March 4, 2024

The Internet can be different. Try Reddit

There is a piece of herb butter resting on a flat gray stone. A mixed grill is served on a shovel. A pile of pasta arrives in a galvanized bucket. The members of We Want Plates have a simple response to these affronts: demand that restaurants serve food on plates, as God intended, not “on pieces of wood and shingles.”

We Want Plates is a community on Reddit, a collection of online forums (or “subreddits”) that describes itself as “the front page of the Internet.” There are over 100,000 active communities and We Want Plates is comparatively popular, ranking in the top 10,000 subreddits in terms of monthly comments. Other communities tackle more serious topics, from finding housing in Brighton to the side effects of antidepressants and a seemingly limitless variety of sexual desires and practices.

We Want Plates reminds me of the old Internet that I fell in love with 35 years ago. Back then, before easy-to-use images and clickable text made the web much easier to use, the dominant platform was Usenet, where text-based message boards were organized around technical and academic topics. When I spent time online, it wasn’t with people I knew in the “real world”; few of them were online in 1989. Instead, I met random strangers interested in the new field of digital photography at rec.photography.digital. or fellow students who wish to study in Africa at soc.culture.african.

Organizing communities around topics is something that has been a part of the Internet almost since its inception, but it leads to a different set of conversations than many of us are used to today. In the early 1970s, the email list was launched as a sort of proto social networking experience. While the first email list was about esoteric technical topics, the second was called “SF Lovers” and was a gathering place for people to recommend science fiction, given the surprising overlap between science fiction fans and fans. early Internet users.

Today, most online interactions work differently. Social networks like Facebook connect you with people you already know by accessing your email address book. They work to reconnect you with high school acquaintances or old coworkers, knowing that if you follow 10 real-world friends, you’ll typically still use the product—you don’t want to miss their updates or ignore their messages.

Internet users are not entirely obsessed with cryptocurrencies or pornography

This idea of ​​networking based on personal relationships acquired another dynamic with the rise of Instagram and Twitter. Facebook is a symmetrical network: if you want to be friends with someone, that person must agree to be your friend too. Both Twitter and Instagram are asymmetrical: you can follow the online happenings of famous people who would never bother to be friends with people like you.

This led to another development in the architecture of social media, in which the most important figures are now celebrities and “influencers” whose power is based on their online followers. Instead of making new discoveries based on a topic of interest or what your offline friends have found online, what we find is what celebrities want us to do. Often these people are paid to direct us to a page and we miss out on other corners of the Internet, even if they may be useful or interesting. In contrast, a surprising number of Reddit communities act as support groups for low-wage workers, people experiencing marital problems, or those struggling with addiction.

These ways of navigating the Internet (through topics, relationships, and influencers) have always coexisted. Even in the early days, people maintained relationships in the real world using digital tools. But the current dominance of networks organized around celebrities or our existing social relationships has given rise to legitimate concerns, whether about the erosion of democracy due to misinformation spread by friends and family, or the promotion of a body image. unrealistic from beauty influencers. Today’s Internet gives us the opportunity to look back to an earlier and perhaps more fortuitous time.

There’s another reason to pay attention to Reddit. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, most decisions about what content is allowed and what will be most visible are made by volunteer moderators, not paid employees. With fewer than 1,000 employees, Reddit’s staff is fairly small for a network its size, but tens of thousands of volunteers provide the work that keeps the site running.

Moderators have written about their decision to provide thousands of hours of free work for Reddit explaining that they literally couldn’t be paid to do it. The work of maintaining a community, deciding what content and which users stay or leave, is demanding, exhausting, often frustrating, but rewarding in the same way that tending a garden can be. The ability of users to shape the rules and how they will be enforced makes community participation satisfying in a way that using Twitter, where those decisions are made by a capricious billionaire, is not.

Reddit seems to suggest that the Internet could be managed very differently and is becoming a major focus of study for students of the digital world. Perhaps more online spaces could be autonomous. We could experiment with a variety of rules for how people interact with each other online and find those appropriate to the needs of a specific community, rather than looking for one set of rules that fits all.

But Reddit’s time as a research center may be short-lived. A network archiving project, called Pushshift, has been making copies of Reddit posts for several years. This is invaluable to those who want to study the site, but it has also become a key input to the big language models, the artificial intelligence systems that have attracted so much attention recently. The countless topics discussed on Reddit serve as fodder for these systems, training the AI ​​to talk about anything from deep-sea fishing to bizarrely presented restaurant food.

Steve Huffman, CEO of Reddit, has announced that he does not want his site’s work used without compensation to train AI. As a result, Pushshift has (at the time of writing) been cut off from access, and it’s unclear if what amounts to virtually the entirety of Reddit will still be available as a resource.

It would be a shame to lose it. My media research lab built a tool called Redditmap around Reddit’s copy of Pushshift (you can find it at redditmap.social). Our goal was to make it easier for both researchers and casual browsers to discover the richness and variety of the site’s content. Our tool clusters subreddits based on “co-comment” patterns, which means we can see that WeWantPlates users aren’t people interested in funny photos so much as they are food lovers: they also frequently comment on cooking-focused subreddits. homemade. We believe we can use our tool to study how different subcommunities talk about social issues. For example, dozens of subreddits focus on American gun culture, and by studying their overlap with other subreddits, perhaps we can learn more about the attitudes of their members.

We think it’s useful to see the wide variety of conversations people have online, whether or not they are friends with other participants. And because Pushshift allowed us to study Reddit as a whole, we have a pretty complete picture of what the platform is all about. Reddit gained widespread attention in early 2021, when denizens of r/WallStreetBets created a frenzy for “meme stocks,” shares of companies that rose based on online advertising rather than financial fundamentals. According to our map, finance and economics account for only about 2.2 percent of conversations on Reddit. Five times as many are located within geographically specific communities that are used to search for jobs and housing or to advise on local restaurants. Those communities, in turn, are small compared to the huge swath of Reddit dedicated to online or offline geeky hobbies, like woodworking or fishing.

The digital world is such a pervasive part of our everyday existence that it is difficult to answer the question, “What’s on the Internet?” The ability to view Reddit as a proxy for the many different things that people are interested in online offers the reassuring possibility that we are not completely obsessed with cryptocurrencies or pornography. It turns out that the Internet is a lot like us: it has a variety of interests and hobbies and holds wonderful surprises, if we remember to look for them.

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