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Belonging and Neo-Tribalism on Social Media Site Reddit

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Abstract

Social media site reddit describes itself as the ‘front page’ of the internet. The site’s 274 million monthly users share, discuss, ‘up-vote’ and ‘down-vote’ a wide array of content found on the internet: news, pictures of cats, deep philosophical discussions, scientific breakthroughs, pornography, advice columns, GIFs of people falling over—reddit has it all. The most ‘up-voted’ content rises to the top of the site, while less current and less interesting content ‘sinks’. The site is divided into more than 10 thousand active (and many more less active) ‘subreddits’, framed as communities organised around a particular topic. In this chapter, by looking at four case studies, I push beyond the contentious descriptor of reddit as ‘a type of online community’ to consider the systems of belonging on reddit (via everyday labour) as more akin to the temporally situated, purposive neo-tribes theorised by Maffesoli (1996) and Bennett (1999) Reddit, and many of the site’s subreddits, operate on a very specific shared set of languages and conventions, rules, expectations, and rituals. Reddit neo-tribes can crystallise over time (as per Robards and Bennett), but they are largely ephemeral, readily aligning with Maffesoli’s (1996) original conceptualisation.
187© The Author(s) 2018
A. Hardy et al. (eds.), Neo-Tribes,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-68207-5_12
CHAPTER 12
Belonging andNeo-Tribalism onSocial
Media Site Reddit
BradyRobards
IntroductIon
Social media site reddit describes itself as the ‘front page’ of the internet.
In January 2017, the site reported 274 million unique visitors, and claimed
to be the fth largest site in the US with ‘the most inuential community
online’ (Reddit.com 2017a). Reddit users, or ‘redditors’, share, discuss,
‘up-vote’, ‘down-vote’, and comment on a wide range of content found
on the internet: news, pictures of cats, deep philosophical discussions,
scientic breakthroughs, pornography, advice columns, GIFs of people
falling over, the most beautiful landscape photography, and deeply per-
sonal admissions of shame and embarrassment—reddit has it all. The con-
tent that receives the most ‘up-votes’ rises to the top of the site, while
content that is less current and that users nd less interesting ‘sinks’. The
actual organisation of posts is also subject to opaque and proprietary algo-
rithmic sorting (van der Nagel 2013). Reddit has been critiqued as a ‘hub
for anti- feminist activism’ (Massanari 2015, p.329) while also recognised
as a site of identity exploration and connection (van der Nagel and Frith
2015). Like any social space, it has both positive and negative dimensions.
B. Robards (*)
School of Social Sciences, Monash University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
188
Reddit is divided into more than 10 thousand active (and many more less
active) ‘subreddits’, framed as communities organised around a particular
topic. Many of these subreddits have rules, behavioural conventions, ritu-
als, and symbolic characteristics that, as I will argue, can be theorised as
digitally mediated neo-tribes. This chapter will thus set out the argument
that reddit is a collection of digitally mediated neo-tribes, and in doing so,
I will discuss how reddit can serve here as a lens for understanding con-
temporary experiences of belonging more broadly.
As Rob Shields says in the foreword to Michel Maffesoli’s 1996 English
translation of his original 1988 The Time of the Tribes, neo-tribes are ‘more
than a residual category of social life. They are the central feature and key
social fact of our own experience of everyday living’ (Shields in Maffesoli
1996, p. ix). The concept of the neo-tribe works to capture those some-
times eeting but at once enduring afnities, tied to places and mobilities:
acknowledging other regular members of a gym with a nod and a smile,
sharing a knowing look of commiseration with a person on the street
dressed in your sporting team’s colours after a defeat, dancing hand-in-
hand with a perfect stranger in a gay nightclub, or helping to pour milk
over the eyes of someone who has been pepper-sprayed at a protest. These
connections and interactions have an ephemeral quality, bound to a par-
ticular space and time.
For Maffesoli, ‘neo-tribalism is characterised by uidity, occasional
gathering and dispersal’ (1996, p.76). My aim, however, is to extend
this thinking. I would argue that neo-tribal connections can also cohere
over time, such that friendships and partnerships can spring forth from
the kinds of eeting connections described above. Haythornthwaite
(2002) writes about the ways in which ‘latent ties’, unrealised connec-
tions between individuals by way of organisational structures, can be
‘activated’ into weak and eventually strong ties through digital media.
Haythornthwaite uses the example of employees in an organisation’s
email database that may have no direct connection (or ‘tie’) to each
other, but who may eventually meet or have direct contact (thus forming
a ‘weak tie’) and perhaps even become close colleagues or friends (a
‘strong tie’). I would suggest that this process of ‘activating latent ties’
can be applied to a range of experiences, mediated in physical and/or
digital spaces, where a neo-tribal encounter (in a gym, after a sports
match, in a nightclub, or at a protest) can cohere and crystallise over
time (Robards and Bennett 2011). As Haythornthwaite (2002) observes,
B. ROBARDS
189
however, digital media can work to make connections visible and afford
these ‘tie activations’ between individuals.
