A Case Study of A Discourse Community: Reddit

Blog » A Case Study of A Discourse Community: Reddit

Posted on 08 Mar 2013 03:59

Genre and language often lend themselves to discourse, that is, written or spoken communication. Practiced linguists John Swales and James Paul Gee have suggested that communities of people who practice discourse adopt genres, language, and lexicon to fit the needs of their unique goals. This is quite evident with a consideration of some simple communal scenarios such as Church groups, after-school clubs, offices, etc. Each of those scenarios, and many others, reflect the idea that people who belong to groups often have unique languages that aid in the realization of the goals of that community.

John Swales, in particular, proposes six characteristics that he believes are qualifications for discourse communities. He contends that all discourse communities have an agreed upon set of common goals, have mechanisms of intercommunication between members, uses its mechanisms of communication to make statements and to give feedback, makes use of certain particular genres consistently, has a unique, common lexis, and have a threshold of members and a way to rank them.

Generally speaking, this is, in my own opinion, a pretty good way to identify a discourse community. It works quite well for most observable communities that practice discourse. However, the sixth characteristic, which considers membership specifications, is, as of this day and age, debatable. There are many discourse communities that do not involve any sort of entrance pledging; that is, anybody, anywhere in the world can join. These discourse communities often lend themselves to the World Wide Web. The Internet has allowed the most unlikely people to communicate with each other freely. The natural human tendency to form community has, undoubtedly, manifested itself even on the Internet and because communication on the Internet features discourse, communities such as online forums, still fit the bill proposed by Swales. I propose to ascertain my claim by discussing an interesting case study: Reddit. Reddit is an online discussion forum that allows anybody with an Internet connection to participate in discussion on nearly every topic of discourse one can imagine.

More specifically, I would like to examine the sub-Reddit that discusses atheism. This sub-Reddit is a community that seeks to make the consideration that there is no God or afterlife a very widespread idea for our generation. This community believes that religion has hindered human progress in technology and in evolution. This community hopes to reach out to as many people as it can so as to create what this community considers to be a more advanced and more “aware” society that will reject fundamentalist, religious views that impede the beliefs and practices of others, and/or the advancement of science.

The particular thread that I intend to discuss here was begun by non-other-than a Christian seeking an explanation from the atheists of Reddit as to how they chose to believe what they do. I think this post shows many positive attributes of the r/atheism community and it does a great deal to help Redditors at least think that they are achieving their goal of establishing a more “aware” society. This thread is a compilation of thoughtful explanations of reasoning by atheist Redditors and it is a generally mature and sophisticated conversation with somebody who doesn’t belong to the community. Clearly, the person who initially began the thread is an outsider, who, nevertheless, understands the lexis and etiquette (actually defined as “Reddiquette” on the main page) of the community.

To elaborate, the person who began this post was well aware of a few premises, which he mentions, before proceeding with his actions. He very politely, and non-discriminatively, asks the Redditors of the sub-Reddit why they have chosen to abscond from religion. In the description for his question-post, he mentions that he is aware that he may be “downvoted” because the first few words of his question are “I am a Christian”, which to the sub-Redditors of this sub-Reddit often means that there is going to be an annoying argument about the chicken and the egg, with healthy doses of “YOU ARE ALL GOING TO HELL” and “GOD HATES YOU FAGS”. However, this Redditor does not proceed to do this and promises that he is only interested in learning why people have chosen to not believe in God.

It is important to note some of the Swales characteristics of a discourse community that I have revealed this sub-Reddit to display. There is a common, agreed upon, set of goals in this forum: the people here want to talk about, and affirm their beliefs, that there is no God and that religion is a societal hindrance. There is a specific mechanism of interaction here: people make original posts, and other people comment on them. The mechanisms of interaction are used to make statements and to provide feedback: Redditors here can write comments under posts, reply to each other’s comments, and either “upvote” or “downvote” posts and comments. The members of this community use certain genres that help propagate their goals. Sometimes they use pictures, sometimes they use text, sometimes they ask questions, and sometimes they writ narratives. The Redditors commenting on this Christian post are writing narratives that describe their lifestyle choices. This is appropriate for this type of post. Other times, posts are images, and are responded to with other images, and sometimes videos and text. Because this is an open forum, almost all types of genre can be incorporated somehow. Admittedly, you won’t find any originally written reports or analysis on r/atheism, but you may be linked to some. That just happens to be a characteristic of this discourse community: its ability to make use of different genres for discussion.

The Christian Redditor is also using common lexicon that is popular amongst Redditors on all of Reddit. So while he is an outsider on this particular sub-Reddit, he seems to be no stranger to Reddit as a whole. He uses the term “downvote”, which is an action taken by Redditors to express their disdain at a post and lower the value of it to other Redditors, likely resulting in the post becoming a light-grey font, which is usually just ignored by everybody. Furthermore, the other Redditors in the post often use the term “OP”, which stands for original poster. On this thread, the Christian Redditor is often told “we need more OP’s like you,” as a means of lauding him for his respectful inquiry.

The final characteristic that Swales proposes is that there are a threshold of members and a ranking system. This doesn’t quite fit into this case study on Reddit. The main reason for that is the availability of membership to anybody in the world with Internet. There is no threshold here. However, I can argue that there is a ranking system. Downvoting and upvoting, a mechanism of communication, is also a mechanism of ranking members. There is an idea of “downvoting into oblivion” that the Christian OP mentions in the description for his post. Typically, when a post, comment or reply is downvoted enough, it becomes invisible to everybody else on the thread, so as not to bother them. It is a purely democratic decision (this is debatable since not everybody gets to see it, but with a constantly growing population its still an applicable term) that has the effect of rating the person who made the undesirable comment. Each member has a page that lists their “karma”, which is the amount of points that they have accumulated by being upvoted and downvoted. People with a lot of karma are positively received, while people with low karma are more likely to be ignored. There are also member of this community who only have a one-way discourse participation with the other members. They observe. They are called lurkers. They virtually have no rank at all. Yet they are still considered part of this community since they are patrons of the website. While this doesn’t fit Swales’ final characteristic, this is still a way to classify members and their rank. Due to the very nature and purpose of Reddit, however, anybody can join and make any sort of statement they would like to.

Here is the thread referred to in this blog post.

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