Laying the Groundwork for Consent (While You’re Standing on It)
The significance of the question “Is Reddit Dead?” lies in the user who was once on Reddit to cultivate knowledge, engage and seek out insightful conversation, and to expand horizons with the promise of an open internet coming together to organically share experiences and the world. But in a way, we might as well be summoning Nietzsche’s sentiments of God being dead, although the irony, or maybe the parallel, can’t go unnoticed when one considers the atheism subreddit was a long early mainstay. Reddit is dead, in a manner of speaking, but it’s more like if your best friend got a brain transplant. The looks are the same, for the most part, but the underlying mechanisms at play are off and the trust is being eroded down to nothing. The uncanniness may be curious and frustrating for the longtime user. Simply put, Reddit is no longer what it used to be, but the implications are huge when the size of the audience is considered:
“As of 2015, Reddit had 542 million monthly visitors (234 million unique users), ranking 14th most visited web-site in US and 36th in the world. Across 2015, Reddit saw 82.54 billion page views, 73.15 million submissions, 725.85 million comments, and 6.89 billion upvotes from its users.” – Wikipedia
What follows is not so simple.
Back to Nietzsche. He of course didn’t mean a physical, bearded God, and when I’m talking about the early days of Reddit or the internet, I’m not talking about a singular physical manifestation, either. And just to be clear, I’m not equating Reddit to any divinity, but I am talking about the symbol and what people can create when they come together in earnest. The majority of Reddit had a voice and that voice comprised of a collection of people who each decided on a username, and then they upvoted or downvoted content based on their subjective notions of merit, and that was it. Now, though, if you weren’t paying attention, that premise has been hijacked. It’s no longer the people creating the system, but what has become the system looking to create the people.
In internet terms, some of this is due to what has been coined “Eternal September,” named after a period in which the booming America Online first started offering Usenet access to casual subscribers, and thus interrupting the established culture previously restricted mainly to colleges and universities. But this doesn’t account for all of Reddit’s transformation. There has been a careful, calculated overhaul underneath in an attempt to not just become a platform able to keep its servers running, but to work towards the eventual ambition of any large social platform – to become wildly profitable. Reddit users were weary after what happened to the once-comparable platform Digg: Digg lost sight of the very thing that made them valuable, the users, and so almost overnight those same users migrated to Reddit when their “community” was overhauled. The irony is, the valuation of any social platform relies on a user base, and this is obvious, but then those same people who recognize the value try to make it into another creature at odds with why the people came there in the first place. I suspect they hope it becomes a too-big-to-fail presence of the internet world, but if there’s one thing that’s a staple of the internet, it’s that giants do fall. Maybe the real goal is to build it up and cash out before it collapses.
Reddit is different than the usual social media platform, though, in that it doesn’t emphasize the celebrity of the self, although it doesn’t neglect it for the insistent, either. I’d argue that it’s much more powerful because of this and what it appears to be – it appears to be that image of an organic and now overflowing community held together by interests and ideologies, which it is no longer. Now it’s an advertising platform utilized by everything from restaurants wanting brand awareness (look at his bag that just so happens to be in this parking lot), to Hollywood hoping to sell tickets (Leaked: like oh my god the security around our movie production must be horrible!), to the U.S. military and political propaganda machine (more on this in a bit). It’s an effective, concentrated model of what Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky discussed in Manufacturing Consent, and the consequent stages of what Edward Bernays pioneered in the early 1900’s and what was so aptly portrayed in Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary The Century of the Self: The formulation of the public consciousness is not so much of a direct endeavor but the tunneling of the citizen’s possible thoughts toward a desirable outcome. When the public gets there, the average citizen will think it’s by their own independent and critical-thinking means.
As outlined by Wikipedia, Manufacturing Consent lists five filters for editorial bias in the propaganda model which can be lined up easily with the current structure of Reddit:
- Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation: The dominant mass-media outlets are large companies operated for profit, and therefore they must cater to the financial interests of the owners, who are usually corporations and controlling investors.
- The Advertising License to Do Business: Since the majority of the revenue of major media outlets derives from advertising (not from sales or subscriptions), advertisers have acquired a “de facto licensing authority”. Media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers.
- Sourcing Mass Media News: Herman and Chomsky argue that “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access [to the news], by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring […] and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.”
- Flak and the Enforcers: “Flak” refers to negative responses to a media statement or program (e.g. letters, complaints, lawsuits, or legislative actions). Flak can be expensive to the media, either due to loss of advertising revenue, or due to the costs of legal defense or defense of the media outlet’s public image. Flak can be organized by powerful, private influence groups (e.g. think tanks). The prospect of eliciting flak can be a deterrent to the reporting of certain kinds of facts or opinions.
