Joho the Blog » Reddit and community journalism

Reddit and community journalism

I’ve come to love Reddit. What started as a better Digg (and is yet another happy outcome of the remarkable Y Combinator) has turned into a way of sharing and interrogating news. Reddit as it stands is not the future of news. It is, however, a hope for news.

As at other sites, at Reddit readers post items they find interesting. Some come from the media, but many are home-made ideas, photos, drawings, videos, etc. You can vote them up or down, resulting in a list ordered by collective interests. Each is followed by threaded conversations, and those comments are also voted up or down.

It’s not clear why Reddit works so well, but it does. The comments in particular are often fiercely insightful or funny, turning into collective, laugh-out-loud riffs. Perhaps it helps that the ethos — the norm — is that comments are short. Half-tweets. You can go on for paragraphs if you want, but you’re unlikely to be up-voted if you do. The brevity of the individual comments can give them a pithiness that paragraphs would blunt, and the rapid threading of responses can quickly puncture inflated ideas or add unexpected perspectives.

But more relevant to the future of news are the rhetorical structures that Reddit has given names to. They’re no more new than Frequently Asked Questions are, but so what? FAQs have become a major new rhetorical form, of unquestioned value, because they got a name. Likewise TIL, IAMA, and AMA are hardly startling in their novelty, but they are pretty amazing in practice.

TIL = Today I Learned. People post an answer to a question you didn’t know you had, or a fact that counters your intuition. They range from the trivial (“TIL that Gilbert Gottfried has a REAL voice.”) to the opposite of the trivial (“TIL there is a US owned Hydrogen bomb that has been missing off the coast of Georga for over 50 years. “)

IAMA = I Am A. AMA = Ask Me Anything. People offer to answer questions about whatever it is that they are. Sometimes they are famous people, but more often they are people in circumstances we’re curious about: a waiter at an upscale restaurant, a woman with something like Elephant Man’s disease, a miner, or this morning’s: “IAmA guy who just saw the final Harry Potter movie without reading/watching any Harry Potter material beforehand. Being morbidly confused, I made up an entire previous plot for the movie to make sense in my had. I will answer your HP Series question based on the made up previous plot in my head AMA.” The invitation to Ask Me Anything typically unfetters the frankest of questions. It helps that Reddit discourages trolling and amidst the geeky cynicism permits honest statements of admiration and compassion.

The topics of IAMA’s are themselves instructive. Many are jokes: “IAmA person who has finished a whole tube of chapstick without losing it. AMA” But many enable us to ask questions that would falter in the face of conventional propriety: “IAmA woman married to a man with Asperger’s Syndrome AMA”. Some open up for inquiry a perspective that we take for granted or that was too outside our normal range of consideration: “IAMA: I was a German child during WWII that was in the Hitler Youth and had my city bombed by the U.S.”

Reddit also lets readers request an IAMA. For example, someone is asking if one of Michelle Bachman’s foster kids would care to engage. Might be interesting, don’t you think?

So, my hypothesis is that IAMA and AMA are an important type of citizen journalism. Call it “community journalism.”

Now, if you’ve clicked through to any of these IAMA’s, you may be disappointed at the level of “journalism” you’ve seen. For example, look at yesterday’s “IAMA police officer who was working during the London Riots. AMA.” Many of the comments are frivolous or off-topic. Most are responses to other comments, and many threads spin out into back-and-forth riffing that can be pretty damn funny. But it’s not exactly “60 Minutes.” So what? This is one way citizen journalism looks. At its best, it asks questions we all want asked, unearths questions we didn’t know we wanted asked, asks them more forthrightly than most American journalists dare, and gets better — more honest — answers than we hear from the mainstream media.

You can also see in the London police officer’s IAMA one of the main ways Reddit constitutes itself as a community: it binds itself together by common cultural references. The more obscure, the tighter the bond. For example, during the IAMA with the police officer in the London riots, someone asks if they’ve caught the guy who knocked over the trash can. This is an unlinked reference to a posting from a few days before of a spoof video of a middle class guy looking around an empty street and then casually knocking over a garbage can. The comments devolve into some silliness about arresting a sea gull for looting. The police officer threads right in:

[police officer] I do assure you we take it very seriously, however. Here, please have a Victim of Crime pack and a crime reference number. We will look into this issue as a matter of priority, and will send you a telegram in six-to-eight-weeks.
permalinkparent

AmbroseChapel
Telegram? Are you that cop who got transported back to the 1970s?

[police officer]
My friends call me Murphy.

derpedatbirth
Lawl, I’m watching RoboCop right now.

