Lentis/Reddit: Anonymity and Social Norms

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Reddit's logo after 2017

Introduction[edit]

What is Reddit?[edit]

Reddit is the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet”. It is an online forum where all content is provided by the users, called Redditors. Redditors are characterized by only a username and content they provide. There is no requirement for the Redditor to incorporate any personal information into their content or username. Consequently, Reddit is largely a community of completely anonymous users that provide web content for each other. In recent years, Reddit has added functionality to personalize user pages and information, like linking to other social media sites.

Content on Reddit is supplied in the form of hyperlinks to external websites which may display images, text, or any general web content. Users also determine the visibility of content by voting the content either up or down. Content with more up votes shows up on the Reddit front page. Content is divided into categories, called subreddits, which are maintained by Redditors called moderators. Moderators are charged with guaranteeing that content on their subreddit is relevant and appropriate. Reddit has a content policy that apply to all users, but subreddits can create supplementary rules that are enforced within individual subreddits. As with many online communities, there are two types of Redditors, content providers, who supply the URL links for the viewing of the community, and lurkers, who may or may not have Reddit accounts, but do not typically supply content.[1]

Who uses Reddit?[edit]

Reddit is the fifth most visited site in the U.S, with over 330 million active monthly users who generate 14 billion screen views per month.[2] The United States alone accounts for 56.2% of total Reddit users. Users generally spend 11.5 minutes per visit, the 2nd highest in the top 50 pages for the U.S. Users are also predominantly Male and ages 18-24, according to a voluntary demographics survey by Alexa.com.[3] Due to the anonymity of the site, much of the user information is generated through data-driven speculation or online surveys.

Psychology[edit]

Sign-up Page for Reddit

Anonymity[edit]

One important aspect of Reddit is the anonymity of user accounts. When creating a Reddit account, the only fields used to identify a member are an email (optional) and the username. The only information collected on users is post analytics to improve site performance. Reddit never sells private information and only given to authorities when required by law or during emergencies. [4]

Anonymity online allows users to feel a sense of security and privacy between themselves and other users. Because they have a boundary of control with others, users can share opinions and feelings more openly or experiment socially without fear of social repercussions. Examples include online support groups, blogs expressing people's feelings and interests, and online communities. [5]

Anonymity also inhibits accountability of user actions. Users, colloquially called "trolls", can post false, malicious, or derogatory material without consequence.

The danger of group behavior is also present. One example is bystander apathy, where people are apathetic or skeptical of events online due to the anonymity.

Theories of Anonymity[edit]

There are two theories why online interactions might differ from face-to-face interactions: 1) the Equalization Phenomenon and 2) the Social Identity Model of Deindividualization Effects (SIDE) theory.

The Equalization Phenomenon states that computer-mediated communications (CMC) allows all members equal participation. Since the physical interaction is missing in CMC, participants' status equalize as evaluation anxiety and biases are harder to form. [6] [7] For example, a person who would usually disrespect people of short height probably will not act the same way to short people online.

The SIDE theory states that anonymity gives rise to greater social and decreased personal identity. The group utilizes the enhanced social identity to meet its goals.

Echo chambers and the self-policing of groupthink[edit]

Since the introduction of subreddits, community has been an integral part of the Reddit social landscape. Formation of subreddits around a particular interest or topic lead to a predictable outcome, the majority of people who frequent those subreddits hold a mild to high opinion of that subject. For example, everyday on /r/PCMasterRace, there are posts about the “glory” of having a powerful PC to play games on, and not many posts in praise of buying Apple computers. This clearly represents not only a unification in posting subject, but the ideology of the users of the subreddit, building PCs = good, expensive Macs = bad.

