The cyborgs of Reddit, or ‘Redditors’, are frequently maligned in respect of the nasty undercurrent of hate and hostility that accompanies those subreddits that, by their very name, commit themselves to injustice. The recent deletion of r/KillAllJews, for instance, can have alarmed no-one who understood the Enlightenment principles upon which the right of free speech depends.
While cyber-disdain, cyber-cruelty, and indeed cyber-indignance are all amongst the moral network effects of Reddit, the same is also true of all other social networks. But unlike other online collisions between myriad anonymous cyborgs, Reddit also fosters a great many more granular communities, where positive discourse takes place and indeed loose friendships can be formed. I am reluctant to condemn Reddit unduly – not least of all out of an appreciation for where it comes from.
The direct precursor to 2005’s Reddit were the UseNet forums of the 1980s and 90s, which I participated in during my time as an undergraduate at the University of Manchester. Decentralised, self-organised, and self-governed, UseNet also had the same capacity as Reddit to support communities under any arbitrary banner (personally, I spent a lot of my time in rec.arts.startrek and rec.games.rpg). I loved it… at least until fights broke out. One of UseNets problems was that everything flowed down uninterrupted under each group – and arguments were thus often heated and hard to resolve, as often happens when you lock nerds together in the same (virtual) room.
Enter Reddit with its democratised (and thus anarchic) upvote and downvote system. With this, an organic curation of content occurs – and this in at least two ways. Popular content (whatever that happens to mean) floats to the top. Simultaneously, anything anyone finds annoying for even the most trivial and petty reasons is downvoted. I can find nothing cybervirtuous about the downvote system, which is mostly used to bully those you happen to disagree with or dislike. But the upvote system is harder to judge… It is certainly, as Andrew Marantz suggests, a feedback machine. But so is all social media except perhaps blogs. But it is also cyber-sympathetic in a way that is distinct from this element of retweeting, sharing, and liking. A Redditor who upvotes sometimes just decided that someone else deserves to be heard. I am not convinced Facebook and Twitter are as good at this – there are more personal stakes entailed in choosing to place other people’s thoughts into your timeline in these spaces.
Like so much of the internet, Reddit brings out both the best and the worst in its cyborgs. But in that it can and does sustain granular communities, it seems to me that something is happening here that does not happen on, say, Facebook, which is flat and vast. If there is still infinite room for improvement on Reddit, it should also be accepted that in some respects, it is doing better at holding communities together than many rival social networks.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #18