On Reddit, user Amaranthine cites a tweet from Soniasaraiya that points to a signal that one of Melania’s speechwriters may be a mole working against the Trump campaign: Was Melania rickrolled?
Rickrolling is a prank in which misleading text links to a video of Rick Astley singing his 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” For example, if I wrote “Here’s an incredible secret video of Hillary whispering to Bill that she lied about Benghazi,” and you click on the link, you’ve been rickrolled.” The video has been viewed over 224 million times, but no one knows how many times on purpose. (Interestingly, Rick Astley seems to have plagiarized the song from this awkward amateur version.)
This not such a unique, unexpected turn of phrase that it could only have been plagiarized. On the other hand: 224,238,266 views! This is the opposite of obscure.
So, if you were the speechwriter who not only put plagiarized text into Melania Trump’s introduce-yourself-to-America speech, but you took that text from Michelle Obama’s introduce-yourself-to-America speech eight years earlier, you might well want to flag that Melania’s speech rickrolled us and her: Melania’s words, uttered sincerely, turn out to “link” to an annoyingly lightweight pop song.
Just for fun, here’s an autotuned version of Melania singing her lyrics, created by redditor cbuntz:
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.
Dennis does a more precise job. He notes that a community typically:  is a social entity,  that occupies some contiguous stretch of real or virtual space, and  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.
Reddit is in flames. I can only see one way out of it that preserves the site’s unique value.
I say this as an old man who loves Reddit despite being way outside its main demographic. Of course there are outrageously objectionable subreddits—topical discussion boards—but you don’t have to visit those. Reddit at its best is wonderful. Inspiring, even. It is a self-regulated set of communities that is capable of great collective insight, humor, and kindness. (At its worst, it is one of the nightmares of the Internet.)
Because Reddit is so large, with 169M unique visitors each month, it is impossible to generalize accurately about what went on yesterday and is continuing today. Nevertheless, the precipitating cause was the termination of the employment of Victoria Taylor for reasons Reddit and she have not disclosed. Victoria was not only the wildly popular enabler of Reddit’s wildly popular AMA‘s (“Ask Me Anything”), she was the only Reddit employee visible to most redditors (Reddit users).
Victoria’s sudden dismissal was taken by many as a sign of the increasing misalignment of Reddit’s business goals and the culture of its communities. Reddit, it is feared, is going commercial. The volunteer moderators (“mods”) of some of the large subreddits have also complained that their requests for support over the past months have gone unanswered.
In protest, many of the large subreddits and a long list of smaller ones have gone private and are thus dark to most of the world. This will have some financial effect on Reddit, but it is better understood as a political protest, applying the technique used successfully in 2012 when Reddit, Wikipedia, and other major sites went dark to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills that would have limited Internet freedom. It is an assertion-by-deprivation of the cultural value of these subreddits.
It is, I believe, a mistake to view this uproar primarily in terms of economics or business. This is an attempt by a community to stay a community despite perceived attempts by the business underneath it to commercialize it. Up until now, Reddit the Company has understood the importance of accepting and promoting its community’s values. Advertising is unobtrusive, some of which lets users comment on the ad itself. Reddit makes money also from its users buying “Reddit gold” to bestow upon comments they find particularly valuable. Reddit gold has no monetary value, so users are consciously paying Reddit money for the privilege of paying another user a visible compliment. And Reddit has sternly defended the free speech of its users even when that speech is, well, horrible—although the management did controversially shut down some shaming and hating sites a few weeks ago.
Reddit is in bad shape today. The meme-making forces of sarcasm it’s famous for have been turned inwards.The most loyal users are feeling betrayed. Some of the communities that have driven Reddit forward as a cultural force are feeling abused. It’s hard to come back from that.
A big part of the problem is that Victoria, the face of Reddit to its own community, was accepted as “One of us! One of us!” as redditors sometime self-mockingly invoke the movie Freaks. Indeed, she embodied many of the virtues of Reddit at its best: curious, accepting, welcoming, helpful, funny. Many redditors saw themselves reflected in her.