- Anti-Communism: This was included as a filter in the original 1988 edition of the book, but Chomsky argues that since the end of the Cold War (1945–91), anticommunism was replaced by the “War on Terror”, as the major social control mechanism.
In a March 2015 r/Conspiracy post, a now-deleted user went into detail about “How Reddit was Destroyed.” Initially, the user became “shadowbanned,” meaning the account operated as usual on his end, but no one else could see the account’s activity. One can find out their own shadowban status by checking with a non-associated device or reading the site while logged out. That deleted user was eventually reinstated, if only because it’s a better PR move to let a post associate itself with conspiracies corner than to give it credence by deleting it. But it was u/BlueOak777 who pointed out in the comments:
“In truth, Reddit’s death spiral began when the blackhat marketers discovered that they could make money off of posts/comments (so, years ago). A simple Google search is pretty damning…”
And maybe that’s part of a legitimate business decisions by Reddit to take more control of the content, because if anyone should be profiting from their site, why not them? As part of that decision, on June 6th 2016, it was announced that non-affiliate links to about 5000 online vendors would be redirected through a third party to give Reddit the affiliate credit. This was received with an apparent major landslide of positivity from commenters, and the implications of making the site rely even more on product consumption were invisible. Much like point #3 in Manufacturing Consent, “Non-routine sources [non-intended public opinion] must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.” To take it a step further, the “hive mind,” malleable like clay but also able to be scripted, can provide much of this gatekeeping when it comes to gathering desired public approval for any specific cause.
Those opposing voices who do get through can easily be attached with a stigma in the public eye to devalue what they say or what they do, e.g. conspiracy nut, communist, terrorist, idiot, gay, transgender, leftwing, rightwing, liberal, socialist, mentally ill, etc. In 2016, people are apparently calling each other “cucks” now? Governments are particularly good at this stigma attachment, but it’s also used effectively in marketing. Ultimately, it’s a facet of control and power to encourage simplicity in a difficult and complicated world and to discourage thinking outside the box. If you do think outside the box, it creates an environment where you feel alone and isolated in doing so. Most of the time, though, any “outside thinking” is illusory because you’re being shuffled down that tunnel of thought and to your deathbed where you wish you wouldn’t have spent so much time concerned about things in which you find out don’t matter as much as they appeared.
Back to Eternal September. With it comes the push to get users to not look outside or be concerned with outside the box at all – a self-contained and monetized ecosystem. If you feed the users the news, you can shape the world. If you feed them what’s interesting, you can control their interests. If you feed them love, you can direct them toward whom to hate. In effect, this encourages the antithesis of knowledge, i.e. getting people not to look outward but to turn inward amongst themselves and regurgitate what they’re fed. They can be trained to become suspicious of true intellectualism because of its foreignness to the system. Anything that goes against the grain can be dismissed quickly, anyway. Anything that feeds into their preexisting ideas of the world is supported by a confirmation bias. And as this or any system tries to appeal to a larger base, the common denominator is lowered, or lowers itself, to be more accommodating. The shift from a thinking center to a passive consumption machine happens, and that’s the sweet spot for what makes native advertisements so effective.
When the profit isn’t enough, they will try to further control you. The profit is never enough.
Presidents in Ugly Shoes
“We know all of your interests. Not just your, you know, the interests you’re willing to disclose publicly on Facebook – we know your dark secrets. We know everything.”
“Oh my god [nervous laughter]. I have to delete my account.”
“Yeah, try it. You’ll be back.”
That’s an exchange between the Reddit CEO, Steve Huffman, and an interviewer at the TNW Conference in Amsterdam on May 26th 2016. The topic of the interview was about Reddit’s plan to make [see: more] money. To reiterate, the pseudo-anonymous factor once seen as a safe-haven can quickly be turned against the user for corporate endeavors. To clarify, Facebook knows all about you, too – they are insistent about following users and nonusers alike all around the web, but only on Reddit do users line up all of their interests and disclose the finer details about each, often under little more than a “username” to hide whatever name they were born with. What does that mean to you?
“But they don’t know my real name! They don’t know who I really am!”
Welcome to the internet. Anonymity isn’t likely what you think it is: It has been rebranded. Your identity has been shifted. The name on your driver’s license only matters when it comes to your ISP knowing who to send the bill to [See control: the constant fight against net neutrality]. On the internet, your real identity is your IP address, your browser fingerprint, and the accumulation of your data from what sites you visit clear down to the camera-specific and geolocation metadata embedded into those photos you took on vacation a few years ago and posted online. I hate to tell you, but they have the same metadata as those topless photos you posted last year, and image crawlers can bundle them together for the right people if you are ever important enough, or simply if someone had enough money or willpower. Also of note: The implications of any activity done online may not be realized until new technology develops or a company changes their user agreement on whim (or at least fills it with more ambiguous language). Even without these, data breaches happen all the time [see: oops, we’re super sorry]. The data grabs now are going to have huge implications for the future. Think about how Facebook developed a facial recognition system to let you easily tag yourself and friends in photos, and then think about that employed all across the net, integrated with video, and then think about what happens as that technology becomes commonplace for the casual user.
