How Reddit is Making Us Stoopid

Maui Time | December 5, 2012
How Online Popularity Contests Are Killing Politics

Luddite? Not me.

I like tech.

Played Pong, loved Space Invaders. Was obsessed with the TRS-80, Commodore 64 and Apple II. One of my first jobs, as a traffic engineer for an Ohio suburb, had me programming a Honeywell 77 computer the size of a small car; I loved those crazy punchcards ("do not fold, spindle or mutilate"), FORTRAN and the green glow of the LED terminal.

I was among the first cartoonists to put my email address on my work; I loved the instant audience feedback. Still do. So I blog and I've embraced social networking. I tweet. I post to Facebook. And Google Plus, though I'm not sure why. LinkedIn has the dumbest business model ever--in the middle of a Depression, it's where jobseekers meet nonexistent would-be employers—but I use it anyway (to connect to other underemployed losers).

So. Note to people who are reading this online: I'm one of you.

Anyway, when a friend told me I should post my cartoons and columns to Reddit, I did.

Reddit, which was owned by the Condé Nast media conglomerate from 2006 to 2011 and is now its sister company, is a bulletin board whose registered users ("redditors") post items to various categories ("reddits"): links, images, thoughts, whatever. As these entries appear, redditors can "upvote" or "downvote" them. Each reddit has a front page where posts with the highest net number of votes (upvotes minus downvotes) appear first.

"Officially, votes are intended to indicate importance and relevance to the topic, and not popularity (i.e., a Downvote is not a Dislike, it merely indicates that the redditor thinks that the submission is not worthy of making it to the front page," according to Wikipedia. From Reddit's FAQ: "Well written [sic] and interesting content can be worthwhile, even if you disagree with it…If you think something contributes to conversation, upvote it."

Nice theory.

Like capitalism, it doesn't work so well in the real virtual world.

First I posted under my name. There's no rule against it, but it turns out Redditors dislike self-promotion.

So I created an anonymous handle.

Here's the thing: What makes the top listings at Reddit is usually dumb. Really really dumb. Rock-bottom low-brow. Stoopid.

As I write this, here are the top three:

No matter how old I get, I will always put my fingers in these (A link to a photo of rolls of Christmas wrapping paper in a store, with the shrinkwrapping punctured on each.)

So I went diving with sharks recently but this guy couldn't help but smile for the camera (A link to a photo of a shark that appears to be smiling.)

Malicious Advice Mallard on marriage (A link to a "meme," a joke photo of a duck with the caption "Marriage failing? Have a baby that will fix it.")

This is a typical mix: Fluff, fluff, fluff. Yeah, I'm biased. Whatever; I think my stuff deserves as much play as a photo of a smirky elongate elasmobranch. Thus my fake handle.

The good news is that hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Reddit readers follow the links to each of my cartoons and columns.

Then an interesting pattern occurs.

There's an initial flurry of upposts. The item climbs. Then there's a flood of downposts.

This mirrors what I've seen elsewhere online. Left or right, political content often gets an initial burst of positive responses posted by people who agree with its point of view. Popularity-based metrics like Reddit's bring the item to wider attention, which includes people who disagree with it. Who then vote it back down.

Usually to zero.

I've seen the same phenomenon on other sites but it's particularly pronounced on Reddit because of its upvote/downvote scheme. I'll watch my cartoon soar through upvotes only to come crashing down to zero as the downvotes come in.

It's not just my stuff. Most content with a strong political point of view gets crushed by downvoters who evidently don't know or care about Reddit's "vote it up if it's interesting, even if you disagree with it" admonition. The result: political content is vanishing down the cyber memory hole. It's still there—if you can find it. But most people won't bother. They'll go to Reddit's main page, click on the funny animal photos, and leave.

It's not just the specific political content that's disappearing. It's the idea of politics itself. When politics isn't part of the dialogue online, the idea that we can and should argue about the laws and ideas that govern our society disappears from our national consciousness. People simply stop thinking about it. Those who remember to look for political content take note of the disappearance of politics and draw the conclusion that they are alone, that politics aren't popular. If you like politics but no one you know does, you probably won't bug others with the subject. Soon the subject starts to fade from your own brain.

What's crazy is, politics are popular. Reddit readers read my political cartoons. They vote them up. But you wouldn't know that from looking at Reddit.

Should you care?

As the crisis of print media continues to shrink mainstream reporting, analysis and opinion, sites like Reddit are supposedly poised to step in to fill the void. A clunky transition is inevitable.

The problem is, Michael Barthel wrote in Salon, too many online consumers and gatekeepers think they're already awesome: "One of the weirdest things about the Web is its eagerness to obsessively criticize every other form of media except the Web itself. Traditional journalism is dying, and it's just a matter of time before the Internet figures out a new and improved form that will make everything perfect forever," Michael Barthel wrote in Salon in July.

Barthel was criticizing "citizen journalism." But his web skepticism can also apply to social media's unwitting contribution to depoliticization: "The Web seems neutral, because it is an open platform that anyone can use. But just because anyone can does not mean everyone does. The stories that get covered are the ones citizen journalists care about most, and these citizen journalists tend toward a certain social-cultural-economic orientation."

The Internet is exciting. Old media is stodgy. But democracy will suffer unless the Web gets better at politics.

Thanks to the social-cultural-economic orientation of too many Redditors, it's the Malicious Advice Mallard's world. We only live in it.

Not that you can see us on Reddit.

(Ted Rall's website is The author of "The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt," he is working on a new book about the war in Afghanistan to be released in Fall 2013 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)


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