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Participatory Culture, Community, and Play

Learning from Reddit


Adrienne L. Massanari

What does online community look like in the age of social networking? How do participatory culture platforms reflect both their designers’ intentions and the desires of their users? In this incisive and timely work, Adrienne L. Massanari discusses how culture is created and challenged on, the self-proclaimed «front page of the internet». Reddit enables the sharing of original and reposted content from around the web, and provides a platform for like-minded individuals to commune around topics of interest – everything from the joys of drinking beer in a shower (/r/showerbeer) to celebrating the pleasures of tidy penmanship (/r/penmanshipporn). Massanari’s ethnographic work provides a detailed examination of the contradictions that shape Reddit’s culture and how they reflect its role as an epicenter of geek culture. The book explores the ways in which community on Reddit is formed and solidified through play and humor, and the complex ways in which Redditors come together, which demonstrate a deep capacity for altruism and charitable giving, but can easily lapse into mob action. It also explores the community’s troubling gender and racial politics and how some Redditors are carving out their own space on the site to fight back.
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Chapter 3. Cynicism, altruism, and hating everything, including ourselves


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One of reddit’s founders, Alexis Ohanian, published a book in late 2013 about his experiences with the site and its implications for internet entrepreneurism. Its title, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, is telling, as it encapsulates in a few words reddit’s ethos: trust users and makers, not gatekeepers or institutions. It also captures one tension that exists (but is rarely discussed) in participatory culture: participants often embody both a kind of naïve altruism and optimism regarding the communities with which they engage but may remain intensely distrustful of larger institutions. Reddit’s membership is no different—they altruistically give of their time and labor regularly to the pursuits that interest them intently and blissfully but may also remain intensely cynical of hierarchies and institutions. A would-be redditor is encouraged, as Ohanian’s title suggests, to consider “making” his own world rather than having it “managed” by others. The irony, of course, is that all web platforms—even reddit—are commodified and designed spaces with their own technological logics that shape individual behavior.

These twin tendencies, toward a kind of naïve altruism on one hand and a deep cynicism on the other, do not apply just to how redditors interact with each other. For many of them, these views extend to the ways in which they view individuals, other communities, and political, cultural, and governmental institutions—and...

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