Echo chambers are defined as “An environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered.” [8]. It’s not an uncommon belief that subreddits and Reddit as a whole are giant echo chambers [9] [10] . Furthermore, the mere existence of various /r/circlejerk subreddits (subreddits that satirize the popular trends/opinions within their target subreddit) indicates that Redditors are well aware of the trends and groupthink within reddit and actively retaliate against it. By using meta-references and humor to complain about the herd mentality of subreddits, their counterpart circlejerk subreddits are able to police groupthink in a palatable and popular way.

Herd mentality[edit]

Subreddits provide avenues for Redditors to unify under one common theme. This alongside the karma system allow Redditors to be subject to “irrational herding”, a phenomenon in which people make decisions based on prior ratings.[11] For example, /r/findbostonbombers was a subreddit centered around investigating evidence from the Boston Bomber attacks. Users analyzed and posted thousands of photos to find those carrying black bags, with the strategy of dividing the work among thousands of Redditors: a form of crowdsourcing. Reddit’s unnamed moderator arguing that “it’s been proven that a crowd of thousands can do things like this much quicker and better. . . . I’d take thousands of people over a select few very smart investigators any day.”[12] Personal biases towards those of middle eastern descent created false positives in potential suspects, and potential witch hunts in identifying innocent suspects. Redditors came to a baseless conclusion that Sunil Tripathi, a Brown university student who committed suicide weeks prior, was the Boston Bomber due to his skin color and missing whereabouts during the time of the bombing.[13] The subreddit was then made private.

According to /u/OhioFury, herd mentality led to over validation of existing hypotheses regardless of new information.[14] This led to misinformation being spread across the internet, leading Sunil Tripathi's name to air on major news outlets. These false theories complicated the official investigation and hastened the FBI to release photos of the Tzarnaev brothers, the Boston Bomber.[12] Reddit later apologized for fueling the “online witch hunts” of Sunil Tripathi, and reiterated their policy to not allow personal information on the site. However, no action was taken on the Redditors who began the witch hunt.[15]

Perhaps the greatest example of the herd mentality is seen in the Reddit post "Seriously? I paid 80$ to have Vader locked?", wherein the poster vents his frustration at EA's aggressive micro-transaction system. [16] EA's Reddit account responded with a comment that became so unpopular that it gained a net vote of -667,818, making it the most downvoted comment in Reddit history. Most posts or comments struggle to obtain a net vote of -100. Therefore, it is likely that many users had downvoted the comment simply because many others had already done it -- which is an example of the bandwagon effect.

Gamification[edit]

Reddit gamifies its voting system to encourage high-quality content production. A user may upvote or downvote posts and comments. The sum of a user's net votes (upvotes minus downvotes) across his or her comments is recorded as the user's "comment karma". Likewise, there is a "post karma" for posts. Reddit incentivizes users to to build up their karma just as they would build up their XP in an RPG video game by rewarding their interesting or funny content with upvotes.

There are multiple ways to sort posts and comments. One of them is "Top", which places highest-rated content at the top of the page and the lowest-rated at the bottom. While it is an intuitive sorting option, Top sorting unfairly biases old content; most users do not read past the first few posts or comments on the page, leaving newer content ignored and thereby stuck at the bottom while leaving the old content permanently at the top and accruing votes. Therefore, comments by default are sorted by "Best", which sorts such that new high-rated comments with fewer votes have a greater chance of being higher on the page. [17] Posts by default are sorted by "Hot", which places trending high-rated posts higher on the page. Both these default options provide users more content exposure no matter when they posted.

Reddit offers other rewards besides karma and content exposure. Reddit Coins are a virtual good that users may purchase to give to other users on their content as a way of showing overwhelming appreciation for that content. [18] Recipients of coins temporarily enjoy a number of UI improvements and exclusive features, the extent of which depends on the type of the awarded coin -- silver, gold, or platinum. Rewarding a post or comment with Reddit coins places a coin icon prominently at the top of the content, which attracts more attention and upvotes. Furthermore, Reddit Coins provide much emotional value to the recipient because the sender paid actual money to obtain them.

