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Sideways Looks #12: Reddit, What & Why? Also, Verbs

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Hello, I can happily report I got my second Covid vaccine on Thursday. Even more happily, I got it at the Abbey Centre in Westminster which was one of my favourite haunts when I worked in government. I once had to spend an afternoon there directing a media monitoring operation in the Cabinet Office, in an incident involving Donald Trump and Laura Kuenssberg. I put the full story on Twitter. At no point did I think ‘one day I’ll get a potentially life-saving vaccine here’. The fact I did (and earlier than anticipated, meaning I should be more immune for a big family event in August) was due to the reddit page called r/GetJabbed which is helping UK citizens find walk-ins for vaccines. Prior to this, in January reddit briefly sent global markets into turbulence – so it’s already had a busy 2021. As part of my PhD looked at reddit, this week I thought I’d say more about the site. As always, please do fill in this little poll to let me know your thoughts on these newsletters. Oliver


Thought for the Week: Ask Me Anything about reddit


What reddit is Reddit looks like this:

A screenshot of the 'GetJabbed' subreddit.  There are two posts called 'Daily Megathreads' by the subreddit moderators, one for London and one for elsewhere in the UK.  There is a third post from another user telling people about a vaccine centre on the Hertfordshire/London border which gives second shots of Pfizer after 7 weeks.  At the side is information about the subreddit - the subreddit is described as "A place for those living in the UK to find out about Coronavirus vaccine pop-up/walk-in locations" and it has 19.6k members.  Around the posts are options to make your own post, or filter to content which is 'hot' or 'new' or 'top', or related to a specific location.

Look at it. It looks like the internet circa 2005. I half expect to click away from it onto MySpace or Neopets. In contrast to (e.g.) Facebook or Twitter, you don’t really know who anyone is. People don’t use real names, or have photos, or have any kind of real ‘profile page’. There’s no ‘stories’ or ‘people you might know’ or your friends’ posts mixed up with corporate profiles. You don’t even need to sign up to access it. It’s the old forum / bulletin board system of the internet writ large. How large, exactly? Apparently it’s the world’s 20th most visited website – one below Netflix, and ahead of eBay, Instagram, and Twitter (though the latter two are used a lot as apps instead of as websites). In 2012, President Obama did an ‘AMA’ (Ask Me Anything) session on reddit. From 2006 to 2011 it was owned by Condé Nast, which owns Vogue, GQ, and The New Yorker; from 2011 onwards it has been a subsidiary of Advance Publications, which owns Condé Nast. Commercially speaking, it isn’t in the same league as the big players. It’s valued at around $6bn – far down this list of unicorns, and much much below Facebook’s $982bn – and has around 52 million active daily users, compared to Twitter’s roughly 200 million and Facebook’s almost 2 billion. But it’s far from the retro, quirky-niche site its appearance might suggest. (Also, fun fact, reddit's co-founder Alexis Ohanian is married to tennis champion Serena Williams). What reddit feels like I’ve already noted the contrast to more familiar social media sites – you aren’t on reddit to follow people you like. It’s geared towards content. All of reddit is divided into topic-based subreddits. These can be as broad as r/science (for talking about science), or as niche as r/birdswitharms (for photos of birds with arms). Any user can post stuff, or comment on someone else’s post. Unlike many other sites, reading the comments is strongly advised; they are often insightful, interesting, creative, or funny. Can be, anyway. We’ll come onto that shortly. (If you want to see more of the wonders of reddit, will give you a random subreddit). In non-internet terms, the contrast feels like this. Facebook or Twitter are like going to parties where you hope there will be good people and therefore good chat. Reddit is like going to someplace full of activities – one room with an amateur dramatic society, another hosting a tech meetup, a third where people are swapping photos of birds with arms. You may meet people and have off-topic chats, but you’re in the room for a specific thing. And there are rules and norms to make sure the group provides that thing in the best way. Again, that’s important – more shortly. How reddit works Again in contrast to other big tech platforms, there’s less of a sense that reddit is directly run by the decisions of Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey. The professionals behind reddit do occasionally make interventions (often to massive backlashes, as usual for tech platforms), and increasingly have had to takes stances on what sort of content the site should and should not allow. But the day-to-day power lies with amateur moderators of subreddits. They set rules and outline norms, known as ‘reddiquette’. Negatively, they can enforce by banning posts or people. More positively, they can encourage helpful behaviour. For some examples let’s look again, more closely, at the r/GetJabbed subreddit:

