Joho the BlogReddit is not a community. But there's a little more to say. - Joho the Blog

Reddit is not a community. But there’s a little more to say.

Dennis Tenen has an excellent post reminding people that calling Reddit a community is at best sloppy. I have committed this sloppiness, although at times I do try to be more careful, because I fundamentally agree with Dennis on this. In fact, I resist calling anything on the Net a community because it’s a word worth preserving, although I’m afraid it has already slipped its moorings and has floated away from its original meaning.

I think of communities in their traditional sense as being people who care about each other more than they have to. Even so, Adrienne Debigare [twitter:adbigare] and I recently wrote about Reddit at HBR.org, and we use the word “community” 32 times. We do, however, try to clarify our sloppiness toward the beginning:

[Reddit] is often talked about as a community, but its scale—169M unique visitors a month—stretches that term. Rather, it’s helpful to think of it not just as a community but as a culture that springs from a set of values and a form of discourse.

Adrienne and I also did a Radio Berkman podcast on this topic, and may have been much sloppier.

Dennis does a more precise job. He notes that a community typically: [1] is a social entity, [2] that occupies some contiguous stretch of real or virtual space, and [3] will usually “share a value system, which in turn manifests itself in specific customs, norms, and modes of governance.”

The pedant in me wants to fiddle with that, but Dennis isn’t arguing about the application of a term. He’s pointing out that it’s a mistake to think that Reddit is a single community, a single culture, a single set of people who share the same values, or whatever terms we want to use. Reddit “can be better described as a platform that facilitates a range of activities: some communal in nature, some commercial, and other simply private.”

Dennis is right.

But I think there are some weak ways in which it make sense to talk about a Reddit culture, even while recognizing that there is nothing one can say about values, discourse, or content that would be true of each of Reddit’s tens of thousands of subreddits. But there are at least four reasons to talk about the “Reddit culture” in the singular.

First, Reddit the Company makes a decision about what the default subreddits are on the front page, and I imagine that some very high percentage of users don’t customize that page. The company therefore has made a decision about what topics, values, and forms of discourse will stand for Reddit.

Second, contributors to those default subreddits, and to others, sometimes express a sense of identity, as Dennis notes. You can be a redditor. You can be a good redditor or a bad one. Of course this identity is fluid and not uniformly shared. But it exists. It has something to do with participating generously, accepting some norms of behavior (will the OP deliver?), and appreciating particular values that are assumed to be Reddit’s. These values include things like: valuing what is perceived as free and open speech, responding to challenges with some type of reasoned answer rather than mere assertions or hostility, etc. I’m not saying that Reddit lives up to these; there are deeply troubling gender issues, for example. But to say that someone is a true Redditor is to say something.

Third, the company has expressed political opinions, and has engaged with the “community” directly, responsively, and as equals-in-culture. (Clearly, that’s not been the case in the recent brouhaha.) That is, the company has expressed itself as a culture.

Fourth, the software itself enacts a set of values. Of course it can be used in ways contrary to those values, but it tends toward certain values. For example, it promotes unfiltered speech or speech filtered by the community and its mods; it gives every user equal upvotes or downvotes; it enables digressions from a thread without cost; it encourages linking out to the Web rather than assuming everything interesting is within its boundaries; it generally respects the user by not plastering itself with ads; it encourages pseudonymous speech; it assumes that the “community” will decide for itself which topics are interesting enough to merit creating a new subreddit; it is open source code.

None of these warrant us calling Reddit a single culture, much less a community. I agree with Dennis. I just want to leave room for also talking about Reddit as a culture, or at least as having something like a dominant culture, even as we always append Dennis’ caveats. As he writes, since “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. ” That is definitely a mistake we would be wise not to commit.

2 Responses to “Reddit is not a community. But there’s a little more to say.”

  1. […] post Reddit is not a community. But there’s a little more to say. appeared first on Joho the […]

  2. Reddit is an infrastructure. As such it requires (and enforces by mutual benefit) certain protocols, just as a road enforces protocols like “drive on the right” (or left in certain countries), stop at stop signs, stay in your lane, etc., or electrical infrastructure enforces “110v AC” or similar. It is not a community or a shared culture, it is simply a low-level common resource with low-level usage protocols.

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