Digital Communities in Action: Reddit and the Unidan Ban

Recently, there was a major incident on Reddit – its most popular user, Unidan, was banned. If you’re a Redditor, you probably already know this – it was incredibly hard to miss.  If you’re not, here’s a very brief Reddit primer: Reddit is a large content aggregator and participatory digital space, composed of thousands of “subreddits” – forums devoted to a particular topic, interest or pursuit. Reddit uses a “karma”-based voting system to determine the ranking, and therefore visibility, of content throughout the site – an “upvote” earns a post and its author 1 karma point, and a downvote removes one. Karma has no value apart from status, but it is a huge deal within the community and drives participation and content production in all kinds of ways.

Here’s a bio of Unidan written before his banning. He was wildly popular, with a karma count through the roof, and arguably had more name recognition than any other user (with the possible exception of successful novelty accounts like shitty_watercolors and awildsketchappeared.) On July 28th 2014, he was banned permanently by the admins and his account deleted, sparking a flurry of posting and voting activity throughout the site.

There’s a bunch of cool things on display in the Unidan kerfluffle, lessons and qualities of the digital landscape and its communities – but I’m going to focus on just two here.

1) It’s evidence of Reddit as a unified community
Since it shows up a lot in the student interviews for my dissertation, I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to classify Reddit and its warren of subspaces. On the one hand, Reddit’s raison d’être is as a home for affinity spaces – a tool for helping people build spaces devoted to specific common interests and pursuits, with their own membership, character, content, and associated practices. One of the arguments I make in my intro (through an extended and serious close reading of r/AdviceAnimals that was not as fun to write as I expected) is that even subreddits with loosely defined goals and interests can – and should – be considered affinity spaces. Since on average a randomly selected handful of subreddits will have widely divergent topics, frequently leading to equally divergent discourse conventions and posting practices, Reddit as a whole begins to look less like an affinity space and more like a routing station for them – a one-stop shop for (almost) all your affinity needs.

But the aftermath of the Unidan banning makes it extremely clear that while it may not be an affinity space, Reddit  is a community. Not a community of practice; not an affinity space; and more than simply a participatory culture. It’s a straight-up community, bitches. Unidan, charming and/or notorious as he can be by turns, can’t really be termed a “common interest” as digital participation scholars like Gee and Halverson use the concept. His ban didn’t trigger a seismic posting event because all those people feel such a continuous and underlying affinity for the project of  critically recording and analyzing his activity. People tuned in and contributed to the Unidan debate in such numbers because it was an event of cultural importance. 

It’s certainly possible to detect this underlying cultural thread outside of  unusual/abnormal/major events like this one – by tracing the scope of the Redditquette’s influence, for example, or analyzing responses to “Good Guy Reddit” incidents, where Redditors’ real-life actions have a notably positive impact for others. But what’s great about the Unidan Ban is how starkly it shows that culture cutting across the divides that most obscure it at calmer moments. r/AdviceAnimals thinks he’s a martyr to another user’s oversensitivity;  r/subredditdrama thinks he’s high on his own drama; and r/TIFU is just having none of it. (And then r/adviceanimals abruptly changes sides bc of course they did.) But wherever you look, Redditors are showing – not just with the usual votes, but with an outpouring of words as well –  that this is a Community Matter, and that they are part of that community.

2)  Digital communities make the collective memory process highly traceable – and Reddit particularly so 
Reading through the various threads about Unidan’s banning, you can literally see public history in process. The AdviceAnimals side-switching is a great example of this: as the hours go on, the community’s version of the story switches from one where /u/Ecka6 (a user who got into a fight with Unidan shortly before his ban) is to blame, to one where Unidan himself is at fault. Because far more people on Reddit vote than contribute written comments, you can trace the influence of the story depicted in a given thread on the wider community by watching the voting activity it creates: we know /u/Ecka6’s guilt is a community narrative and not just the opinion of the voices in the one thread because the comments by those voices receive many upvotes, and because /u/Ecka6’s posts – not just to Unidan but all of the posts in their recent history – received a huge number of downvotes in the hours following the narrative’s creation.

