For a few weeks in early 2021, it looked like the internet just might break the stock market.
A group of Reddit users—“Redditors”—on the r/wallstreetbets subreddit began working in concert to push up the stock price of Gamestop, a moribund brick-and-mortar retailer suffering during pandemic lockdowns. While some believed that Gamestop was undervalued, others saw the opportunity to pressure institutional investors who'd bet against the stock—a technique called a “short squeeze,” in which investors pump up the value of a stock and force those who've bet against it to buy shares to cover their losses, further increasing the stock value. Gamestop traded at just over $4 a share in June 2020. In late January 2021, it hit a high of $483 a share before settling down at more than 40 times its value from a year ago. In the process, institutional investors and hedge funds lost more than $11 billion in bets against the stock.
Gamestop was one of several “meme stocks” celebrated by the r/wallstreetbets community. Other “nostalgia brands,” including movie theater chain AMC and smartphone manufacturer BlackBerry, have been championed by r/wallstreetbets and have gone on runs that seem more attributable to online popularity than to the financial fundamentals of a company. Just to ensure that everyone remembers that you can’t spell “memestock” without “meme,” the r/wallstreetbets community donated more than $350,000 to gorilla conservation charities. Why? The community's motto is “Apes Together Strong,” a line from the 2011 film “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”—members of r/wallstreetbets embrace their characterization as “dumb” day traders working together to overthrow the “genius” institutional investors. (And, of course, it's also a Harambe reference.)
For the brief moment that Reddit-coordinated daytraders did war with institutional investors, the vast, multifaceted, and confusing community that is Reddit was on display. And for once, the story wasn’t about racism, sexism, political extremism, or pedophilia. Reddit is massively popular—Alexa ranks it as 7th in the U.S. in terms of traffic, just behind Facebook and ahead of Wikipedia, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter. But because Reddit is so many different things to different people, it often gains widespread attention for the wrong reasons.
Reddit is the most visible U.S. example of a style of digital community called a forum. Forums hail back to bulletin boards, a pre-networked form of digital community in which many users would dial in to the same single computer, read and post messages, then log out to make room for the next user. Forums tend to be text-based, though many support images, and some (imageboards) focus primarily on images. Usenet, a text-based internet forum created in 1979 by a pair of graduate students at Duke University, became the breeding ground for pre-web internet culture, giving birth to emoji, flame wars, trolling, and abbreviations like LOL.
Two important factors of Usenet’s success have been embraced by many subsequent forums: a strong commitment to free speech and the ability for users to create their own topical communities. Usenet was a truly distributed network: Users would post messages to a particular node and their messages would be spread to other federated servers. There was no central way to moderate Usenet messages—when spammers began advertising on the network, the only way to delete their posts was by using blocklists at each individual server. While this was technically unwieldy, it illustrated a strongly held design principle—each user should have the right to decide the speech she wanted to see and wanted to filter out. While Usenet began with a small set of clearly defined topics, that “hierarchy” expanded rapidly as users requested new topics and subtopics. When users began requesting topics that administrators thought were inappropriate—notably rec.drugs—a group of Usenet pioneers created the “alt” hierarchy, inaugurating it with alt.drugs, alt.sex, and alt.rockandroll. Surprising absolutely no one, this set of Usenet groups grew rapidly and quickly eclipsed the formal hierarchy of computation and academic-focused groups.
Forums became an extremely popular form of web community in Japan, with 2channel (2ch.net) founded in 1999 by Hiroyuki Nishimura and emerging as a space for uncensored and anonymous speech. It was a powerful release valve in a culture known for structure and formality, but it was also a vector for harassment and extreme speech. 2chan inspired American teenager Christopher “moot” Poole to create an American successor, 4chan, in 2003, which quickly developed all the problems of its Japanese inspiration as well as a host of novel dysfunctions. 4chan is relentlessly creative, responsible for many of the greatest hits of web culture, including lolcats and rickrolling. It’s also a cauldron from whose depths have crawled the Gamergate harassment campaign, aspects of the alt-right movement, and perhaps worst of all, brony fandom. Analyzing 4chan, its predecessors and successors in his book It Came From Something Awful, journalist Dale Berran identifies a strain of nihilism that he sees as drawing users to 4chan and fueling movements like the alt-right and incel culture.
