Just days after the election results came in, I, and I think a lot of other people, decided to really take a look at how I was using social media. Was I, as I has been telling myself, using it to promote dialogue, to cross social barriers, to bridge divides and learn about my friends on a complex level? Or was I tossing Buzzfeed videos and dog gifs into a closed system of algorithms that knew I only wanted to see more Buzzfeed videos and dog gifs?
I didn’t want to stop using Facebook entirely; it is one of the best ways to connect with people whom I don’t live with. But I did want to cut back severely and end my delusion that it was some great tool I was using to make the world a better place. I wanted stop pretending that I was some activist armed with a status update and an echo chamber.
So I blocked the site from my computers during certain times and made it so I could only go on in fifteen-minute intervals. In the few months I’ve gone almost without it, I can say that it has done wonders for my attitude and my level of engagement IRL…
…at least I can definitively say that for the first two or so weeks. After that I noticed a disturbing trend of my use of my phone. I had long since deleted the Facebook app from my phone (highly recommend that, by the way) and wasn’t logged in on the web app, but time still started to slip away unaccounted for, and I was still somehow keeping up with the latest strawman arguments and ad hominem attacks, with the worst of the clickbait and the catchiest of catchy one liners. I still got my hard news from places like the BBC and my local newspaper’s app, but I found myself once again quoting “studies” and “reports” and “news stories” whose source I couldn’t quite recall. I was again saying things like, “I read somewhere recently…” and “Did you know that…” and “Well actually…” and not quite remembering how I had learned these things myself.
The culprit, of course, was Reddit.
Months ago, I would have sworn that I would never use Reddit. I had been on it for a minute back in college and learned pretty quickly that it was not friendly to women, people in ethnic minority groups, people in sexual minority groups…or really anyone. Even the people who love Reddit and use it religiously spend a lot of time on there either angry or hurt.
But the thing that Reddit has that Facebook didn’t was a culture all its own. Facebook as a website and later as an app has always worked to be invisible. The ads blend in, the “trending” section is relatively little, the form for every page is nearly identical and basically unchangeable. Try as you might, there’s only so much you can do to put your own spin on things, or to personalize your experience. This means that all both format and content innovation comes from the top down, and every time something big changes, the users are either really upset, sucked in by the novelty, or completely unaware.
Reddit is different. Because the different forums, or “subreddits” are user generated and moderated, and because each user can choose which subreddits they see updates of, the experience of Reddit feels more communal. It reminds me of my personal “golden era” of Internet citizenship: the forums on www.HarryPotter.com.
In the early ‘00s (and forever after) I was a huge Harry Potter geek. As a young teenager, I gave my heart and soul to my fandom; I wrote fanfiction for myself and for my friends, I had long scholarly discussions about the books and characters, I speculated about things that happened outside the written canon, and I even briefly dabbled in fan art (though quickly decided that I should leave that to other, more talented people). I did a lot of these things by participating in the forum culture on Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter website. There were threads I frequented as if they were my House Common Room. There were screen names I knew as well-respected members of the community, though I didn’t know their age, name, or anything else about them. There were unwritten rules I followed, a language of acronyms, phrases, words and syntax that I was fluent in. And I’m not sure Warner Brothers knew much about it.
When humans get into groups, they create a culture. There are many cultures that humans have created that are maladaptive at best and destructive at worst. My Harry Potter forums had that, and Reddit has patches of that. That’s one of the reasons it ends up being not very kind to people outside of its mainstream. But the idea that Facebook has of dictating culture from the top down is oppressive and simultaneously naive. People, especially groups of people, always subvert systems of power that aren’t working in their favor. And our subversion then becomes a second culture.
Culture making is our natural tendency, and I think it’s sort of beautiful. I think it’s an interesting “in God’s image” piece of humanity: we share it partly with other animals, but we’ve also clearly made our own. So I don’t feel as icky using Reddit as I did using Facebook. And I’m operating under no delusions of advocacy or activism. I’m aware of the echo chamber and I started cutting back on the “I’ve read somewhere” comments almost as soon as I noticed them. It’s still a time suck, and I’m working on that, too.
Basically, I’ve managed to shed the Buzzfeed videos without losing the dog gifs. And I chalk that up to a win for everyone.