The most important site on the internet?

Tuesday 16 February 2021

WallStreetBets is just one fiefdom of the website that has shaped the humour of the modern internet more than any other


It is possible you have never heard of Reddit. It is not possible that you have not been affected by it. The website is the 7th most-visited in the US – 18th in the world. It has 52m daily users. Its jokes, culture and influence matter everywhere. But if you are not one of the people who frequent the site – “redditors” – it is fairly baffling. 

Reddit is, at root, a huge online forum – or, rather, thousands of jostling sub-forums (known as “subreddits”) stitched together. That is where the chaos comes from – if you follow a sports team or have a hobby, there will be a subreddit to cater to your interests. But you will run into the rest of the world while you are there: weirdos, opposition fans, obsessives and cranks.

It is from this broad cauldron that its great power emerges. Even if you have not seen the site, you will have seen the so-called “memes” – visual online jokes – that it has spawned and which spread through other online media. 

Hundreds of these now-ubiquitous memes were born on Reddit: think Ned Stark from Game of Thrones proclaiming “Winter is Coming”. It is, by now, a warning sign against, well, anything.

Some memes get more specific – and more political – than that. Reddit spawned the idea of a “Karen”, a middle-aged, entitled and often racist white woman. It began in 2014 as a Reddit post describing the “can I speak to the manager” haircut, but took on new life last year. The archetypal Karen refuses to wear a mask because she is “exercising her freedom”, or she might call the police on innocent Black people.

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It is not just these images that spread on Reddit. The website calls its default home page “the front page of the internet” with good reason. It’s a mix of breaking news, funny videos and agony aunt-style posts. When redditors share viral links to smaller websites, they often attract so much traffic that they cause servers to crash – a phenomenon known as the “hug of death”.

But journalists do not idle away days on Reddit in the way they do on Twitter. So you hear less about it – except when things are going wrong.

Reddit is the space where, in 2013, users sought to try to identify the Boston Marathon Bomber; their errors in misidentifying the murderers caused enormous distress. In 2014, stolen images of naked female celebrities were circulated through it. In 2020, a large conspiracy-addled forum devoted to Donald Trump was banned for breaching the site’s rules.

Last month, users of one Reddit sub-forum devoted to stock-picking, “r/WallStreetBets”, sent the internet into a tailspin when they caused shares in electronics company GameStop to soar by 1,700 per cent. All of these things were startling enough, but they were made more confusing by the particular tone of the place – written in Reddit-specific language, with inside jokes a-plenty.

Founded by college roommates Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian in 2005, Reddit is a space for users to share and curate content. Anyone can set up a subreddit, the subforums (whose names are all prefixed with the characters “r/”). 

You might like r/Cooking or r/yoga, r/Feminism or r/history. Within each group, users can post links, videos, images, or thoughts and questions – and reply to one another. Each subreddit has a specific and variably strict set of rules, regulated by moderators who ensure posts remain “on topic” and remove spammers and abusers. 

Some subreddits are very niche: r/PointyTailedKittens is a community of 27,000 people posting pictures of – you guessed it – pointy-tailed kittens, while r/DivorcedBirds’ 147,000 members share pictures of birds that look like they have been through a divorce.

Some of these subreddits are a big deal. Take r/AMA – (“Ask Me Anything”) – where people can volunteer to take questions from anyone who wants to ask. In 2012, Barack Obama’s post “I am Barack Obama, President of the United States — AMA” received nearly 23,000 responses, and saw him responding to questions ranging from his most difficult decision through to the recipe for the White House beer. 

Another popular subreddit is r/AmItheAsshole, where users post stories about their lived experiences, and ask whether they were the “asshole” in that situation. For example: “AITA [Am I the Asshole] for very rarely/almost never wanting to go to restaurants because my girlfriend makes food that’s just as good, if not better, than restaurant food?” Each post receives a verdict, voted for by the users – Asshole, NTA (not the asshole), Everybody Sucks, No assholes here. (Restaurant guy, it turns out, was an asshole).

Unlike other social media channels, there is no expectation that users should be identifiable. They can instead adopt any moniker they like, under the format u/username.

The way that posts are promoted is anonymised, too. Reddit users have the ability to “upvote” or “downvote” on each others’ posts to give them more or less prominence. As Reddit’s own FAQs put it: “Users like you provide all of the content and decide, through voting, what’s good and what’s junk.” But the whole thing has a deep veil of anonymity. Unlike other social networks. where it is broadcast to your friends if you “like” something, what you like on Reddit is a secret. This creates the space for a shamelessly warped sense of humour. 

The anonymity also means there is little demographic data on Reddit. Around half of redditors are based in the US, while 7 per cent are in the UK. A 2016 study by Pew found that two-thirds of Reddit users are men. They tend to be young too; just 7 per cent are over 50, while two-thirds are between the ages of 18-30.  When it comes to politics, redditors tend to skew left or “moderate”, according to the study – around 19 per cent are conservative.

