Deconstructing the Groupthink of the Reddit Echo Chamber

The myth of the Internet is that it is a revolutionary place where the public can have discussions about anything free from the heavy hand of various gatekeepers and censors. Sadly, this utopian vision is more hype than reality. The problem is that as online communities tend to coalesce around various issues, hobbies and pastimes a collective consensus develops. A status quo of opinion becomes entrenched and it becomes difficult for anyone to discuss ideas that challenge that existing consensus.

The most passionate members of the community often become moderators and proceed to quash any form of dissent. Dissent can be just someone trying post a good faith suggestion to make something better.

Moderators sometimes feel besieged and delete or ban anything that remotely challenges the narrative. Those few brave souls that still manage to dissent are persecuted and eventually abandon the discussion and leave entirely. Eventually the space becomes an echo chamber of ideological purity where people come not to discuss their opinions but to validate them.

This is the problem of groupthink. This problem is everywhere. It’s on traditional video game discussion forums, news website forums, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the latest social media darling called Reddit.

The Problem with Online Voting

At a glance, the proposition of Reddit seems reasonable and sound: good contributions get voted up and get more visibility and bad ones get voted down and become more invisible. This is noble in theory but in practice it is flawed. Voting a link or post up or down requires no real effort or any substantive sober deliberation. Digital voting is a knee jerk emotional reaction where one proves her loyalty to the tribe than a reasoned thoughtful response.

In the real world voting takes an investment time and effort. You actually have to leave your home, show identification, wait in line and only then can you vote. Given all of this, the physical voter has plenty of time to ponder the issue he is voting on and whether that issue is worth the investment. Contrast this kind of effortless voting with the greater effort it takes to rebut or refute a post via actually writing: there is no comparison between the two and I believe Reddit suffers because of it.

Another problem with Reddit and other voting based discussion forums such as Disqus is that people can see vote tallies during debates. This creates an instant and artificial consensus that rewards those who vote first with the greater potential of influencing the undecided. The undecided who have the tendency to side with the winner skews the results even further.

The Double-Edged Sword of Anonymity

I want to briefly address another related issue that seems to compound the issues with Reddit. Part of the problem with the Internet is the double-edged sword of anonymity. Throughout history responsible use of anonymity has been a useful tool to allow people to dissent from the orthodoxy on controversial topics without fear of retribution. But the downside is that anonymity also gives people the license to spread falsehoods and treat their opponents disrespectfully without any semblance of accountability.

If Reddit is an engine of groupthink then anonymity is the gasoline that powers it.

Combine all of these problems with the groupthink that is intrinsic to Reddit and you a serious problem.

The Personality of Reddit

As a video game blogger who discovered Reddit a few years ago I was warned in advance that it was a trendy haven for millennials, hipsters and progressives. In researching this article I came upon a thread that corroborates this on Reddit entitled: How did Reddit’s Front Page come to be such a political echo chamber? Here we can see how the early adopters of Reddit — called the seed community — established the tone of Reddit:

Reddit’s original seed community was made up predominantly of young, middle-class, technologically-literate, college-student or college-educated, early-adopter neophile geeks in their early 20s… and that demographic tends heavily towards liberal, at least on social issues.

More generally now, though, it’s primarily composed of young, middle-class people, and that’s also a demographic that skews distinctly left as a rule.

In addition, I was told that Reddit was their special place on the Internet that they could call home. Redditors as they are called, consider themselves to be a cut above the rest of us rubes. A poster on the Urban Dictionary nails it:

Arguably the most obnoxious word on the internet. The word Redditor signifies some sort of membership to the website Reddit, just like it is with those famous CNNers, Yahooers or eBayers. People who refer to themselves (or others) as Redditors seem to believe that Reddit is some sort of secret internet club, where if you sign up, upvote a couple of heartbreaking stories and a picture of a cat, this somehow gives you a title and makes you special.

In my brief experience with Reddit, I have found that many Redditors have an elevated sense of worth and an exude an air of self-importance. They have a thinly veiled superiority complex that makes dealing with them frustrating beyond belief. No matter what you know on any particular subject, no matter what you have contributed to a particular field of endeavor, they behave like they are smarter than you.

Before I knew what I now know about Reddit, I thought posting links from my website on a Reddit video game subreddit might be a good way to get my articles more exposure. What follows is my experiences and observations.

