Can entertainment coexist with intelligence on the Internet?

Reddit’s transformation during the Obama presidency

A case study by Ian Eck and Theodore Gioia

Reddit once regarded itself as the premier online hangout for politically inclined, tech-literate millennials. The self-proclaimed “Front Page of the Internet” has been linked with numerous web-based grassroots movements including campaigns for Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, and, most prominently, Barack Obama.

Even for people who “get” reddit, this is a good video.

As the website’s user base has exploded in the last ten years, its mystique of clubhouse exclusivity has faded. A common fear in the Reddit community has been that the surge of casual users would dilute substantive discussion in favor of superficial info-tainment. Undeniably, digital culture has moved toward easily digestible audiovisual content in the past decade, with formats such as pics, gifs, and listicles filling our news feeds. With the snap judgment inherent in Reddit’s upvote-downvote karma system, what chance do lengthy posts on international politics stand against goofy cat gifs? Writ large, one big question defines the Reddit identity crisis: Can entertainment coexist with intelligence on the Internet?

I compared the Front Page when Barack Obama was elected in 2008 with the Front Page during his re-election in 2012.

To examine this imposing question, I formulated a case study designed to examine — and hopefully untangle — the often confusing, intertwined factors making up this issue. I compared the Front Page when Barack Obama was elected in 2008 with the Front Page during his re-election in 2012. To gather the experiment’s data, I used the Reddit Time Machine to collect the Top 50 most upvoted posts from the weeks of November 3–9, 2008 and November 5–11, 2012.

I present my findings in a slightly unusual way. I decided to frame the data around three thematic juxtapositions that emerged from the research: political vs. apolitical, verbal vs. visual, and whether the growth of subreddits creates diversity or distraction in Reddit discourse. My goal was not to prove any pet theory about Reddit but rather to ask the right questions to survey the ecosystem of a website whose trends in many ways mirror the development of Internet culture over the past decade.

Political vs. Apolitical

In the Top 50 posts from 2008’s election week, 38 explicitly mentioned a political topic and 12 were apolitical. In 2012, the split was almost completely reversed: only 13 mentioned a political subject while 37 were apolitical.

This reversal seems alarming. But a closer look at the data reveals evidence not for a decline but a consolidation of political discussion. The average 2012 political post had six times the number of comments as the average political post four years prior. This suggests that the overall rise in site traffic has made Reddit’s political conversation less widespread but more substantial.

While the single most popular post in 2008 congratulated Obama on his win, the top Obama-victory post in 2012 ranked #28 for its week. What was #1? A heroic picture of a snowmobiler at the boundary between Norway and Sweden.

As Reddit expanded the breadth of its content, nested issue-specific commentary began to overtake partisan flag-waving. Case in point: After Obama’s first election there were fifteen congratulatory posts in the Top 50 basically expressing “Hooray Barack!” Meanwhile, only one top post in 2012 even mentioned Obama. The most popular 2012 political posts focused on issues such as legalized marijuana and Syria rather than trumpeting party politics.

Verbal vs. Visual

From 2008 to 2012, the number of visual posts in the Top 50 increased from 24% to 72%. In 2008, eight of the top ten posts were verbal, but in 2012 only one of the top ten could be considered strictly verbal — and four of the top five were pictures.

The third and fourth highest-voted posts in 2012 were a pic of a Star Trek fan’s wedding proposal in front of a face-palming Picard and a pic of “Police working with rioters to help a fat man out of his trousers.”

It is tempting to link the rise of audiovisual content with a decline of verbal sophistication. Yet the data shows two separate developments: 1) The blending of verbal and visual mediums and 2) A reorienting of textual content around reactive commentary instead of self-generated posts.

Reaction gifs started to gain popularity in 2012. Pictured above: “When I pass someone walking into the bathroom I just shit in.”

In 2008, 75% of the top visual posts were simple pictures, while in 2012 nearly half the visual post were hybrid images (e.g. pics and gifs with captions). Like Emojis or Snapchat, these new “mixed” verbal-visual formats treat images as additions rather than substitutions to textual communication. In addition, no visual post is ever naked of verbal content. Every successful post needs a compelling title to earn clicks, and any visual post worth it’s salt will earn hundreds of comments.

The decrease in text-only posts represents not so much the extinction but adaptation of verbal content. In 2012, over 92% of verbal posts in the Top 50 linked to an outside site. This suggests a paradigm shift in textual posts favoring reactions to external pages over the “Dear reddit” style of original self-written content. In short, commentary over creation.

Diversity or Distraction?

The number of subreddits in the Top 50 doubled from ten in 2008 to twenty in 2012. Meanwhile the number of posts in the politics subreddit decreased from twenty in 2008 to nine in 2012. Has this trend created greater diversity in discussion or does it distract from the real issues?