This community is both Reddit’s strength as a site, and its greatest weakness as a form of citizen journalism. Reddit illustrates why there are few quotes that simultaneously delight and scare me more than “If the news is important, it will find me.” This was uttered, according to Jane Buckingham (and reported in a 2008 Brian Stelter NY Times article) by a college student in a focus group. In my view, the quote would be more accurate if it read, “If the news is interesting to my social group, it will find me.” What’s interesting to a community is not enough to make us well informed because our community’s interests tend to be parochial and self-reinforcing. This is not so much a limitation of community as a way that communities constitute themselves.

And here’s where I think Reddit offers some hope.

First, it’s important to remember that Reddit is not intending to cover the news, even though its tag line is “The front page of the Internet.” It feels no responsibility to post and upvote a story simply because it is important. Rather, Reddit is a supplement to the news. If something is sufficiently covered by the mainstream — today the stock market went up dramatically, today the Supreme Court decided something — it exactly will not be covered as news at Reddit. Reddit is for what didn’t make it into the mainstream news. So, Reddit does not answer the question: How will we get news when the main stream dries up?

But it does make manifest a phenomenon that should take some of the gloom off our outlook. Take Reddit as a type of internet tabloid. Mainstream tabloids are sensationalistic: They indulge and enflame what are properly thought of as lower urges. But Reddit feeds and stimulates a curiosity about the world. It turns out that a miner —or a person who works at Subway — has a lot to tell us. It turns out that a steely British cop has a sense of humor. It turns out that American planes dropping bombs on a German city did not fly with halos over them. True, there’s a flood of trivial curios and tidbits at Reddit. Nevertheless, from mainstream tabloids you learn that humans are a weak and corrupt species that revels in the misfortunes of others. From Reddit you learn that we are creatures with a wild curiosity, indiscriminate in its fascinations. And you learn that we are a social species that takes little seriously and enjoys the multiplicity of refractions.

But is the curiosity exhibited at Reddit enough? I find this question rocks back and forth. The Reddit community constitutes itself through a set of references that belong to a particular group and that exclude those who just don’t get nods to Robocop. Yet it is a community that reaches for what is beyond its borders. Not far enough, sure. But it’s never far enough. Reddit’s interests are generally headed in the right direction: outward. Those interests often embrace more than what the mainstream has found room for. Still, the interests of any group are always going to reflect that group’s standpoint and self-filters. Reddit’s curiosity is unsystematic, opportunistic, and indiscriminate. You will not find all the news you need there. That’s why I say Reddit offers not a solution to the impeding News Hole, but a hope. The hope is that while communities are based on shared interests and thus are at least somewhat insular, some communities can generate an outward-bound curiosity that delights in the unabashed exploration of what we have taken for granted and in the discovery of that which is outside its same-old boundaries.

But then there is the inevitability triviality of Reddit. Reddit topics, no matter how serious, engender long arcs of wisecracks and silliness. But this too tells us something, this time about the nature of curiosity. One of the mistakes we’ve made in journalism and education is to insist that curiosity is a serious business. Perhaps not. Perhaps curiosity needs a sense of humor.

35 Responses to “Reddit and community journalism”

  1. WOW! What a fine piece, David. I found it via tweets from Jay Rosen and Dan Gillmor. And you’ve caused me to reexamine my flaccid reaction to Reddit and given me the reasons why. Thank you.

  2. :)

  3. [...] Weinberger has a thoughtful look at Reddit as journalism. He calls it “community journalism,” a distinct variant of “citizen [...]

  4. David, this is very well put. At the Daily Dot, we instinctively gravitated to Reddit as the first testbed for our own experiment in covering online communities through a journalistic lens, but you’ve laid out in more rigorous fashion why that made sense. You’ve also made me realize there are two very different but entirely valid definitions of “community journalism,” a term we’ve thrown around quite a bit. As you use it here, it’s journalism driven by a community; more traditionally, one might think of it as the kind of journalism practiced in small towns and other close-knit communities. Perhaps we should call our Reddit coverage community journalism about community journalism.

  5. Counterpoint: the Reddit hive mind often turns foul and leaves large sections of the site a cesspool. If you agree with the hive, it feels good for you. You are validated. If you disagree, your participation is karmically punished.

    This is not really a path to truth. And so, as time has gone by, Reddit has become highly susceptible to overly dramatic and bogus headlines that fit the hive.

    The mind is approximately 24 years old and extremely male. It believes that threesomes are a really good idea, good recipes involve adding extra cheese to your mac and cheese, and the government is coming to steal your Internet.

    Also, Reddit’s minders have no idea how to manage a social site and once in a while a moderator goes crazy and there is little recourse.

