I always get nervous when I wake up and see that reddit, “the front page of the internet,” is in the news again. But a few days ago, there it was. On the night of the mass shooting in Orlando, redditors gathered on the r/news subreddit discovered long chains of comments being deleted almost immediately by moderators, with little explanation, and often for no obvious reason.

This discovery led to rage, chaos, rage, P.R. meltdowns, and rage in the way that only a reddit moderation scandal can, and the result was such a mess that it moved from r/news to the actual news…


Depending on who you ask, this latest catastrophe was either a bunch of very kind people trying to help who were mistakenly targeted by overzealous moderators in the wake of the attack or a bunch of militant white supremacists threatening to murder those moderators over their coverage of the attack.

My guess is it was both. On reddit, it usually is.

Despite its fairly unbalanced demographics (according to business blogger Brandon Gaille, regular reddit users are 80% male, 80% under-35, 55% American, and, shockingly, more likely to be dog lovers than cat lovers), reddit is incredibly diverse in terms of both the subjects it covers and the way that it approaches them. It’s like one of those neighborhoods where you never know if the person approaching you on the street is going to offer you a flower or stab you, except that the flower is a hilarious picture of a cat on its hind legs.

The stabbing you is still stabbing you.


I spend far too much time on reddit for my own good, and even I’m still frequently shocked by the site’s ability to both mobilize massive crowds to do amazing work for good causes and to allow those crowds to devolve into unnerving, bloodthirsty mobs finding all kinds of exciting new uses for the n-word. Something in the way reddit is designed seems to bring these capacities, both of them, out of people to an extent it’s hard to find anywhere else on the internet.

I’ve been doing some reading lately about exactly what might cause these transformations to happen over and over again, and what I’ve discovered is that reddit is really all about choosing which parts you visit and which parts you don’t; like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books. The same factors that make reddit awesome are the same things that make it terrible, just applied in slightly different ways.

Call them “prons” – half pro, half con…


PRON #1:

Redditors tend to form close, supportive, groups of like-minded people.

People tend to be drawn to reddit because no matter what they love, they can find other people there who love it, too.

Love the letter G? Dumb infomercials? Pictures of historical figures playing with cats? Shark merchandise? Spotting inanimate objects that look like faces? There’s a sub for that. The rest of the world might think your obsession isn’t worth obsessing over, but your subreddit understands. And that’s not even getting into support subs for people with actual problems beyond a friend group that can’t appreciate their love for Gravity Falls. Want to talk to someone who can give you tips about life after prison or gripe with you about how much mental illness sucks? There’s a sub for that, too, full of people with all of the same problems and worries you have who are ready and willing to help.

Of course, if you’re a Nazi, a homophobe, a misogynist, a racist, or the worst scum to ever crawl the face of the Earth, there’s a sub for that, as well, and plenty of people there who will be happy to agree-and-amplify (redpill humor!) every batshit thing you say.

Therein lies the pron.

The line between a devoted, supportive group of friends and a destructive, self-reinforcing echo chamber is extremely thin, and reddit loves to dance all over that line like it’s a ceiling and they’re Fred Astaire.


What makes this phenomenon all the more powerful is the way that reddit groups seem purpose-designed to promote deindividuation, that psychological state where people become so immersed in a group that their self-awareness drops through the floor and they cease feeling personally responsible for their actions. Anonymity, identification not with yourself but with a larger crowd, a strong desire to belong; according to researcher Leon Mann, this the perfect recipe for deindividuation – it also happens to be the formula for a successful subreddit.

Though deindividuation isn’t always a bad thing. The army, religious groups, political movements, and fandoms all depend on it to some extent. Anyone who’s ever been part of a mosh pit knows how beautiful and even spiritual that feeling of losing yourself in a group of people who all feel the same things and want the same things can be. It can be one of the most joyful, fulfilling parts of life.

On the other hand, the Leon Mann study that I quoted earlier was about the way anonymous crowds encouraged suicidal strangers to jump off of bridges, which is not quite so beautiful or spiritual or joyful.

Surrendering to a group often means becoming willing to try things you’d never try without their encouragement and agreement, and some of those things you’d never try alone are probably things you shouldn’t try ever.


If You Want to Feel Good About This:

Turn to R/OpiatesRecovery, where former opiate addicts offer tips and support for people seeking a healthier life.

If You Want to Feel Bad About This:

Turn to R/ProED, where people with eating disorders go to do pretty much the opposite.

PRON #2:

Redditors have Pinkie Pie levels of energy.

In the spring of last year, some reddit administrators tried an experiment: they created a “button” that needed to be pressed by a new user every sixty seconds, or… well, probably something horrible involving hieroglyphics, electromagnetism, time travel, and a really disappointing final episode would happen.

Or nothing.

If you’ve spent time on reddit, you can probably predict how the experiment went: the button stayed active for more than two months, pressed more than 1,400 times a day in an effort that wound up involving more than a million different users, each of whom could only press it once. More than a million people pressed the button, for no reward whatsoever, just because someone wanted to see what would happen.

That’s reddit.

I have never in my life met people who will put so much effort and obsession into completing a social experiment, supporting a cause, or just keeping a joke going. I mean, more than 80,000 redditors are subscribed to a sub where users do nothing but photoshop arms onto birds. More than 500 are subscribed to a sub where users make dog sounds at one another. Both of these subs are active on a daily basis!

