‘Internet points’ and big drama at r/Atheism

Reddit is an interesting place although not always for the reasons it would like. Recently a controversy has dominated the atheism sub reddit, r/atheism, a place where a fairly disrespectful and vigorous dissection of the religious experience was par for the course. I will expand on r/atheism’s woes but first it would be wise to set the scene.

Reddit is structured in a very deliberate way. Beyond the front page, where voting ascertains which posts are listed, are 1000’s of sub reddits (a sub reddit is a page where topic specific content is posted) covering a huge range of topics. Some of these sub reddits are very small, some are very large. A lot of the large subs are defaults, the ones that are listed at the top of the front page and which all new members are automatically subscribed to.

Governance on the site is quite loosely structured. At the top you have the admins. These guys are concerned with issues such as illegal content. They set the overarching, high level rules, and pretty much have the power to do as they please. However, beyond such issues as illegal content they tend to run the place with a deliberately light touch.

Individual sub reddits though, are able to put in place more specific posting rules and are run by moderators, who operate in a hierarchical fashion, with the (typically) founding moderator as top dog. His word tends to be final in any inter sub dispute.

The overall ethos is that if you can build a community around a certain topic, your own sub reddit, then as long as you don’t break laws it’s pretty much yours to do with as you please. If people don’t like the way a certain sub is being run they are free to start their own, with their own rules. Some people believe that this is a big part of what makes the site so popular.

r/Atheism was founded by a user called Skeen, and he declared that he wanted it to be a largely unmoderated place, where discourse was free and limitations were as minimal as possible. Aggressive trolls were dealt with and a small amount of content was removed, largely because it was not relevant to the sub, but beyond that, in keeping with the way many of these budding atheists felt the world should be (largely as a result of feeling somewhat persecuted for their lack of belief in the real world), pretty much any post was allowed. It was, if you like, a philosophical decision that enabled the sub to be whatever its users wanted it to be.

Over time it became clear that this freedom meant that r/atheism became dominated by memes, images and facebook posts. Such as these….

k4z6nbw

KA11K9W

nNREL

A lot of these posts got to the front page of reddit and were subsequently the recipients of much larger exposure. There was a perception that this preference for ‘easy’ content was coming at a cost, that cost being the ability for ‘serious’ or quality atheist content to rank both within r/atheism itself and then, hopefully, on the front page.

So something was done about it.

Moderator Jij deposed Skeen, in what to this amused observer looks exactly like a coup (under cover of night), asking the admins to remove him for not being active enough. This charge seems somewhat strange in the light of the founding principle of minimal moderation, nonetheless there is a point of view that tends to agree that Skeen was not a good moderator, even taking into account his desire for light touch.

The coup was one thing, and to be honest, a small thing. What happened next enraged a very significant part of the r/atheism community.

The posting rules were changed. Direct linking to images and memes was banned. The content was still allowed in the sub, but had to be linked within a self-post (essentially a wall of text), which put the images an additional number of clicks away. A bot was created to police this new policy.

The reasons for this change were, broadly, twofold, as far as I can make out.

  1. To clean up the sub reddit as there was a perception that the sub was a ‘laughing stock’
  2. To promote discourse about ‘serious’ atheist content

There has been much wailing and outrage, and some impassioned defence of the changes also.

My own experience of r/atheism has only ever been through the images and memes that reach the front page. My own position on faith is one of very comfortable atheism, such that I rarely feel the need to engage in debate over these things. I am most certainly not a religious man but have been consistently surprised to read (via reddit) how deeply uncomfortable life is for some American atheists. The posting via r/atheism, particularly the reproduced facebook conversations, revealed a version of America that is very real for some today, to me, that otherwise I would have discounted. I still struggle to grasp that evolution is a live issue within certain schools in this day and age. So, I was fairly warm to the status quo, bite sized pieces of atheist outrage was plenty enough for me.