By watching the voting tide shift in response to new comments/threads revising that narrative, you can see how the changes spread from individuals to the community as a whole. For awhile in the middle, both /u/Ecka6 and Unidan are being “brigaded” by the AA community, until the new (and more or less final) narrative spreads far enough to become the single accepted story. This same process, or some version of it, took place across Reddit as a whole – posts by individuals shifting subreddit communities, those communities using their voting power to influence the visibility of posts in other places, until over time what’s left is a (relatively) unified and widely accepted picture of events.

 


Unfortunately, the very thing that makes this process so uniquely visible on Reddit makes it hard to document it after the fact. Karma scores for comments and threads change constantly. And since the default settings display comments by score (making what’s currently popular most visible at a given time) this creates a snowball effect that’s hard to account for unless you saw it happen. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that comments, user accounts, and sometimes whole threads are frequently deleted entirely – sometimes by the author themselves, sometimes by moderators for violations of the Reddiquette. An interested academic party poking around after the fact can see that the deleted content was influential in some way, but not how or why. So unless you’re at ground zero for a major event and able to put some time into actively tracking it, you’re inevitably going to lose some of the story. Awhile back I had the idea of writing and article about Reddit’s “investigation” of the Boston Bomber and the effects of the detailed (and totally incorrect) theory they created. This could have made an awesome article – but I didn’t get past the idea stage because all the relevant threads had been locked or deleted by the time I got there. I was a bit faster on this Unidan post, but even so there’s a lot missing – the r/AA threads calling for downvotes against Unidan and r/Ecka6 are gone, and I had to rely on secondhand accounts of events like this one rather than my own observations, which works for a blog but wouldn’t fly as an article.

Reddit has long struck me as a rich site for academic study. (I’m not the first to notice this potential. This article by Kristy Roschke on vegan subreddit’s as affinity spaces is the latest example to roll across my path, but there’s lots more – to say nothing of the community’s own meta-efforts.) Watching Unidan’s ban play out helped me articulate some of the reasons for that – but it also highlighted some potential research challenges I hadn’t considered before. The addition of the karma system to the already fast-moving digital community environment makes reviewing threads after the fact an incomplete and potentially even unreliable technique. And since the scope of the space makes surveying everything impossible, you’d need to think carefully about how to match your collection method to your research goals. Embedded ethnography seems like a possible match for some research goals, since it would enable you to study voting patterns more closely and increase your ability to notice and track major events from early on – but being limited to one or just a handful of subreddits would limit the scope of your findings as well, and miss out on the scope and depth that make Reddit such a unique site of inquiry.

Tracing out Reddit research designs for hypothetical research objectives would be a good mental exercise for me – to say nothing of giving me some strong starting points for future work. It’s added to my list of topics for future posts; until then, I’ll set the back of my mind to work generating some possible Reddit-friendly RQs.

Membership Anxiety in Digital Communities

In the run-up to Computers and Writing, the DRC fellows have been engaged in an interesting conversation about the communities we belong to – mostly digital, but face-to-face as well. The discussion started as ostensible planning for the panel/workshop we’ll be leading on our work with the DRC wiki this past year, and its ongoing attempt to build a history of digital rhetoric and writing through community efforts. We got to talking about how being a contributing member of any community – but particularly professional ones – is a commitment, something that takes investments of both time and effort. To help us think about how we ourselves make decisions about distributing our efforts, and about community membership in general, we started an email conversation by all answering these 4 seemingly simple questions:

  1. In what digital communities do you participate?
  2. In what f2f communities do you participate?
  3. As follow-ups to the two questions above… What do those communities do/accomplish — what is their shared purpose? Who facilitates the operation of those communities? What are the discourses and genres of those communities?
  4. How do you choose which communities to participate in? Why those communities over others? What “pressures” or demands do these communities place on your “attention,” and how do you negotiate those demands?