Subreddits[edit]

By subscribing to certain subreddits, users can more easily find content that aligns with their interests[19]. Subreddits focus around specific topics such as sports, books, movies, or food. All of these Reddit communities exist outside of the anonymous realm of the internet. Examples might include fantasy sports teams or book or movie clubs. Reddit has less innocuous subreddits. Although many of these may have some sort of real life analog, they are nowhere near as popular as their Reddit counterparts.

Gone Wild[edit]

One example of such a phenomenon is Gone Wild, a subreddit where users can post nude photos of themselves. While Gone Wild is a source of entertainment for those viewing the posts, it can be a source of self-confidence or rebellion for the posters. According to Gone Wild user Natural_Red, “Gone Wild is a great place for people who are looking for a bump in self-esteem, exhibitionists, and people who are just looking for a little something thrilling in their day-to-day lives. It's a win-win. You get a rise out of posting, and other people get boobs.”[20] Gone Wild has numerous offline analogs such as strip clubs and themed bars like Hooters. Although they are well known, the popularity of these institutions is on the decline[21], while their Reddit counterpart has flourished[22].

TIFU[edit]

Another controversial subreddit is Today I Fucked Up, or TIFU. Users are encouraged to post personal stories about a situation where they made a major mistake. Other Redditors will then up vote the stories they find most entertaining. Comments on these posts can range from berating the original poster to offering legitimate advice. This subreddit serves as a way for users to get things “off their chest”[23]. For other users, it is a source of entertainment and perspective for their own problems. Much like Gone Wild, TIFU has several analogs outside of the internet such as religious confessions and therapy. However, anonymity allows those posting their stories to unburden themselves of their mistakes without judgment by people they know personally. Because they are anonymous, people are more willing to share information they would not normally.

Anonymity has allowed for this type of activity to flourish on Reddit much more than outside the internet. Gone Wild has over half a million subscribers[24], while TIFU has about 1.5 million subscribers[25]. While the number of subscribers may give an estimate of the relative number of views a subreddit receives, this number does not include unsubscribed users or users without accounts, meaning there could be many more viewers.

Raids: Inter-subreddit conflict[edit]

A curious, but not unsurprising event of subreddits is the occasional tendency for them to clash. “Raids” are organized group disputes between subreddits that involve invading the opponents space (in this case subreddit, but can also manifest in the form of inter-website conflict as well). This is usually incited by a call to action by a more senior community member pointing to some perceived transgression by another subreddit. From there, users of the attacking subreddit swarm into the victim subreddit. “Swarming” consists of an influx of posting in the target subreddit, usually in the form of antagonistic posts/comments that are supported/up voted by other members of the attacking subreddit. This is usually met with some counter-action by the victim subreddit, either by counter-posting on their own subreddit or counter-swarming the other subreddit.

Notably it was found that 1% of subreddits are responsible for 74% of Reddit raids[26]. These specific subreddits tend to be controversial enough to naturally garner opponents and popular enough to have a large enough “army” to mobilize. Size of the subreddit is key as 97.9% of subreddits as of 2015 had less than 1000 users [27], 80% of which are lurkers (users who don’t post/comment). An obvious candidate for these types of raids are politically oriented subreddits attacking their ideological opponents, but raids are not exclusively tied to political spats. Non political subreddits that have been known to cause “drama” include /r/hearthstone and /r/nintendoswitch. Raids can potentially have long lasting effects, but these effects can be mitigated if the “victim” subreddit directly responds to the attacking subreddit, though its success is not contingent on them responding with equal strength.

Posts and Comments[edit]

Worst Of[edit]

Other examples of the impact of anonymity are controversial comments and posts. Reddit features a subreddit for content which users find to violate social taboos, called Worst Of. Worst Of showcases the “best trolls” on Reddit [28] and features incidents of bullying and illegality. Worst Of has about thirty-two thousand subscribers and is populated with content constantly [28], showing that anonymity allows a high incidence of trolling. Examples include “Save a dog, shoot a cop.” posted by the Redditor Sir-SmokesALot to the subreddit Bad Cop No Donut [29] and “… Lastly, they fucking stink. They smell like grease. I can't breathe around black people” posted by hateblacksthrow on Ask Reddit [30]. These users post such comments because they have authority over their anonymity and never need to see responses from others. They can thus separate themselves from their Reddit identity. Once they log off of Reddit, they are isolated from their comments.