    It’s a fad… enjoy it

  6. I came here from Reddit

  7. [...] questions revolve around the idea of “Reddit and community journalism” (the actual title of his post, clearly not optimized for upvotes at the time of this [...]

  8. Reddit works? AHAHAHAHA!! Reddit only works if you are an upper middle class white male, preferably American. Anyone who falls outside outside of this demographic will find reddit to be a thoroughly unpleasant, racist, misogynistic shithole. Reddit is no different from any other cesspool found on the internet.

  9. [...] Joho the Blog » Reddit and community journalism RT @dangillmor: this is a great piece… RT @dweinberger: Why @Reddit offers some hope for journalism [...]

  10. I’m a member of Reddit’s 5 Year Club, I’ve even got the cutesy little badge to prove it. In the past two years I’ve submitted 60 links, with 7 being to others’ sites (like Youtube) and the rest being to my site. Because 85% or so of the links I submitted were to my own site, I was downgraded by Reddit so my submissions basically don’t show up any more. The 53 links I submitted to my own site over two years are only a small fraction of the number of my posts on my site in that time, and of course that’s only a miniscule fraction of the number of links submitted to Reddit. So, it’s not like I was trying to swamp their system or engaging in anything approaching abusive behavior. I’m having trouble seeing why I should give Reddit anything beyond the back of my hand. I’m certainly not going to go to their site and produce content for them for free, especially considering that that content might get into search engine results and increase ad clicks for them.

    If you’re going to engage in discussions at Reddit, try to talk in bland terms and don’t use phrases that might end up being searched for, like “How to…]”

  11. Reddit = Leftard Headquarters.

    Genuine newsmen interested in free speech visit:

    4chon.net/new/

  12. Reddit is a great place to visit when you want to see men telling women “You deserve to be punched in the face and raped repeatedly.”

    It’s a bastion of the MensRights movement, which contrary to its name is actually focused on male supremacy over females.

    Stormfront & co. have also been quite successful in convincing Reddit that blacks are inherently violent and unintelligent, resulting in popular racist comments whenever a story mentioning a black is on the frontpage.

  13. Reddit’s great, but it’s simply yet another site for the techno-elite. Sites like that are fine and fun for us, but they’ll never be journalism for the average person.

  14. [...] TechFrom??? 8?15????? ??2??????????? Reddit 2010?8?PV ?????? Reddit ?????????hyperorg???????????????????Reddit ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Reddit????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? [...]

  15. [...] Joho the Blog » Reddit and community journalism David Weinberger stellt Reddit vor und interpretiert das Newsangebot als Community Journalismus. Im deutschen Sprachraum ist das Digg-ähnliche Angebot wohl kaum verbreitet, in den USA scheint es aber einen lebendigen Nutzerkreis zu haben.  (tags: community journalism) Weitertragen:TwitterFacebookE-MailDrucken [...]

  16. [...] to the conclusion that yes, we can — not that Reddit is the future of news, necessarily, but that it could be part of a potential future for media and journalism. Weinberger’s argument has some merit to it, and it’s a good reminder that the eventual [...]

  17. [...] came to the conclusion that yes, we can — not that Reddit is the future of news, necessarily, but that it could be part of a potential future for media and journalism[2]. Weinberger’s argument has some merit to it, and it’s a good reminder that the eventual [...]

  18. [...] came to the conclusion that yes, we can — not that Reddit is the future of news, necessarily, but that it could be part of a potential future for media and journalism. Weinberger’s argument has some merit to it, and it’s a good reminder that the eventual [...]

  19. [...] David Weinberger: Reddit and community journalism [...]

  20. I’ve been a Redditor for years, and a Slashdotter before that. If anything, Reddit fills me with despair for our future.

    You write about the IAMAs, but neglect to mention how many of them turn out to be trolls, pretending to be someone they aren’t and spreading lies and misinformation for the lulz. Occasionally, Reddit mods go to the trouble of validating someone’s credentials, but most of the time, they don’t, and rumors and lies slowly become accepted as fact.

    Racists love this. It’s common to see someone say, “IAMA Restaurant owner who saved his business by keeping black diners away” and then go on to spread apocryphal stories about how terrible black people are. Stormfront has actively organized their racist community to game votes on Reddit, and Reddit has no real mechanism in place to stop this kind of manipulation.

    To be honest, though, as disgusting as this is, I’m less troubled by the overt trolls and racists than the simple lowest common denominatorism and the way Reddit caters to and enhances it. The site is dominated by late teen and early twentysomething white US males and their characteristic behaviors, amplified by anonymity. Any “truth” that hits the frontpage has to make it through this inexperienced, testosterone-soaked filter, and ultimately ends up containing huge doses of ignorance and misogyny.