Reddit’s founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman were surely aware of 4chan when they launched their site in 2005 as a “front-page for the internet,” a user-submitted collection of headlines of what was most popular on the internet on any given day. (Indeed, much of what was most popular had been incubated within 4chan.) Organized into topics called “subreddits,” Reddit became even more user-driven in 2008 when Redditors were able to create their own subreddits. They did so, in droves—more than 2.5 million subreddits have been created. Even though most are abandoned, hundreds of thousands remain active, including r/TreesSuckingOnThings (trees growing over inanimate objects like fences), r/unstirredpaint (surprisingly beautiful pictures of paint cans before they’ve been mixed), and r/dogswithjobs (pictures of working canines, including livestock guardians and police dogs.)
Unfortunately, with the ability to create subreddits came the ability to convene communities around hateful topics. When Ellen Pao took over the CEO role of the company in 2014, she banned a set of subreddits focused on “revenge porn”—sexual imagery posted without the consent of the individual portrayed—as well as a number of explicitly hateful subreddits. While the response to Pao’s removals was ferocious, Reddit has continued to remove communities it has perceived as toxic, including r/The_Donald, a pro-Trump group that became a hotbed of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Beneath the toxicity of some highly visible subreddits, much of Reddit is surprisingly healthy and even wholesome. Co-author Ethan Zuckerman teaches a class on fixing social media that includes an assignment in which students must identify and write a case study on healthy online communities—inevitably a third of these communities are subreddits, often support groups for people coping with chronic diseases, etc. These sites are important both because they can be some of the healthiest communities online and some of the weirdest. There’s nothing weirder—and more representative of the internet’s creative energies—than discovering an interest you’ve never had with thousands of passionate devotees posting endless variations of content you can’t imagine caring about. For those who celebrate the internet’s weirdness and wildness, forums are a glimpse back into the medium’s earlier and stranger days.
While these sites have a common technical root in forum software, understanding them as subcultural logics may be a better way of absorbing their key characteristics. These forms of social media sites are focused on specific topics, and often defend the boundaries of that topic, expressing hostility to the intrusion of other topics. They are likely to develop their own norms and practices, which may bring them into conflict with the broader norms and standards of the platforms they operate on top of. This can get truly confusing when the subculture of a subreddit (r/wallstreetbets) conflicts with the larger subculture of Reddit as a whole and with the broader cultural norms of society at large. Many subcultural sites are built on generic platforms that don’t have specific affordances for that community’s needs—because Reddit never anticipated a subreddit on knitting, there’s no special support for sharing knitting patterns. This lack of specific affordances leads to creative repurposing of other tools, or the development of helper tools—there is a small ecosystem of tools like Imgur, which exist primarily to provide services to communities within Reddit. Finally, because these subcommunities are so different, your experience interacting with one specific community may be wildly different than interacting with another subcultural community.
Beyond Reddit, which acts like a mega-forum in the U.S., absorbing standalone forums, subculture logic is quite popular. Some examples of communities with their own sites: Archive of Our Own, introduced by Casey Fiesler in her essay in this series on gift logic; Ravelry, which has emerged as a massive force in the knitting and crafting community with 9 million registered members and a million monthly viewers; Letterboxd, a community for film lovers; Mumsnet, a massively popular parenting forum in the U.K.; and TheDonald.win, which built its own site after being deplatformed from Reddit. (After the 2020 election, TheDonald.win became America.win and has turned into a more traditional blog.)
Forums broadly, and Reddit specifically, present an earlier model for social media, focused on topics of common interest rather than on preexisting social relationships. General-purpose social networks like Facebook work to connect people with individuals they already interact within the physical world. On signing up for Facebook, you are asked to list the places you’ve worked and schools you’ve attended so that Facebook can search for people you might have known at those places. Forums offer a different model, the ability to connect with people who share a common interest, but not necessarily a common background. Given that many people live and work in communities where people share many of their demographic characteristics, it is possible that fora can challenge patterns of homophily, in which “birds of a feather” flock together. Forums offer the intriguing possibility that we might meet people with different backgrounds and origins, united only by a shared interest.