But before that, before any of that, what do the data grabs and the data pushes mean for a platform like Reddit? Well, let’s start with shoes. Ugly, minimalist shoes to be exact.
About eight years ago, I remember finding it strange how every time a conversation about shoes would pop up in a Reddit thread, a user would mention a specific brand of minimalist shoes and then link to the same two peer-reviewed articles about how those shoes were the best shoes for athletes to wear because they enabled the mechanics of movement we were born with. Was the science legitimate? I don’t know, but that’s beside the point. But it was just uncanny how often the topic of those shoes would come up in otherwise irrelevant threads. The more I thought about it, I began to wonder why the topic of shoes was so commonplace at all. It was almost like the mini-podium was being constructed for that singular purpose – and thus I was introduced to the concept of native advertising.
Did the shoe campaign work for whoever was behind it? I didn’t get a pair, but I’m talking about it now even though I’m trying my best to avoid specifics. Funny enough, though, I had a couple friends, also Reddit users, who got pairs, and I kept also seeing people at the gym who wore them. “The shoes enable proper running mechanics,” they commonly said…
I had a difficult time putting that example into the timeline until I thought about what happened soon after with President Obama’s first campaign for office. He was named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008, beating out the likes of Apple and Zappos. His campaign presence on Reddit was absolutely huge and consistent, but it was also unlike anything a presidential campaign had done before. In previous election cycles, the internet was still considered a small fish. For this reason, I think many were blindsided by what appeared to be organic enthusiasm, but instead was a post-organic movement meant to get a product to self-perpetuate amongst a user base. By the time Obama did an “Ask Me Anything,” all that was needed was a picture of him holding up a sign to then provide a gateway to bounce between safe and orchestrated responses as a record number of hopeful readers and potential voters lined up to take part in what they thought was a truly special moment for Reddit and the country.
Fast forward to the summer months of 2016 and the astroturfing by both political parties is blatant and has lost that “hopefulness” which belonged to Obama’s early campaign. Instead, most of the politics are tuned to the pettiness of the lowest common denominator and standards regarding truth of any claims are nonexistent, and often of little to no concern. The only objective is attention, and to that there’s plenty. Most of the response is ugly, meddling, self-aggrandizing, and there’s never enough substantiated content for users to say “Oh, wow, I never thought about it like that. I may have to reconsider my position.” But still, the precedent on Reddit is that it’s a sincere user-based and trustworthy movement for either side and that, say, how any of the campaigns pretty much sprung up overnight, as though a PR firm set to work, is a point pushed to the wayside.
Between these mega-campaigns for the fanciest, most lobby-cushioned seat in the U.S., the mega-corporations have taken control. Similar to how the presidential campaigns hardly disguised their “grassroots” image when the popping up almost overnight, one fast food restaurant has taken this a step further and has given itself away by being mentioned disproportionately above all others combined. To call out any of these actions is to subject yourself to point #5 of Manufacturing Consent – you become the communist to their freedom, and behind the veil of pseudo-anonymity their workers can attack you freely and without repercussion to the brand, or their prized self-identified loyalists can do the dirty work for them. Meanwhile, like the quote at the beginning of this section, the Reddit CEO can promote and encourage the effectiveness of working with advertisers, but to mention it within the ecosystem itself is discouraged and made a mockery of.
A couple examples of corporate campaigns: Think about the average demographic of the Reddit user, and then how odd it is when an article shows up claiming the merits of a national fast food chain being a place of community-building for the low-income elderly population. As responses, some comments in each thread follow the similar lines of “That’s lovely” or “Touching.” If it seems out of place, it is. But that’s fine – one can unsubscribe from subs in which advertisement pieces like that routinely show up. If it gets to be too much, one also has the option not to read content from “news sites” which support that kind of activity, although I’m not sure if there would be any news sites left to choose from.
But what’s more insidious and impossible to avoid is when that effort for brand awareness hits the personal, text-based format in the comment section. Yes, advertisers are now trending toward spreading brand awareness through what at first appears to be personal stories but which end up being ads in high readership zones [see: South Park’s concept of “You Are an Ad” (which can be viewed as an ad for South Park, yes.) This is also an example of how easy it is to just bounce around in the system in varying fashions.)] Here’s a simplified example:
“Redditors, what is your favorite memory?”