    Reddit has not always been as bad as this, but recently, the site has seen an uptick in whole threads being lifted from 4chan and reposted. The influx of users from Digg — a site that was never substantially about conversation — has lowered the signal-to-noise ratio significantly, as well. There’s a word for this degradation of a community’s ability to converse intelligently with itself as it becomes more popular: chantropy.

    The chantropy of Reddit is increasing daily, and shows few signs of stopping. I haven’t even mentioned the truly ugly side of Reddit, like /picsofdeadkids or /jailbait, but I would be remiss if didn’t. The one that caught the attention of the front page a few days ago was a subreddit devoted to abusing women and images of women being beaten, with a background cartoon of a physically beaten woman being urinated on. The consensus was, “Who are we to judge?”

    Sorry, but I just don’t find the “hope” in that.

  21. [...] that yes, we are able to – not that Reddit is the way forward for news, necessarily, but that it is usually a part of a possible future for media and journalism . Weinberger’s argument has some merit to it, and it is a good reminder that the eventual [...]

  22. [...] Web philosopher David Weinberger wrote a fantastic piece about the journalistic curiosity and community exchange that’s present at Reddit, and [...]

  23. [...] fully embrace the externalization of our personal behaviors and social institutions. # For example, David Weinberger recently demontrated how the externalisation of the journalistic process is playing out on Reddit, [...]

  24. [...] Reddit and community journalism- David Weinberger, August 13, 2011 [...]

  25. Journalism? No, I don’t think so…

  26. [...] Debrouwere’s point about Reddit was reinforced during a recent “Ask me anything” discussion the site did with Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times. Although there were some typically light-hearted and irreverent questions from Reddit users, it was as illuminating an interview about Krugman’s views as I have read in any magazine or newspaper. David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has also written about Reddit as a prototype for a different kind of journalism. [...]

  27. [...] Debrouwere’s point about Reddit was reinforced during a recent “Ask me anything” discussion the site did with Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times. Although there were some typically light-hearted and irreverent questions from Reddit users, it was as illuminating an interview about Krugman’s views as I have read in any magazine or newspaper. David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has also written about Reddit as a prototype for a different kind of journalism. [...]

  28. [...] Debrouwere’s point about Reddit was reinforced during a recent “Ask me anything” discussion the site did with Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times. Although there were some typically light-hearted and irreverent questions from Reddit users, it was as illuminating an interview about Krugman’s views as I have read in any magazine or newspaper. David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has also written about Reddit as a prototype for a different kind of journalism. [...]

  29. [...] Debrouwere’s point about Reddit was reinforced during a recent “Ask me anything” discussion the site did with Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times. Although there were some typically light-hearted and irreverent questions from Reddit users, it was as illuminating an interview about Krugman’s views as I have read in any magazine or newspaper. David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has also written about Reddit as a prototype for a different kind of journalism. [...]

  30. [...] Debrouwere’s point about Reddit was reinforced during a recent “Ask me anything” discussion the site did with Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times. Although there were some typically light-hearted and irreverent questions from Reddit users, it was as illuminating an interview about Krugman’s views as I have read in any magazine or newspaper. David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has also written about Reddit as a prototype for a different kind of journalism. [...]

  31. [...] Weinberger, miembro del Centro Berkman de Harvard para Internet y Sociedad, también ha destacado Redditt como un ejemplo a tener en cuenta para hace un tipo diferente de [...]

  32. [...] Debrouwere’s point about Reddit was reinforced during a recent “Ask me anything” discussion the site did with Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times. Although there were some typically light-hearted and irreverent questions from Reddit users, it was as illuminating an interview about Krugman’s views as I have read in any magazine or newspaper. David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has also written about Reddit as a prototype for a different kind of journalism.Paul [...]

  33. [...] allows people who wouldn’t normally be part of the traditional journalism sphere of influence to interact with those affected by a story like Colorado, by doing things like asking questions of those involved. I have no doubt that Reddit [...]

  34. [...] also allows people who wouldn’t routinely be partial of a normal broadcasting globe of change to correlate with those influenced by a story like Colorado, by doing things like seeking questions of those involved. we have no doubt that [...]

  35. […] Reddit ha decidido apostar por el periodismo ciudadano con la herramienta LiveUpdate. Las revueltas vividas en Ucrania han suscitado la creación de esta aplicación que permite a los usuarios crear y actualizar blogs en tiempo real sobre acontecimientos concretos. […]

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