This sort of heterogeneity does not come without consequences. As mentioned above, subcultural spaces often experience stress when other topics intervene, particularly political discussions. Knitting site Ravelry experienced intense pressures during the Trump administration as politics became an unavoidable part of the crafting subculture, as Carrie Battan explains in an excellent piece in The New Yorker. Crafters posted patterns for the pink “pussy hats” that became iconic in association with the Women’s March that followed Trump’s inauguration. Right-leaning knitters responded by adopting names like “Deplorable Knitter” and posting patterns for MAGA crafts. Ravelry eventually banned Deplorable Knitter, who went on to establish her own Politically Incorrect Knitters community.
Subcultural solidarity is strong, but can be challenged when it encounters political tensions and other divisions. That may be part of why communities have such strong norms against straying off-topic: It’s capable of quickly pulling a community apart. Think about how this works in the offline world—you may like the people in your weekly basketball game, but that doesn’t mean you want to discuss politics or religion with them. Subculture logic is an attempt to recreate those communities online, and an important one. The spaces where politics and identity aren’t front and center are shrinking—spending time with people who may have nothing in common with us besides a common interest helps us appreciate diversity and build understanding. Those “we’re not so different after all” moments are important.
Does subculture logic have any lessons for other types of social media?
Subcultural communities often rely on community governance. One reason may be that people in subcultural communities are passionate about them and thus willing to invest in them. Reddit maintains its massive site with only 400 employees. LinkedIn, which is much smaller, has 15,900 employees. The secret? Reddit relies on tens of thousands of volunteer moderators, who handle most of the work of site moderation and governance day-to-day. One of those moderators, Robert Peck, explains that Reddit literally couldn’t pay him to do the work he does voluntarily for 20 hours a week—he would refuse the work as an overly taxing paid job, but does it out of passion for the communities he serves.
This implies that with platforms that lack a similar level of investment in the community, community governance may be less successful. The Reddit model of governance may not be transferable to Facebook, where people’s main reason for being there is the platform’s utility, or YouTube, where people are mainly there for entertainment. It is likely, however, that governing topic-focused communities is likely vastly easier than governing general-purpose spaces like Facebook or Twitter. Peck, the Reddit moderator, offers one reason:
“At /r/aww, people don’t always submit pictures of kittens and puppies. Sometimes they post gore porn, or threats to find me and hurt me. My rules are both obvious (kittens are great; no gore porn, no threats) and designed to prevent misuse of the platform (no social media links or handles, and no spamming). At /r/pokemon, I block pictures of, say, caterpillars, because those aren’t Pokémon, are they? No, no, they aren’t.”
It’s easy to determine that caterpillars are not Pokémon. It’s harder to determine whether a heated conversation on Twitter has crossed into harassment or into organized trolling. Having very specific purposes for communities and rules that follow from those purposes can make the task of governance significantly more manageable.
Additionally, the strong norms and practices in subculture communities help to fend off context collapse, a problem endemic to networks like Facebook and Twitter. This points to a potential solution: Perhaps to avoid context collapse on those platforms, you simply take the conversation elsewhere. So, if a conversation starts on Twitter but seems like it might be a better fit in a specific context, you move the conversation to that other space. Perhaps someone replies to an academic’s tweet with a question or criticism. Instead of hashing it out on Twitter in full public view, with all the associated bad dynamics, what if the original poster suggested taking the conversation to a space dedicated to discussing that topic, or a space dedicated to intellectual discussion? This could be a way to combine what networks like Twitter or Facebook do well—virality and frictionless connection—with what subcultural spaces do well—putting a conversation in context and sharing it only with the people interested in it.
Maybe when we complain that Facebook and Twitter haven’t led to a flowering of new connections, and instead encourage homophily and echo chambers, we are simply looking in the wrong places. Subcultural communities online have been connecting people of all different stripes since the earliest days of the internet. These interest-based communities may actually support some of the utopian proclamations about the internet leading to a new age of human connection and development. Alas, these communities also host some of the most toxic and extreme subcultures found online. Perhaps there is no utopia without accompanying dystopia.
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci is a research fellow at the Knight Institute.
Ethan Zuckerman is Associate Professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Director of the Initiative on Digital Public Infrastructure, and the 2020-2021 Visiting Research Scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute.