The entropy of Reddit

You’ll never find as good a metaphor for the modern time as social news aggregators (SNAs) like Digg, Reddit and Fark.

On these, news items are posted, and users vote on them — with the pretend-I’m-a-Roman-Emperor thumb up or down — and the most popular ones rise to the top of the homepage.

When first founded, these services at first attract people who want actual news and informative reading. They know that big media news panders to the dummy audience that wants bread and circuses. Instead, they want to be ahead of the curve.

If you’re starting a business, or just trying to stay interested in life, finding good news is important and a social news aggregator can do it for you — if the audience is game. But over time, as word spreads, entropy strikes.

What happens is familiar to anyone who knows our modern cycle of trend-product-decline-conform:

  1. A new idea rises and people like it;
  2. Since people liking it means it can be elected or sold, it soon is to great profit;
  3. In doing so, the people owning it dumb it down or otherwise kill its essence;
  4. Consequently, the audience leaves.

What happened at Reddit was the flip side of this: while the process was the same, it wasn’t done for dollars — in fact, it’s amazing Reddit is solvent. Instead, it was done for popularity, because there’s no use to having an SNA if your links aren’t popular.

Popular links means high Google rank, which means that indirectly, you influence the market by determining what comes up when Joe Consumer goes to a browser and types in keywords.

At some point, the Crowd found Reddit — and by the Crowd, I mean that large group of people who have no point in life but to please themselves. Smart people have a purpose, whether selfless or otherwise, but it generally involves achievement: inventing technologies, making music, painting art, climbing mountains, running non-profits, you name it.

The Crowd has nothing but their day jobs, a pattern of acting for their own pleasure only, and to compensate for how low that makes them feel, an axe to grind against society. They’re drones who like to find some reason to “be important,” which since they do nothing, is unrelated to what they produce. Instead, it’s related to the opinions they have, the memes they know, how clever they are and so on.

Douglas Haddow says it best in Adbusters:

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society. – Adbusters

In pursuit of popularity, Reddit went from being a community of leaders and smart people to a playground for the Crowd. The Crowd don’t want cutting-edge news; they want ideas that make them comfortable being themselves. A partial list:

  • Memes you can feel witty for repeating
  • Angry articles about how it’s not your fault you’re failing at society
  • Any rhetoric that tears down those who have risen above
  • Clever and trite documentaries about lifestyles of the failed
  • Emotional, tear-jerking or despondent articles
  • Calls to group revenge, such as against animal abusers

More specifically, the Crowd likes anything that is both inclusive and selective, meaning that you need to know the password to enter. Want to be cool in indie rock circles? Talk about Deerhoof. Want to be accepted on the far left? Talk about Alinsky. Want to have the guys like you at the local sports bar? Talk about how Roethlisberger is innocent.

In other words, the Crowd is like other in-groups in that it is a social group with implications beyond socialization between individuals. For example, people base their political, economic and personal lifestyle decisions on social influences, and these in turn have influences in the society at large.

Kuran begins with a simple, even mundane point: social pressures can make people say that they want and believe something that they really don’t want or believe. In a Communist regime, for example, almost everyone may talk about the enormous wisdom and virtue of the leaders of the Party, even though almost everyone thinks that the leaders are scoundrels and fools. In a small town in America, nearly everyone may attend and pray in church, even if many people are unsure whether they believe in God. The result of social pressures is to produce what Kuran calls “preference falsification,” a phenomenon that occurs when you make an inaccurate public statement about your actual preferences (or beliefs). Falsified preferences might be described more simply, of course, as lies; but they are a distinctive, and distinctly interesting, kind of lies, with particular social implications. – TNR

I don’t think this process is unique to Reddit. I think it’s human entropy, which is a subset of entropy, which is that over time organization is lost. Things decay and break down. In the case of human systems, we forget what our symbols mean, and start acting to gain symbolic power instead of achieve things in reality.

To demonstrate this, one Redditor did a did a little experiment.

