Sensational Reddit

Reddit, the social media platform, has been a source of comfort in my life over the past decade. It has helped me countless times when I felt bored. There I observed communities of people who seemed to share my general views of the world. They made me feel smart, informed and validated.

Reddit has also been a source of struggle. I’ve often spent more time on the site than what I really wanted. I’ve felt like most of that time was wasted in the sense that I barely even remembered what I had seen or read. It’s made me feel frustrated and divorced from events and people that appeared to me to be unreasonable, illogical, sometimes evil or downright stupid.

I’ve consciously abstained from Reddit several times, for periods ranging from days to months. I always observed and recorded that I felt happier during those breaks. Yet I’ve always come back. I used to think of it as mostly a bad habit. One that I would hopefully kick one day, but that wasn’t overly concerning or threatening.

Today, I would describe myself as a recovering addict. I’m abstaining and hoping I never go back. I’m not sure how bad Reddit actually isperhaps it’s not, on the whole. But I’ve come to fear and respect its ability to influence my judgment.

I’ll pause here just to say that I suspect my observations would apply to many media platforms, however Reddit is the one for which I can speak purely from experience.

I realized that I used to see Reddit and its content as objects of observation. On one side of the computer was me, the subject, with my own curated opinions and belief, and on the other side were Reddit feed items that I could observe and critique for myself. I didn’t do much sharing or commenting at all.

I was blind to the extent by which each image, each news item, each comment was slowly chiseling my mind. Shaping certain views, certain interests, certain thoughts and ways of thinking. Also, I believe, shaping it to want to spend time on Reddit. It’s natural selection in action: the media platforms that make people want to come back are more likely to survive. But what if the fittest media platforms, the ones that keep people coming in today’s environment, are those that sensationalize and divide, rather than those who inform as accurately and compassionately as possible?

What if the best way to become wise was to get off of media platforms and live experiences unfiltered by other people? How might someone like me, a self-diagnosed addict, move in that direction? I started to wonder what a media platform intended to reduce people’s consumption of media would look like.

In a way I had tried this before, by curating my Reddit feed to contain exclusively wholesome content, uplifting news, epic pictures of Earth and conversations about mindfulness meditation. And it helped, I’d certainly recommend it, but I found that I knew there were more popular, more current content that I was missing out on, and I eventually fell back into it.

Perhaps the same content could be presented in a way that would be less manipulative then. I wondered what Reddit might look like if its headlines were written with the intention of being as objective and accurate as possible rather than becoming popular. I decided to check the front page one more time, for science!

A screenshot of the Reddit front page, taken on July 12, 2020

“Father is a acrobat. His daughter inherited all his talent genes.”

A Reddit headline

At the top we’ve got a short video of a father and daughter doing some acrobatics. While the title seems fairly accurate I can think of a few things I’d like to change, starting with the qualifiers.

First there’s an implication that the father is a professional acrobat. At least that’s what I gather from a statement like “he’s an acrobat” with no other context provided. In a way that’s helpful information, professionals are usually good at what they do, that’s why they get paid, but it’s also priming me to think that whatever I’m about to see is professional-level acrobatics and thus should be enjoyed as such. It might be interesting instead to let the video speak for itself.

Then there are the superlatives: she has ALL HIS TALENT. And it’s stated to be genetic, which to me implies that it’s exclusive. Training alone apparently isn’t enough for the display of skill I’m about to witness.

Finally there’s a degree of mystery present. What does it mean, that she “inherited all his talent genes”? It sounds impressive, but it doesn’t actually say much about what the video actually contains. To me this is reminiscent of click-bait. It’s a milder form of “you won’t believe what this little girl can do.”

My edit: 30 second video of father and daughter doing acrobatics together

“Historians will likely rank Trump as one of the worst presidents.”

A Reddit headline

This one was particularly interesting. I started by reading the whole article, which, honestly, I probably wouldn’t have done if I wasn’t trying to come up with an accurate headline. Instead I would have happily taken the claim at face value and moved down the feed. Anyway, I found it was making two main points:

  1. Trump has a low approval rating, thus he is unlikely to be reelected. In certain historical ranking of presidents, those who rank towards the bottom tend to be those who were not reelected.
  2. Trump already ranks near or at the bottom of three polls. One conducted among 170 social science experts in presidential politics between December 2017 and January 2018. Another among 157 presidential scholars in February of 2019. Finally one conducted among 1,122 voters nationwide in March of 2018 placed him last.

I find 1. to be rather obvious. So you’re telling me presidents who aren’t democratically reelected tend to be less popular than those who do? I will store this fact next to “water is humid.” That leaves 2. as the meat of the article, and to me the information is rather outdated. At the end, the author addresses this, saying they doubt Trump’s ranking has changed since the polls. Well, I doubt they would have gathered 44k upvotes if they had been upfront about the age of their data source.

My edit: Trump statistically ranked among worst presidents by presidential scholars in January 2018 and February 2019 polls (N=170 and 157 respectively)

“The Young Mother Shot by B L M for Saying ‘All Lives Matter’ Should be National News”

A Reddit headline

Something disturbing happened with this item. By the time I had gone through the ones above and was ready to read this thread, I found that it had been removed by the moderators of that subreddit. It was gone from the front page. (It can still be found here.)

The thread states that the post has been removed because it violates the rule of “No trolling/satire.” Looking at the comments someone pointed out that the original source says nothing about “all lives matter,” but that it was later added by a far-right news and opinion website known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes. So it’s good that the post has been flagged, but I think it’s unfortunate that it was summarily removed after reaching Reddit’s front page and gathering over 12k upvotes. I imagine part of the Reddit readership may have seen this thread and taken the information at face value without doing more research. They now believe that a young mother was shot by BLM activists for saying “all lives matter.” If I hadn’t read this thread at the right time, I know I would. And even if those readers had gone back to the front page, they may not have noticed that the post disappeared, or they may have assumed that it had naturally cycled through, as posts do.

Although I wasn’t thinking about misinformation when I started this exercise, when false information gains this level of visibility I think a retraction is in order. Perhaps it could remain on the front page for a while with a label stating that it’s been Removed by moderators for trolling/satire, along with the original title. That way readers who saw the post before it was flagged are more likely to be notified that it was a hoax.

Overall I found that a couple of titles were honestI couldn’t think of any edits I would make. The others I changed as well to create my own snapshot of that front page. I should say, also, that I didn’t pick a particular front page. I opened Reddit shortly after having this idea and used what was there (minus an advertisement).

Use the slider to go between and see if you can spot the differences.

Two screenshots, one of the Reddit front page, taken on July 12, 2020, and the other the same front page with edited headlines

Is this feed as attractive as the original one?