A close-up of earlier screenshot of the 'GetJabbed' subreddit.  There are two posts called 'Daily Megathreads' by the subreddit moderators, one for London and one for elsewhere in the UK.  There is a third post from another user telling people about a vaccine centre on the Hertfordshire/London border which gives second shots of Pfizer after 7 weeks.

Note the two separate ‘megathreads’. That’s a new thing the moderators started a week or so ago, as there were so many London-specific comments filling the UK-wide thread. The third post is someone supplying the gold dust users want – a centre to get vaccinated – so to draw attention they’ve helpfully posted it separately to the megathreads (where people are largely giving updates on queue sizes, asking specific questions, or sharing booking links). People are doing sensible little things to help each other get the experience they want. From this one example, it’s easy to see that what counts as ‘good’ will vary between subreddits. But there are techniques that are common to all subreddits. Posts and comments can be ‘upvoted’ or ‘downvoted’, making them more or less visible to other users. Rules and expectations for each subreddit are listed in the sidebar. And users are often happy to point out violations of ‘reddiquette’, as it is known. And is that a good system? This is where reddit gets a bit tricky. All internet activity is a mix of some people contributing helpful, creative, or supportive content; and others being tone-deaf, rude, or even abusive. For many people, participating while minimising negativity is important. On Facebook and Twitter, you can limit your engagement to people you know and/or trust. On reddit, to meaningfully participate you kinda need to engage with a mass of strangers. If you aren’t enjoying reading strangers’ comments, or posting stuff which appeals to strangers, you’re having a limited reddit experience. (Note: this is not to say ‘online anonymity is a problem’. My Demos colleague Alex Krasodomski-Jones makes a forceful case in favour of anonymity). Also, remember that those strangers are incentivised to lightly punish you if you don’t follow the ‘rediquette’ for a subreddit, which can be hard if you are new. That can just be downvotes, or a polite pointer that you’re being unhelpful. But it can be less polite. And even if you avoid sanctioning, it can feel cliquey. There’s lots of weird terms. I’ve already mentioned AMA, and rediquette; others include ELI5 (‘explain like I’m 5’) or NSFW (‘not suitable for work’). Helpful, but cumulatively all those acronyms can make one feel like an outsider (or a new civil servant). Plus redditors are very skewed towards young-ish men in the US, with the biases that entails. This thread is an interesting collection of people’s experiences of participating reddit. Despite these issues, I'm generally pro-reddit. A site which is driven by useful, creative, crowdsourced content – rather than hard market incentives, or personal celebrity – exposes one to all sorts of great stuff. While I certainly found unpleasantness when studying it, I’d suggest there was less than on other sites (though that’s drawing on a very limited sample). Those unfamiliar can with it sometimes lump it into a ‘nasty’ bucket along with e.g. 4chan, but I think that’s unfair. It’s had its controversies, but also its absolutely lovely moments. Finally – should we care about it?

