Before I met my boyfriend last year, I had close to no knowledge of Reddit. The social news aggregator (a mixture of a discussion platform and link distributor) was something that I was aware of but had never quite understood. I was part of the minority—there are more than 430 million monthly active Reddit users worldwide, making it the sixth most used social networking mobile app in the United States. My boyfriend has quickly introduced me to the basic workings of this global site, but I’m nowhere near as up to speed as he is with its intricate inner workings, tight-knit virtual communities, diverse multitude of users, and nuanced selection of forums which I later discovered are called “subreddits.”
Immediately, I noticed that the app stood apart from others. It offered its members, in just one site, a space for lively discussion to take place, ingenious memes to be shared, and subcommunities based on a common interest to join. Notably, all of Reddit is available without the pretension of other sites, with which I was much more familiar. For my boyfriend and other users, this is what maintains Reddit’s appeal. I’ve been shown posts that range from the more serious and controversial, such as the heavily followed politics subreddit, to the hilariously nonsensical. My personal favorite is one subreddit dedicated solely to images of birds with arms. I’ve also been told stories of members who collaborate to help one another and offer pieces of advice. In one incredible example that my boyfriend shared, this advice can even be lifesaving.
Of course, the app has recently been brought into the mainstream as a result of the GameStop controversy, which emerged this January after the subreddit WallStreetBets, which currently has 4.7 million members, made headlines. The forum urged people to buy and hold GameStop shares, which rose from less than $20 to a high of $492 on January 28. This was to the great detriment of several hedge funds which had anticipated that the market price of GameStop stock would decline. I was privy to a day by day commentary from my boyfriend on this Reddit fueled controversy, as well as the intense investigation into the practices of stock trading sites like Robinhood and the leading multi-billion hedge funds that followed it. While this may be a rare example of Reddit’s niche communities surfacing in the news, it was indicative of what power and influence social media platforms can have. The entire ordeal opened my eyes up to the reasons why the app, in spite of all the humor and utter nonsense which circulates on some of its forums, has become one of the most visited and used sites in the world.
Reddit is a community. Whether you are part of a subreddit that discusses how to run a business, or one that finds collective enjoyment in mocking the blunder years of others, each thread allows for a group of strangers to come together over a shared interest through their computer, tablet, or phone screen. Reddit’s beauty lies in its ability to birth community after community, with each one expanding to encompass a topic which has previously been untouched.
Indeed, in their own words Reddit says: “It is home to thousands of communities, endless conversation, and authentic human connection.”
At the moment, it’s difficult to find or truly experience human connection, when there’s two meters between us, masks covering our mouths and noses, and the overriding fear of spreading or contracting the virus. Many communities have been put on a temporary hiatus, abruptly halted at the first signs of danger last March, severing those connections in the process. In many ways, the internet has been our saviour. Platforms like Reddit give us the means to rebuild those ties and encourage us to forge new ones. There is something deeply endearing to be said about doing this—safely and responsibly, of course—with people you don’t know.
“If Facebook is people you know sharing things you don’t care about, Reddit is things you care about shared by people you don’t know,” Ph.D. Researcher Tim Squirrel astutely said.
With more than 2.2 million subreddits, there are more than enough people discussing interests or matters that you currently care about or perhaps will go on to to care about. The abundance of subreddits encourages users to unearth new passions, make new friends, and have new conversations. And the wealth of information, breadth of knowledge, and spectrum of experiences flowing through Reddit’s 130,000 (and increasing) active communities on the platform also makes it incredibly easy to tap in and out of conversations you want to have, or simply watch unfold with the people sharing a common interest.
Although anonymity is sometimes a cause for concern within the online sphere, it is an integral part of Reddit’s success. A lack of identity provides a foundation for openness, enabling people to comfortably reveal intimate details about their everyday life. This is something that draws my boyfriend back to the site; to a certain extent he sees it as a space where freedom of speech is more than just an aspiration, but something that is admirably put into practice. Behind a username and profile lies a person, who in some cases shares the highest and lowest moments of their life with others, seeking comfort, advice, empathy, laughter and companionship while doing so. As much as Reddit is arguably the birthplace of most internet memes and viral sensations, and as much as my boyfriend skims the site in search of those very memes, it is positively unique in that it facilitates refreshingly honest and wonderfully ordinary interactions between its users, where just about anything goes.
That being said, in the absence of identity, often exploitation and manipulation can make their way into the crevices of the web. Over the course of its 16 year establishment (the site was founded in 2005 by Alexis Ohanion and Steve Huffman, who met at the University of Virginia), Reddit has found itself at the heart of some deplorable acts of deception. One notable example of this was a user who posed as a terminally ill 14 year-old boy on the brink of death. Fellow users who came across his reddit post proceeded to offer their best wishes and gifts, including somewhere close to $1000 worth of “Reddit Gold.” The user later revealed that he was in fact not suffering from the brain cancer which supposedly left him with only three weeks to live, leaving those he duped hurt and angry.
In addition to this, there have been a number of highly controversial communities which have been flooded with incendiary examples of hate speech, such as the The Donald subreddit (a conservative group recently banned for inciting violence) or the Braincels subreddit (a group for “involuntary celibates,” aka misogynists). While Reddit has many policies—namely a “Reddiquette” detailing the site’s guidelines, ethics and rules—and practices such as its moderator system (which establishes a user who enforces Reddiquette in subreddits) in place, part of the internet’s beauty also lies in its downfall, where keyboard warriors, cunning fraudsters, and master manipulators thrive.
There is, however, something different about Reddit. While the website, like many other globally-used social media platforms, is not immune to the dangers of the world wide web, it has been able to set itself apart from sites like Facebook and Instagram, sites which many would argue have become prime destinations for self-promotion, bragging and competition. Reddit fosters the opposite. In not using the site to advertise themselves, their businesses, or their supposedly enviable lives, Reddit’s users aren’t searching for compliments. They’re searching for somewhere and someone with whom they can share a story, interest, or conversation. This can be done through subreddit posts, images, and videos, as well as some of the best memes the internet has to offer. In fact, instances of influencer-like behaviour emerging on the platform don’t always go down well with Reddit’s active members (there’s even a subreddit on the matter).
I imagine that I am not alone when I say that I often find myself falling down a rabbit hole of comparison, envy, and shameful jealousy when I scroll through my Instagram feed and am inundated with images of people I wished I looked like, luxuries I wish I owned, or lives I wish were mine. I see why a break from this on Reddit is liberating. I see why finding a community online that isn’t characterized by outdoing or upstaging others is fulfilling, and indeed just as fulfilling as the communities we are part of in the non-virtual world.
My boyfriend is definitely not one of Reddit’s most loyal users. But, when he does take the occasional look at one of the site’s many subreddits, he almost always finds something eye-opening, amusing, or downright ridiculous, something that makes him look up at me from his screen in the midst of a giggle and with a smile on his face.
Tiah Shepherd can be reached at email@example.com