Disagreements are an integral aspect of human society, with assholes being seemingly everywhere. Conflicts on an international scale have long been fought out in bloody wars and ruthless economic competition. If national challenges do not evolve into civil wars, they are handled through fierce verbal clashes. Considering recent events, it is not even a rarity anymore that powerful political figures use social networks like Twitter to publicly insult political rivals.
But what happens after people have faced each other in a verbal standoff? For the vast majority of people, personal, everyday arguments are something that can dominate their thoughts day and night. Oftentimes, these ordinary conflicts involve actions that may be morally ambiguous to oneself, a confidante, or other bystanders.
This paper sheds light on an avant-garde solution, designed by contemporary enthusiasts of online culture, which enables anyone anywhere to receive earnest, anonymous, and argued-for moral feedback on former and future paths of choice. To those who are looking for answers on questions of social life, the forum-like social media platform of Reddit is host to a community that leverages web 3.0 technology. The subreddit r/AmItheAsshole provides numerical data and detailed consultation and does nothing less than it promises: giving perplexed individuals insights on if, when, and why they might have behaved in an improper way; or more directly, like assholes.
Give judgment or be judged: practices of r/AmItheAsshole
"A catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher in all of us, and a place to finally find out if you were wrong in an argument that's been bothering you" is the official description of the r/AmItheAsshole subreddit. So, anyone seeking judgment on past behavior or an upcoming decision simply needs to create a Reddit account in order to make a post within the subreddit to ultimately receive feedback on moral aspects of their actions.
The titles of judgment-seeking threads are always formed as questions. They start with either AITA (short for "Am I The Asshole") or WIBTA ("Would I Be The Asshole"). Each post is accompanied by a brief description of the situation that should provide both sides of the story. Once a thread is published, other members of the subreddit can give their opinion on the actions and thoughts of the original poster (often referred to as "OP"). Moreover, users can participate in a unique voting system, which consists of five different judgments: YTA ("You are The Asshole"), NTA ("you are Not The Asshole" (but the other party is)), ESH ("Everyone Sucks Here," i.e., everyone is an asshole), NAH ("No Assholes Here"), and INFO (meaning there is not enough information). After 18 hours, a bot crawls through all comments on an individual thread and eventually calculates the most popular judgment. The thread is then labeled with the final verdict.
The culture of r/AmItheAsshole
As with every social group, r/AmItheAsshole is subject to a plethora of rules that users are urged to follow in order to be accepted as genuine members (Becker, 1997, pp. 121-129). There are a handful of universal rules that apply to each and every Reddit user. These rules are officially called Reddit Content Policy and mainly concern illegal actions. They are valid throughout the platform, and thus only partly influence the culture of subreddits.
Thirteen specific rules add to a multitude of guidelines for r/AmItheAsshole, ranging from "being civil" to accepting individual judgment. Moderators ensure that members obey these rules and guidelines. Noncompliance can be punished with "Moderator warnings" or, depending on the rule broken, it can result in comment deletion or individuals being banned from the subreddit. Breaking rule number four ("Never Delete An Active Discussion"), for instance, is deemed unacceptable and always leads to a ban from the group.
Rule enforcement is the duty of the moderators, but it also involves each member. If a user witnesses the violation of a rule, the "code" urges him or her to report the infringement to the moderators.
Identity emblems of potential assholes and their judges
Apart from knowing the distinct rules of r/AmItheAsshole, new members need to master several other indexes to become truly respected authorities in the group. Basic understanding of internet and Reddit language is generally helpful in participating in group discussions. This, in particular, concerns commonly popular acronyms and references to Reddit culture.
Next on the list is knowledge about the distinct culture of r/AmItheAsshole. Firmly integrated members engage with or create so-called META posts. These threads discuss aspects of the group itself, such as recent trends, advice for being a better judge, or developments in the general procedures. In many cases, authors of META posts intend to improve judgment capacities by sharing experience or viewpoints. META posts require approval from the moderation team to be published and, according to moderators, are rarely approved. If considered exceptionally important, moderators can add META posts to the "Sub evolution posts" menu, which is accessible on all pages of the subreddit.
