Reddit Was A Mistake

Reddit was a mistake. Not my specific decision to have a Reddit account. There’s lots of people on Reddit and if this blog is ever going to amount to anything, it’s probably going to be posted there at some point. Nor am I saying that Reddit as a community is terrible, although for the most part it is (Redditors will probably take offense to this, even though the identical statement “subreddits go down in quality as they get larger” is uncontroversial – how would you expect subreddits to become worse as they get bigger if the average Redditor didn’t make communities worse?). I’m also not talking about Reddit’s admins being dicks, although they are.

What I’m talking about is how Reddit’s design as a piece of software systematically encourages certain poor behaviors. If you want to build a community and you make it a subreddit instead of a forum or a Facebook group or whatever, it will be prone to certain problems because it is a subreddit, regardless of whether or not you end up catching the attention of some of the festering cesspools you’ll have as neighbors by virtue of being on Reddit (/r/funny, /r/politics, /r/atheism, if you’re remotely familiar with Reddit you can probably think of at least a few more). Even with the exact same users, the community will be worse by virtue of the fact that the features intended to improve the Reddit experience have backfired.

Threaded Comments Were A Mistake

In a standard internet forum, a comment thread will display all comments in the order they were posted or the reverse order they were posted. Responding to an ongoing conversation requires scrolling past every other comment that has already been made. While it’s possible to ignore them anyway, the structure of the forum encourages posters to read at least the final page or two of the conversation before jumping in themselves. Additionally, all posters make their posts with the knowledge that several other community members will see what they’ve written. Even on anonymous boards like 4chan where posting something dumb won’t have any permanent effect on your reputation, the post itself will still most likely be seen by many other members of the community. This disincentivizes attempting to wear down the opposition through attrition, a behavior that is much more common Reddit than elsewhere because threaded comments rapidly split off all discussions into one-on-one comment threads hidden from the rest of the community.

On a standard forum, if someone wants to continue defending an idea that’s clearly been proven wrong, they need to do it in public, where even if they’re anonymous, lots of people will see them grasping at straws and their opponent ripping them up over and over again. On Reddit, there is no audience, so if someone wants to adopt the “if I’m the last person to post, that means I win” mentality, they don’t have to endure being made a fool of in public for the duration of the conversation, they just have to keep posting incoherent bullshit until the other person gets sick of it. This kind of behavior is common throughout the internet and removing a barrier to it unsurprisingly makes it much more common on Reddit than most other places.

Even worse, threaded comments have a cut-off after which the conversation is hidden automatically. Almost nobody clicks to load more comments in an ongoing chain once that chain has become two people arguing with each other, so an argument that appears correct at first glance and an argument that is actually correct will appear exactly the same to 95% of everyone who reads it. Specious arguments that prove to be wrong under closer scrutiny do extremely well on Reddit because everyone can see the strong start but nobody sticks around to see it collapse under pressure.

Downvotes Were A Mistake

In theory, downvotes are supposed to be used to hide noise, comments which don’t add anything, troll posts, that sort of thing, but in practice most downvotes are for stating an unpopular opinion. This is common knowledge on Reddit. People downvote for disagreement all the time. This means that the community can downvote opinions that make them uncomfortable and have them pushed out of the conversation without having to give any reason as to what’s wrong with them. Once a narrative takes root for any reason, it becomes nearly impossible to dislodge because it only takes about five people who will downvote any opposition to that narrative in order to hide the disagreement from view. No one actually has to put their pride on the line by being the person who actually defends the currently popular view of things, which means it makes no difference at all whether that view is totally accurate or totally nonsense. Downvotes allow arguments, narratives, and positions to flourish based purely on whether or not they are already popular, regardless of their merit.