Reddit users tend to drift between similar subreddits within their chosen set of interests, so a member of r/WallStreetBets might move between different finance and investment forums, as well as spaces pertaining to their other hobbies. They might also pick up on new subreddits via viral posts on the homepage, expanding into other communities. 

Subreddit members move freely between topics – and cross-pollinate one another. But, even so, a lot of the subreddits have their own tone and language, thanks in part to the moderators, and also to the communities of people who develop their own extensive inside jokes and vocabulary. r/WallStreetBets even has its own, often offensive glossary – “autistic” is a term of praise, “retarded” an insult. 

In this group, users often defy the laws of finance – refusing to sell their stocks, even when prices are plummeting. This is known as having “Diamond Hands 💎✋”: a willingness to soak up losses is the highest of praise.

But not all subreddits are as controversial or as surreal; the moderators of r/wholesomememes encourage funny images “with no snark or sarcasm”, promoting “health or well-being of body, mind and/or soul”. Across this community, the tone is silly, sweet and supportive. But there is an overarching Reddit-ness to it all. 

The website’s unique culture is what led a niche forum of meme-lovers and finance nerds to break the stock market – and, when it hit the news, to rapidly swell to the population of a not-that-small country. It has spawned a million memes and viral posts, and will continue to do so on the periphery of the internet. It makes headlines every now and then. But its tastes will shape editorial decisions at traffic-hungry websites – and be the source of every other joke on the internet.

Reddit: a glossary

AFAIK (acronym)
As far as I know. Reddit posts often involve debate and discussion, so this acronym has gained popularity as people share their opinions on everything from politics to personal conundrums. This is similar to IIRC – If I recall correctly.

AITA (acronym)
Am I the asshole? Popularised in the 2.6 million-strong subreddit r/AmItheAsshole, users will use this to share personal stories, asking their peers a simple question: was I the asshole in this situation?

AMA (acronym)
Ask me anything. This term was also popularised by a subreddit, r/AskMeAnything, where a Reddit community member will allow other users to interview them, and reply by responding to posts. Everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Barack Obama has participated in an AMA, but it’s not just celebrities who post in this group. Users ask each other about their jobs, unique lived experiences, and everything in between. One of the most popular AMAs of all time involved a man who purported to have two penises, but his claims were later debunked after he was found to have photoshopped his evidence.

Cakeday (concept)
This is the anniversary of the day a user joined Reddit. For 24 hours, a user’s posts will display a picture of a cake alongside them, and others will wish them a happy cakeday.

CMV (acronym)
Change my view. Another product of the extensive debate on Reddit. r/changemyview has over a million subscribers, who post their opinions and encourage disagreement.

ELI5 (acronym)
Explain like I’m 5 years old. Another popular subreddit, where users will ask the community to explain concepts, events or ideas, from scientific principles to political theories.

FTFY (acronym)
Fixed that for you. Redditors will sometimes reply to a post in order to correct someone’s grammar or make fun of their opinions, usually sarcastically or for comedic value.

IANAD (acronym)
I am not a doctor. People will often go to Reddit for medical advice, and the community will deliver, even if they are not professionals.

IANAL (acronym)
I am not a lawyer. See above.

IMO/IMHO (acronym)
In my opinion and In my humble/honest opinion. People have lots of opinions on Reddit.

Karma (concept)
Every user has a profile displaying their username, bio, and “karma” – i.e. how much good this person does for the community. When others upvote your posts and comments, these will add up and contribute towards your karma score. Downvotes will have a negative impact. While a good karma score doesn’t have any tangible benefits, it allows other community members to judge a user’s value.

The concept of karma has even spawned Reddit celebrities – a user called u/GallowBoob has accumulated over 35.6 million karma simply by re-sharing popular and funny content.

Meme (concept)
Memes are at the heart of Reddit and its content. They are images, videos or bits of text that spread across the internet, often varying with each post. They are mostly funny, and many of them spread quickly on Reddit. 

A famous example of a meme is the distracted boyfriend, a stock image that went viral in 2017 after internet users began to overlay captions and images.

MRW/MFW (acronym)
My reaction when and My face when. These words will often go alongside a funny image or meme. 

NSFW (acronym)
Not safe for work. Reddit filters out content for over-18s, and sexual content often comes with this warning. There is also NSFL – not safe for life – to warn against gory or violent imagery, but the two warnings have become interchangeable. 

OP (acronym)
Original poster. The person who started the comment thread will be referred to as OP by other members of the community.

[Serious] (tag)
Some posts in forums like r/AskReddit will come with this warning, which calls for serious responses only. Sarcastic or rude comments will get deleted by moderators.

PSA (acronym)
Public service announcement. Users will say this when posting information that might help the community. Example: PSA – video games at GameStop are all 60 per cent off right now.

Next in this file

Who are WallStreetBets?

Who are WallStreetBets?

What can we say about the people posting in the Reddit forum that tied down giants of finance?

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