Throwaways[edit]

There is a concept on Reddit called the “throwaway” account, an account whose purpose is to post content which one does not want associated with their normal Reddit account. Throwaway accounts are typically identified by the explicit use of “throw” in the account name [31], such as hateblacksthrow whose post cited above began with “Throwaway because I don't want to be brigaded.” [30] and superTossAccount who admitted to defecating on a New York City doorway on the Ask Reddit thread “What have you done in life that’s so awful you have to create a throwaway account to admit it?” [32]. Reddit does not stigmatize these accounts but rather holds them up as contributors to the site, as evidenced by the above thread. Reddit encourages the use of throwaways because the disinhibition anonymity affords the users allows for better content [31].

Naratto[edit]

Some Redditors vastly overestimate their anonymity, causing significant trouble. Such was the case with the Redditor Naratto, who used the popular meme "Confession Bear" to confess to killing his sister’s abusive boyfriend on the Advice Animals subreddit. Naratto did not use a throwaway account for this post. Disturbed Redditors googled the name Naratto, found his Steam (a popular online gaming forum) account, which was linked to his Facebook profile, and reported him to the FBI. The perception of anonymity facilitated Naratto’s post, which he remarked on in a later post with “If you joke about murder on Reddit without a throwaway account, you’re gonna have a bad time” [33]. Naratto claims to have been joking about the murder but does admit to over-stepping the limits of his anonymity and being too disinhibited.

Opinions on Anonymity[edit]

There are two opposing views of anonymity: 1) that it facilitates better discussions and content or 2) it detracts from discussions and allows for poor quality content.

A majority of Redditors support anonymity. A question posted on the AskReddit subreddit asked for Redittors' opinions of anonymity and how it affects the site. Of the ten primary responses to the question, seven advocated for anonymity. [34] 4chan, a website similar to Reddit, which does not require an account to post content, supports the use of anonymity. An anonymous user "is not a single person, but rather, represents the collective whole of 4chan." [35] Anonymous is a group described as a loose collection of hackers and activists, [36] which emphasizes the group and acknowledges individuals as components of the whole. [37] Users can then join the group and perform activities under the name of the group.

There is also opposition to anonymity. In the question mentioned above about anonymity, one user stated that it detracted from content quality and the original purpose of Reddit. [34] Other sites, such as Huffington Post, have removed anonymous comments because it hindered response quality. [38] Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, takes the argument further to rid of online anonymity altogether, citing possible exploitation of information. [39]

Conclusion[edit]

The idea that accounts can be temporary and never related back to the user behind the screen is foundational to Reddit. It drives the creation and proliferation of controversial material which users do not want associated with them in the real world. Even the illusion of anonymity, as in the case of Naratto, can greatly lower the inhibitions of the users and lead to conversations and revelations that would never take place in face to face communication [31]. Reddit teaches us that when a technology allows users the power over their anonymity, it disinhibits them. Anonymity grants Redditors the power to speak their minds, but it also bestows the responsibility to understand the limits of their anonymity. A little disinhibition can be a source of escape and relief. Too much disinhibition can be destructive.

Psychological phenomena play a role in a Redditor's user experience. Whether this is supplemented by anonymity, Reddit has inherent mechanisms that create echo chambers. These constant bombardment of like-minded ideas can lead to a herd mentality, but is often mediated by self-satirization. Furthermore, Reddit uses the karma and coin system to encourage high quality content production. Thus, Redditors are incentivized to post and comment to partake in the system.

References[edit]

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