Even worse, a comment or post that has <0 karma on it will be viewed as antagonistic and hostile even if there is absolutely nothing in the actual content being downvoted that suggests hostility. Once a comment has 0 or negative karma, it is assumed to be made in a condescending or aggressive tone and people start downvoting for that perceived tone, sometimes without even reading past the first half-sentence of the comment. This phenomenon is well-known on Reddit. Every reasonably prolific Redditor who doesn’t stick exclusively to crowd-pleasing comments will have a totally inoffensive, noncontroversial, milquetoast comment somewhere in their history that has -2 karma and no idea why anyone, let alone three different people, would’ve taken issue with it. Even Redditors who do stick to parroting the hive mind will be familiar with comments that say “I’m not sure why this is getting downvoted” in response to a comment which, usually, is now being heavily upvoted. Once a single downvote gets stuck to a comment, it begins to accrue more automatically until someone posts a response pointing out that the target of the downvotes is providing completely accurate, noncontroversial information. You can post that the sky is blue and if the first person to see your comment downvotes it, more will follow until someone else who actually reads content before voting on it responds “I’m not sure why this is getting downvoted, the sky totally is blue, you can look outside for yourself.”

This problem is exacerbated when a simple but wrong answer to a difficult problem picks up traction with a community, because it interacts horribly with the issue with threaded comments. An argument that starts out strong will get lots of upvotes, and eventually arguments opposing that strong start will start to attract downvotes, and that will further entrench specious arguments even when they consistently fall apart under scrutiny.

Downvotes help to entrench popular opinions and narratives for no other reason except that they are already popular. Popular beliefs tend to get a powerful home team advantage over unpopular ones, even when the unpopular belief is completely correct and the popular belief is completely wrong. The last thing a community needs is a feature that makes it even easier for false information to propagate based on nothing else but tradition.

Account Karma Was A Mistake

The idea behind account karma was that people who had large amounts of karma would be more trustworthy both in terms of providing accurate information and in terms of being people you can trust not to wreck the communities they’re a part of, but in practice almost the reverse is true. At this point, the secrets to accruing large amounts of karma through dishonest means – more than you could ever get by contributing genuine content – have been well known for more of Reddit’s history than not.

Account karma is useless for its intended purpose, but does bring a nasty side effect with it. People get extremely attached to their account karma, and are strongly encouraged to make comments that the community will approve of. Much like downvotes, the original intent behind this effect is that the community would approve of content that is interesting or insightful, but the actual impact is that the community tends to approve of content that agrees with them. This is yet another barrier to unpopular positions winning a community over by virtue of being correct, and yet another weapon in the growing arsenal Reddit provides to people who wish to entrench their beliefs and opinions despite their lack of merit. Not only do people who might otherwise support an opinion avoid doing so because they’re afraid of downvotes, people who might otherwise not post at all may post in support of a popular opinion in order to cash in a few easy karma points. Indeed, the easiest way to quickly farm large amounts of karma is to wait for a common discussion to recur, then copy/paste highly upvoted comments from previous iterations of the same conversation. Account karma incentivizes people to repeat popular sentiments for no other reason except that they were popular before, and that they will gain karma for repeating them.


If you’ve ever wondered why Reddit is full of people who will quote the transcript of funny scenes from popular shows verbatim in comment chains 4+ individual posters long, if you’ve ever wondered why it’s so prone to hivemind collectivism and so hostile to individual expression, if you’ve ever wondered why even subreddits specifically dedicated to debate between opposing viewpoints tend to become echo chambers over time, this is why.

1 thought on “Reddit Was A Mistake”

  1. My problem with downvotes is that there’s nothing they SHOULD handle (as intended) that couldn’t be better handled with a Report button.

    Someone posting malicious misinformation (“Press ALT+F4 for points!”), or wildly off-topic spam, or NSFW material? Report, report, report. Anything else is probably just a, “Someone is wrong on the internet!” situation.

    Also, if mods had to personally handle these reports, pretty soon they would spot the pattern. Like say someone hits Report every time they disagree, and then tries to come up with a half-baked excuse why the offending comment should be deleted. Mods would quickly a pattern, and then deal with the report-abuser, which cleans up the pool for everyone.

    Downvotes are anonymous, unregulated, and have a pretty big consequence. A few downvotes, and your comment isn’t even visible anymore. That’s a pretty drastic form of unregulated (by mods) censorship, handled by the first four or five guys who just happen to disagree with you.

    Liked by 1 person

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