The Reddit Hivemind Modus Operandi

Most of my encounters with Reddit on video game subreddits — each dedicated to one particular video game — have been unpleasant so far. My theory is that my views as a video game critic are generally unwelcome in existing Reddit communities which in my case are populated by millennial hipster gamers who are devout supporters and boosters of a particular video game.

Reddit: think the same

These millennials who make a up a considerable cohort of the Reddit demographic are a defensive lot. If you attack their beloved video game, they believe you are attacking them personally. They simply do not want to hear anything negative about their hobby. If you do post something that counters the official narrative of that particular subreddit, it’s considered an affront to the subject of the board and you’re immediately dubbed a troll. Then the rest of the tribe dutifully comes in to share their angst to protect the honor of the subreddit.

Redditors only want to view content that validates their beliefs and opinions. If you counter the official narrative, your post or link will generally be downvoted or ignored.

Here’s how it generally works:

  1. You post a link or comment that is critical of an aspect of particular issue, hobby or interest.
  2. Influential members of the subreddit (who seem to monitor and comment on every post) take offense to this — I call them the Big Dogs . Then they proceed to downvote you and make negative comments about your content using the following strategy:
    1. The Big Dogs see your post as a fire hydrant and verbally urinate all over it while conveniently ignoring the good points in your content and proceed to cherry pick your post looking for any weak points in your argument.
    2. Those weak points are highlighted and exaggerated. Then they are held up as a rationale to dismiss your entire argument. A typical generic Redditor’s reply is: “After I saw that, I stopped reading your article”.
  3. Then other Reddit members — I call them the Little Dogs — join in. As a pack they come in sniff the fire hydrant and get the scent (i.e. marching orders) from the Big Dogs.
  4. They then proceed to start dogpiling by imitating the Big Dogs and your post gets downvoted even further.
  5. For daring to post content that may disagree with the status quo, your post may even get reported to the moderators.

In my experience, this is how Reddit works when you post a link or content that has any semblance of a challenge to the status quo. Dissent is not welcome on Reddit. New ideas are discouraged, disparaged and penalized with downvotes and even outright hostility. Those Redditors that have the courage to oppose the official narrative are attacked by the overwhelming number of downvotes in a war of attrition. Eventually they leave out of frustration. The result is that the subreddit becomes an echo chamber of winner takes all ideological consensus with the Redditors preaching to the converted.

The reality of Reddit is in sharp contrast to the official promotional material that Reddit would have you believe in the following hipster narrated video:

Other people are starting to notice that Reddit has systemic problems that promote groupthink, conformity, and polarization caused by a small group of ideologically homogeneous people who end up skewing public opinion. Here are few links that explain the problem in more detail:

The Unpopular Truth: Reddit’s liberal hivemind groupthink explained by /r/conservative mod

Upvotes, Downvotes, and the Science of the Reddit Hivemind

Cracked Magazine’s Take on Reddit

How Video Game Companies are Influencing Reddit

In addition to the problems of endemic groupthink on Reddit, there is another problem: many video game companies actively support and court Reddit communities as a way to generate free publicity and pre-release social engagement. While it may be a boon to have an official video game developer presence on a subreddit (in theory: so the fans of the video game can give feedback and suggestions) it can exacerbate the groupthink problem as the moderators will naturally want to keep the devs there and will do anything to please them.

Reddit moderators bask in the attention they are getting from the official support of video game companies and the devs that post. Reddit moderators are in effect the unwitting and unpaid enforcers for the video game company by quashing dissent by engaging in overzealous moderation via downvoting posts and even deleting them entirely. This is a troubling trend that keeps video game developers living in a fool’s paradise by preventing them from seeing current and future problems with their video games.

For Reddit to be useful to its readers, subreddits should be completely independent and in no way beholden to video game companies. Putting video game developers on who appear on Reddit on a pedestal is problematic as it erodes the independence and integrity of the subreddit.

A Problem Beyond Reddit

This particular problem of starstruck moderators pleasing developers is not just relegated to Reddit, it is found in any video game community where fans idolize developers who in turn validate their enthusiasm by gracing the forums with their sacred presence.

