The Front Page of the Internet: An Echo Chamber of Conflict
by Gabriel Haaker
Today’s digital society is one that is dominated by different social media platforms, allowing users to communicate with millions of others across the globe, sharing information instantly whether it be news headlines or corny jokes. These websites have ingrained themselves in our lives in a way that we could have never imagined twenty years ago. They are platforms for discussion, activism, advertising, and everything in between, and their influence continues to grow. Recently, the Standing Rock protests were organized almost entirely using social media. The previous U.S. election cycle saw information and news headlines spread faster than ever before thanks to Twitter. However, when it comes to these monolithic social media sites, some seem to have a larger “real world” effect than others. There are many things that could cause these apparent differences between platforms, whether that be the methods used to push trending content, the different posting formats, the varying tolerance for anonymity, or even the culture that the users themselves have manifested. The social media site Reddit, also known as the “Front Page of the Internet,” has become one of the largest platforms in the world but seems to suffer from structural and cultural problems more than its peers in social media.
Reddit, over the course of the last decade, has gone from a small site of users sharing memes and talking about videogames to one that, well, still shares memes and talks about videogames and a few other things but with millions more users than it did before. It’s the seventh most popular site in the world and fourth in the United States, only falling behind the likes of Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, Wikipedia, and Baidu, aka the Chinese Google (per Amazon’s Alexa Web Traffic Rankings). With more than 300 million unique users, who visit over 8 billion times per month, Reddit has become a central target for specialized firms and marketing strategists. These groups strive to push content to “the front page of the internet” and reach the computer screens of the millions of daily users. One great example is the Hydraulic Press Channel on YouTube, which went from having only a couple hundred subscribers and views to over 50,000 subscribers and more than 100 million channel views in less than a week after hitting the front page and becoming a Reddit favorite.
While Reddit obviously has some very large and impressive user base numbers, it fails to have the same perceived real-world impact as other sites, even ones that are statistically smaller such as Twitter. This is largely due to the very core of how the site functions: the format of posting content and how the site handles trending content. While Reddit and Twitter are both social media websites, they operate very differently from one another. When using Twitter, you are assigned your own profile and any content you post to the site is hosted on that profile. People can choose to follow you for your content, allowing them to easily see the content you post. “Hashtags” also serve as a way to mark your tweet with keywords, which link to others, contributing to a larger discussion. On Reddit, everything is handled differently. You have your username, but its only use is to mark your posts throughout the site. Instead of posting directly to your profile, you post to a subreddit, a community usually centered around an activity or topic where posts are curated and users can post any type of content that this specific community decides upon. There are no friends, and there are no followers. Reddit users are held together simply by a common interest in their topic of choice. While this sounds like a great way to find people with similar interests as you, many issues become apparent when communities interact with others and within themselves. Though the larger Reddit community is made of subreddits, each subreddit tends to form independent identities.
As opposed to Facebook or Twitter, where no matter how many likes or favorites you receive followers will still see your message, Reddit does not promise the same visibility. Reddit’s content is managed by a system of “upvotes” and “downvotes” that controls the visibility of a post or comment within both its individual subreddit and on the site as a whole. While this system of content management works great for its original purpose of bringing exceptional or newsworthy content to the forefront, it also has had the negative side effect of creating an echo chamber. The Reddit guidelines state that downvotes are only supposed to be used on comments or posts that do not contribute to the discussion and not posts that you simply disagree with. However, this tends to be mostly ignored. As such, in many communities, whatever opinion is held by the majority of users tends to be the only one that is seen, while dissenting opinions are downvoted and hidden towards the bottom of the page along with the trolling and useless comments. The result of all of this tends to be a community that can’t be taken very seriously, where those who conform are praised, and those who may bring new insights are shunned.
In addition to the echo chamber created by Reddit’s voting, the system can also be easily manipulated. Maria Glenski, Tim Johnston, and Tim Weninger performed a study on Reddit where they used a computer script to randomly upvote or downvote the newest post every two minutes. The results show that posts upvoted by his script had a 15% higher score on average than posts that were left alone, and an almost 40% higher score on average than posts that were initially downvoted. These early votes tend to invoke what Weninger refers to as the “herding effect”. When a post is shown to already have a positive score when someone stumbles upon it, they are much more likely to view it in a positive light and upvote it themselves. The herding effect is also working the opposite way for downvotes, casting the post in a negative light before users even view it. This leaves Reddit open to manipulation by those who wish to skew the discussion in any direction they wish, allowing them to influence which posts show up on the front page and which can be silenced. Another independent study done by the Reddit user /u/llewellynjean saw thousands of posts and comments being analyzed to conclude that most of the top comments in threads are the ones posted first. The comment viewed as best is then often simply the earliest.
While Reddit’s voting system may have worked great in order to curate its content as a smaller niche site, it fails in many regards when applied at scale. Due to these factors, it becomes clear why other sites such as Twitter and Facebook tend to have more real-world impact. Unlike Reddit, content on these platforms is not as vulnerable to manipulation or conformity with community beliefs.