Victoria was thereby an important part of Reddit’s support of what I call “The Gettysburg Principles“: She helped Reddit seem to be by, for, and of us. Now the face of Reddit is Ellen Pao, the interim CEO who is largely derided and detested at Reddit because she seems to be “One of them! One of them!”— a Silicon Valley player.
If we view this first and foremost as a problem in maintaining a community rather than strictly as a revenue issue, then I can only see one way forward: Pao should get off her executive horse, engage with the community in public, and show that she’s a redditor too. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder, also should step forward with his best redditor face on. Alexis when free of corporate pressures is a redditor through and through.
There is still an opportunity for Reddit to show that it understands the source of all its value: communities trusted to run themselves, and a strong sense of shared cultures.
I’ve posted at Medium a list of the 11 questions CNN asked Bernie Sanders and the top 11 questions at a Reddit AMA with him two days later.
There’s no question in my mind that Reddit’s questions are better in any relevant sense of the term. How typical was the godawful CNN interview? Based on my watching a lot of CNN, I’d say it was particularly bad, but not atypical.
The post has provoked some interesting comments by journalists and others.
Cluetrain touted the rise of customer voices. We see through the marketing bullshit and we tell one another about it.
Fine, but there was always the problem that if you’re a consumer products company, you only need 1% of customers to make it look like your products are godawful because a corner was dented. “You totalz Suck PRocter/Gambel!!”
But because it’s Reddit, the customer’s concern is answered by someone who knows how planes are constructed. No, the popped-out window isn’t a danger to the integrity of the plane. Customer conversations can help customers get things right.
(By the way, United, you might want to fix that window. It’s upsetting the passengers.)
In August, I blogged about a mangled quotation supposedly from Mark Twain posted on an interstitial page at Forbes.com. When I tweeted about the post, it was (thanks to John Overholt [twitter:JohnOverholt]) noticed by Quote Investigator [twitter:QuoteResearch] , who over the course of a few hours tweeted the results of his investigation. Yes, it was mangled. No, it was not Twain. It was probably Christian Bovee. Quote Investigator, who goes by the pen name Garson O’Toole, has now posted on his site at greater length about this investigation.
It’s been clear from the beginning of the Web that it gives us access to experts on topics we never even thought of. As the Web has become more social, and as conversations have become scaled up, these crazy-smart experts are no longer nestling at home. They’re showing up like genies summoned by the incantation of particular words. We see this at Twitter, Reddit, and other sites with large populations and open-circle conversations.
This is a great thing, especially if the conversational space is engineered to give prominence to the contributions of drive-by experts. We want to take advantage of the fact that if enough people are in a conversation, one of them will be an expert.
It was a really good discussion between Clive and Steve, without any of the trumped up argumentativeness that too often mars this type of public conversation. It was, of course, too short, but with a topic like this, we want it to bust its bounds, don’t we?
My participation was minimal, but that’s why we have blogs, right? So, here are two points I would have liked to pursue further.
First, if we’re going to ask if the Net makes us smart or stupid, we have to ask who we’re talking about. More exactly, who in what roles? So, I’d say that the Net’s made me stupider in that I spend more of my time chasing down trivialities. I know more about Miley Cyrus than I would have in the old days. Now I find that I’m interested in the Miley Phenomenon — the media’s treatment, the role of celebrity, the sexualization of everything, etc. — whereas before I would never have felt it worth a trip to the library or the purchase of an issue of Tiger Beat or whatever. (Let me be clear: I’m not that interested. But that’s the point: it’s all now just a click away.)
On the other hand, if you ask if the Net has made scholars and experts smarter, I think the answer has to be an almost unmitigated yes. Find me a scholar or expert who would turn off the Net when pursuing her topic. All discussions of whether the Net makes us smarter I think should begin by considering those who are in the business of being smart, as we all are at some points during the day.