Over the past decade, Michel Maffesoli’s (1996[1988]) conceptualisa-
tion of neo-tribalism has come to be applied to a wide range of contexts
and modern phenomenon, including a range of digital social spaces, as
demonstrated in this book: hashtags on Tumblr (Hart, Chap. 13), the
digital sharing of snowboarding experiences (Dinhopl and Gretzel, Chap.
14) and the gay dating/hook-up application Grindr (Clay, Chap. 15).
Maffesoli himself called for research on ‘telecommunications networks’ in
order to ‘conrm the prospective aspects of syntonic relationships’
(Maffesoli 1996[1988], p.75). In this chapter, I seek to add to this grow-
ing body of literature that makes use of neo-tribalism as a conceptual tool
for understanding contemporary experiences of belonging, and reect
critically on the value of neo-tribalism as a more specic analytical lens
through which to understand digitally mediated systems of belonging
more broadly.
The everyday labour that goes into producing reddit, through posts,
comments, and moderations on many thousands of subreddits, is complex
and contested. At one end of an ‘afnity spectrum’ there are the paid
administrators that run the site, followed by volunteer moderators and
regular, ‘heavy users’ that might experience most keenly a sense of ‘com-
munity’ that could include attending reddit ‘meetups’ or conventions;
right through to ‘lurker’/‘listener’ gures who may regularly or irregu-
larly visit the site, but rarely or never post, vote on content, or feel enough
of a sense of connection to the site to describe themselves as a ‘redditor’.
As the label ‘lurker’ implies a sense of creepy concealment, I prefer instead
to follow Crawford’s (2009, p.525) lead here to invoke the metaphor of
listening to ‘offer a productive way to analyse the forms of online engage-
ment that have previously been overlooked’. Indeed, one reddit admin has
stated that approximately 80% of the trafc to reddit is from users who do
not log in (u/jedberg, 2010), indicating that a large number of reddit
users are ‘listeners’ only. In-between these extremes on an afnity spec-
trum of reddit are a range of users who might post, comment, or up-vote
intermittently, who may or may not identify as ‘redditors’. In other words,
reddit is a complex system of belonging that I will argue is best under-
stood through a ‘neo-tribal lens’ (Kriwoken and Hardy 2017).
In this chapter I draw on a contested literature around digitally medi-
ated communities, before setting out four subreddits as case studies to
BELONGING ANDNEO-TRIBALISM ONSOCIAL MEDIA SITE REDDIT
190
advance my argument that reddit is a unique and expanding collection of
digitally mediated neo-tribes: rst, r/WoW, a popular gaming subreddit
centred on the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game
(MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW); second, r/The_Donald, a sub-
reddit devoted to the support of US President Donald Trump that was
very active and controversial during his 2016 campaign; third, r/
TrollXChromosomes, a humour-based subreddit focussed on the exchange
of memes and funny interactions from the perspectives of women; and
fourth, r/GayBros, where gay men discuss their experiences, negotiate
masculinity, talk about cars, and share pornography. These subreddits
range in size from ~460,000 subscribers for r/The_Donald through to
~78,000 subscribers to r/GayBros at the time of writing (rst half of
2017). By exploring and deconstructing these very different subreddits, I
argue that these and other subreddits are not ‘communities’ in the tradi-
tional sense of this concept—as reddit itself suggests—but are more like
digitally mediated neo-tribes that share characteristics with Maffesoli’s
(1996) conceptualisation of this term.
To achieve this aim, I divide this chapter into three remaining sections:
rst, I set out some background literature on reddit and and digitally
mediated communities; second, I move on to my four subreddit case stud-
ies; and third, I draw these case studies together in the conclusion, reiter-
ating my argument that reddit is a collection of digitally mediated
neo-tribes.
FramIng reddIt: IdentItIes, communItIes
andneo-trIbes?
Reddit bridges communities and individuals with ideas, the latest digital
trends, and breaking news (…okay, and maybe cats). Our mission is to help
people discover places where they can be their true selves, and empower our
community to ourish. (about.reddit.com, April 2017)
There is a lot to unpack in the way reddit describes itself: as a bridge
between communities, but also as a community in itself; a site where one
can be true to one’s self; and a site of empowerment. This description is at
odds with some of the academic discussion of the site, including Massanari’s
(2015) powerful critique of reddit as hub of ‘toxic technocultures’ and
‘anti-feminist activism’. One point that is clear, is that reddit is dominated
B. ROBARDS
191
by young men. According to Barthel etal. (2016), 69% of reddit users are
men, and 56% are between 18 and 29 years old. Massanri traces the ways
in which ‘geek masculinity’ (see also Braithwaite 2016) play out through
reddit, based on a three-year ethnography. Massanari (2015, p. 331)
describes reddit as a ‘community of communities’, dominated by group-
ings such as geek culture, the gaming community, and a criminal hacking
underground—three levels of grouping from culture, to interest commu-
nity, to practice network. This kind of structural order might also be
understood through Maffesoli’s (1996, p.75) imagining of ‘interlocking
objects; like a nest of Russian dolls, the large object-mass conceals smaller
object-groups which are diffracted to innity’. I will return to this meta-
phor later in the chapter.
