On(line) Community

I’m not terribly impressed by people who brag about not having a Facebook account, or who claim to have never used Twitter (unless, I suppose, they’re elderly or Amish and find these things genuinely bewitching), and that’s because — like it or not — these are the places where conversation happens in the modern age. You can rant and rave and complain about the death of human contact all you like, but at the end of the day, social media matters.

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To be clear, I have very little good to say about the quality of the conversation that takes place in these spaces, but to deny the significance and power of these platforms is myopic and ignorant. If you’re not participating, you’re doing so to your own detriment, especially since the level and function of your participation is entirely up to you.

With all of that as a disclaimer, I want to talk about community. Social media spaces are community spaces — some of them are more cohesive than others, but even if you’re the smallest voice in a hurricane of desperate shouting, you are still a part of it. It’s easy to underestimate one’s own importance in these conversations as well — as a part of the larger Twitter community (for example), you are near insignificant unless you’re Justin Bieber or Ashton Kutcher, but as a member of the #wafflesarebetterthanpancakes conversation, your voice may indeed be powerful.

The problem that has become apparent, especially in recent months and years, is that the structures that are in place to maintain cooperation and civility in meatspace communities are nonexistent in online spaces. There are few social tools that can be leveraged to inhibit trolls, punish hate speech, and ostracize those who would disrupt and poison community spaces.

In some places, like Twitter, this is largely an unintended consequence — the anonymity, potential audience, decentralized structure, and lack of moderation tools make the space a breeding ground for trolls and ne’er-do-wells.

In other places, this is by design

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I spend a lot of time on reddit. Too much, probably. I joined a long time ago and was immediately taken in by the promise of the platform — with so much content and so many concurrent conversations, it is infinitely distracting and stimulating, something my ADHD-riddled brain has desperately craved at many times in my life.

I have never been one to be satisfied with a cursory understanding of a conversation or an event, and reddit does a good job of delivering a compartmentalized debate in the comments section — reading these often makes one feel like they have a greater understanding of the issue at hand.

This is an illusion though — reddit’s algorithm rewards those with time on their hands over all others, giving disproportionate power to the upvote, and the community shallowly favors lengthy diatribes and gish-gallops over well-crafted or incisive comments. Keyboard warriors rule over reddit with cheeto-dusted fists, exercising power through voting blocs like a virtual Tammany Hall backed by vast karma reserves.

Certain activist subreddits (and I use this term extremely loosely) like GamerGate hub /r/KotakuInAction and /r/MensRights are routinely featured on the higher ranks of /r/all despite having a fraction of the subscriber count of the more popular subreddits.

These submissions are often poorly-thought out acerbic screeds, attack pieces targeting feminist media, and rambling YouTube videos, none of which would be accepted in a High School level debate, much less any serious conversation about politics, culture, or society, but because of reddit’s peculiar algorithm and the feverish intensity with which these activists upvote and promote the material, it gives them a veneer of respectability and veracity that they do not deserve.

Highly upvoted and visible submissions featuring unabashed racism, sexism, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and worse are not uncommon on reddit, and this is because of a dedicated community of racists, anti-feminists, and reactionaries with little to do but troll the internet and spread their gospel wherever it has the potential to take root.

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The result is a kind of horrible minority rule disguised as pure egalitarianism — those who enjoy this sort of content tend to be ferocious defenders of what they term ‘free speech’, which simply means complete freedom to spread their message without moderation or complaint. To the casual observer, just judging by prominence and number of upvotes, it might even seem like most people agree with a lot of this hateful misinformation.

The issue is, in part, that reddit’s core base of young, white men who skew toward the technical spectrum of careers can’t be bothered to get worked up about racism or sexism. Compare the savage ferocity with which they champion politicians who pander to their interests (centering around college loan repayment, legalization of drugs, and moderate social reforms), but viciously attack individuals or movements on the same side of the political spectrum who do not or cannot appeal to them directly (such as #BlackLivesMatter).

I could go on all day about reddit, but I won’t, because that’s a waste of everyone’s time, so let me bring this back to what I was talking about at the beginning — social media participation and community.

While it is foolish to engage in aimless non-participation, it is equally foolish to remain in toxic or hostile communities, and it can be just as hard to make this realization online as it is in real life.

What I wanted to talk about, and what I wanted to share, because I thought it might be instructive to others, is that reddit is no longer a place that I feel I can belong. It is an angry place dominated largely by voices that do not share my interests and who treat me adversarially at best and hatefully at worst. It is a place where feminism is a dirty word and ‘race realists’ aren’t laughed out of the room as they ought to be. It is a reflection of the worst corners of the internet and, as far as I’m concerned, a failed experiment in limited moderation.

The fact that it has taken me so long to realize that this is not the kind of place I should be spending my time is a consequence of ignorance and stubbornness on my part, but also of the newness of the medium. It’s easy to forget that we are in the infancy of the internet — we are still learning how to use it.

Advice about removing toxic people from your life has been around for years, if not decades, but we are not yet having the conversation we need to have about how to remove toxic people from your online life, and tech companies are doing little to facilitate this kind of necessary behavior.

For all the complaining above, I am optimistic. Twitter, Facebook, reddit, Pinterest, SnapChat, etc. — these are just inklings of the true promise of the internet and of social media. We can’t even conceive of what wonders we will accomplish once we truly understand the technology. The printing press didn’t reach its full potential for centuries after its creation — we are still using the internet to print Bibles when we need to be using it to topple empires.

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