There is a lump of herb butter on a flat gray stone. A mixed grill is served on a shovel. A pile of pasta comes in a galvanized bucket. The members of We Want Plates have a simple answer to these violations: a demand that restaurants serve food on plates, as God intended, not “on pieces 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 tackle more serious topics, from finding accommodation in Brighton, to the side effects of anti-depressants, to an apparently limitless range 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 much easier to use, the dominant platform was Usenet, where text-based message boards were organized around technical and academic topics. When I spent time online, it wasn’t with people I knew in the “real world”—few of whom were online in 1989. Instead, I met random strangers interested in the new field of digital photography at rec.photography.digital, or fellow students who hoping to study in Africa at soc.culture.african.
Organizing communities around topics is something that has been a part of the Internet almost since its inception, but it leads to a different set of conversations than many of us are used to today. In the early 1970s, the mailing list was launched as a kind of proto-social media experience. While the first ever mailing list was about esoteric technical topics, the second was called “SF Lovers” and was a gathering place 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 like Facebook connect you with people you already know by raiding your email address book. They work to reconnect you with acquaintances from high school, or former work colleagues, knowing that if you follow 10 real friends, you will usually continue to use the product: you do not want to miss their updates or ignore their messages.
Internet users are not completely obsessed with cryptocurrencies or pornography
This idea of networking based on personal relationships took on a different dynamic with the rise of Instagram and Twitter. Facebook is a symmetrical network: if you want to be friends with someone, they have to agree to be friends with you too. Twitter and Instagram are both asymmetric: you can follow what’s going on online for famous people who would never bother to be friends with the likes of you.
This led to another evolution in the architecture of social networks, 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 do. Often these people get paid to direct us to a site and we miss out on other corners of the internet, even if these may be useful or interesting. However, a surprising number of Reddit communities serve as support groups for low-wage workers, for people experiencing marital problems, or for those struggling with addiction.
These ways of navigating the internet – via topics, relationships and influencers – have always existed side by side. Even in the beginning, people maintained real relationships using digital tools. But the current dominance of networks organized around celebrities or our existing social relationships has given rise to legitimate concerns, whether about the erosion of democracy due to misinformation spread by friends and family, or the promotion of an unrealistic body image by beauty influencers . The current internet gives us an opportunity to look back to an earlier and perhaps more opulent 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 seen the most are made by volunteer moderators, not paid employees. At under 1,000, Reddit’s staff is quite small for a network of its size, but tens of thousands of volunteers provide the workforce that keeps the site running.
Moderators have written about their decision to provide thousands of hours of free labor for Reddit by explaining that you literally couldn’t pay them to do it. The work of maintaining a community, deciding which content and which users stay or leave, is demanding, exhausting, often frustrating, but rewarding in the same way that tending a garden can be. The ability of users to shape the rules and how they will be applied makes community engagement satisfying in a way that using Twitter, where these decisions are made by a whimsical 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 can be self-governing. We could experiment with a range of rules for how people interact with each other online and find those that fit the needs of a specific community, rather than searching for a one-size-fits-all set of rules.
But Reddit’s time as a place for research may be short-lived. A project to archive the network, called Pushshift, has been making copies of Reddit posts for years. This is invaluable to those who want to study the site, but it has also become an important input into large language models, the AI systems that have received so much attention recently. The myriad topics discussed on Reddit serve as fodder for these systems, training AI to talk about everything from deep-sea fishing to strangely presented restaurant food.
Steve Huffman, CEO of Reddit, has announced that he does not want his site’s work to be used without compensation to train AIs. As a result, Pushshift has (at the time of writing) had its access cut off, and it’s unclear whether the equivalent of virtually all 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 for researchers and casual browsers alike to discover the richness and range of content on the site. Our tools cluster subreddits based on “co-commenting” patterns, meaning we can see that WeWantPlates users aren’t people interested in funny photos as much as they are foodies: they also often comment on subreddits focused on home cooking. We believe that we can use our tool to study how different sub-communities talk about social issues. For example, dozens of subreddits focus on American gun culture, and by studying their overlap with other subreddits, we may be able to learn more about the attitudes of their members.
We think it’s great to see the wide variety of conversations people have online, whether they’re friends with other participants or not. And since Pushshift allowed us to study Reddit as a whole, we have a pretty comprehensive picture of what the platform is all about. Reddit gained a lot of attention in early 2021 when residents of r/WallStreetBets created a frenzy of demand for “meme stocks” — shares of companies that rose based on online hype more than financial fundamentals. According to our map, finance and economics only represent about 2.2 percent of conversations on Reddit. Five times as many are within geography-specific communities used for job and house hunting or advice on local restaurants. These communities, in turn, are small compared to the huge amount of Reddit dedicated to nerdy online hobbies or offline hobbies like woodworking or fishing.
The digital world is such a pervasive part of our daily existence that it is difficult to answer the question: “What is on the Internet?” Being able to see Reddit as a proxy for the many different things people are interested in online offers the reassuring possibility that we’re not completely obsessed with cryptocurrencies or pornography. It turns out that 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.