems to be known for. I use reddit for discussion, news, and discovery, and the user-generated threads provide a wealth of up-to-date sources and information that are far better than sifting through the tabloids or waiting on a specific news outlet. I urge anyone who has been reluctant to explore reddit to give it a go – find the subreddits that appeal to your interests, get involved in discussion, and discover the real community the platform offers. Reddit is a massive platform that caters to anyone’s interests, and with the hateful subreddits progressively sinking into obscurity, now could be the best time to try it out and be a positive addition to the community.