Great Moments in Reddit History: A Creative Synthesis

…and a great moment in bro-am journalism:


[For my final project in my online community journalism course, I had to investigate and document the culture of a popular social network. My choice: reddit. “The front page of the Internet.” The champagne of aggregate forums.

In order to provide the most accurate picture of what happens on the site, I turned to a veteran redditor who gave me a most colorful portrayal of where he spends all his free time.

Randall “baconronpaul” Witherspoon became engaged in a heated comment vendetta with Christian “catsrule24” on the atheism subreddit. After explaining the ins and outs of the site, he planned to go meet this catsrules24 in person to bury the hatchet.]

The video’s connections to theories, authors, and class discussions is interspersed between the lines of text and explained in the posts below. Enjoy!


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Everything is a Remix: Popular Culture Recycling on Reddit

In one of my favorite class topics, Kirby Ferguson showed us that nearly everything we consume in popular culture and media today is in some form a remix of items or ideas that have preceded it. This encompasses everything from movies (“Star Wars” = “The Searchers”) to music (modern-day ‘sampling’ and remixing proper; artists like Girl Talk) to technology (Microsoft remixing Apple’s iPod with Zune; Apple remixing itself).

Online, jokes and popular content are often packaged into viral memes that go out across the Internet in many forms: .jpegs, .gifs, videos, soundwaves, etc. Reddit is a preeminent meme farm, meaning its user community cultivates and produces memes that end up on tons of other sites via pass-it-along and buzzstream distribution.

Just some of the most popular memes that have originated from the site:

Rage Comics (FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU [F7U12] – a series of user-generated web comics that incorporate standardized MS Paint-drawn faces to demonstrate basic redditor emotions
-All of the ‘Rage Faces‘ that have come with the comics and are now largely memes on their own: troll face, forever alone, challenge accepted, me gusta, etc.

Lolcats: one of the premier and pioneer mega-memes of the Internet, featuring intentionally improper grammar to elevate the ‘cuteness’ of the kittens (Christopher ‘Moot’ also claimed LC started on his website, reddit’s sadistic older brother, 4chan.)

Advice Animals: Foul Bachelor Frog, Socially Awkward Penguin, Tumbledog, Insanity Wolf, etc.
-has now spawned dozens of unique spin-offs (or as Ferguson would call them, remixes) including Scumbag Steve, Good Guy Greg, and the collegiate major-specific advice animals like Journalism Camel or English Aardvark.

Just a sample of the many Rage Faces redditors use to create their own F7U12 comics

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WikiLeaks, a Redditor’s Best Friend

It comes as no surprise that the majority of redditors are strong advocates of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. The site has its own subreddit dedicated exclusively to news and commentary on the whistleblowing project.

In the video, Randall says in his perfect world (designed after what he’s learned from reddit), he’d “make WikiLeaks president”.

Those involved with reddit shares several core values with those involved with WikiLeaks:
-Internet savvy and computer literacy skills.
-pluralities of both sites are considered computer “geeks” and many identify as “hackers”.
-belief in freedom of thought and free access to information
-abhorrence of political, economic, and military corruption/secrecy
-more internationalist/global perspective on politics (progressive)
-many are members of Anonymous, are hackers, or are self-proclaimed anarchists
-in favor of net neutrality and TOR/online anonymity
-WikiLeaks utilizes TOR to disperse its sources’ traceability

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange shows up to Occupy London wearing the signature Anonymous mask. Anonymous is a popular subculture with a large presence and impact on both reddit and WikiLeaks.

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TOR, Reddit, and Jessi Slaughter

Because reddit does not utilize an IP-rerouter like TOR, Randall was able to look up catsrule24’s IP address and “backtrace” it.

The Cyber Police “backtracing” meme I overlayed on top of Randall’s monologue here references Jessi Slaughter (aka Jessica Leonhardt): a notorious 11-year-old viral star who was infamously interrupted while taping one of her YouTube rants by her father, Gene Leonhardt. Mr. Leonhardt began yelling at the camera (presumably at Jessi’s critics and “haters”) for bullying his daughter. He was not concerned about her (lack of) protecting her privacy and whereabouts on the Web. 4chan/Anonymous later hosted a raid on her house in retaliation because they could, legitimately, backtrace her.

Obviously the meme stands as one of the more satirical commentaries on internet privacy and anonymity, albeit with heavy connotations since Jessi was claiming to have been taken advantage of/raped by Dahvie Vanity, the lead singer of the electropop “scemo” outfit, Blood on the Dance Floor (which she later recanted). There were also numerous physical threats against her by cyberbullies on YouTube, tumblr, reddit, and 4chan. Here is a good summary and analysis of what happened and what memes were created:

As a note, it is not routine protocol to be able to “backtrace” comments from YouTube. And you certainly don’t need advanced software or a maze of servers like TOR to protect yourself from it. As social media critic Joe Manna says in the above article, even the average YouTube user is not likely to believe Leonhardt could do this.

The original video of Jessi’s meltdown and her dad’s escalation of the cyber police terror level:

Sadly the father, Gene Leonhardt, died a little over a year after this all happened–of a heart attack–in August 2011. There were reports that he had abused Jessi, punched her and gave her a bloodied lip, and that she had to be put in foster care. The case remains unsolved.

