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.