Considering a healthy chunk of reddit readership consists of members of that notorious MTV generation that supposedly feels neither highs nor lows#, this ridiculous level of energy and obsession for no reward except making relative strangers laugh is pretty damn impressive.

On the other hand, the same obsessive mindset that is wonderful when you’re building a massive bird-appreciation sub to make a single silly joke about the way “Superbowl” is spelled turns terrible really fast when you’re using it to track down and harass fat people, make sure stolen nude photos of celebrities keep circulating, or share the addresses of female game developers so people can, you know, kill them.

That’s the thing about obsession; turned in the direction of awesome, it’s awesome. Turned in the direction of awful, it’s awful. Just like a tight, supportive in-group, an obsessive mindset is an amplifier for whatever you put into it.

To quote psychologist Dr. Alex Lickerman:

“We have to acknowledge that it’s hard, if not often impossible, to achieve something great without being just a little bit obsessed with it. In fact, when properly harnessed, the increased energy, drive, determination, and resiliency obsession brings can be highly adaptive. Obsession, when made to serve us, can bring out our most capable selves, motivating us to find the creativity and ingenuity to solve incredibly difficult problems. Obsession, in short, can lead us to greatness.”

…or the dank pits of hell.

It all depends on where we aim it.


If You Want to Feel Good About This:

Turn to R/Pyongyang, which maintains an enormous bank of hilarious, labor-intensive satire that pops up all over the site.

If You Want to Feel Bad About This:

Turn to R/MensRights, which in 2013 nearly got a woman killed because they decided every piece of evidence proving they were harassing an innocent person was part of a massive feminist conspiracy only they could see.

PRON #3:

Redditors are insanely generous with their time and money, especially for a good cause.

Want cheap and healthy recipes? Help with your homework? Someone to look over your personal finances? Someone to help you remember the name of that song you’ve had stuck in your head for three days? Money for your passion project? Reddit is full of people who will help, for free, for fun.

I mean, look at the gift exchanges! Redditors are so amped up to send strangers gifts that they host massive secret santa exchanges multiple times a year. More than 120,000 people in more than 150 countries sign up for these things. Bill Gates sent someone a mixtape. That he made. For that person. It’s kind of a big deal.

On the other hand: it probably doesn’t need saying that a very large group of people who are willing to devote almost infinite time and money to anything they believe is a good cause can be very, very dangerous.

According to a recent study done at MIT, participation in a like-minded, close-knit group drastically changes the regions of a subject’s brain that are most active when making moral decisions, which in turn has a very dramatic effect on what those people see as moral or immoral. Being in a large group of people who believe they are on the side of good, the study found, can actually, physically, shut down the parts of your brain that house your personal sense of right and wrong and allow the group’s sense of right and wrong to take its place. If enough people around you are convinced they are acting on the side of good, it might become almost medically impossible for you to figure out whether or not that’s true.

To quote Max Fisher, writing for Vox:

“Mob justice…is derived from the collective feelings of whoever happens to be participating. The mob’s case law is limited to whatever its participants happen to remember and care about in that moment. Its rules of evidence privilege anything that shares easily on social media and that confirms the preexisting belief system of the mob participants. That is a way of administering justice that is just as likely to target innocent people as guilty ones — especially because there’s no definition of what “guilty” and “innocent” mean in the first place.”

Mob morality isn’t necessary correct or incorrect; it’s just rickety, hard to predict, and not terribly grounded in reality, which means that a lot of its correctness or incorrectness tends to come about by accident.

Attach the immense force of reddit generosity to the extremely reddit sense of justice, and you’re basically sending a raptor and a T-rex to fight a raptor/T-Rex#: it feels awesome when it’s happening, but the ultimate results are going to have more to do with momentum than with justice or good sense.


If You Want to Feel Good About This:

Turn to R/Assistance, where redditors in need can get money for emergencies from kind strangers.

If You Want to Feel Bad About This:

Turn to R/FindTheBostonBomber, which I can’t link to, because it no longer exists.

Want to know what it feels like to be on the wrong end of reddit’s generosity? Just ask the parents of Sunil Tripathi, the man reddit decided was the Boston Marathon Bomber after an extensive witch-hunt involving Facebook, Twitter, police scanners, news reports, detailed photo matching, and hours and hours of effort that hundreds of redditors willingly donated to what they believed was a good cause.

Seven or eight excruciating hours later, it turned out not only was Sunny Tripathi actually one of the bomber’s victims, but that the reddit hunt to find him had exposed his grieving parents to an enormous amount of racist harassment and threats.

It was a mistake, an enormous mistake the moderator of R/FindTheBostonBomber regrets more than anyone. But – and this is the thing — it was a mistake with the power of thousands of people willing to devote thousands of hours of time behind it, and that made it a much bigger mistake than most of us will ever make in our lives.


At the end of the day, that’s what reddit is: it’s a multiplier. Between the tight, supportive communities, the enormous userbase, and the way it encourages obsession and devotion – especially for the sake of whatever its users believe good to be – reddit is a machine for making anything that you put into it much, much bigger than it was.

And that’s where problems arise, because what we are putting into it is people.

Reddit – like Soylent Green – is the delicious, satiating, horrific product of people getting mushed together for the sake of easily-digestible consumption.


The story of humanity, right there on the front page of the internet.