My Year of Reddit and Relaxation

In Gary Shteyngart’s absurdist dystopian novel “Super Sad True Love Story,” from 2010, a neurotic middle-aged protagonist, Lenny, is lovesick over a twenty-four-year-old Korean American woman, Eunice. One of the main aspects of their generational divide is their respective relationships to words and images. Lenny is alienated from modern culture because he loves books; he is so ashamed of his affection that he makes an effort to stop reading or talking about literature. Eunice, on the other hand, is part of a cohort that communicates predominantly through images. When Eunice and Lenny exchange correspondence through GlobalTeens, a popular communication platform, the service lightly admonishes them for their digital letter-writing, prompting them to change formats: “Switch to Images today! Less words = more fun!!!”

2022 in Review

New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s highs and lows.

This element of “Super Sad True Love Story” has stuck with me for over a decade, a period during which written communication has ceded more and more ground to images. To a writer, there is something obviously unsettling—in a Darwinian sense—about the relative ease of using images instead of words. Responding to a message with a series of emojis has come to feel more natural than offering a thoughtful explanation. Encapsulating a complex group social dynamic with an apt screenshot from a popular movie is almost as satisfying as composing a nice turn of phrase. The continued diminishment of the written word is such a foregone conclusion that it’s almost not worth getting sentimental over. On a bleak day, the signs are everywhere. Books are chiefly useful insofar as they generate source material for podcasts or streaming shows. Those streaming shows are most successful when they generate GIFs and memes for social media.

And yet, amid the digital sea of reels and shorts and TikToks, there are a few unexpected strongholds of written communication. One such stronghold is Reddit, the expansive network of discussion forums founded by a pair of graduates of the University of Virginia in 2005. Today, according to Semrush, an Internet metrics tracking company, Reddit is the fifth most visited Web site in the United States, but its rudimentary interface and its blunt functionality hark back to a more innocent era of online communication. On Reddit, character limits on posts are high, and the mechanism for adding an image to a post is cumbersome. This means that users usually default to communicating in writing, in a way that is more nuanced—if sometimes more long-winded and pedantic—than on any other platform. There’s even a network of beloved storytelling-driven Reddit forums that classify themselves as “text-only”: over on r/talesfromretail, for example, retail workers can regale nine hundred and eight thousand Reddit users with horror stories, advice, or reports of heartwarming exchanges with customers. This proclivity for writing has, over time, turned Reddit into the most utilitarian, information-rich Web site on the Internet. I hope that its developers never bother to update its code to facilitate more image-based posting.

In the crumbling ecosystem of social-media platforms, Reddit’s reputation has been overshadowed by a handful of headlines. I first understood Reddit as the stomping ground of mobs of angry young men who seemed to be on the wrong side of the culture wars. After all, it was Reddit—along with 4Chan—where conspiracy theorists and online abusers gathered to orchestrate a harassment campaign against women in the world of video games. The incel community was known to congregate on Reddit and spew threatening language and violent ideas about women—so much so that, in 2017, the site disbanded r/incels, a group with more than forty thousand members. Even when Reddit wasn’t being used as a water cooler for frustrated misogynists, the site had a reputation for a kind of mischief that could congeal into insurgency, like the meme-stock movement that sent GameStop soaring for a couple of frenzied weeks in early 2021. There’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to “controversial Reddit communities.” The list is neither short nor pleasant. And, even as the site has begun regulating its content more strictly, the Reddit founder Steve Huffman has stood by his decision to allow (hugely popular) pornographic forums to remain on the site. (Advance Publications, the company that owns The New Yorker, is also the majority stockholder of Reddit.)

But, in spite of its reputation, Reddit has gradually eclipsed other platforms as my digital home base in the past year. It was a year during which I found myself constantly bumping up against the limitations of Google’s poorly evolving search algorithm. It started when my dog was behaving strangely, and every Google-search result led me to the most boilerplate or gravest possible conclusion. On Reddit, though, what I found were hyper-specific threads in which fellow dog owners offered up their firsthand experiences with the exact scenario I was facing. It was a relief, then, when I started adding “reddit” to the end of my search queries, opening up a portal to a separate Internet filled with legitimately useful information. It sounds preposterous to admit that I misjudged a Web site, but it’s true: I wish I had spent all those years using Reddit, instead of being in thrall to the mayhem of Twitter and the often mind-numbing scroll of Instagram.

The stakes of browsing Reddit are low. With its rudimentary interface and its deëmphasis on images, there are no aspirational aesthetics to absorb, no opportunity to broadcast an idealized version of anything. There is little professional networking to be done; self-promotion is often strongly discouraged by the scrupulous moderators of most forums. Reddit’s users are, by design, siloed into special-interest communities (“subreddits”), the vast majority of which are characterized by a wholesome enthusiasm and rigorous adherence to the group’s self-imposed set of rules. Where else but Reddit would you find a group of people helping to decode a cryptic message left in a UPS tracking history? That’s r/UPS, a twenty-seven-thousand-member “unofficial community where people can discuss and ask questions regarding UPS related topics.” Where else would I find a moment-to-moment curation of the world’s Formula 1 news? That’s r/formula1, which tops out at nearly three million users. A group of people parasocially invested in the every musing of a mid-tier podcaster? There’s certainly a subreddit for that.

Every Monday morning following a new episode of “Euphoria,” I gorged myself on the ludicrous theories that members of r/euphoria (two hundred and sixty-two thousand users) cooked up about the hidden meanings of each scene. I found a wealth of information specific to the suffering that occurs on each individual day of a thirty-day elimination diet. I followed along with a subreddit that comprehensively chronicles every evolution of New York’s drill-rap scene (r/NYStateOfMind, a hundred and eighteen thousand users). I found a source of new and notable pop-music singles that was updated more fastidiously than any streaming-service playlist (r/popheads, 1.3 million users). I looked at too many photos of strangers’ beagles (r/beagle, sixty-two thousand users). Rule No. 3 of the r/beagle community: “Gatekeeping is not permitted.”

In 2012, David Carr wrote a media column about Reddit, describing the platform as “a classic Web start-up in which opportunity seems mixed with barely controlled anarchy.” He also said that visiting the site can feel like “peering into a bowl of spaghetti.” A decade later, Reddit hasn’t done much to update its spaghetti-effect design, but its anarchy is much more tightly controlled, and its user behavior is significantly more ruly. Reddit was early to the current wave of aggressive content moderation, banning specific types of extreme topics and language several years ago. The site outsources content moderation to each subreddit’s group of moderators, who take their jobs very seriously. Most subreddits have rules restricting users from hate speech, gatekeeping, self-promoting, sales, or posts that stray too far off topic. The result is not a site that feels overly rule-bound or restrictive to free speech but a place that simply encourages users to behave as their best selves. It’s the reason that, in the depths of early-pandemic bureaucratic chaos, Americans turned to r/unemployment in the tens of thousands to navigate a complex web of benefits enrollment.

In the weeks since Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, that site’s users find themselves in a holding pattern, waiting for the platform to combust and release them from its grasp. Meanwhile, much of what is posted on Twitter has become a closed loop of hand-wringing about Twitter: Why am I still here, and can I muster the will to delete my account in the meantime? Am I playing into the hands of an eccentric and unruly billionaire? Does it matter? Hardly anything has ever been more Shteyngartian. For anyone pondering those questions, or anyone really needing a break, I gently encourage you: Come over and give Reddit a shot. The beagles are waiting. ♦

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