Reddit as a platform also features awards that users can acquire by using the platform's virtual currency, Reddit Coins. Owners of Reddit Coins can choose to reward specific posts or comments and their authors. Some rewards even come with a free subscription to Reddit Premium or free Reddit Coins for the recipient. Each reward is then shown on the contribution. According to Reddit, it "is a way to show appreciation for an exceptional contribution to Reddit." Additional awards are also available on a subreddit-level as r/AmItheAsshole features unique awards such as "The Golden Throne". This feature is also a light form of niche-commodification that is omnipresent in this day and age (Maly & Varis, 2015).
Last but not least, there is no better indicator of the authority of a member than his or her rank. This career system, which is present in many social groups, rewards frequently-engaging members with specific ranks, giving them more authority in turn (Becker, 1997, pp. 24-25). In the case of r/AmItheAsshole, members level up by posting "top-rated comments" on any threads within the group. In theory, the most valuable content receives the best rating. Consequently, being familiar with the rules, language, and especially META posts is often crucial to becoming a respected individual in the group.
High-ranking members, alongside moderators, are the "crusaders" of the subreddit as they naturally have more influence than other members of the group (Becker, 1997, pp. 148-149). Not only can moderators dominate other members (e.g. editing, banning, removing), but all of their comments are also highlighted in green. In a recent interview with me, r/AmItheAsshole moderator u/TheOutrageousClaire told me that high-ranking members have increased chances of being accepted as a moderator. She further mentioned that moderators do "not consider rank when accepting META posts." Still, 18 of the 25 "most relevant" META posts - as considered by Reddit's algorithm - are authored either by moderators or by ranked individuals.
Transformation and identity discourse of r/AmItheAsshole
In just under two and a half years, from January 2018 to June 2020, r/AmItheAsshole has grown from merely 35,000 members to an astonishing number 2.1 million subscribers. This immense growth was fueled by Reddit's front-page algorithm, which continually promotes the "hottest" posts platform-wide. As time passed, this increased visibility has led to a large identity discourse arising, spearheaded by the group's veterans. This debate is ostensibly ignited by META posts that blame inexperienced members for questionable judgments.
It started in late 2018 when veteran member u/TheExarion discovered that "Asshole posts" - cases in which the audience considered the author of a thread to be "The Asshole" - are treated differently than "Not The Asshole" posts. Considering the rapid growth of the subreddit, u/TheExarion assumed that new members are not familiar with the exact rules of r/AmItheAsshole, which demand that members upvote the most interesting threads rather than "Not the Asshole" content.
In the months to follow, many other seasoned group members complained about unsophisticated and immature thread responses posted by novices. The user u/SnakesInYerPants pointed out that many underage users might have joined the group recently after "teen-star" YouTubers promoted the subreddit. u/SnakesInYerPants, along with many other users, seem to doubt that a minor's life experience and mental capacity may be sufficient to provide proper advice in serious matters. In fact, teenagers are struggling to manage many social norms online adequately, and social media frequently combines several social contexts. Besides, since their interactions in social networks are connected to their broader peer groups, teens often draw norms from their school life to the online world (boyd, 2014, pp. 29-36).
Just two months later, group moderator u/flignir initiated an intervention as the overwhelming number of new members had started to ruin the original community's "nice little discussion." u/flignir, noticeably furious, pointed out the fact that many newcomers seem to be unaware of the subreddit's norms, which is why he decided to provide an additional copy of the rules in his post. According to u/flignir, following the guidelines is crucial "to vote like an adult."
The subreddit's currently most upvoted thread is a META post created by the highly decorated member u/DarthCharizard. This post shows all the indexes of a veteran being in charge, as it received some of the most valuable rewards on Reddit alongside all four community-specific awards. Moreover, u/DarthCharizard, who maintains a prestigious position in the group's hierarchy as "Supreme Court Just-ass", is marking a climax in the debate of the preceding months. As stated in his or her post, the group's members seem to have contrasting beliefs or values to most people in society. While u/DarthCharizard does not provide an explanation for his/her observation, many users seem to agree. Some suspect that peer pressure has a significant influence on voting decisions, while others assume that younger audiences with questionable beliefs are behind the supposed shift in values.