In 2012, three posts from r/mildlyinteresting, two from r/aww, and one from r/pettyrevenge were voted above the first Obama victory post, which ranked right below “My Finnish Lapphund on a windy mountain top in the midnight sun.”

Ten subreddits in 2012 cracked the Top 50 with only one post. This diversification of discussion allowed bizarre topics such as r/pettyrevenge to gain equal footing with such crowd favorites as r/wtf and r/todayilearned. Considering powerhouse subreddits could barely land one post in the 2012 Top 50, the fact that two copies of the same image could both make it into the 2008 Top 50 is, by comparison, astounding.

2008 was the first year Reddit allowed its users to create their own subreddits, which marks the site’s metamorphosis from link aggregator to social network. When you give users an open platform to build on, unexpected things occur — wild, random, stupid, brilliant things. Users organize into communities and categories that could never have been dreamed up in a developers’ meeting. What began as a mere network for grouping common interests (r/politics) and formats (r/pics) has turned into a vehicle for users to participate in collective group emotions (r/woahdude, r/mildlyinteresting, r/pettyrevenge, etc.). This open-source digital platform allows niches to exist around subtle sentiments rather than the classic, concrete boxes of genre.

Parting Thoughts

After performing this experiment, my only definite conclusion is that the Reddit community as a single entity no longer exists. In its stead has risen a flexible, volatile, multi-headed chimera community — great for fostering random internet content but a nightmare to regulate as a responsible media company beholden to the politically-correct standards of Conde Nast shareholders (More on this below).

Rather than trying to reign in this chimera with a traditional, streamlined conclusion, I think it’s more appropriate to share a few unorganized observations and thoughts on Reddit’s evolution. Just as I put no claim on statistical significance in my data, I put no claim on definite explanations in my writing. I want to prompt questions rather than provide answers.

  • When thinking about Internet trends, it’s useful to focus on structures and incentives rather than superficial content. In the case of Reddit, the system provided a few novel allowances: the ability for the user to upvote/downvote every bit of content, thereby influencing its visibility; and the ability for any user to create specific communities for whatever type of content they desired. Out of this structure, two trends emerged.
  • Trend number one: the karma system commodified attention in such a way that fast, pithy, easily digestible content soared into popularity (even if longer, more plodding content existed on the site—it shared less of the spotlight). This race to the bottom of our attention spans can be found in other fast food joints of internet content like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, who now appear to us less like harbingers of the fall of journalism and more like efficient fulfillers of the new human condition: our right to never be bored ever again.
  • Trend number two: the subreddit system allowed for “The Long Tail Theory” to flourish in all it’s brilliant, bizarre glory. Some subreddits have spawned strangely ardent communities, like the hundreds of thousands of men worldwide abstaining from masturbation in search of self-transcendence, or the group of Redditors dedicated to delivering pizza to those in need. Other niches like r/askhistory, r/askscience, and r/explainlikeimfive produce focused, compelling conversations around intellectual topics. Then you have the distraction side of this structure: the r/funny, the r/blackpeopletwitter, the r/reactiongifs, which serve as quick hits of entertainment for when there’s a lull in conversation on the couch.
  • The nichification of Reddit has become so powerful that it brushes up against moral decency, since the fertility of our internet ecosystem also nurtures the growth of weeds. Shock subreddits like r/sexyabortions and r/watchpeopledie contain active communities. Subreddits like r/TheRedPill have taken anti-feminism to questionable extremes. And countless others such as r/jailbait, r/coontown, and r/fatpeoplehate have forced Reddit’s owner, Conde Nast, to ban them out of existence.
  • The implications of this corporate censorship are touchy, considering that freedom of expression is baked into Reddit’s DNA. One of the site’s early heroes, the cherubic coding prodigy Aaron Swartz, became something of a martyr for the freedom of information when a lawsuit surrounding his illegal releasing of academic journals ended with his suicide. Swartz, who invented the RSS feed before he hit puberty, was a spirited crusader against corporate and political interests meddling with the democratic purity of the Internet; and Reddit, who has been at the forefront of the Net Neutrality movement from the start, has grown from these same libertarian principles. Thus when it comes to censorship, Conde Nast must figure out a way to prune the hedges without making their garden fallow.
  • It’s possible that Reddit’s peak as “The Front Page of the Internet” is behind it. As the rest of the Internet has caught up in terms of content curation, the feed no longer feels as uniquely cutting-edge as it once did, and the fringe communities and corporate politics have called the site’s core values into question. Of course similar predictions of downfall have been made for other ecosystems of user-generated content: Twitter has been decaying seemingly since its inception, and Facebook users are sharing less — even, it’s important to note — as ad revenue climbs in both cases.
  • I think the ultimate question for these platforms, these gardens of content, is not: what’s wrong with their growth? Or, how is their growth affecting us as a society? But instead: Who are the gardeners? How should these gardens be watered, hedged, cared for? And, especially when it comes to politics, should there be gardeners in the first place?