_user_ recounts how she was in the car with her boyfriend and her dog, it was a nice day and she was thinking about how it was nice to be off work for a change, when she looked over and her boyfriend was holding an engagement ring as they passed the _fast food place_ where they first met.
You’d think that once they have you in their grasp, that would be enough, but even in brand-specific subreddits, the companies will use deceptive post-organic tactics to push their latest products. It’s seldom about getting you to enjoy what you already have, but getting you to desire what you don’t have: To fill your games library, or your bookshelf, or your closet. What you don’t have is always better, faster, healthier, cleaner, purer, sleeker, sexier, smarter…. You can solve all of your problems, if only you’d open your wallet. You don’t have any problems? The internet is very good at creating them. The internet of things very much wants you to become an identity of things, and they want your religion to be their specific brand. The better you is always up ahead. Push the button.
Pushing the Button to Cross the Street
Back in part one I mentioned how Reddit started out in simplicity. It was comprised of a collection of people who each decided on a username, and then they upvoted or downvoted organic content based on their subjective notions of merit, and that was it. But now the voting system is so skewed, the value of the individual user voter is so lost, the voting system might as well be called fake. The organic, democratic, precedent set by the early days of Reddit turned out to be a training session for a corporate plaza atmosphere, and now people are left pushing placebo buttons similarly to how pedestrians push placebo crosswalk buttons in busy cities. The assimilation of product and politics is no error, either – to sell a beer or a president or war takes the same strategy. To intersperse some sexual content is all the better: It get attention (or inattention) and doesn’t require critical thought. So where is the integrity in the process or content when it’s the inattention that matters and not the merit? In the Century of the Self, we are taught that the main goal is to get consumers to make irrational and emotion-based decisions, even if those decisions are at odds with what they value.
To further skew the system, user seniority, or old accounts, is associated fallaciously with legitimacy. Not only is there a marketplace for old accounts, but the possibly exists that accounts can be automated, or worse yet, created on the spot with a scripted timeline and history that dates back years. There is nothing stopping this from happening, and seniority is all that’s required for credibility, while new voices are often limited right out of the gate.
The alternative? That’s the thing. There are none, not that I know of, and there may never be one again. Cue the Reddit CEO snickering and saying “You’ll be back.” Users can go into smaller subreddits where the votes might actually still apply, but the Eternal September will follow. There are some Reddit-like sites, Voat for example, which saw some curious users during PR Reddit drama (but which also reportedly saw underhanded tactics to overwhelm the Voat servers when the capacity was needed most). However, alternative sites, too, are subject to the same outcome. You can be certain that any growth wouldn’t take nearly as long to be compromised. The internet was once a place different than the place it is today, but now the books have been written on how to manipulate the masses, and what is apparent is that the internet isn’t only the greatest communication tool the world has ever known, but the most effective propaganda tool the world has ever known – and that’s not a hyperbolic statement.
It’s much more than a “If you don’t like it then leave argument.” Not everyone has the time or the capacity to understand what is going on in this new age of propaganda on the internet, but these are also the people who will be swept along and will ultimately have an impact on the more knowledgeable person, whether with that knowledge he or she quits any individual service or not.
Maybe the future is to embrace it all. I find that sad, because so much is pushed to get us to not think or converse in-depth, but to get us to associate idea and solutions as overly simplified and/or product-based. In the end, it’s a hollow sense of fulfillment.
That said, every generation that comes and goes has those who look upon the new faces and the new practices with a sense of dread and disappointment. When they think they see the end, what they often fail to see is the evolution, and I think it’s safe to say that the world is still very much at the precipice of evolving into something unknown and drastically different to our current lives. The internet of things, automation, artificial intelligence, these are all exciting and world-changing, maybe for better or for worse, but I think what’s different, and in a way very much the same, about this particular stage of evolution are the power grabs at the base of all the expanding technology. Where there is information, there will always be people who seek to control that information. It’s kind of humorous to think of places where it all might have failed, the message boards full of bots and shills not there out of any sincere endeavor, but there to push their particular brand. Maybe they are sincere about their brand, but see what I said above about finding that a sad and limiting view of the human experience.
These days, my list of subreddits continues to grow smaller as Reddit loses focus on what made it a great platform to begin with. I’m studying for some technology certifications, and the concentration of people with similar interests is still unmatched when it comes to some subreddits, but even if the advertisers haven’t concentrated their might on the smaller subreddits yet, the skepticism is already there. If one of these days a new alternative shows up, a decentralization of power and influence perhaps, then in the words of Kurt Vonnegut – “So it goes.”
-The Technologic Brain