I’ve spent the last three years conducting ethnographic work on reddit culture. If you aren’t that familiar with the site, think of it as a crowdsourced version of the web at large. Reddit.com is notorious for its veneration of cats, rampant misogyny, charitable works, and mob justice. Because anyone can show up and create a subreddit, it’s a place for people with niche interests to commune over their love of drinking beer in the shower (/r/showerbeer) or penmanship (/r/penmanshipporn) or the letter G (/r/ggggg). Spend enough time on the site and you’ll realize that while their different interests may separate them, redditors share an almost singular fixation on demonstrating their knowledge about obscure or mundane topics. They are often vocal debaters, especially when it comes to topics that reflect their geek pedigree.
The front page of reddit features material community members have upvoted, because it’s interesting, amusing, disturbing, enlightening, outrageous or entertaining. The voting system is kind of like a high school popularity contest – only one run by geeks. Each submission to the site is awarded “karma” or a score based on the total number of upvotes (thumbs-up) minus the number of downvotes (thumbs-down) with some fuzzing involved to discourage scammers and those who would game the system. In terms of determining visibility of a given comment or submission, newer submissions/postings will rank higher than older ones, and the first ten votes on a given submission are weighted the same as the next one hundred (Salihefendic, 2010). In addition, material that has received mostly upvotes will be ranked more highly than material which has received a mixed version of upvotes and downvotes. As other researchers have shown, a kind of power-law dynamic takes over, where material that is already upvoted receives more upvotes over time because it is more visible (higher up) on the page.
It’s important to note that reddit is a pseudo-anonymous space – and this shapes many of the interactions on the site’s subreddits. Individuals may feel more free to disclose sensitive information about their private lives on /r/sex, for example, because there is no “real name” policy (Hogan, 2013). But because it’s a pseudo-anonymous platform, and not a fully anonymous one, accounts can gain or lose reputation over time. Certain users become anointed with a kind of reddit celebrity – with their contributions garnering lots of karma and attention from the community. Some of these popular accounts playfully engage with the reddit community. These “novelty accounts” often feature usernames that describe a bit about the account’s purpose (like “AWildSketchAppears,” or “ShittyWatercolour,” both of which post images in lieu of written comments). Others are known for their unique expertise in a particular area, such as “EditingandLayout,” a redditor who regularly contributes high-quality GIFs of scenes from movies and television.
Such was the case with Unidan – who until recently was one reddit’s most popular celebrities. Unidan’s expertise was all things biology. His trademark opener “Biologist here” transitioned over time to “Unidan here” after the “excited biologist” became a regular feature in the site’s various subreddits (Fenn, 2013). Redditors often gifted his comments with Reddit Gold, submitted them to /r/bestof (a subreddit dedicated to showcasing the best of reddit comments), and mentioned him in various threads whenever a science-related question was raised. Unidan’s fame even spawned an Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) segment where he answered questions about his research. In his non-reddit life, Unidan was better known as Ben Eisenkop, a doctoral candidate in biology at Binghamton University, and was even considered enough of a personality to have his own Wikipedia entry.
Unidan would be what scholars term a micro-celebrity (Marwick & boyd, 2011; Senft, 2013). As Alice Marwick and danah boyd (Marwick & boyd, 2011) argue, “Micro-celebrity can be understood as a mindset and set of practices in which audience is viewed as a fan base; popularity is maintained through ongoing fan management; and self-presentation is carefully constructed to be consumed by others” (p. 140). Unidan’s fame was mostly limited to reddit – but as his popularity grew, he performed celebrity in much the same way as other more notable celebrities might. Unidan would show up in threads when he was summoned, offering information about a bird someone posted to /r/pics or answering questions in /r/askreddit, all while collecting upvotes (karma) from redditors. He even had a fan club (/r/UnidanFans) and a Know Your Meme entry (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/people/unidan). And he had received job offers and speaking gigs because of his fame. His popularity can be at least partially attributed to the fact that he represented a kind of geek masculinity that reddit reveres: deep interest all things STEM, a desire to share obscure and niche knowledge, and playfulness (Coleman, 2013; Kendall, 2002; Taylor, 2012).
While mostly known for his jovial discourse, in July 2014 Unidan got into an argument on /r/AdviceAnimals (a subreddit dedicated to sharing image macros). In response to an image macro that commented on how easily reddit was distracted by cute animals like crows asking for water, when there were real problems with the world, Unidan mentioned that the “crow” in question was not actually a crow but a “jackdaw.” Another redditor suggested that it did not really matter, as jackdaws were crows (or a kind of crow). Unidan offered a lengthy response:
Here’s the thing. You said a “jackdaw is a crow.”