While reddit is a male-dominated digital space, and I fully accept cri-
tiques of toxic technocultures (Massanari 2015) and problematic geek
masculinities (Braithwaite 2016) that play out on the site, it is also worth
saying that there is diversity on reddit. There are overtly feminist subred-
dits (like r/Feminism, 68,600 subscribers; and r/AskFeminists, 11,096
subscribers) and subreddits that centre on women’s perspectives (r/
TwoXChromosomes, 10,891,117 subscribers; r/AskWomen, 360,222
subscribers; r/LadiesofScience, 9,775 subscribers), along with subreddits
dedicated to LGBT issues (r/LGBT, 140,278 subscribers; r/GayPoC,
1,231 subscribers) and issues around race (r/Racism, 8,786 subscribers;
r/blackgirlgamers, 944 subscribers). As I will explain, reddit is a complex
and multifaceted digitally mediated network of neo-tribes, turning on cul-
tures within cultures, where ideologies can clash (r/politics, 3,378,713
subscribers) alongside sharing tips on knitting techniques (r/knitting,
56,193 subscribers) within the same platform.
True Selves andEmpowerment?
What of reddit’s claims to discovering true selves and nding empower-
ment on the site? Leavitt (2015, p.325) has written about the benets of
anonymous, ‘temporary technical identities’ that reddit affords through
‘throwaway accounts’, where users can move between different identity
positions. Leavitt argues this is especially productive for women using
multiple proles to ‘counteract gender stereotypes’ (2015, p.324). That
these strategies are necessary at all says something about the broader cul-
ture on the site and on the internet more generally. Van der Nagel and
Frith (2015) argue that reddit affords practices around anonymity and
BELONGING ANDNEO-TRIBALISM ONSOCIAL MEDIA SITE REDDIT
192
pseudonymity that are not seen in other forms of social media such as
Facebook. They contend that anonymity and pseudonymity can open up
‘possibilities for identity exploration, exhibitionism’, and help forge ‘con-
nections with people who share different interests without being limited
by the social factors that routinely shape everyday life’ (Van der Nagel and
Frith 2015, p.8). In other words, reddit can be many things. It can house
hubs of misogyny, at the same time as providing spaces for identity explo-
ration and self-discovery, but from a commercial perspective, reddit
describes itself only in the most positive terms.
Community?
What of reddit’s claim that it is a community? Turkle (2011, p. 238)
argues that communities must be ‘constituted by physical proximity,
shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities’, and
that scholars—herself included—have been too quick to call digitally
mediated connections communities. Sites like MySpace or Facebook, or
online worlds like SecondLife, she contends, are the realm of ‘weak ties’
(Turkle 2011, p.239), and thus cannot truly be communities.
Banks (2012) has critiqued Turkle’s (2011) oscillation towards a more
pessimistic view of the internet and technology in our lives by drawing
attention to the ways in which Turkle inscribes binaries between ‘real’ and
‘virtual’. Instead, Banks (2012) and previously Jurgenson (2011) suggests
that the digital and the physical are so interconnected and enmeshed that
Turkle’s ‘digital dualism’ is not tenable; instead, experiences of commu-
nity move across and between digital and physical spaces.
Summit-Gil (2017) has written in some detail on the question, is reddit
a community? In short, their answer is no, but with a concession that many
subreddits do function as communities, based on this denition: a com-
munity is a ‘social unit based on voluntary association, shared beliefs and
values, and contribution without the expectation of direct compensation’
(Summit-Gil 2017). Informed by this denition, Summit-Gil calls for
‘lurkers’ to ‘come out of the closet’, and contribute to the communities
they feel connected to. And yet, as discussed earlier, the majority of reddit
users are indeed lurkers or, using the term I prefer and borrow from
Crawford (2009), ‘listeners’. How do these listeners—who don’t actively
post, comment, or even up-vote content on reddit—gure into a deni-
tion of community? Quite simply, they don’t. In a social media landscape
where voice has been gloried (Crawford 2009, p.526), listeners are often
B. ROBARDS
193
ignored in analysis—they often leave no trace—and yet they form an
important part of understanding reddit. Thus, rather than contributing to
a debate about community, it is my argument that a more productive way
to think through the kinds of experiences of belonging on a site like reddit
are to look to other models and conceptualisations of belonging, such as
Maffesoli’s (1996) neo-tribe. Concepts like neo-tribalism and community
are not necessarily at odds or mutually exclusive. However, neo-tribalism
is a more specic theorisation of belonging that allows for a precision in
analysis that the more nebulous concept of community does not.