He or she compared the replies to the exact same article with a four-year gap between submissions. The 2006 version of the thread could be compared side-by-side with the 2010 version. The result? The 2006 thread had insightful mathematics, historical comparisons and analysis; the 2010 version, a competition to repeat as many clever memes and familiar jokes as possible.

On Reddit, when people stopped caring about being an informative news source, the 4chan-style memes, lolcats, stupid preaching to the choir articles, and other chaff floated in, destroying what made Reddit a great resource.

Now what’s left is a Crowd of people who want to see things that confirm what they already believe. I call it the Reddit Hivemind Groupthink (RHG) because it has attributes of all of these buzzwords. It’s an in-group based not on who you know, but what opinions and likes/dislikes you have, geared toward the manchild or other dependent of the entertainment economy.

It’s sad because it eliminates a news source, but inevitable because once anything gets popular, it becomes a trend and then people get onboard who have no idea what made it originally valuable. They then make it into what is convenient for them, which since they lack direction and live in denial, is whatever doesn’t offend their lifestyles.

While today’s Redditors want you to think they’re enlightened savants bringing us the truth against the wishes of an oppressive right-wing government, the truth is that they have declined much like “Anonymous” did at 4chan. They lost their impetus because they became inward looking. On the internet, they’re superstars. In reality they’re boring people with boring jobs, selfish hobbies, inflated self image and an unquenchable anger toward anyone who has more than they do.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a community sink this way. In fact, it’s how all communities sink, barring getting outright confiscated by the FBI (as happened to several of the communities I frequented in the 1980s). They get crushed under their own weight, lose sight of what made them valuable, and become like every other played-out trend, more detritus of a society moving too fast for its own good.

30 Comments

  1. Mike Wasson says:

    Ha ha, you nailed it! The best proof is that right now on Reddit, the top comment starts out “total bullshit!” and concludes “So fuck you, basically, whichever bitter cunt wrote this. “

  2. Hallmanitor says:

    Quoted from r/Truereddit
    Honestly, this guy is a jackass. Decrying the hipster values and reinforcing them. I’ve tailored reddit so that I don’t see 90% of what makes the front page. I am generally unaware of memes, the recent Keanu meme was completly missed untill I logged in on my cell phone. I still have a great experience on Reddit using r/ woreldnews r/ depthhub r/ truereddit etc etc, It’s lazy and pointless to whine about things you can’t change, roll with it adapt. Writer of this piece is as much if not more of an elitist hipster jackass than the ones who have supposedly “invaded”

    Seriously get rid of your skinny pants and find somehting else to cry about

  3. としあき says:

    You link to the 2010 screenshot when you mean to link to the 2006 one.

    However, the insightful mathematics that you cite does not exist. It is basically namedropping that they have read SICP.

    You do not understand fark if you think it is now or ever has been about finding ‘actual, informative’ news. Stories are also approved by modmins, not votes. Fark is slashdot, not digg or reddit.

  4. kingtrewq says:

    You are almost on the front page of Reddit, have an upvote :). You seem to have left out the fact that reddit is a complicated place. I unsubscribed from many of the big subreddits and reddit now has a similar feel as when I first joined it years ago.

  5. Noctin Again says:

    Well, the thing I like about internet communities is that, they provide good examples of man made systems which can flexibly collapse then rebuild themselves better without mortally endangering anyone’s life. Overall, this digital rejuvenation is similar to how forest fires destroy old fauna to make way for new foliage.

  6. Doug Vance says:

    Were Discharge prescient when they recorded Free Speech for the Dumb? In other words, we see a method provided for conveying thoughts, for the mindless.

  7. anon says:

    I was an old-school redditor – I learned about it when Paul Graham posted about it in comp.lang.lisp in 2005. pg established news.ycombinator.com when reddit started becoming stupid (maybe 3 years ago), and it still has a smart crowd.

  8. [...] Harris – “The Entropy of Reddit“, “The Myth of Human [...]