Is this an example of where poking fun on reddit, 4chan, and YouTube have gone too far? Did cyberbullying lead to uglier consequences (that will never be the same) for Jessi and her father? What role could a platform like TOR play in disguising reddit commenters’ locations? What would it mean for those like Jessi (who was actually backtraced) and her hater-bullies alike? Would it end up protecting those who better understood the Web (the trolls) and systematically make it easier to ostracize the bullied with less understanding of online culture?

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Karma Without A Cause: Reddit’s Gamification and Social Media Fatigue

In the video, Witherspoon walks us through what he calls “the point of the site”: karma. Karma is the name given to the system of upvotes and downvotes a post, link, or comment receives from other redditers. It’s a simple incentivizer and is kept as a tally on the user’s account page to encourage interaction. In the social media world, we call this “fun”; In marketing, we call it “gamification“.

Randall is exceptionally proud of his alleged 10,000 karma points in a year. “You could say I’m the 1%,” he laughs to himself.

Upvoting and Downvoting:
Randall claims upvoting is no random charity. “I take upvotes VERY, very seriously,” he says. “Because this is practically money. I’m GIVING status to people.”

In order to warrant an upvote from him, a comment must flatter his worldview. “You have to say something I agree with. It has to be something only a college-educated male white liberal atheist would say. Everything else, I’m just downvoting it. I don’t have time for it…I’m a redditor: I upvote stuff I like and I downvote everything else.”

Lovink would criticize reddit’s use of gamification because it arguably distorts civil online debate in the name of ‘fueling the flame wars’ and endorsing personal attacks or mudslinging. Once it becomes a contest to see who can gather the most support for their opinion or insult or argument, Lovink would say all productive discourse is lost and the conversation is tossed to the abyss of mindless Internet feuding. In this regard, is reddit a prime example of the YouTube-esque comment culture/immature forum sites that most Internet users are sick of having to mine through for real content and user analysis? Is it unique in that its community is largely cognizant of this but doesn’t stop doing it?

Randall admits to scrubbing his post history if he starts getting downvotes in order to protect his karma. We see he has already hatched up a plan for me (the documentarian) to film his IRL meetup with catsrule24 in order to cherry pick karma points back on the site (because r/atheism will upvote anything about an atheist yelling at a Christian).

Even at the end, when Randall is icing his head and about to upvote catsrules’ comment after he met her and became attracted to her, he ultimately downvotes it to keep consistent with his learned habits on the site. Hard to teach an old, stubborn dog new Internet tricks.

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“Holy Heteronormativity, Batman: Catsrule24 is a GIRL!”: Reddit and Gender

In the video, when I ask Randall about his dating life and his relationship with women in general, he says: “I don’t talk to women. I don’t get women, they don’t get me. Who needs ’em? I talk to guys on the Internet.” Then, he is shocked to find out catsrules24, the “guy” he was supposed to meet in the park, is actually a girl. Even after she explains it to him, he is still in denial that she’s a girl.

This is indicative of the gendered assumptions on reddit: remember, 85% of redditors are white liberal male atheists. So probably even more than that are male, when you subtract those other qualifiers.

There also exists an interesting (and often paradoxical) dynamic between the pro-feminist views of liberalism and progressivism–the mainstay political ideology on the site–and the misogyny and sexism often found in Rage Comics, forums threads, subreddit memes, etc.

Are a lot of redditors hypocrites in this regard? What would Sheryl Sandberg think? danah boyd? From the article on Sandberg and being a female executive in Silicon Valley, we see that there’s a real lack of women in the C-suites at dot-com companies. None of the members of the Facebook board are women, when more than half Facebook’s users are female. How proportional is this to the general population of a site like reddit–dominated by male thought and driven by computer geeks with tech-savvy IT and engineering skills, a traditionally masculine field?

Here is a lecture given by Sandberg at a TED function last year, on why women aren’t getting ahead in the tech world:

She has concluded her generation is not going to be the one to achieve the equal 50-50 split in the business and tech world, but she is optimistic it will occur in future generations, like those of her children, those born right after Millenials. Sandberg thinks the world will become a tangibly better place once there is more representation for women in practical and online ventures. How close are we to reaching her goal? Will male-run sites like reddit lag or lead the societal turn for online gendered integration?

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Dunbar’s Number: How Many Friends Does Randall Really Have?

In the video, Randall tells us that he has 25-30 friends on Facebook, a number within Robin Dunbar’s limit for semi-close to reasonably affiliated friends and acquaintances.

This is clearly a joke in the video, but one that follows the British anthropologist’s logic of the second innermost circle of friendship and trust. So what’s interesting is the social dissonance between:
a) Dunbar’s primatological claim that 25-30 is a large amount of the friend connections our human brains can contain, and
b) viewers laughing when Randall says that because it’s relatively such a microscopic amount of friends compared to most college users having between 800-1200.

Is Randall more accurate and honest about who his online friends are than the average UNC Facebooker, or is he just anti-social and obnoxious enough that only 25 people will say they know him on the site?

Dunbar’s “Number” is 150: the maximum number of human contacts he says our brains can hold a degree of intimacy with at one time. Leisa Reichelt claims a new “ambient intimacy” is developing in places like reddit online, where community and connection are fostered in lieu of physical intimacy because of barriers like time, space, and transportation.

Will Dunbar eventually reconfigure his model based on the changing nature of interpersonal relationships via the Internet? Are Randall and the rest of reddit actually ahead of the curve on this one? Only time will tell (and even if it does, there will still be critics towards it).

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