I was surprised to read of some of the reasons other people held for maintaining the status quo. The one reason that I think I felt was most visceral was repeated by several converted atheists, who clearly felt that the sub was the reason for their ability to ‘free’ themselves from religion. Furthermore they were adamant that it was the bite sized, and essentially mocking content of the short form posts reaching the front page that was finally able to crack the cage of unreasoning that had characterised their religious lives.

Aside from the ability to convert via memes, the main concerns were related to user experience issues (this is actually an interesting case study for UX types). By insisting that image posts were linked inside text the latent reddit functionality that automatically previewed images was disabled, in essence committing potential viewers to a 2 click access.

Sounds reasonable? Not really because what was actually missing was the incredibly efficient filtering that was enabled by automatically loaded images (thumbnails). Users didn’t want to load a link to find out if they wanted to load that link.

On the other hand there were 3 strongly related positions.

1. Images weren’t banned at all

This was a weak argument, to be fair. It was true, but a weak position nonetheless. The images hadn’t been banned but they had been effectively neutered, pushed out of sight and reduced to second class citizens, as explained above.

2. The sub needed to foster serious discussion of atheist issues and the proliferation of ‘easy’ content made that too difficult

I thought this was a bit rich really too, if only because there are several other sub reddits that already existed to do just this, such as r/Trueatheism (which was born from a similar frustration with low rent content).

3. Karma whoring sucks.

I might need to explain what this is. This is where we start talking about internet points.

One of the features of reddit is the ability to vote, up or down, the posted content and the comments made against that content in the discussion threads, so far not so uncommon really. These votes are the mechanic by which popular content floats to the top, so to speak.

Where reddit is different, though, is that your net score (upvotes minus downvotes) are given to you as Karma, and your Karma accumulates over time (or not if you are incredibly unpopular).  Here’s the thing about Karma….it has absolutely no value of any kind whatsoever, neither tangible nor intangible. Scoring highly does not even confer the respect of the community, it does not mark you out as an expert of any kind, it cannot be traded and it does not provide you with any functional privilege in terms of site functionality.

Karma, quite literally, is nothing more than internet points, totally completely functionless and valueless internet points.

People, however, do still value these internet points. A great deal, if truth be known.

Take the accusation of Karma whoring, which is the act of posting, or reposting, easy to make/access, low rent content that is very popular (and hence likely to gain a lot of Karma) just purely in the pursuit of Karma. It’s a pretty cheesy activity, but only successful if the content posted is popular.

Guess what drives Karma in r/atheism? Yep, memes, images and facebook conversations.

MuoLSW7

In the discourse that followed the rule changes, there were many vociferous denouncements of Karma whores. They were blamed for ‘ruining’ the sub via the proliferation of this cheesy, low rent content, and often indeed the whole idea of Karma itself was also denigrated, although only mildly.

And then someone pointed out a wonderful little counterpoint.

Anyone denouncing Karma whores and Karma being earned by such cheap and low quality content, while claiming the high ground and inferring that their reddit experience was one of intellectual engagement, were as in love with the idea of Karma as the teenagers posting pictures of Carl Sagan.

And that really is what ultimately I have found to be the most interesting thing in this whole atheist drama. It seems pretty daft but by god do people love being given points, even completely meaningless, irredeemable internet points. There is something very real and human that happens when we give people points.

Next time someone suggests a gamification strategy to you, I suggest it’s worth a look. It might make sense. It might not, there are some pretty shoddy ideas as to what constitutes gamification out there, but if this story tells me one thing it’s that people can get pretty involved about their internet points, and that puts (at least one part of) gamification into the picture.

I have one last thing to clear up.

Why didn’t the coup just open their own sub reddit, the existing solution that is mostly what is expected of people that don’t like the rules in any particular sub? I suspect it’s something to do with 2million subscribers at r/atheism compared to 45,000 at r/trueatheism. One of those subs will be better at generating Karma than the other.

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