  9. LuKa says:

    The greatest desire for me to stay and live in America and of course to help to develop the technology for which America will be responsible …

  10. LuKa says:

    It would be good if the whole world to unite or at least without going to war so the world may live longer and there like all the people in it …. When you run out war, killing, production of deadly weapons and all that hurts people, and of course the whole world then it would all be achieved .. but this pace, which is half the countries went to leads nowhere …!!!

  11. Zack Brewer says:

    This article strikes me as elitist, exclusionary and pretentious. Maybe it’s just because I have a meaningless job, though. According to the article, because I spend most of my time trying to earn enough money to pay my college loans at an hourly wage, I must be stupid. Because I brew my own Hard Cider instead of writing interesting articles for popular blogs, I’m selfish. Sorry, I forgot this is America, where everyone has the opportunity to create something great and succeed in life, and if they end up poor, depressed or bored, it means they deserve it.

    1. The flip side is that most people in America consider that if they end up poor, depressed or bored, it means they don’t deserve it.

      That victim mentality is bad news, don’t you think?

      1. Banjo Banger says:

        The reality is that success is a very limited resource. Many have the qualifications to get there, but few can actually fill the limited posts.

        When society rewards the successful to an extortionate extent then the poor have a right to voice their concern…

  12. Doug Vance says:

    The people do not want liberty. The people seek collectivism, censorship, and the creation of social taboo:

    http://www.reddit.com/r/politics/comments/cjbl7/white_nationalists_are_trying_to_invade_reddit/

    Like an undiscovered country, social news aggregators at first attract the daring, innovative and pioneering. But after all the trails are blazed, after the kinks are worked out, the infrastructure raised up and the good life settles in, they get swamped in a massive influx of destructive inferiors equipped with endless insane demands.

  13. P.R. says:

    What really happened:

    1. A new idea rises and people like it. Suppressed news and insider info from around the globe is now a website;
    2. The rise of bacon interest/cat pictures led to the “personalization” of reddit … was mixed in with the authentic “news” (circa 2007);
    3. Someone (owners?) started spamming reddit with cousin publications links;
    4. The core audience leaves once the main focus was lost… front page is now about rage and droll comedy;
    5. Reddit admin staff allows polls, survey, “am I the only one who thinks…” style posts while allowing 4chan emigrants to resettle in reddit land;
    6. Admins start cloning features from other social media sites – more personalization – more dilution;
    7. Admins think money will solve their needs, no attention paid to the front page now mainly built around imgur pics… no solution how more money will filter the front page news in meaningful ways it used to be.
    8. Reddit now counting down to it’s deathbed…

    1. R says:

      I think you misunderstand the purpose of admins. They exert no control over content except when banning illegal and/or dangerous activity. The whole point of reddit is that the popularity of submissions are dictated by the voters. If admins went in and took out everything they thought was stupid, it would defeat the purpose of the site.

      I don’t disagree that much of reddit has gone to shit in the last year or two. But the people have spoken. Find a way to deal with it (hang around smaller subreddits) or leave, those are your options.

  14. jafraldo says:

    First, Thank You.

    Second, can you imagine a way that this very article fits into the reddit groupthink hivemind?

  15. Jake says:

    From your own blog description:

    “This blog is a strike back for common sense and a reverent appreciation for life itself.”

    Oh yeah, this blog is sooo important. It’s really, really making a difference!

    You know, I get the feeling you’re trying to use the information you know in order to make yourself feel more important. Fucking hypocrite.

  16. awfulsauce says:

    That experiment is already doomed when the two headlines aren’t even the same. Not to mention they were submitted to different subreddits. There’s also the very real influence of social inertia. If you look at the oldest posts on each respective thread, the older one has insightful comments shortly after the thread’s post, whereas in the newer one they’re mostly jokes. But you have to realize that the foot one starts off on is largely a matter of chance – who happens to catch the thread first, and what their response is, which snowballs. There are still many threads I come across with very insightful discussions, it just seems to be a luck of the draw.

