Post Histories as Profiles: Commenting Cultures on Reddit
This is the full abstract of my Association of Internet Researchers conference 2020 presentation.
My contribution to the panel on commenting cultures was an argument that cohensive identities are still important on the largely pseudonymous social media platform Reddit.
Since we can’t meet in person this AoIR, feel free to drop me a line over the internet! I’m at emily [dot] vandernagel [at] monash.edu, and I tweet at @emvdn.
In this paper, I examine a genre of posts that call others out for inconsistent comments to argue that cohesive identities remain important on the largely pseudonymous social media platform Reddit. Analysing posts that reference comment histories in the subreddit r/QuitYourBullshit evidences a need for people to post consistent identity information.
“Don’t read the comments”: Criticism and gendered harm
Beginning with the common exhortation “don’t read the comments” means acknowledging that internet culture is often fraught. Titling a report Don’t Read the Comments: Enhancing Online Safety for Women Working in the Media (Gender Equity Victoria 2019) casts comments as a vehicle for sexist harassment and abuse that undermines women journalist’s professionalism. Journalist Jessica Valenti made a case for ending comment sections in online news, arguing that “comments uphold power structures instead of subverting them: sexism, racism and homophobia are the norm; threats and harassment are common” (Valenti 2015 n.p.).
A browser extension that automatically hides comment sections boasts that it “puts an additional layer of decision between the habitual scroller and the waste of attention that awaits” (drestuart 2019 n.p.). An argument by communication scholar Joseph Reagle that comments are the “bottom half of the web” (2015: 1) investigates comments as a reactive genre of communication that has the potential to inform and entertain, but are also easily manipulated, and can be used to harass or troll. While this broader online commenting culture is considered an often troubling territory rife with gendered harassment and of little value to blogs and news, on Reddit, comments animate the entire platform.
Reddit: A comment-led platform culture
Comments on Reddit appear on posts within specific subreddits, which provide contexts for conversations. Comments can be upvoted, granting the user karma points and pushing the comment towards the top of the list, or downvoted, which risks the comment being hidden.
Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman introduced comments to his platform of submitted links in 2005, finding the addition immediately validating: “All of a sudden, links to articles elsewhere online became their own dynamic pages, containing discussions between real people” (Huffman in Lagorio-Chafkin 2018: 76). Reddit threads comments together, which keeps all the responses to an initial comment together, structuring the comments section and allowing conversations to splinter off into smaller discussions as comment sections grow.
A number of research papers investigate the cultures of specific subreddits, framing them as a community in the process. On r/Mexico, people give direct, encouraging advice in both Spanish and English (Glide 2018). Fans of the true crime podcast Serial discuss the latest episode on r/Serial, but also critique the US criminal justice system (Buozis 2019). A lesbian subreddit was found to explicitly accept and celebrate identity-based differences, rather than policing the boundaries of the lesbian identity (Foeken & Roberts 2019). Active members of subreddits often share common interests and goals. But this doesn’t mean that subreddits are simply harmonious communities that exist as peaceful islands.
r/Quit Your Bullshit: Reddit cultures clashing
Unlike social media platforms that have “real name” policies, such as Facebook, Redditors are largely pseudonymous. Instead of a list of personal information, a Reddit profile displays the most recent posts and comments someone has made. In this way, someone’s comments almost become their profile. This can lead to conversations, and even accusations, around identity.
An entire genre of posts to subreddit r/QuitYourBullshit involves people challenging others on their Reddit identities. One post to r/QuitYourBullshit describes the contradiction in the title:
OP [original poster] is saying that he was thrown in jail for six months for DNA [fraudulently claiming that an Amazon package Did Not Arrive] but if you check his post history you can see that he posted something about DNA just 99 days ago (GamingManiac989 2019 n.p.).
In a screenshot posted by Fun11111 (2019), a Redditor’s post to a question and answer subreddit, “I’m 7’1 AMA [Ask Me Anything]” was countered by another user:
Based on your post history you are an interesting guy. Make $2m per year, grew from 6’6” to 7’11” in less than 3 weeks, you are a Harvard admissions officer while only just sitting your SAT, while struggling to get a drivers license despite owning several luxury cars. Or you are just making shit up.
Checking someone’s post history for comments that contradict them or reveal some other foolishness are common enough that on meta-subreddits like r/UnpopularOpinion or r/TheoryofReddit this is discussed as a tactic. “Looking through someone’s post history to “win” an argument is stupid”, says DarthKittie (2019).
The distinction between r/QuitYourBullshit posters seeing post history as legitimate material for challenging someone on their identity, and other subreddits disparaging this as a petty tactic, shows that Reddit is not a monolithic culture, but is comprised of subreddits and Redditors that may hold opposing views, but often interact. When comments become essential identity information, the need for this identity to be presented coherently and consistently demonstrates that Redditors are invested in a kind of pseudonymous authenticity as a foundation for their communities to be built on.
Buozis, M. 2019. ‘Doxing or Deliberative Democracy? Evidence and Digital Affordances in the Serial Subreddit’, Convergence, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 357–373.
DarthKittie. 2019. ‘Looking Through Someone’s Post History’, r/UnpopularOpinion, Reddit, viewed 21 February 2020, https://www.reddit.com/r/unpopularopinion/comments/dypnwa/looking_through_someones_post_history_to_win_an/.
drestuart. 2019. ‘Don’t Read The Comments!’, Chrome Web Store, 2 January, https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/dont-read-the-comments/nlhmhpppjnlbdfgebinkgjiljipnejbe?hl=en.
Foeken, E & Roberts, S. 2019. ‘Reifying Difference: Examining the Negotiation of Internal Diversity on a (Post-)Lesbian Subreddit’, Sexualities, vol. 22, no. 7–8, pp. 1268–1287.
Fun11111. 2019. ‘Bruh the Patience’, r/QuitYourBullshit, Reddit, viewed 21 February 2020, https://www.reddit.com/r/quityourbullshit/comments/dhmmd3/bruh_the_patience_you_have_to_have_just_to_check/.
GamingManiac989. 2019. ‘OP Is Saying’, r/QuitYourBullshit, Reddit, viewed 21 February 2020, https://www.reddit.com/r/quityourbullshit/comments/cxnkoh/op_is_saying_that_he_was_thrown_in_jail_for_six/.
Gender Equity Victoria. 2019. ‘Don’t Read the Comments: Enhancing Online Safety for Women Working in the Media’, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, 18 December, viewed 21 February 2020, https://www.meaa.org/download/dont-read-the-comments-enhancing-online-safety-for-women-working-in-the-media/.
Glide, M. 2018. ‘¿Cuáles son sus recomendaciones?: A Comparative Analysis of Discourse Practices Implemented in the Giving and Seeking of Advice on a Mexican Subreddit in Both Spanish and English’, Current Issues in Pragmatic Variation, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 181–207.
Lagorio-Chafkin, C. 2018. We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory, Piatkus, London.
Reagle, JM. 2015. Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, MIT Press, Cambridge.
Valenti, J. 2015. ‘Not All Comments Are Created Equal: The Case for Ending Online Comments’, The Guardian, 10 September, viewed 21 February 20202, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/10/end-online-comments