Another reason that Reddit may not have carved its own hold like other social media sites is because of the culture of the site. The first and most apparent of these is the widely upheld anonymity of the site. Though users on Facebook and Twitter can and do make anonymous accounts, the majority of the users still keep their accounts tied to their real identities and interact with real-life friends. On Reddit, however, anonymity seems to be a major selling point of the interaction and, at this point, is ingrained in the site’s identity. Users will create “throwaway” accounts to post certain stories or opinions so that they can’t be traced back to their real identities, and there is even an unwritten widely accepted rule that you don’t ask anyone in real life what their username is. For what Reddit wants to accomplish this works great. Users can argue, voice their opinions, and be as brash as they want without having to worry. They can even use this anonymity to post embarrassing or incriminating stories, or even use it to whistle blow on illegal activity. However, when it comes to obtaining influence outside the sphere of the internet, this anonymity may harm Reddit more than help it. When posts are made on Twitter or Facebook, the discussion can be directed by verified individuals or news organizations. The info is almost always tied to a real person, and someone can always be held accountable for statements made. However, on Reddit, misinformation can quickly get out of control, and no one can be held responsible for their actions. According to Alyson Shontell, one such case followed the Boston Marathon bombing. In the hours following the tragic bombing, Reddit users created a subreddit called /r/FindBostonBombers to compile info in an attempt to find the suspect. After tracking social media and photos of the suspects from the news, the Reddit community had concluded that an individual named Sunil Tripathi was to blame for the attacks. Except he was innocent. In the day it took to clear Sunil Tripathi’s name, his family suffered unrelenting waves of online harassment and death threats. In the aftermath of this giant mistake, there was no one to be held accountable for these errors, except for the faceless community at /r/FindBostonBombers. In events like these, the anonymity serves to discredit the site and its potential interaction with the wider world, keeping Reddit from truly becoming a mainstay.
The last aspect that could have an effect on Reddit’s mainstream popularity is its notorious penchant for reactionary drama. Reddit as a community loves more than anything some juicy drama to watch unfold as users post their reactions and opinions. Among the all-time top posts on the site include the breaking news about the “Panama Papers” financial leak, the health hazards at the Rio Olympics, CNN being excluded from White House press briefings, and a man who was banned from Magic: The Gathering tournaments for documenting the excessive amounts of visible plumbers’ cracks. It has been shown time after time that the juiciest drama of the day will, without a doubt, be the quickest to reach the front page, whether that be a game developer making a controversial change, a United Airlines re-accommodation fiasco, or the myriad of Trump and Hillary scandals that surfaced during the election. While this doesn’t differ all that much from most forms of social media, their response to it does. The problems mentioned earlier in regards to upvotes and downvotes are only magnified in these scenarios. Instead of having thousands of people tweeting and posting about the events, you have a handful of threads with top-level comments that, while usually accurate and well written, don’t necessarily spur the same sense of urgency that several thousand people digitally screaming in unison will.
While there is no doubt that Reddit has earned its spot among the social media giants of the 21st century, it fails to having the same impact on the world around it that similar companies such as Facebook and Twitter do. Whether due to its unique content handling system or its culture, Reddit has managed to mostly only stay important to itself, instead of being able to create the same societal change as competing platforms. If Reddit wants to become a main stay in social media, then it needs to create an environment where the individual user is more important. In order to achieve this, users need to become more mainstay by being able to have their own voice separate of a community, where the visibility of their opinions is not dictated by others. Reddit certainly has the size and resources to become a major player in today’s society. It only needs to better harness the community that is available to it.
Glenski, Maria, et. al. “Random Voting Effects in Social-Digital Spaces: A Case Study of RedditPost Submissions.” Proceedings of the 26th ACM Conference on Hypertext & Social Media, 1-4 Sept. 2015, Cyprus, ACM Digital Library.
llewellynjean. Reddit. 12 April 2017, https://www.reddit.com/r/dataisbeautiful/comments/64y44g/the_ mostupvoted_comments_in_reddit_threads_arent/. Accessed 23 2017.
“Reddit For Sale: How We Bought the Top Spot For $200.” YouTube, uploaded by Point, 14 December 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxNvUWN3vYk. Accessed 23 April 2017.
“reddit: the front page of the internet.” 23 April 2017, https://www.reddit.com/r/all/top/?sort=top&t=all. Accessed 23 April 2017.
Shontell, Alyson. “What It’s Like When Reddit Wrongly Accuses Your Loved One of Murder.”Business Insider, 26 July 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/reddit-falsely-accuses-suniltripathi-of-boston-bombing-2013-7. Accessed 23 April 2017.
“The top 500 sites on the web.” Alexa Internet, Inc., 23 April 2017, http://www.alexa.com/topsites. Accessed 23 April 2017.
Gabriel Haaker wrote this analysis of the impact of social media, specifically Reddit, as a senior at the University of Cincinnati.