  17. Vinicius says:

    Just so you know, the Roman Emperors would not choose through thumbs up or down, that’s a Hollywood fabrication. The thumb represented the gladiator sword, so, a thumb down would mean to put down the sword, and the thumb up would be directed to his own neck, as in “put the sword in his neck”.

  18. quippd says:

    We saw the writing on the wall awhile back, and started working on an alternative.

    Check out quippd if you are looking for something better.

    Among our improvements so far:

    wiki editable stories
    tagging
    no more downvotes

    We also plan to implement improvements on things that are on reddit but are broken:

    moderation will be slashdot like
    front page articles will all be editable

    Please visit and let us know what you think — we are very very interested in improving the social news scene — reddit was the king of the hill, but we think we can do better.

  19. Just some Guy says:

    Sounds like you have been burned by reddit.
    Your article made for a really interesting read!
    I see reddit as more of a challenge, its an amazing resource of information, and just like anything on the internet, 90% of it is spam, right? What i love about reddit is, the fact you can switch between mindless garbage (random funny pictures) and articles which i find interesting.
    Its easy to look back at your past experiences with reddit and only remember the good times, i bet back then silly pictures/jokes were still the most upvoted thing. Everyone can enjoy a funny picture of a cat, while not everyone can appreciate say a interesting article on the latest technogizmod.
    However, saying that, i live by the rule that the general populace is an unintelligent mob who have the combined brain cells of a toasted left trainer.
    So it is of no surprise that Silly things are the most popular.

  20. Jordan says:

    Well, you’ve certainly put everyone who wants to reply in a catch 22 with this one. Basically, if I complain that I disagree, I am part of the ‘crowd’ and just ignoring the blatant evidence presented to me. If I agree I look like one of the delusional ‘enlightened savants.’ I feel that this is a bit of a narrow-minded article. It ignores the depth of human perspective, maturity levels of a diverse audience, and the utter vastness that is Reddit.
    Please email me if you want to talk about this more. There are a lot of things to be said here that I don’t have the time nor mental organization at 4AM to write right now. This is well written, and some of what you said holds some water, but overall it is a very specious argument.

  21. Sroek says:

    Agreed 100%. As a 4 year Redditor, I’ve seen first hand what Eternal September has done to the site. Granted, there’s still a few subreddits left worthy of my time, but overall, the quality of the content has plummeted ten-fold. Same with 4chan. Guess we’ll just have to let them both go and wait for the cycle to start all over again.

  22. Scorpianz says:

    One word: Australian subreddit.

  23. Mr. Birds says:

    I must say, that I enjoy Reddit. There is no place, that I know of in the Internet, where I find so much fun and good gossip. I am a serious type of person myself, so I am happy about the Bunch (you call it Crowd), fooling around. Lot’s of good photos. And one can tailor-suit Reddit to the way (s)he wants it.

  24. NotAnotherOneOfThese says:

    This is a very accurate description of what has happened to Reddit. Take r/atheism for example. That subreddit has deteriorated more than most. It went from informative articles and thought-provoking .self posts to rage comics, dumb advice animals, and screenshots of facebook. If you try to comment/post anything decrying the degradation of the quality of the subreddit, they insult you. The hivemind offers to opportunities for self-reflection, but instead bitterly defends the low-quality content they submit.

    The people who are saying that Reddit is still good if you know where to look are missing the point of this essay. Those bastions of quality will only decay like the rest of Reddit as soon as the Crowd descends upon them. r/atheism was once a quality part of Reddit after the main page turned to rage comics and Scumbag Steve posts and now it’s just atheist rage comics and Scumbag God posts. That entropy happens is obvious and undeniable and no matter how indicted and angry you feel at reading this, you’ll probably still be part of the problem.

  25. Sanrabb says:

    I call this the “Process of Diggification.”

    Understand, I did not like the original Redditors. They were largely mac-using programmers of a stripe that I rather despise. But they were genuinely intelligent.

    The new people are not.

  26. [...] often comes under attack for suffering from group think popular opinions voted to the top with disagreements being voted [...]

  27. [...] cartoon via amerika.org; Lambesis photo [...]

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