Is it in the same family? Yes. No one’s arguing that.
As someone who is a scientist who studies crows, I am telling you, specifically, in science, no one calls jackdaws crows. If you want to be “specific” like you said, then you shouldn’t either. They’re not the same thing.
If you’re saying “crow family” you’re referring to the taxonomic grouping of Corvidae, which includes things from nutcrackers to blue jays to ravens. So your reasoning for calling a jackdaw a crow is because random people “call the black ones crows?” Let’s get grackles and blackbirds in there, then, too.
It’s okay to just admit you’re wrong, you know? (crew2852, 2014)
Besides offering the denizens of /r/subredditdrama a heaping helping of drama popcorn, Unidan’s copypasta and subsequent responses suggested a kind of public meltdown in which he vigorously defended the jackdaw from being described as a mere crow. Soon after Unidan was shadowbanned from the site, which meant that his comments and postings would no longer appear (nor would his account page be accessible) to anyone but him. According to administrators, shadowbans are only employed when users break one of reddit’s rules, most often related to spamming the site, doxxing others, or manipulating votes. Many redditors presumed that Unidan’s ban was due to vote brigading, in that he commented and voted in both the /r/subredditdrama posting that chronicled the event and the original posting in /r/AdviceAnimals (everyotherredditor, 2014). However, one of reddit’s community managers clarified that Unidan’s ban was actually issued for vote manipulation. The prolific biologist had created multiple puppet accounts to downvote comments by those with whom he disagreed and upvote his own new submissions. All this was an effort to accrue more karma by “gaming” reddit’s algorithm and thus make his posts more visible to other redditors.
Unidan later responded from a new account (UnidanX) with his characteristic pluck to confirm that he had, in fact, broken one of reddit’s cardinal rules:
Unidan here! Completely true, mainly used to give my submissions a small boost (I had five “vote alts”) when things were in the new list, or to vote on stuff when I guess I got too hot-headed. It was a really stupid move on my part, and I feel pretty bad about it, especially because it’s entirely unnecessary. Completely understandable catch on the side of the admins, so good work for them! I’ve already deleted the accounts and I won’t be doing that again, obviously. I always knew I’d go down in a hail of crows, but who knew it’d be on the internet? (Deimorz, 2014)
Redditors were understandably displeased by the reveal that one of their favorite celebrities had been upvoting his own posts, especially as there was really no need. Unidan was a karma machine. His posts always drew attention, away even from more experienced biologists on the site. As one /r/subredditdrama contributor noted, the fandom around Unidan was tiring:
…the worst was when we started to get people posting in AskScience requesting only answers from Unidan. god help us. There’s hundreds of experienced PhDs in AskScience and Unidan’s still just a grad student and people were actually asking him to answer, and telling people who actually knew more about the topic to shut up! (everyotherredditor, 2014)
Responses to Unidan’s machinations were mixed. The clear majority was displeased. Contributions on reddit made through his new account were downvoted, as it seemed he’d burned through the goodwill of the reddit community. At the same time, his original statement about the affair (listed above) was awarded Reddit Gold eight times, suggesting that some stalwart Unidan fans would stand by their celebrity regardless of his misdeeds.
Why do I mention The Unidan Affair? Well, I believe it offers several important takeaways for cultural scholars of the web. First, it offers demonstration intoxicating and often nepotistic nature of micro-celebrity in spaces like reddit. While Unidan was the only one who was banned for manipulating votes, it is probable that many of his fans were also guilty of a kind of vote manipulation. By automatically granting Unidan’s comments and submissions more attention simply because he was Unidan, the reddit community often overlooked the contributions of individuals who were more qualified to contribute. It’s likely too, that redditors often came to Unidan’s defense whenever he was embroiled in some sort of argument just because he was Unidan.
Second and relatedly, it reaffirms the power that algorithms have in shaping community discourse in spaces like reddit. Algorithms are “stabilizers of trust” that suggest a kind of automated objectivity (Gillespie, 2014, p. 179). But they are also designed objects and as such have politics embedded in them. By making a choice to weight more heavily the first ten votes over the next 100 and so on, reddit’s algorithm privileges certain members’ votes over others (i.e. those who hang out in the /new queue to upvote/downvote new material vs. those that don’t). Unidan’s vote manipulation is an emblematic example of how algorithms become entangled with user practice, changing, “how users reshape their practices to suit the algorithms they depend on, and how they can turn algorithms into terrains for political contest” (Gillespie, 2014, p. 168).
