Self-declared throwaway accounts on Reddit: How platform affordances and shared norms enable parenting disclosure and support
This blog summarizes a paper about parent’s use of throwaway — or anonymous — accounts on Reddit, a popular social media site. This paper will be presented at the 22nd ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, a top venue for social computing scholarship. It will also be published in the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction (PACM HCI).
A recent news article described how some mothers confessed that they found motherhood to be a bad idea, and that they did not want their children. Many of these mothers used what Reddit users call throwaway accounts. Throwaway accounts, as the name suggests, are temporary accounts that the user can “throwaway” after using to post to Reddit. By attaching a variant of the word “throwaway” to the user name, throwaway accounts provide a normatively sanctioned way to gain anonymity on Reddit as other users understand that the throwaway account will engage in more sensitive and less acceptable discussions.
The concept of intensive — some would say relentless — parenting raises the expectations for what is normatively acceptable parenting. Using computational techniques to analyze ten years of comments from the three main Parenting subreddits (forums), r/Daddit, r/Mommit, and r/Parenting, we found that parents discussed topics that might be considered socially stigmatized using throwaway accounts. When sharing sensitive topics using throwaway accounts, parents received more results that were more socially supportive. Due to Reddit’s design, parents could then “graduate” between their throwaway and main accounts on Reddit.
We found that Reddit throwaway accounts are more likely to discuss issues related to pregnancy loss, disability and special needs, postpartum depression (PPD), divorce, custody, abuse, therapy, and adolescent transitions are more likely to be discussed by throwaway accounts on parenting subreddits. For example, fathers used throwaway accounts to ask mothers on Reddit about their experiences with PPD and how dads can help their partners who might be living with PPD. Postpartum depression is a socially stigmatized issue for both mothers and fathers and some fathers used throwaways to discuss whether they themselves are experiencing PPD symptoms. Other parents posted to ask how they might be supportive of their LGBTQ children. This is especially the case for their teenagers who may be first coming to grips with their own sexuality. Some parents engage in discussions about tensions with their conservative relatives who might reject their child’s identity.
When parents discussed topics that they might find stigmatizing using throwaway accounts, they were more likely to receive responses from other users. They were also more likely to receive more responses, that were longer on average. Responses to throwaway accounts received higher Karma scores on average as well. Karma scores represent the difference between up-votes and down-votes on Reddit posts. This score represents a proxy to the support other Reddit users have for the poster. We also found responses to throwaway accounts to be more supportive and to use more emotional language in their responses than do responses to non-throwaway accounts. Throwaway comments received social support and information from their responses. Many of them thanked their respondents for telling them “what they needed to hear” to feel better. They also thanked those who responded for providing useful suggestions for any queries they might have posed in their throwaway comments.
We found that parents discussed graduating between their throwaway and main accounts. Reddit’s design and norms that allow users to easily create and use temporary accounts in addition to their main accounts. It also allows parents to move seamlessly between these two account types when they needed to do so. When users first start using a new subreddit, they may not know the norms of the new community. Starting their discussions using throwaway accounts allows users to gather a sense of the boundaries of discussions on this new subreddit. This in turn, would allow them to graduate to using their main Reddit account once they “get used” to the expectations on the new subreddit. Conversely, parents might want to discuss an issue they know is out of bounds of a particular subreddit. Using a throwaway allows them to engage in these discussions in a familiar environment, while still maintaining a measure of anonymity.
We propose changes to the design of real-name social media sites like Facebook and Instagram so that parents, and other users, can revert to using an equivalent to throwaway accounts, whilst still having access to their preferred online communities. For example, such a change might be particularly important for parents of children with special needs when they discuss particularly sensitive issues on new online communities. Other users facing socially stigmatizing issues can also benefit from the capacity to seamlessly move from their main identified accounts to more anonymous accounts.