Turning toNeo-Tribalism
In the next section, I push beyond the contentious descriptor of reddit as ‘a
type of online community’ to consider the complex systems of belonging on
reddit as more akin to the temporally situated, purposive neo-tribes theorised
by Maffesoli (1996) and Bennett (1999). Reddit, and many of the site’s
subreddits, operate on a specic shared set of languages and conventions,
rules, expectations, and rituals. Reddit neo-tribes can crystallise over time (as
per Robards and Bennett 2011), but they are largely ephemeral, readily
aligning with Maffesoli’s (1996) original conceptualisation. There are oat-
ing levels of membership (theorised as a characteristic of neo-tribalism by
Cova and Cova 2002), ranging from moderators who become known and
recognised in subreddits (through both their own posts and comments)
through to visitors who never comment but instead ‘lurk’ or ‘listen’ and may
not even have a reddit account. Some subreddits have physical meet-ups (like
r/GayBros), and connect through other media (like over ‘Discord’ voice
chat for r/WoW) or work to effect wider political and ideological change
(like r/The_Donald and to a less explicit extent, r/TrollXChromosomes), so
it is not accurate to say that these neo- tribes are bound to digital spaces, but
they do nd coherence and visibility through reddit.
deconstructIng reddIt
In this section I draw on case studies from an ongoing ethnographic study
that commenced in 2015. I undertook a three-part content analysis of
each of the four subreddit case studies: r/WoW, r/The_Dondald, r/
TrollXChromosomes, and r/GaBros. My selection of these subreddits was
somewhere between purposeful and arbitrary—I wanted to choose rea-
sonably popular subreddits that were big enough to have their own sense
BELONGING ANDNEO-TRIBALISM ONSOCIAL MEDIA SITE REDDIT
194
of conventions and culture, but not too big as to be generic or ‘massied’
like r/news, r/movies, r/funny, or r/politics. I also chose these subreddits
because of their differences, cutting across issues and themes on reddit—a
gaming subreddit (r/WoW), a political and controversial subreddit (r/
The_Donald), a female-centred meme subreddit (r/TrollXChromosomes),
and a subreddit centred on gay men with a particular negotiation of mas-
culinity (r/GayBros).
As part of my analysis, rst I identied the individual elements of the
directory landing pages (‘front pages’) for each subreddit, noting header
image/images, and sidebar elements (descriptions, rules, number of sub-
scribers, weekly threads, resources, links, moderators, and so on). Second,
in mid-2016, I subscribed to each of the four case-study subreddits, and
followed them over a one-year period. Most days, as part of my regular
‘reddit routine’, I would encounter posts from these subreddits in my own
reddit feed, contributing to a sustained sense of being immersed in them,
albeit as just a ‘background listener’ (Crawford 2009, p. 528) without
posting or commenting. Finally, in a more formal way, I supplemented this
sustained observational analysis by capturing the top 25 posts ‘of all time’
made to the subreddit as of the beginning of May, 2017, ranked in order
of their popularity based on up-votes. This gave me a sense of the most
popular content to identify common themes, stylistic repetitions, and
dominant discourses.
The ethics of this kind of research is open to discussion: is it a form of
discourse analysis, like analysing posts on a gaming discussion forum
(Pulos 2013) or how a hashtag like #GamerGate plays out across multiple
platforms (Braithwaite 2016)? Or is this kind of research more akin to
participant observation in a somewhat public area at an otherwise closed
location, like the pool area of a resort (Vorobjovas-Pinta and Robards
2017), where consent must be gained from the resort, signs warning
resort visitors of the observation must be posted, and individual interview-
ees must agree to participate? I’ve erred towards the former, but with
some attention given towards intentionality behind certain disclosures. As
Zimmer (2010, p.317) has explained, a key component in reecting on
research ethics in digital spaces is around the ‘changing nature and expec-
tations in online social networks’. What someone says in a private Direct
Message on Twitter, for instance, is different to a post made to a closed
Facebook group with several hundred members, although both might be
framed as private. A comment someone makes on a Tumblr thread is also
different in context to a ‘stickied’ announcement post made by the
B. ROBARDS
195
moderator of a subreddit with hundreds of thousands of subscribers,
although both may be interpreted as public. In each case, all of these dis-
closures are made in digital spaces, with the potential for re-contextualisa-
tion, but the intentionality in terms of publicness vs. privateness can be
read as quite different.
My intention in the remainder of this chapter is not to provide detailed
accounts of the cultures of each subreddit, but to give a brief impression
of each to frame them as examples of my argument that belonging on red-
dit can be productively understood through a neo-tribal lens.
r/WoW
Welcome to /r/wow, a subreddit about the video game World of Warcraft.
403,839 subscribers
World of Warcraft (WoW) is one of the biggest and longest running
video games. Initially released in 2004, the game is a ‘Massively Multiplayer
Online Role Playing Game’ (MMORPG) where players interact, compete
with each other, and also work together to achieve common goals in a
large-scale open virtual world. Over the past 13 years, the game has
amassed a considerable fan base, and has also been the topic of extensive
scholarly attention (see, for instance, Chen 2008; Pulos 2013). Reddit has
become a dominant platform for World of Warcraft players to gather, dis-
cuss developments in the game, tell jokes, share strategies, and celebrate
milestones. Occasionally, developers from the game itself visit the r/WoW
subreddit to respond to comments or post announcements, but most of
the discussion here is from fans and players themselves. Each day there is
a different ‘weekly thread’ that is ‘sticked’ to the top of the page (so it
doesn’t fade into obscurity) that helps to focus the discussion on a particu-
lar topic or aspect of the game for that 24 hour period: Murloc Mondays
(for new players); Tanking Tuesdays (for discussion of one role within the
game—‘tanking’, or taking damage in in-game encounters); Midweek
Mending (for discussion of another role in the game—‘healing’, or reviv-
ing team members in the game who have taken damage) and so on. This
rotation of seven daily topics is cycled through the week, providing a ritu-
alised routine.