Making sense of r/AmItheAsshole culture
The culture of r/AmItheAsshole is characterized by several cultural phenomena that are commonplace in modern social groups. Firstly, the subreddit can be classified as an imagined community as its members will hardly know any of their peers (Anderson, 2006). Nevertheless, individual members actively engage in joint communication and imagine their discussion partners to be somewhere on planet Earth, thinking about the same issues.
Furthermore, an analysis of the group's META discussions shows that there is an ongoing fundamental discourse on normality. Moderators and veteran members act as crusaders by defining the rules and urging newcomers to follow them. When rules cannot realistically be applied, they intervene by labelling newcomer opinions as abnormal. Normality is thus not actually normal, but constructed (Becker, 1997, p. 15). At the same time, the group shows signs of being an echo-chamber, as supposedly like-minded users are deciding which posts are displayed to a greater audience due to Reddit's native voting system (Zuckerman, 2008).
In order to be respected by veteran members of the group, newcomers often need to invest in identity work.
Giving the first judgment that comes to mind is often not sufficient. As many META posts suggest, the group discusses severe cases which require to be well-reflected and thoughtfully considered. The user u/Cosmohumanist, for instance, argued that many members provide short-sighted and immature relationship advice. Therefore, while members are asked to provide their authentic view on a case, certain judgments in specific situations are still considered inappropriate, even if they reflect a user's real opinion. These aspects of identity discourse and authenticity can be commonly found in 21st-century social groups (Blommaert, 2011).
r/AmItheAsshole is also increasingly subject to superdiversity. According to Similarweb, a popular platform which provides estimated website statistics, Reddit.com has emerged as one of the top 20 most visited websites worldwide. Although Similarweb estimates that about 50% of Reddit's traffic comes out of the United States, it expects the remaining half to consist of residents from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, and 247 other countries. The group's audience becomes further obscured as other communication channels get involved. Several members recognized that tremendous Facebook fan pages, such as the 25-million-likes account The Dodo, as well as high-tier media websites, like WIRED, The Mirror, and VICE, have been featuring the group in posts, articles, and columns.
This makes r/AmItheAsshole a translocal and polycentric group with a myriad of disparate values that is also layered and stratified, effectively making it a micro-population (Maly & Varis, 2015).
The verdict: No Assholes Here
The subreddit r/AmItheAsshole provides an instructive example of a community that went from a manageable small and cohesive insider circle to an enormously sized, superdiverse and stratified social group. After the group grew somewhat moderately for more than five years, allowing its mostly self-defined culture to thrive, explosive growth has put its core members in front of novel and regularly recurring challenges. While the community's original intended audience has long been the "frustrated moral philosophers," algorithms and other social networks have changed the reach of its messages to outsiders.
Today, r/AmItheAsshole is, mostly unwillingly, among the most prominent forums on Reddit, particularly in terms of engagement rates.
Veterans, whose "nice little discussion" was at stake, took action and attempted to restore law and order. Frequent reminders to make oneself familiar with the group's rules and culture are submitted in the form of META posts. At the same time, moderators are introducing new rules and measures to suppress nascent issues that arise from rising member counts. Despite all the troubles since the start of its uncontrollable expansion, the subreddit's key actors are determined to stand their ground and fight for a civilized, productive, and pragmatic discussion on assholish behavior. NAH.
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Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities. Different Dispatches: Journalism in American Modernist Prose, 49.
boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated. London: Yale University Press (pp. 29-53).
Blommaert, J. (2011). Enough Is Enough: The Heuristics of Authenticity in Superdiversity.
Maly I. and Varis P. (2015). The 21st-century hipster. European Journal of Cultural studies, 4-5.
r/AmItheAsshole. (n.d.). Retrieved December 31, 2019.
r/AmItheAsshole Frequently Asked Questions. (n.d.). Retrieved December 31, 2019.
Subreddit Stats. (n.d.). Retrieved December 31, 2019.
Zuckerman, E. (2008). Serendipity, echo chambers, and the front page. Nieman Reports, 62(4), 16.