Third, this event underscores the importance of unpacking the multitude of ways in which gender, technology, and cultures intersect. In disclosing his vote manipulation, Unidan was met with downvotes, a bit of negative press, and probably a number of angry private messages. However, he was not doxxed, nor did he receive death and rape threats, nor did he have to leave his home because he feared possible violent retribution for his actions. Neither Zoe Quinn nor Anita Sarkeesian have been so lucky. Both have been subjected to intense and violent harassment in the last few weeks for simply being women involved in gaming culture – and much of the harassment has been, if not outright condoned, then at least tolerated by the reddit community. Even Unidan himself has been complicit in perpetuating reddit’s often-misogynistic view of women. For this year’s April Fool’s Day he posted an album of nude images of a woman to one of reddit’s NSFW subreddits suggesting that they were pictures of the real Unidan (terminalfilth, 2014). Given that women who post on reddit are frequently met with comments about their appearance, receive harassing private messages, and are regularly asked if they have posted to /r/gonewild, the tasteless joke also reinvoked the idea that reddit was (or should be) a place for cisgendered straight men where women are objects of sexualized desire rather than valid members of the community.
It’s not hard to imagine that the reddit’s response to Unidan’s reveal would have been different if he were a woman or person of color. He could afford to offer a half-hearted, “cheers to the admins,” sorry-not-sorry apology and even continue to contribute to the community as UnidanX (at least until he figured out reddit was still annoyed and was unlikely to show him with karma) with little fear. This is not to suggest that had he been the target of doxxing or harassment for his actions it would have been deserved; instead, I mention this because the current state of geek masculinity which dominates many online cultures (reddit included) continues to marginalize, intimidate, and silence women, sexual minorities, people of color, and their allies. Unidan will never be accused of not being a “real” redditor, even if he did egregiously manipulate reddit’s affections. Thus, it is unlikely that he would have been the target of such a campaign. Could we say the same had he been a woman? By acknowledging the complex (and unstated) ways in which algorithmic logic often intersects with and reflects a very particular set of cultural politics, instead of simply viewing them as neutral tools, we can begin to untangle the ways that dominant voices remain privileged in these spaces – and ensure that our technologies are not simply reinscribing the same old systems of difference.
1. My apologies to George R.R. Martin.
2. Redditors can change the way a page sorts comments or postings, to highlight more controversial material or that which is newest.
3. In a posting entitled, “Reddit helps me focus on the important things…” a redditor posted an image macro featuring Dory from the movie Finding Nemo. The macro’s text read, “Wow, Qatar is using human slavery to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup/Hey look! That crow is asking for water!”
4. If you do a search for Unidan on Google, the first page of links includes a number of articles detailing his ban from reddit. If you search for “jackdaw,” the second listing links to /r/subredditdrama’s posting about Unidan’s ban.
Coleman, E. G. (2013). Coding freedom: The ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
crew2852. (2014, July 28). Reddit helps me focus on the important things... [Comment]. Retrieved August 30, 2014, from here.
Deimorz. (2014, July 30). How reddit works [Comment]. Retrieved August 30, 2014, from here.
everyotherredditor. (2014, July 30). Unidan Shadowbanned after Jackdaw Kerflufle. Retrieved August 30, 2014, from here.
Fenn, M. (2013, November 14). This ecologist and amateur comic is the most popular man on Reddit. The Daily Dot. Retrieved August 20, 2014, from here.
Gillespie, T. (2014). The Relevance of Algorithms. In T. Gillespie, P. J. Boczkowski & K. A. Foot (Eds.), Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materality, and Society (pp. 167-194). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Hogan, B. (2013). Pseudonyms and the Rise of the Real-Name Web. In J. Hartley, J. Burgess & A. Bruns (Eds.), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (pp. 290-308): Wiley-Blackwell.
Kendall, L. (2002). Hanging out in the virtual pub: Masculinities and relationships online. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Marwick, A., & boyd, d. (2011). To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 17(2), 129-158.
Salihefendic, A. (2010, November 23). How Reddit ranking algorithms work. Retrieved July 5, 2014, from here.
Senft, T. M. (2013). Micro-celebrity and the Branded Self. In J. Hartley, J. Burgess & A. Bruns (Eds.), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (pp. 346-354): Wiley-Blackwell.
Taylor, T. L. (2012). Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
terminalfilth. (2014, April 2). Unidan Gonewild Post. Retrieved August 30, 2014, from here.