The subreddit rules set out conventions and expectations around con-
tent and language. For example, they prohibit ‘hate-based posts’, includ-
ing ‘prejudice based on colour, sex or gender, religion, sexual orientation,
BELONGING ANDNEO-TRIBALISM ONSOCIAL MEDIA SITE REDDIT
196
country of origin or ability’. The rules go on to explain ‘we don’t care how
cool or edgy you think it is to call someone a faggot or [to] kys [‘kill your-
self’], don’t do it here’. Subreddit rules work to set broad expectations
and conventions for conduct, but they also serve to set the tone and assert
a sense of hierarchy, whereby the moderators are the ultimate authority in
interpreting these rules and enforcing them. Moderation here is invisible
for many, as there is no trace of a deleted post or comment for most visi-
tors to the subreddit, but the 14 moderators of r/WoW are named in the
sidebar and also actively contribute through their own posts and
comments.
The top posts of all time to r/WoW are mostly humorous memes, what
Milner (2016) describes as ‘digital snippets that can make a joke, make a
point, or make a connection’. Amidst the jokes and game references, there
are also more affective, poignant posts such as stories about friendship,
lost loved ones, and calls to support new players to build a friendlier and
more welcoming video game community. For example, one user shared a
story about a friendship that began in the game 10 years earlier, when one
player gave another player in-game currency, eventually leading to an
enduring friendship that resulted in the US-based player visiting and stay-
ing with the Australian player. There were almost a thousand comments
on this post, ranging from jokes to sharing similar kinds of stories about
friendships that began in the game moving into physical spaces through
meet-ups and long-term friendships. These kinds of narratives are cele-
brated in r/WoW, and also neatly capture the ways in which neo-tribal
connections—like loaning an unknown player some in-game currency in a
digital space—can crystallise over time into enduring and signicant
friendships that cross national and digital/physical boundaries.
A more sober story from the top posts of all time in r/WoW was from
a user whose wife—also a WoW player—had died seven years earlier. He
explained that he occasionally logged into the game on her character, to
see where she left it. The post was accompanied by a screenshot of his
wife’s character in-game. This post also attracted a large number of com-
ments—741 in total—including other redditors offering condolences,
reecting on their own loss, and sharing a sense of grief. As Gibson (2007)
has explained elsewhere, digital spaces have become central to the sharing
of grief and the recording of ‘death imagery and narratives’.
r/WoW serves as a fascinating case study of a digitally mediated neo-
tribe, complete with ‘uid boundaries and oating memberships’ (Bennett
1999, p.600) but also with clear possibilities for connections to crystallise
B. ROBARDS
197
over time, both through the digital space of the video game’s virtual
world, and also the para-textual nature of r/WoW itself. The subreddit is
a place of interaction and connection, but also a site of archiving and
remembering, with its own set of rules and rituals of participation (such as
daily threads), and a shared language that users who do not play WoW
would likely not understand.
r/The_Donald
Welcome to the forum of choice for The President of The United States,
Donald Trump!
Be advised this forum is for serious supporters of President Trump. We
have discussions, memes, AMAs, and more. We are not politically correct.
Please read and respect our rules below before contributing.
460,134 subscribers
In mid-2017, there was little academic literature on r/The_Donald,
but in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United
States, there will no doubt be heightened attention paid to the role of
digital media—especially forums like r/The_Donald—in his election. One
piece of research that did consider r/The_Donald in-depth, mapped the
differences between r/SFP (a Bernie Sanders for President subreddit;
Bernie Sanders being one of Trump’s key opponents during the 2016
election) and r/The_Donald. Mills (2017) observed that the 2016 elec-
tion was the rst instance of large subreddit ‘communities’ forming rap-
idly to support a candidate in an election. Mills also observed that the
discourse on r/The_Donald ‘often does not adhere to common norms of
socially acceptable discourse’ and that discussion was often ‘irreverent’
and ‘offensive’ (Mills 2017, p.9), much like Trump himself. For example,
after Trump’s election, the moderators of the subreddit made this state-
ment about the future of the subreddit: ‘Where do we go from here? We
continue to support President Trump, create and promote the spiciest
memes known to man, and trigger the fuck out of leftists. We ght for
freedom’ (u/Treteste 2017)
The majority of the top posts to r/The_Donald are antagonistic, cen-
tred on celebrating the election of Trump with his image reproduced end-
lessly under titles such as ‘A portrait OF THE MOST POWERFUL MAN
IN THE FREE WORLD!!!’ and ‘A little something for some of the reddit
admins—get used to looking at it, it will be around for the NEXT 8
BELONGING ANDNEO-TRIBALISM ONSOCIAL MEDIA SITE REDDIT
198
YEARS!’ next to an image of Trump as President, with an American ag
in the background. The antagonism in these posts exemplies the ‘us vs.
