The Problem with Reddit (and other so-called online democracies)

2014-09-08 20:13:59 by chort

A lot has been said recently about the failures of Reddit self-governance. I think this is just the inevitable end for any online platform that follows a similar "democratic" model, where users vote for content, and moderators are selected from the ranks of power-users.

Why is this model problematic? Because power-users are basically self-selecting social outcasts. The act of spending many hours a day reading comments and casting votes online necessarily diminishes the amount of face-to-face social interaction one can have. Sure, there are people who both spend a lot of time online and socialize offline, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. People who spend a lot of time away from personal interaction tend to self-select for that, i.e. they aren't comfortable relating to people and sense that they don't fit in, so they opt-out.

So what is wrong with being introverted? Again, nothing inherently. To get at the issue, we have to follow what heavy online-users do. They don't shun all interactions. Introverts have hobbies, interests, topics that they find fascinating--naturally they try to find more information about these things. Fortunately the Internet makes it very easy to find information on any subject you can think of, and where there is common interest, communities form. This is still not a problem--sharing information is generally a good thing.

Where issues start to arise is when people become so wrapped up in their hobbies that the online communities become a substitute for real social structure. Now we're heading down a very narrow path, where the only connection is a single shared interest. The decisions over what's good, and what's not good come down to whether it reinforces the clique or not. Anything that reinforces your sense of belonging is encouraged, anything outside, or opposed to the group's central topic is often shunned. This is often justified as "keeping things on-topic," but it's also a means of obviating any moral judgement.

What happens when someone does raise a serious concern about conduct in these communities? Too often, the result comes down to the standing within the clique. Does the accuser have less standing, less seniority, or less karma than the accused? Can the accused frame the issue is sour-grapes, being a "poser," or in some other way impugn the the character of the accuser? If so, they will likely win the power-struggle. Don't not underestimate the ability to prevail in an Internet conflict for someone who has all the time in the world. People who have a life outside the Internet will eventually cut their losses and exit an online community, once it becomes too exhausting to persist, no matter how valid their claim. On the other hand, people who's only station in life is their position as a moderator, or power-user, of an online community will fight to the bitter end rather than lose face in front of the only people in the world who lend them credibility.

Given enough time, these power-users, or moderators of a single forum, will eventually consolidate power. They will obtain moderation rights over several forums, and/or have the ability to grant moderator privileges to others. That gives them great sway in dictating the direction of the forums. Although voting on content is nominally democratic, moderators have the ability to filter which topics get posted, remove topics they dislike, and even ban users they're unable to control. Although the voting is democratic, the application of the rules by moderators is often arbitrary and self-serving.

So no, I'm not surprised at the state Reddit has arrived. Many sections of the site are now fiefdoms for anti-social trolls. This is disappointing. It is sad. It's not surprising. This is what happens when people (often men) are allowed to create their own playgrounds with no real dissent and no need to treat opposing positions fairly.

In real life, conflict needs to be resolved in some manner. Tensions eventually come to a head. You cannot go through life in society without interacting with other people, which means that, at least on a very minimal level, you have to attempt to understand other people. On the Internet there's no need to understand other people. You can flame them, troll them, ignore them, or ban them. There's no need at all to tolerate differences. People who flock to these communities do so for sameness, for other people who think like they do, who enjoy the same entertainment they do. There's no need to evaluate one's own position or thinking. If you pre-suppose that your desires are appropriate and justified, all you need to do is seek out other people who feel the same way. In the past that was Digg, today it is Reddit, tomorrow it will be something else.

It's really quite laughable that Reddit would call their platform a new form of government, when it really amounts to a giant series of echo chambers. Come to think about it, a bunch of insular assholes harming the lives of others without a second thought does come painfully close to resembling the US House of Representatives... Maybe they're onto something.

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