Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Democratization of Information Case Study: Reddit

reddit alien mascot thing (Image credit: AJC1)
We've been talking about the effects the new digital media have had/are having on our culture a lot in this first week of class, and so for my first digital culture post I'd like to kill two birds with one stone (or harpoon two whales with one spear, as it were). First, I'm going to talk about how the idea of democracy has influenced the development of the internet, and at the same time, I'm going to teach you all about reddit, an undervalued and awesome tool to discover, research, and read amazing content on the internet.

Are you ready? Here we go!

Possibly one of the greatest cultural shifts in human history happened in ancient Greece when the Athenians became the first group of human beings to govern themselves by communal vote rather than being ruled by a single monarch or family. While this system of government didn't last very long, relatively speaking, it inspired thinkers over a millennium later in the 18th century during the Enlightenment period. Thanks to their help and other social and political changes, democracy regained strength, climaxing in the creation of the United States of America.

As you know, the USA became the greatest power on Earth over the course of the next two and a half centuries. And everywhere America's long and powerful arm stretched, democracy went with it. Because America was founded on such passionate (and even violent) terms around the idea of democracy, it became the most deep-rooted value of our culture, with almost everything built up to promote and maintain it.So naturally, when new forms of communication developed in a world where America sat in both the political and cultural spotlight, democracy was built in their DNA.

A screenshot of a reddit front page. Stories are put on the front page based on how many upvotes they have received, how quickly, and how recently.
You can see democracy all over the internet--in the nearly ubiquitous comments sections, in the rise of crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter, and in free sharing sites like YouTube--but perhaps one of the places where democracy is most directly implemented on the internet is reddit (not a typo, they specifically ask to have it stylized with no caps). On reddit, users can post links or text for others to view. Other users can then "upvote" or "downvote" them so they get more or less visibility on the site. reddit is internally divided into "subreddits," communities based around a single topic. There are subreddits for just about everything imaginable, from gifs to physics to flight simulators to onions. Users can subscribe to any combination and number of subreddits to provide personalized content much like a feed reader or news aggregator.

The end result of all of this is a dynamic collection of content that changes rapidly throughout the day and is constantly up to the very second with the newest information. Because of that, reddit has become a source for many major news sites, and often has information long before any other site as people on-site when big stories happen can post images and information and other users can send it to the top of the site (also called the "front page") so that it gets out to everyone faster. Also, anyone who creates quality content on the internet can post it for review on reddit (within a fit subreddit), and quickly receive wide exposure as individual users upvote the content and it gets spread to more users interested in the topic the subreddit is based around. Therefore, reddit becomes empowering in two ways: it lets otherwise powerless people get their voice heard, and it lets the people decide what is the best and most important content to be viewed.

So, reddit helps make the internet more democratic, and we can see the internet is fundamentally influenced by democratic ideals. This observation begs the question, then: what would the internet be like if America and democracy hadn't risen in prominence in the world in recent history? Would we even have the internet at all? It's weird to think wars fought 200 years ago determine how you find funny cat videos today, but these are exactly the kinds of connections the digital humanities are here to find.