“Cityscape” - Patricia Morehead

Reddit: Democratic Content Gone Bad

I use Reddit almost every day. It’s usually the first thing I open after my email inbox and Twitter feed. It’s become an almost compulsive habit to check the site during any and all windows of free time. Throughout the day, I scan the front page to see if there’s anything happening on the internet that I need to know about; I repeatedly check the NFL subreddit to see if any major trades have happened since I last looked (an hour before), and I visit the Game of Thrones subreddit to see if any new trailers have been released. There’s nothing like a borderline addiction to make you step back and evaluate what you're doing. I’m not sure I like using Reddit anymore, and I don't think I'm the only one.

Reddit is enormous and it’s growing. The content sharing site welcomes 10.3 million visitors every day — that’s 1 in every 167 internet users. That’s more daily visitors than the population of the Dominican Republic. It’s big.

Over the past few years, Reddit has become the poster child for democratic content curating and consumption. It’s a pretty simple concept, really. Users submit any kind of content they wish -- pictures, video links, news articles, personal text, whatever -- and that content is voted on. Up arrows are good, down arrows are bad. Every piece of content submitted lives and dies by the upvote and downvote. The more upvotes something has, the higher up the content rises. The formula has worked for Reddit’s popularity, but is it a productive way to consume content? Does it have to be?

There’s a story about famous anthropologist/ inventor/ statistician/ explorer/ eugenicist/ cousin of Charles Darwin Francis Galton that goes a little like this:

In 1906 the painfully accomplished and brilliant Sir Francis Galton was attending a livestock fair in Plymouth. While he was tromping around the fairgrounds he ran into a contest that caught his attention. In the middle of a small fenced in area a man held the reins attached to a large ox. Dozens of people surrounded the area, all with the intent of guessing the animal’s weight. Group after group approached the fencing, wrote their guesses on little slips of paper, and handed them to the ox hand. Galton watched for a long while with great interest.

When the contest had finished, over 800 participants had tried their hand at guessing the weight of the ox. Galton approached the ox hand and asked if he could have the slips of paper after the contest had been decided. The hand agreed, and Galton’s little experiment had legs. When Galton finally had a chance to study the slips he found something completely remarkable. None of the participants had guessed the weight of the ox exactly, but the mean of their guesses was within ONE POUND of the actual weight. Galton asked cattle specialists to give their best guesses, as well. While they were closer to the actual weight than most all individuals from the contest, not one of them got close to the crowds’ mean guess.

In response to this experiment, Galton wrote, “Vox Populi”. In it he declared, “This result is, I think, more creditable to the trust-worthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.” See, our Sir Francis Galton was a bit of an elitist. As the father of eugenics (among much more flattering titles, in fairness) he believed in the power and intelligence of an upper class. He believed, “the stupidity and wrong-headedness of many men and women being so great as to be scarcely credible.” The results were against his beliefs, but he had the good mind to publish them anyway. Good on you, Francis.

With Galton’s experiment in mind, a purely democratic content curation system seems like a wonderful idea. By allowing every member of the Reddit community to not only contribute content but also vote on content, you will, in theory, harness the power of the group’s collective knowledge and receive excellent content in exchange -- Better content than any individual could curate, in fact. Thousands upon thousands of people have to approve of a single piece of content for it to reach the front page of Reddit. But take a visit to Reddit and you might have a hard time conceding that the content you see on the front page is the culmination of the everymans’ collective genius. What you will find is a wall of cat pictures, bold white text covered memes, and the occasional link to a news story. What’s going on? Does Reddit’s homepage truly represent a superior, group aggregated mass of content?

No. As it turns out, capturing the wisdom of a crowd only works in very specific situations. The conditions have to be perfect. Crowd wisdom doesn't work when the participants create the questions. Crowd wisdom doesn't work when the ‘goodness’ of an answer cannot be evaluated by a simple result. And crowd wisdom doesn't work when the pursuit is creativity. In other words, ask a crowd to guess the amount of jelly beans in a jar and they'll do phenomenally, but ask a crowd to create entertainment, art, or ‘The Front Page of the Internet’ and you’re bound for mediocrity, at best.

"If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people [creating the content] and making ourselves into idiots." - Jaron Lanier (Digital Maoism: The Hazards of New Online Collectivism)

Large democratic content services like Reddit rarely create any kind of crowd wisdom — rarely create meaningful and powerful content, because everything that reaches the top must first be filtered through a strainer of popular opinion. Content with sharp edges is blunted and you're left with the dull middle bits. Polarizing submissions are not seen because they get caught in the crossfire between approval and disapproval, upvote and downvote. Controversial content is the most interesting content, but it cannot thrive in an environment where the curating element, the upvote, is almost universally used as a “like”. The democratic structure of Reddit -- the stranger-submitted content voted on by strangers -- ensures that what you're seeing and voting on is not, in fact, the ‘Front Page of the Internet’, but an ugly portrait of the site’s 10.3 million users. What reaches the top is generally a concoction of the site’s largely 25-35 year olds’ -- 72% men -- interests and a strong dose of self affirmation.

Experienced ‘Redditors’ should be quick to point out that using the front page of Reddit as an example is misleading. Reddit has thousands upon thousands of individual “subreddits” that focus on specific topics. For example, there’s a Dr. Who subreddit, a World News subreddit, and a StarCraft subreddit. Some subreddits, like ‘Pics’ and ‘Funny’ are enormous and feature content that’s nearly indistinguishable from the kind of content you find on the front page. Others are small, like ‘Castles’ and ‘Madisonwi’, and can sometimes manage to sequester themselves from the masses of the site long enough to develop a completely unique subreddit culture. They might establish strict posting rules with judicious moderators to enforce them, or they might create etiquette concerning what justifies a downvote . And sometimes this works to keep most of Reddit’s culture from permeating into their submissions and discussions, but the structure of content submission and content voting remains the same. Complete strangers that hold no similarities outside of regularly visiting the same incredibly popular website and being interest in the same topic actively sort what information will be most visible.

The takeaway for content consumers is that it’s your responsibility to take control of what your content sources are. Choose content sources with a variety of viewpoints and content sources that sometimes produce pieces you totally disagree with. Choose content sources with accountability, with a face and a name that can be held responsible for all of the great and terrible things they share. When you allow the source of your content to be a faceless mob that you have little in common with outside of your choice aggregator you cheat yourself out of an enormous range of perspectives.

*I want to note how badly I wanted to use the word “alienating” in the headline. It didn't fit so you'll have to suffer the pun down here