Answering these questions was surprisingly tough! I’m already thinking a lot about digital communities and participation these days, so any additional thinking about those topics inevitably pulls on a huge network of mental strings, making things instantly complicated. For example, the term “digital community” – what should I be defining as a community, and what’s more of a participatory or affinity-based space? Should I include those? Am I even really an active member in any of the digital communities I visit these days? And on and on.

I wasn’t the only one who struggled with defining community involvement and what should be included. It became clear from the first wave of the discussion that when we think of our community membership, what comes to mind is professional affiliations, or groups where our involvement has definite links to our professional interests. These lines weren’t always hard and fast, however; for example, one Fellow struggled to identify whether her activity on Wikipedia fell into “personal” or “professional.”

Of course, one of the great things about the rise of all these digital spaces is that it’s encouraged a more permeable boundary between professional and personal – allowing the different discourses, personas and spaces we inhabit to blend more easily, and without seeming out of place. This is something that comes up in The Florida School’s discussions about electracy. In their quest to “jump right in and shape the electronic apparatus” by “inventing new modes of discourse that take both critical theory and digital media for granted” (6), they advocate embracing a much more fluid approach to hat-wearing. When we create theories for understanding our hypermediate world, we need to be drawing from all four sectors of experience: family, entertainment, school (community history) and career (disciplinary field).

This idea fascinated me when I encountered it during my reading for prelims. The idea that successful scholarship not only could but should draw on the discourses and experiences of my life outside academia felt very strange, and at the same time very right. In the years since then, I’ve come to see this idea operating throughout the disciplinary activity around me. It seems bound up, though perhaps only implicitly, with the growing acceptance that all reading and writing is multimodal, and therefore invention today requires us to draw from a wide range of available modes and genres. (Is this still a “growing acceptance?” Or is this an accepted thing in Comp/Rhet now? It can be so hard to tell from inside this comfortable subtower of computers and writing.) As we extend the range of media and material from which we can (and arguably must) draw to do our best work, that range seems to be accommodating more of the sector-crossing that Ulmer and the other Electrates advocate.

It’s also possible, of course, that I see things this way because I’ve become more comfortable in my skin as an academic in the past few years. But the fact that these boundaries proved so hard to define for my fellow…Fellows supports the idea that we’re still adjusting to the idea that our experience sectors can’t be kept entirely separate anymore if we’re to be most successful within them, even if we might be more comfortable that way. In addition to struggling to define whether a particular community should be coded as “work” or “personal,” one fellow also commented that she’d initially left a community off her list because it seemed so directly personal – related to her interest in running. But she was able to see several clear ways in which her experiences in that community had enabled and shaped her participation in other more decidedly professional digital spaces. Moments like these suggest to me that the Electracy folks are right, at least for those of us in digital studies: the best work comes when we’re able to draw on all our available experiences. Just as I can’t make my best contributions to the digital projects of the DRC without drawing on my experiences with personal blogging or editing gaming-based wikis, I can’t make my best scholarly contribution to conversations about digital literacy and theories thereof without pulling on my experiences growing up in a house full of computers in various stages of assembly, or my own struggles to just get my damn website organized the way I want it. (The latter situation is still ongoing as of press time.)

This is one of the reasons I find it so useful to think in terms of affinity spaces, rather than – or I guess in addition to – communities. (It’s worth noting, if only in hopes of shaming myself to action, that despite being aggravated every time I visit by the shortcomings of this entry, I have not yet taken the step of editing it.) The whole idea of affinity spaces is that they let us think of groups of people in terms of their shared interest or purpose, rather than a shared set of traits or practices for interacting within the space. Members of affinity spaces might be active contributors – or they might just be active lurkers. They might be involved in the space because they have a strong personal curiosity about its central topic, or because the topic relates in some way to their professional activities. Or both. The idea of affinity spaces allows for that kind of diversity, and gives participants a way to think of themselves in relationship to the space that doesn’t bring with it a fixed set of requirements. Freed from the anxiety that comes with asking “am I really a member?”, it’s easier to step back and see the full network of spaces, groups and – yes – communities in which we participate.