them’ mentality central to r/The_Donald, arguably central to Trump’s
entire platform. Within reddit itself, r/The_Donald has been constructed
as in conict with the reddit Administrators, as they seek to make the site
more ‘family friendly’ and ‘politically correct’.
r/The_Donald is governed by ten rules, including ones that forbid rac-
ism, anti-Semitism, and releasing personal information (doxxing); they
limit subscribers only to Trump supporters (making it a highly insular
bubble), and prohibit ‘concern trolling’. Concern trolling is when a par-
ticipant in a debate (a redditor in this case) pretends to be a supporter to
raise ‘concerns’ from within. On r/The_Donald, this includes posts that
seek a compromise between Trump’s policy positions and other positions,
or that seek to connect with different political groups (such as Bernie
Sanders supporters). This rule about concern trolling is one example of
how the r/The_Donald neo-tribe seems paranoid by the idea that they are
being inltrated and distracted by their ‘opponents’. In a post on concern
trolling, previously ‘top moderator’ u/OhSnapYouGotServed called on
members of r/The_Donald to report concern trolling:
It is insidious, like a cancer, and sucks the energy from the room fast… Keep
reporting any and all concern trolling you see on the sub… You are the
FRONT LINE against these assholes and YOU have your nger on the
pulse of this community. ‘Pedes know this culture better than anyone.
There are several points in this call to action around concern trolling
that are worth exploring. First, is the acknowledgement of subreddit cul-
ture in r/The_Donald. Comments and posts themselves are nearly indeci-
pherable to outsiders, with constant references made to internal gures
like Milo Yiannopoulos and Kyle Chapman, and to acronyms like CTR
(Correct The Record, a pro-Hillary Clinton campaign that sought to
respond to inaccurate allegations from Trump’s campaigns with facts).
The second dimension to u/OhSnapYouGotServed’s call worth discuss-
ing here is the invocation of the collective name of subscribers to the
subreddit—‘pedes, short for ‘centipedes’. The redditors within the r/The_
Donald neo-tribe use this as a collective descriptor, referencing a pro-
Trump YouTube video series called ‘Can’t Stump the Trump’ that begins
with a song by a group called Knife Party titled ‘Centipede’. The lyrics list
out the qualities of a centipede which are in turn ostensibly associated with
Trump himself: ‘a nimble navigator… highly venomous… a predator’.
B. ROBARDS
199
This single example demonstrates the obscurity and depth of the culture
at work here, bound up in self-aggrandising humour.
At its core, r/The_Donald is a neo-tribe that appears devoted to antag-
onism and ‘triggering’ (upsetting, confronting) ‘leftists’, but given its
insular nature (Rule VI: Trump Supporters Only), it seems to do this in a
largely self-congratulatory way. That Trump himself participated in an
‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) thread on r/The_Donald lends the subreddit
authority and visibility. Considerable work remains to be done to fully
understand this subreddit which some have argued is the ‘epicentre of
Trump fervor on the internet’ (Martin 2017).
r/TrollXChromosomes
Come for the period comics. Stay for the cultural awareness.
217,634 subscribers
r/TrollXChromosomes is a subreddit centred on the experiences of
women, told through memes and reaction GIFs. This is a highly visual
subreddit, with posts ranging from celebrating professional successes like
a promotion at work, to personal failures such as a relationship break-
down, to sexual conquests, through to wider social commentary such as
the signicance of diverse racial representation in lms and television. r/
TrollXChromosomes is also a LGBT-friendly/positive space. Massanari
(2017) has studied r/TrollXChromosomes in-depth, nding it operates as
a site of discussion around women’s embodiment and sexuality, and the
mobilisation of feminist perspectives.
The name of the subreddit comes from another female-centred subred-
dit, r/TwoXChromosomes, which has more than 10 million subscribers
and is dedicated to women in science. What is unique about r/
TrollXChromosomes is its basis in ‘meme culture’ (Milner 2016), and the
way it operates on a shared set of conventions around post structure. For
example, several of the top posts on the subreddit begin with MRW (My
Reaction When) or HIFW (How I Feel When), and are followed by a relat-
able experience: ‘MRW I found and questioned my husband about the
BBQ sauce in his car, and he replied with “you have emergency car mas-
cara, I have emergency BBQ sauce”’ followed by an animated image (GIF)
of Spock from Star Trek nodding and saying ‘logical’ (10,067 up- votes and
510 comments); or ‘HIF when I’ve been single for two years and trying to
hit on guys at the bar’ followed by a GIF of two men running away from a
ghost in a park.