Now, that’s not really as clear a distinction as I’d like. It’s possible to argue that the Net’s made experts stupider because it’s enabled people to become instant “experts” on topics. (Hat tip to Visiona-ary [twitter:0penCV] who independently raised this on Twitter.) We can delude ourselves into thinking we’re experts because we’ve skimmed the Wikipedia article or read an undergrad’s C- post about it. But is it really a bad thing that we can now get a quick gulp of knowledge in a field that we haven’t studied and probably never will study in depth? Only if we don’t recognize that we are just skimmers. At that point we find ourselves seriously arguing with a physicist about information’s behavior at the event horizon of a black hole as if we actually knew what we were talking about. Or, worse, we find ourselves disregarding our physician’s advice because we read something on the Internet. Humility is 95% of knowledge.
Here’s a place where learning some of the skills of journalists would be helpful for us all. (See Dan Gillmor‘s MediActive for more on this.) After all, the primary skill of a particular class of journalists is their ability to speak for experts in a field in which the journalist is not her/himself expert. Journalists, however, know how to figure out who to consult, and don’t confuse themselves with experts themselves. Modern media literacy means learning some of the skills and all of the humility of good journalists.
Second, Clive Thompson made the excellent and hugely important point that knowledge is now becoming public. In the radio show, I tried to elaborate on that in a way that I’m confident Clive already agrees with by saying that it’s not just public, it’s social, and not just social, but networked. Jian Ghomeshi, the host, raised the question of misinformation on the Net by pointing to Reddit‘s misidentification of one of the Boston bombers. He even played a touching and troubling clip by the innocent person’s brother talking about the permanent damage this did to the family. Now, every time you look up “Sunil Tripathi” on the Web, you’ll see him misidentified as a suspect in the bombing.
I responded ineffectively by pointing to Judith Miller’s year of misreporting for the NY Times that helped move us into a war, to make the point that all media are error prone. Clive did a better job by citing a researcher who fact checked an entire issue of a newspaper and uncovered a plethora of errors (mainly small, I assume) that were never corrected and that are preserved forever in the digital edition of that paper.
But I didn’t get a chance to say the thing that I think matters more. So, go ahead and google “Sunil Tripathi”. You will have to work at finding anything that identifies him as the Boston Bomber. Instead, the results are about his being wrongly identified, and about his suicide (which apparently occurred before the false accusations were made).
None of this excuses the exuberantly irresponsible way a subreddit (i.e., a topic-based discussion) at Reddit accused him. And it’s easy to imagine a case in which such a horrible mistake could have driven someone to suicide. But that’s not my point. My point here is twofold.
First, the idea that false ideas once published on the Net continue forever uncorrected is not always the case. If we’re taking as our example ideas that are clearly wrong and are important, the corrections will usually be more obvious and available to us than in the prior media ecology. (That doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of getting facts right in the first place.)
Second, this is why I keep insisting that knowledge now lives in networks the way it used to live in books or newspapers. You get the truth not in any single chunk but in the web of chunks that are arguing, correcting, and arguing about the corrections. This, however, means that knowledge is an argument, or a conversation, or is more like the webs of contention that characterize the field of living scholarship. There was an advantage to the old ecosystem in which there was a known path to authoritative opinions, but there were problems with that old system as well.
That’s why it irks me to take any one failure, such as the attempt to crowdsource the identification of the Boston murderers, as a trump card in the argument the Net makes us stupider. To do so is to confuse the Net with an aggregation of public utterances. That misses the transformative character of the networking of knowledge. The Net’s essential character is that it’s a network, that it’s connected. We therefore have to look at the network that arose around those tragically wrong accusations.
So, search for Sunil Tripathi at Reddit.com and you will find a list of discussions at Reddit about how wrong the accusation was, how ill-suited Reddit is for such investigations, and how the ethos and culture of Reddit led to the confident condemning of an innocent person. That network of discussion — which obviously extends far beyond Reddit’s borders — is the real phenomenon…”real” in the sense that the accusations themselves arose from a network and were very quickly absorbed into a web of correction, introspection, and contextualization.
The network is the primary unit of knowledge now. For better and for worse.
I gave a webcast talk at Library2.013 titled “Lessons from Reddit.” It’s available as an mp4 for streaming or downloading here. (You might want to start about 3 minutes in, in order to save 3 minutes of your life.)
It was a bit discursive. I had a few topics I knew I wanted to talk about, but I just talked. Here are the topics (with start times), as drawn from the lowest-value slide deck ever: