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Can democracy work on the internet? Reddit tells a mixed story

Brian Contreras, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Throughout history, people have established new governments for all sorts of reasons: to solidify alliances, or expand empires, or secure individual liberties.

Marc Beaulac had a question about sweaters.

Specifically, it was about the age-old debate in offices between men who want the air conditioning cranked up and women who want it turned down. "What I was thinking in my mind is, the next stage of this argument should be me saying, 'Why don't you wear a sweater?'"

But Beaulac, a New England-based photographer by day, knew it was a touchy subject and was wary of "mansplaining." So in 2013 he took to Reddit, the massive network of interest-based discussion forums, and founded a new group (or "subreddit") to get outside opinions about whether it would be rude to actually ask someone his sweater question.

Or, as the name he gave his newfound community put it: "Am I the Asshole?"

"I have certain regrets about choosing that term," Beaulac said. But now that "AITA," as it's known, is the size of a small country — with 2.6 million members, it has a slightly larger population than the United States did in 1776 — "I really can't rename it."

 

In its early days, the community lacked formal rules, Beaulac said. But as it moved on from sweater ethics to other everyday moral dilemmas, membership grew to several thousand people and Beaulac convened a small team of moderators to keep things running smoothly.

Over time, that team crafted an elaborate legal system, adding new rules and tweaking old ones as their vision for the community evolved. Today, 14 basic rules govern behavior on the forum (rule three: accept the judgment your peers give you; rule seven: only post about interpersonal conflicts; rule 14: no coronavirus posts). Meanwhile, 30 or so moderators — ranked in a strict hierarchy, with Beaulac at the top — remove posts and ban users in accordance with the forum's custom rules and Reddit's terms of service.

Beaulac's is a familiar narrative on Reddit, where much of the rule-making and enforcement happens from the bottom up and varies between subreddits. Corporate administrators occasionally ban forums that let hate speech and violent threats get out of hand, but for the most part, people like Beaulac are free to found and govern new communities as they see fit.

This quasi-democratic approach to content moderation sets Reddit apart from most other major social media platforms. Competitors such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok rely on artificial intelligence programs and paid moderators to enforce a single (though often very complicated) set of sitewide corporate policies. Even Facebook's recent efforts to offload some of the toughest decisions onto a third party didn't put users themselves in charge.

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