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These MRW or HIFW posts all follow a similar refrain: a personal sce-
nario or experience told very briey, followed by an animated reaction
GIF that captures some affective dimension of that story and conveys the
author’s feelings or emotions or reaction to the scenario. As Kanai explains,
reaction GIFs capture an emotional exchange, matching experiences or
situations ‘with feelings that may be recognizable’ under wider cultural
conditions (Kanai 2017, p.7), and these animated GIFs are central to how
r/TrollXChromosomes works. They are the currency of affect. These
kinds of posts tell a story, connect the experiences of women, and also
work to provide women with a space to discuss and reect on common
experiences in the comments.
r/TrollXChromosomes is signicant on reddit, which more broadly is
dominated by men (Barthel etal. 2016). Like the ‘centipedes’ of r/The_
Donald, subscribers and contributors to r/TrollXChromosomes call
themselves ‘trolls’. Generally ‘trolling’ is associated with upsetting or
abusing someone, but on r/TrollXChromosomes the term seems to have
been applied to trolling patriarchal order more broadly. By sharing uplift-
ing, feminist stories (such as one titled ‘Woman is groped by man, drags
him by his hair to police station’; 9211 up-votes and 631 comments) and
images (such as one of the female Vice Prime Minister of Sweden signing
a new climate bill surrounded by all female colleagues in the style of the
photo of Trump signing an anti-abortion order surrounded by all male
colleagues), r/TrollXChromosomes deploys ‘meme culture’ to ‘troll’
patriarchy. It does so through a shared set of rituals and behaviours (MRW
and HIFW posts, centred on animated GIFs) and an experience of ‘troll’
membership. While Massanari (2017) critiques the unrealised potential of
the feminist troll on r/TrollXChromosomes, as it ‘remains ambivalent
about its more political, activist elements’, there is also an acknowledge-
ment that this subreddit serves as an example of how ‘feminist communi-
ties might exist in other toxic spaces’ (Massanari 2017: 17).
r/GayBros
Gaybros is a network built for gay men who aren’t conned to a media ste-
reotype. We come together around shared interests like sports, technology,
and media. Our subscribers have hosted social meet-ups all around the
world.
78,193 subscribers
B. ROBARDS
201
There is a particular kind of masculinity in operation on r/GayBros. In
many ways, there is an underlying desire in both the subreddit description
above and in the most up-voted posts, for a sense of validation. r/GayBros
operates against the reading of homosexual men as necessarily effeminate
and ‘less-than-masculine’ (the ‘media stereotype’), seeking to subvert that
reading and present gay men as ‘bros’. The ‘bro’ embodies traditional,
hegemonic (Connell 1995) images of masculinity associated with sport,
cars, working out, and aspires to normative relationship pathways. The
celebration of marriageto a same-sex partner, for instance, is a dominant
theme on the subreddit.
There is one image in the top 25 posts of all time that might be read as
transgressing these ‘hegemonic’ ideals around masculinity typied by the
athletic, muscular, dominant, assertive form of masculinity. The image is a
photo of a male same-sex couple, dressed as female characters from car-
toon TV show Bob’s Burgers, Tina and Louise, for Halloween. The image
is low quality, but captures the characters of Tina and Louise so well—
Tina slouched and somewhat dejected, Louise manic and in-motion.
However, despite the low-effort drag (a simple wig and skirt for Tina, and
a basic dress for Louise), the male subjects are still decidedly masculine,
with facial hair, and bulging muscles that are magnied by their skimpy
costumes. In other words, this is the kind of drag that you might see in an
all-male, heterosexual, alcohol-fuelled environment like an American col-
lege frat house or in a navy hazing ritual. There is no sense of humiliation
here, but the image is playful and temporary. We are still just like you.
Posts celebrating same-sex relationships, from marriage proposals and
wedding photos, through to ‘prom’ photos and couple seles, make up
half of the top 25 posts. A number of posts made to r/GayBros are about
signalling, recording, and sharing experiences of social acceptance, such as
a post reecting on US President Obama’s tweet from mid-2015 celebrat-
ing marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, or Harry Potter author
JK Rowling tweeting an image that read ‘If Harry Potter taught us any-
thing, it’s that no one should live in a closet’.
One example of r/GayBros’ contested debate around masculinity often
occurs on posts related to popular reality television programme RuPaul’s
Drag Race. The show centres on a competition between drag queens,
with weekly challenges, performances, judges’ critiques, and contestant
eliminations, all culminating in a nal show-down before one drag queen
is crowned as the season’s winner. Some subscribers to r/GayBros see
drag culture—camp, celebrating an over-the-top femininity, with frocks
BELONGING ANDNEO-TRIBALISM ONSOCIAL MEDIA SITE REDDIT
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and make-up at the core—as antithetical to the kind of ‘bro masculinity’
that the r/GayBros neo-tribe is all about. One commenter explained ‘I
think this sub is being overrun by people who don’t identify as “bros”’
(‘RuPaul’s Drag Race Snatches Emmy Nomination’, 14/7/17; Reddit.
com 2017b). This kind of boundary work around what is and is not appro-
priate for each subreddit is a regular occurrence across the site, with the
moderators playing a central role in managing these boundaries and set-
ting out the parameters for each neo-tribal subreddit.
conclusIon
When considered together, these four case studies demonstrate how red-
dit operates as a collection of digitally mediated neo-tribes. The kind of
affective belongings mediated on reddit do not neatly align with the site
as a self-proclaimed ‘community’, especially when framed through the
denitions suggested by Turkle (2011) and Summit-Gil (2017), but are
much more reminiscent of Maffesoli’s (1996) conceptualisation of neo-
tribalism that has been built upon over the past several decades (Bennett
1999, 2005; Robards and Bennett 2011; Kriwoken and Hardy 2017).
