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On the Reddit Community

The search for “Reddit community” on Google News returns no fewer than 12,900 results. Media coverage of the recent turmoil on the site often takes the “community” part of the equation as a given. The “Reddit community” acts both as subject and an object of action. It is apologized to, it wants to make its voice heard, and it demands. But to what extent is Reddit a community? What makes for a community, in any case?

I submit that at the very least, a community identifies an assemblage of people, places, and practices. First, a community must involve the social element. It is hard to imagine a community of one. Second, a community usually occupies some contiguous stretch of space or time: a site or a platform. Even when dispersed and in exile, a community will find a way to come together, if only virtually, online or on paper. Finally, a community will usually share a system of values, which in turn manifest themselves as specific norms, customs, or modes of governance. A community of faith, for example, may consist of a group of parishioners (people) who attend church (a place) to pray (practice). Similarly, the digital humanities community involves scholars who publish in particular journals, come to the same conferences, and join the same professional organizations.

To what extent does the idea of the “Reddit community” answer these minimal definitions? Let’s start with the easy parts first. We know that some people identify themselves as “redditors.” The site and platform of their activity is itself, an incorporated subsidiary of Condé Nast. Good so far. But what about a common set of practices, values, customs, and institutions? Things look much messier in this regard. Rather than adhering to one uniform set of rules, Reddit is divided into “areas of interest,” or colloquially, “subreddits.” These spheres of activity are often quite distinct from one another: some post strict guidelines for content submission, others censor discussion, and yet others take more of a laissez-faire approach to community moderation.

Some of these “areas” are nothing more than massive content aggregators like /r/Funny, which boasts 9 million subscribers. These are no more communities than Google News or Huffington Post. Others cultivate a supportive environment where everybody knows your name, like /r/AskHistorians, /r/cancer, or /r/MakeupAddiction. Attracting from several hundred to several hundred thousand subscribers, subreddits like these encourage an engaged public. They enforce rules, moderate discussion, and hold elections. They are true communities in that sense, because they hold values in common, as reflected in their FAQs and guidelines.

In this light, Reddit, the umbrella entity, is at best a community of communities or perhaps a platform that facilitates a range of activities: some communal in nature, some commercial, and others simply private. In fact, there are thousands of subreddits not accessible to the public at all that act as nothing more than personal news aggregators. For example, a redditor on /r/AskReddit writes “I have a private sub[reddit] for me and my SO [significant other], it’s like a private conversation when you get 2 karma per link.”

These distinctions—between private and public, community and platform—matter, because if Reddit is not a community, then there is no reason for us to expect a uniform set of responses or behaviors from it as a whole. Participants in /r/AskScience, for example, would likely want nothing to do with the now banned subreddit /r/fatpeoplehate or /r/Gunsforsale (still around). These communities do not share the same values. And they subsequently create very different environments for conversation. Reddit administrators (who work for the company) understand this difference very well. Pay attention to the language of this official post, announcing the site-wide ban of several controversial subreddits (emphasis mine): “We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action. We’re banning behavior, not ideas.” Some finer points aside, note the distinction between people, platforms, and practices. At least in this instance, Reddit Inc. does not refer to itself as a community.

The recent events at Reddit expose the tension between community standards and the pragmatic needs of a business. Members of the popular press would do well to examine their usage of the word “community” in that context. Reddit users, like the users of other computing platforms, or consumers of soda and burgers are just that: users and consumers. Corporations would like to speak of their customers and products as communities because it sounds friendly and empowering. But consumption alone cannot rise to the standards of a community. Such standards must emanate from the people themselves. What we are witnessing then is a Wizard of Oz-like break down of an illusion. All this talk of “the Reddit community” implies a commonality of purpose where there is none.

Comments welcome @dennistenen #onredcom. Change log here. Read a thoughtful response from David Weinberger here.

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