One example of this is when a certain celebrity game developer used to frequently post on a now defunct popular MMO forum. Anyone who criticized the design of his MMO project or posts by him faced public derision by a brigade of rabid forum fanboys. After I made post that critiqued his incessant pandering to sycophantic forum members, I was subject to vicious personal attacks from those fanboy forum members via the forum messaging feature. Eventually the direction of the wind changed and the MMO spectacularly failed. Then most of the posters turned against this developer like a pack of wild dogs and tore apart the god they worshiped. Poetic justice indeed.

One of the big problems with social media is that people who get bullied for daring to share an opinion that is critical of the status quo are more likely to stop posting. The result is that potential problems with a video game may go unreported and unchallenged. The end result is: the video game suffers. Eventually the video game fails and the very same fanboys that did everything they could to silence dissent no longer have a video game or MMO to worship and follow. Like thieves in the night, they unceremoniously move on to the next video game or MMO and the same problems are perpetuated. Rinse and repeat.

Report from the Front of the Cultural War: The State of Discussion

I’d like to briefly go off topic a bit and ponder the state of discussion in our culture.

In the early days of the Internet and even in prehistoric times with digital discussion boards like USENET, people seemed to have a better sense of propriety and were at least somewhat open to hearing new ideas and critiques of topics. At least those early pioneers of digital debate could remember a time before the Internet when you had to be civil in a conversation which incidentally was face to face and via written correspondence. Back then debating was considered a learned and civilized pursuit where all would benefited from its fruits and shake hands afterwards. Preparing for a debate took a lot time and it took plenty of research.

Today digital debating is almost dead. Using the shield of anonymity people have become mean, uncharitable, and uncivil. With the progressive imprimatur of Wikipedia  just a click away, everyone is an expert despite the fact that they refuse to legitimately research a topic before they post about it. Thanks to the instant gratification that is like crack cocaine for a generation addled by short attention spans posting on social media like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Reddit, debate has now been replaced with a blood sport of one upmanship that uses insults, quips, sloganeering and memes as weapons of choice to eviscerate their opponent in order to propagate a particular narrative or agenda.

The real war today is not a physical war, it is a culture war. Nobody exchanges ideas anymore in this polarized world. Instead they cling to the safety of their echo chamber and occasionally leave to lob a grenade at the enemy. After the ensuing carnage they scurry back to their bunkers to revel in their false heroism with their fellow warriors. This is how digital soldiers fight in the cultural war, and social media services are the arms dealers who profit from it.

Conclusion

Reddit may be a a lot of things to a lot of people but it is not a digital democratic utopia of good faith discussion, sober deliberation and dissent. Rather Reddit is an echo chamber that by its flawed design and mechanics dressed up in the guise of democratic voting, promotes a mob mentality that encourages groupthink, conformity and reinforces polarization. Dissent and criticism is essential in a democracy but the strange thing about Reddit is that it uses the tool of democracy — voting — to squash and pervert it.

Without a good faith avenue to voice opinion, it is impossible to speak truth to power and challenge the establishment and the prevailing orthodoxy. If Reddit is the future of social interaction and conversation, then our culture is in big trouble as it will never be able to adapt, change or reform itself.

Even as I write this article Reddit is starting to lose currency among its followers. It has been embroiled in a scandal involving interim CEO Ellen Pao who has started to implement politically correct policies and heavy handed censorship into the service. The writing is on the wall. Already Redditors are starting to flee the sinking ship by voting with their feet instead of their mouse pointers.

If you are a blogger trying to get more exposure for your articles and are critical of any element of the video game industry or any other industry, I advise you not to post to Reddit. It is a waste of time unless you enjoy the foolishness of throwing pearls in front of swine. Redditors can be like the bloodthirsty ancient Roman mob at a coliseum game who decided the fate of gladiators with a careless thumbs up or thumbs down vote. Don’t appease their bloodlust and give them the satisfaction that their over-inflated egos and under-informed minds crave.

Despite the problems I’ve identified here, not everything about Reddit is bad nor are all Reddit users mindless hipster lemmings who post memes about their cats or are rabid fanboys. Thankfully Reddit is a few notches above the cerebrally challenged and pedestrian Twitter. Reddit can be useful if you are trying to find out more information about upcoming products or check on the status of current ones. It can also be a good place to feel kinship with people who believe the same as you do if that is what you seek. However, just be warned that conformity and groupthink are an inherent part of the Reddit experience. Only certain correct and approved opinions are welcome. Proceed with caution.

-Wolfshead

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