From oating experiences of membership, and the ephemeral nature of
connections (that can also crystallise over time), through to the ritualised
and highly symbolic nature of interactions that take place on these subred-
dits, reddit can be mapped out as a set of neo-tribes. Reddit is far from a
unied community, with perspectives and ideologies in many subreddits
being diametrically opposed. Reddit covers the full gamut of human inter-
ests, experiences, and practices, and neo-tribalism offers a conceptual lens
through which to read them.
Each of the four subreddits I selected for analysis also align neatly with
Maffesoli’s (1996, p.75) imagining of ‘interlocking objects; like a nest of
Russian dolls, the large object-mass conceals smaller object-groups which
are diffracted to innity’. For instance, r/WoW can be read as subject to a
wider gaming tribe like r/gaming (16.5 million subscribers), and beneath
r/WoW are a range of sub-tribes like r/woweconomy (34,053 subscrib-
ers) that is centred on trading and the auction house economy of the game
or r/transmogrication (24,611 subscribers) where players share screen-
shots of their in-game characters’ appearances, armour, and fashion. These
‘interlocking’ subreddits link to each other, share overlapping member-
ships, and evidence a complexity in belonging that is made starkly visible
B. ROBARDS
203
through social media like reddit; cascading Russian dolls of tribalism and
afnity, marked out through digital architecture.
What is unique about digitally mediated neo-tribes is that their media-
tion renders them visible and tangible in ways that other neo-tribes—con-
ducted in mostly physical spaces—are not. That many subscribers and
consumers of individual subreddits do not post, comment, or even vote on
content, points to oating experiences of participation and thus presum-
ably oating afnities and feelings of membership, revealing the ‘listener’
in Crawford’s (2009) words, who perhaps sits at the margins of these neo-
tribal groupings and looks in. Considerable research yet needs to be done
on the oating experiences of membership on reddit, and the role of mod-
erators in marking out and maintaining subreddits. Matias (2015) has
done some pioneering work on how reddit moderators mobilised a ‘sub-
reddit blackout’ to protest the way in which administrators of the site
made changes without consulting the unpaid volunteer moderators that
arguably do the heavy lifting in managing individual subreddits them-
selves, which work as the core of the site. This is just the tip of the iceberg
of labour and membership on reddit.
In this chapter I have sought to advance the application of the neo-
tribal lens by examining, I would argue, one of the most interesting and
contested social media platforms in operation today. The rules and posting
conventions that govern each subreddit, along with oating experiences of
membership, the temporal and place-based experience of afnity, and the
ritualised nature of reddit use all align with Maffesoli’s conceptualisation
of neo-tribalism, and the ways in which this concept has been developed
over the past two decades. Reddit will continue to be an important site of
discourse in the future, and reveals to us a complex web of afnities and
connections that resonate with a neo-tribal reading of contemporary expe-
riences of belonging.
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B. ROBARDS
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Globalization has transformed local contexts through increasing intercultural and intergroup contact across geographical distance. Such transformations have disrupted the traditional sociocultural order and made people’s sense of self and belonging more uncertain and negotiable. In contemporary societies, people are reacting to the growing sociocultural uncertainty and diversity, as well as to new cultural interactions and negotiations. While such reactions to globalization can initiate positive outcomes such as creativity and global unification, they can also challenge the individual’s sense of self and belonging. That is, accelerating intercultural and intergroup contact can cause exclusionary reactions to globalization in various sociocultural contexts. Moreover, the globalized disruption of the existing social hierarchy and belief system can lead to political polarization and intergroup conflict, motivating extremism as a defensive reaction to preserve one’s religious, cultural, and ethnic purity. Most defensive reactions to globalization are characterized by an essentialist understanding of a prescriptive ideal life and society. Such perceptions are evolving around an ethnic-centered point of view, among both majority and minority groups, and driven by experiences of globalization-based fear and contextual insecurity. Overall, globalization can initiate radicalized defensive reactions to perceived threats to one’s privileges as well as to ethnic, religious, and cultural identity.
... On the other hand, social media also promotes neo-tribalism (Robards, 2018), as people can retreat into online communities of affinity groups-be they ethnic, media, ideological and otherwise like-minded folk-that are relatively siloed from each other. While rising inequality provides a fertile ground for fostering materialism and the expression of social status through consumption, this disparity will also sow the seeds of discontent (antiglobalization, and repelling GCC). ...
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The character and underlying causes of global consumer culture (GCC), and the effects of globalization on self-concept and cultural identity have been the subject of much debate. After recapping the literature on globalization, I review social psychology theories that are pertinent for determining how self-concept and cultural identity are fashioned by globalization. I elaborate on the nature, acquisition and evolution of GCC, and then consider the circumstances that nurture or hinder the preservation, amalgamation and vacillation of particular cultural identities. These include examining the roles played by formal institutions, informal movements, geopolitical events and crises and meta-trends, and appraising how these separately and jointly foster pro-global and anti-global sentiments. Implications for theory, practice and policy are discussed.
Chapter
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