Apart from the very occasional big story, I find the relative lack of media attention paid to reddit quite amazing. Online trends – good, bad, and quirky – can be incubated on reddit. One could argue it is effectively experimenting and filtering on quality of content in advance of Facebook or Twitter. I’m a bit dubious of claims about how social media ‘causes’ offline events (e.g. Twitter winning Trump the presidency, or Cambridge Analytica winning Brexit). But it’s undeniable that already this year reddit has been responsible for huge movements of money during the Gamestop short-selling, opening big discussions about financial gatekeepers and new breeds of investor. And now there are nearly 20k people currently subscribed to a subreddit for receiving vaccines early in the UK (not counting the many using it without subscribing), with potentially substantial implications for individual and public health. That’s not an unalloyed good – there are stories of small vaccine centres being overwhelmed. But it’s a raw demonstration of what people-sharing-information can do, despite the (somewhat strange) lack of coverage of r/GetJabbed in mainstream media. (To note: I found out about it through friends sharing the link with me on Whatsapp. Given the numbers of people googling ‘r/GetJabbed’ and related terms doesn’t seem to have changed much, I suspect many other people are similarly discovering it via being sent links rather than hearing about and searching for it). There’s big, and possibly worrying, questions to ask about how much media attention is shaped by market-driven PR of platforms like Facebook, or whether journalists focus on platforms which are of more personal interest to them (Twitter, increasingly Clubhouse). There’s big, and interesting, questions to ask about the potential re-rise of content-focussed platforms like TikTok or Nextdoor. If you want interesting discussions on those questions, you could go to reddit – and probably find answers outside of mainstream Twitter views or your circle of Facebook friends. Or, alternatively, you could go to reddit and find out why Ryan Gosling hasn’t become Ryan Goose yet. If you want to use reddit, I suggest trying reditr as an alternative way of reading it. If you want to know more, this podcast with the founders was good. Some of my other favourite questions on reddit below. I genuinely got to do an academic presentation on these.

  • My girlfriend says she needs time and distance. Is she calculating velocity?

  • I popped a can of Pringles and now the fun won't stop. How can I make the fun stop? Please help, it's been 8 days.

  • Amish of Reddit, how does not using technology affect your lives?


Fun Fact About: German Verbs


The below old letter to The Times was doing the rounds on social media last week:

Letter reading "Sir, Your reader's reference to German word order reminds me of a UN meeting at which I worked when the German delegate ranted for ages while all French eyes turned to the French interpreter booth. The interpreter witheringly interjected “j'attends le verbe”. Jenny Ray London N10."

(J’attends le verb = ‘I’m waiting for the verb’). This is refers to the fact that German sentence construction often forces the verb to the end of the sentence (like saying ‘I must to the shops go’). So the translator was waiting for the end of the sentence to find out what was actually happening. As regular readers will know, I’m currently learning German. I find this sentence construction a bizarre experience to read, particularly given I’m a slow reader and German sentences can be very long. Like the UN audience, I spend a while in a state of suspended animation – holding in my head a collection of nouns and adjectives but unsure what’s actually happening. I’ve found it’s affected my writing in English. In particular I’m much more conscious of where clauses are placed, and now avoid separating connected ideas a lot more. For example ‘like the UN audience’ in the above paragraph was originally mid-sentence; but moving it to the start made sure the phrase ‘suspended animation’ was immediately followed by the explanation of what I meant. The English comedian Stewart Lee has made very interesting points about how German word construction might affect joke-writing. The German comedian Hennig Wehn has disagreed with him, though sadly without much detail. I suspect the answer depends somewhat on which language you first learned to joke in.




Things for helping you follow the news. Having recommended reditr as a way of reading reddit, I’ll similarly recommend Tweetdeck as a way of reading Twitter and Feedly as a way of reading news. Both are free and have genuinely vastly improved my media surfing. Data Visualisation & Accessibility. I’ve been re-engaging with the field of data visualisation. If you’re interested in this, I’d recommend resources from Andy Kirk and Alli Torban. I did a training course with Andy years ago and he was lovely; also he really focuses on the idea of telling stories with data, in a way I really like. Alli Torban's episode on visual accessibility was really good – important for any presentation, not just hard-core data stuff. Mona Chalabi’s Instagram feed is also good for quick, creative, off-the-wall approaches to telling stories with data. Social media. This was an interesting look inside Facebook and the pressures it faces, with some details on emotion and politics getting mixed into algorithmic choices. This sounded a bit snake-oil in places - though I could be wrong - but I like the term ‘intangibles’ to describe some of the most important aspects of social media analysis. Finally, time travel. In a conversation with a friend yesterday I was reminded of this brilliant observation by Douglas Adams that one of the biggest complications with time travel is grammar.


Thanks for reading. Please do let me know your thoughts via this short poll.

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