There’s a lump of herb butter resting on a flat grey stone. A mixed grill is served on a spade. A pile of pasta arrives in a galvanised pail. The members of We Want Plates have a simple response to these affronts: a demand that restaurants serve food on plates, as God intended, not “on bits of wood and roof tiles”.
We Want Plates is a community on Reddit, a collection of online forums (or “subreddits”) that describes itself as “the front page of the internet”. There are more than 100,000 active communities, and We Want Plates is comparatively popular, ranking in the top 10,000 subreddits in terms of monthly comments. Other communities address more serious topics, from finding housing in Brighton, to the side effects of antidepressants, to an apparently limitless array of sexual desires and practices.
We Want Plates reminds me of the old internet I fell in love with 35 years ago. Back then, before user-friendly images and clickable text made the web far easier to use, the dominant platform was Usenet, where text-based message boards were organised around technical and academic topics. When I spent time online, it wasn’t with people I knew in the “real world”—few of them were online in 1989. Instead, I met random strangers interested in the new field of digital photography on rec.photography.digital, or fellow students hoping to study in Africa on soc.culture.african.
Organising communities around topics is something that’s been part of the internet almost since inception, but it leads to a different set of conversations than many of us have grown used to today. In the early 1970s, the email list was launched as a kind of proto-social media experience. While the first ever email list dealt with esoteric technical topics, the second was called “SF Lovers” and was a gathering spot for people to recommend science fiction, catering to the unsurprisingly large overlap between sci-fi fans and early internet users.
Today, most online interactions work differently. Social networks such as Facebook connect you with people you already know by raiding your email address book. They work to reconnect you with acquaintances from secondary school, or former work colleagues, knowing that if you follow 10 real-world friends, you’ll usually keep using the product: you won’t want to miss their updates or ignore their messages.
Internet users are not entirely obsessed with cryptocurrencies or pornography
This idea of networking based on personal relationships took on another dynamic with the rise of Instagram and Twitter. Facebook is a symmetrical network: if you wish to be friends with someone, they must agree to be friends with you as well. Twitter and Instagram are both asymmetric: you can follow the online goings-on of famous people who would never bother being friends with the likes of you.
This led to another development in the architecture of social networking, one where the most important figures are now celebrities and “influencers” whose power is based on their online following. Instead of making new discoveries based on a topic of interest or what your offline friends have found online, what we encounter is what famous people want us to. Often these people are being paid to direct us to a page and we miss out on other corners of the internet, even if these might be helpful or interesting. By contrast, a surprising number of Reddit communities act as support groups for low-wage workers, for people experiencing marriage trouble, or for those fighting addiction.
These ways of navigating the internet—via topics, relationships and influencers—have always co-existed. Even in the early days, people maintained real-world relationships using digital tools. But the current dominance of networks organised around celebrities or our existing social relationships has given rise to legitimate concerns, whether about erosion of democracy due to misinformation spread by friends and family, or the promotion of an unrealistic body image by beauty influencers. The topical internet gives us an opportunity to look back to an earlier and perhaps more serendipitous time.
There’s another reason to pay attention to Reddit. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, most of the decisions about what content is allowed and what will be most visible are made by volunteer moderators, not paid employees. Sitting at under 1,000, Reddit’s staff is quite small for a network of its size, but tens of thousands of volunteers provide the labour that keeps the site functioning.
Moderators have written about their decision to provide thousands of hours of free labour for Reddit by explaining that you literally couldn’t pay them to do it. The work of maintaining a community, deciding what content and which users stay or go, is demanding, exhausting, often frustrating, but rewarding in the same way that tending a garden might be. Users’ ability to shape the rules and how they will be enforced makes engagement in the com-munity satisfying in a way that using Twitter, where those decisions are made by a capricious billionaire, is not.
Reddit seems to suggest that the internet could be managed quite differently, and it is becoming a major focus of study for scholars of the digital world. Perhaps more online spaces could be self-governing. We could experiment with an array of rules for how people interact with one another online and find those appropriate to a specific community’s needs, rather than seeking one set of rules to fit all.
But Reddit’s time as a locus for research may be short-lived. A project to archive the network, called Pushshift, has been making copies of Reddit posts for several years. This is invaluable for those who want to study the site, but it has also become a key input into large language models, the AI systems that have garnered so much attention recently. The countless topics addressed on Reddit serve as fodder for these systems, training AI to speak about anything from deep-sea fishing to weirdly presented restaurant food.
Steve Huffman, CEO of Reddit, has announced that he does not want his site’s work being used without compensation to train AIs. As a result, Pushshift has (at time of writing) had its access cut off, and it is unclear whether what amounts to virtually the entirety of Reddit will remain available as a resource.
It would be a shame to lose it. My media research lab built a tool called Redditmap around Pushshift’s copy of Reddit (you can find it at redditmap.social). Our goal was to make it easy, both for researchers and for casual browsers, to discover the richness and range of content on the site. Our tool clusters subreddits together based on “co-commenting” patterns, which means we can see that users of WeWantPlates aren’t people interested in funny photos so much as they are foodies: they also frequently comment on subreddits focused on home cooking. We believe we can use our tool to study how different subcommunities talk about social issues. For example, dozens of subreddits focus on American gun culture, and by studying their overlap with other subreddits, perhaps we can learn more about the attitudes of their members.
We think it’s helpful to see the wide variety of conversations people are having online, whether or not they’re friends with other participants. And because Pushshift allowed us to study Reddit as a whole, we have a fairly comprehensive picture of what the platform is all about. Reddit gained widespread attention in early 2021 when denizens of r/WallStreetBets created frenzied demand for “meme stocks”—shares in companies that rose based on online hype more than financial fundamentals. According to our map, finance and economics represent only about 2.2 per cent of conversations on Reddit. Five times as many are located within geography-specific communities used for job and house hunting or advice on local restaurants. Those communities, in turn, are tiny compared to the massive swathe of Reddit dedicated to geeky online hobbies or offline hobbies such as woodworking or fishing.
The digital world is such a pervasive part of our day-to-day existence that it’s difficult to respond to the question: “What’s on the internet?” The ability to look at Reddit as a proxy for the many different things people are interested in online offers the reassuring possibility that we are not entirely obsessed with cryptocurrencies or pornography. It turns out the internet is a lot like us: it has a variety of interests and hobbies and holds wonderful surprises—if we remember to look for them.