The Culture of Reddit Is More Complicated Than PBS Thinks

Slate's Culture Blog
June 4 2012 12:43 PM

PBS’s Disappointing Reddit Doc

redditmap
A still from "The Culture of Reddit"

Sure, it’s only eight minutes long, but my expectations were still pretty high for this short film about Reddit. It was made by Off Book, after all, an impressive web series from PBS devoted to art and artists, with an emphasis on the art one finds on the Internet. Here on Brow Beat, we’ve already praised the series’ episode about title design in film and TV; other interesting episodes have looked at LEGO art, tattoos, and animated GIFs.

But the first three minutes of “The Culture of Reddit” sound like an infomercial for the site, narrated by its founders and biggest fans. “The essence of Reddit is, ‘Let’s give the people the power to submit links,’” one of the co-founders says. Kevin Morris of the Daily Dot tells us that people on Reddit “really just want to learn,” and “really appreciate thoughtful responses.” The editor of The Redditor (“the #1 unofficial magazine of Reddit”) says Reddit is “about the user” and that its users “want to see the good in the community,” and then discusses the Reddit Secret Santa program and the site’s forum devoted to ordering pizza for strangers who could use one.

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Granted, all this gushing is followed by a couple minutes about sexism on Reddit, during which we learn that 72 percent of Reddit users are male (and that the median user is between the ages of 25-34, has some college education, and is in the lowest U.S. income bracket). But this then shifts into praise for “the conversation that mainstream Reddit is having,” which MemeFactory researcher Stephen Bruckert describes as “real, hard self-examination.”

Cue the uplifting music, and ask the co-founder of Reddit to talk about how the site stopped SOPA, the online privacy act.

That protest against SOPA was an important moment for the site—and for the Internet generally. In fact, it’s one of the reasons people who don’t use Reddit should be interested in who does: because the site has real power. And while the site’s co-founder says that “Redditors are, I think, as diverse as any one of us here in the States or any one of us in the world,” he’s wrong. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate, people on Reddit tend to be “lefties who have a soft spot for Ron Paul” and “are taken with atheism and the legalization of marijuana.” The dominant group on the site are white, male, nonreligious libertarians who live mostly in the United States and northern Europe.

Even if Reddit has not “gone mad with power,” it has certainly become more powerful—and it’s worth trying to figure out who actually has that power. And the answer is not simply “the people.” At least not yet.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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