The Masculinist Dystopia of Reddit and A New Feminist Vision Of the Cybersphere

by Alissa Medina

I am a constant lurker on Reddit.com. On first glance, I was lost in the confusion of its aesthetic ugliness; the site displays a sloppy structure of images with links in hierarchical order with its ‘front page’ displaying the top user-generating from up-votes by other members. The social network site Reddit was launched in 2005 with user-generated content as a way to aggregate news and popular ideas. The site grants itself the position of  “the Front Page of the Internet.” Participants click to “upvote” certain stories and images, ranking them without site-imposed filters. This has the utopian virtue, promised by the Internet, of democratizing information, but its more insidious function is to fetishize discriminatory content, creating a user-generated dystopia that grows through a collective practice of misogynistic and racist content. From men’s rights forums such as r/theredpill/ to posters and commenters co-opting feminist forums, the slanted discourse on Reddit’s front page has made it profoundly gender biased and gender exclusionary. The clearly gendered female memes like Scumbag Stacy, Overly Attached Girlfriend, and College Liberal act as not only a tool for these gender biases to take place, but as a mechanism for gender exclusion and aggressive rhetoric. 

As a female lurker, I am constantly looking for the spaces on Reddit where I won’t find such comments. I’ve learned to quickly bypass the ‘front page’, which largely aggregates the most offensive, shocking forums, to shield myself from injury. I even refrain from posting my own critical feminist responses to front page items as I do not want to be down-voted and rejected via the site’s karma point system that would restrict me from posting in the future. Yet despite fear of rejection and hurt, I am hypnotically drawn to the user-created posts on Reddit because there is still rich content that allows multiple voices to be heard, and where comments gain attention and praise for their wittiness or informative ideas. The tense utopian/dystopian interplay on Reddit gives rise to the question, “How can we reshape feminist visions of the cybersphere?” Specifically, I ask, “How can Reddit’s dystopic tendencies ultimately transform in order to allow for a feminist-slanted self-reflexivity?” When I first joined the site I was an eager commenter seeking to engage shared knowledge development. I posed the following question: “[Advice?] I've noticed employers aren't interested in me since I declared Women's Studies as my second major ” to the largest forum for women, “/r/xchromosomes” with over 155,000 subscribers.  Quickly, my post rose to the top of the page. Surprisingly, the thread was flooded with unsupportive comments from those who claimed to be gendered female: “Do you want the hard, honest truth? A lot of employers don't want to hire a Women's Studies major. Why? Well, they will assume that you are a militant feminist that will cause problems at their companies.” From this and other malicious comments in my inbox to those in the thread, I began to feel that there was no possibility for discussion of such topics, even on women-centered forums. This makes me wonder if my desire to seek support from such a forum was already problematic. Perhaps my impulse was too essentializing, especially since I didn’t know if the “women” in the forum were actually women.

To analyze the ways masculinist norms become hyperactive through user-generated content, consider Donna Haraway’s discussion of interdependence and respect in multi-species interactions from When Species Meet (2007). This might open up the utopian potentials lingering in Internet communities as we work through dystopian realities. In Haraway’s interspecies version of “respect,” she suggests that we must know from, about, and with” the other species to be truly revolutionary (22). She suggests “we do this by beginning each morning in a mutually responsive and polite dance” (23). This kind of civility sounds politically correct and rather bougie even as it fosters the cruel posts on Reddit as a drive to power. Despite niceness and suppression, Haraway does offer us a way to accommodate ambiguity between that which is familiar in ourselves and that which is threatening and foreign in the other. While she largely confines her argument to animals, her complex consideration of respect accounts for a vast and irreconcilable difference among humans as well.

Despite forums like /r/birthcontrol or /r/thegirlssurvivalguide female participants are largely silenced through childish harassment by male-identified posters. Polite and responsive dancing is not even in the discussion. Reddit fails to decenter the human subject and the potential for utopian, democratic development of popular, contemporary knowledge by those supposedly not invested in supporting or replicating the existing power structures governing the corporate media. Transforming this space calls for an even more radical slant. In Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Vol. 2 Claire Colebrook’s first chapter “Feminist Extinction” proposes a radical notion of the human subject as not only decentered but as disintegrated. Colebrook claims, “What needs to be thought today is that which cannot be thought, lived, retrieved, or revitalized as the saving grace of man or woman” shifting the discourse of subjectivity away from gender and/or sexuality to something that exceeds even humanity (17). Colebrook poses the extinction of humanness and encourages the porosity and transformation of the Self. We are encouraged to eliminate the boundaries of our bodies including the erasure of gender, reproduction, and all other aspects of self-enclosure and endure a sense of discovery in a post-human, post-apocalyptic body that transforms mere humanness.

The disruption of Reddit’s dystopic tendencies starts with more posters utilizing Reddit as a space of critical concern. Commenters and posters have already begun to question the alarming tendencies of the site by posting memes that make fun of the site’s sexist and racist content.  Haraway’s vision of respect and Colebrook’s revitalization of humanhood disrupt the notion of the human subject at the center and reformulate it as transformative. By logging in, the commenter/poster ultimately becomes post-human, forgoing gender conformity and stepping into Colebrook’s notion of posthumanhood, by “abandon[ing] notions of survival” of the Self (17), able to collaborate by way of Haraway’s dance of deference. Can the constant logging in and posting of feminist rhetoric take place, going beyond the boundaries of Reddit’s comment/karma system? Or can we begin to reconstruct and rework the mechanics of Reddit by creating a radical approach and thus reappropriate the space of Reddit through Internet activism? We must recognize that gender on Reddit is alarmingly polarized, especially for a space that is democratic and has the potential for a user to productively blur gender dualities. In order to disrupt Reddit’s current trends and engage its potentialities for overcoming its own boundaries the commenter/poster must become self-aware in a complex way, and ultimately begin to understand the notion of respect and dependence as Haraway mentions.