A 26-year-old Finnish woman, Salla Koivu, has taken hanging out on Reddit to a whole new level of dedication. And in the process gained her Master’s degree. Salla, a Helsinki native and a graduate from Aalto University School of Business decided the best way to complete her thesis on Why do people share online? was to hang out on Reddit for an entire year. Eager to find our more about this genius plan to legitimately mess around on the internet, we hooked up with her to find out what inspired her to go undercover and what she discovered about one of our all time favourite websites.
Thanks for joining us, Salla. We’re very jealous of your year “studying”. Our first question is out of the tons of online communities out there, why did you decide to focus on Reddit for your thesis?
To be honest, I didn’t even consider other communities. For me, Reddit is the number one. I started redditing in I think 2008 or 2009 when my then-boyfriend showed me the site. Nowadays, I hang out there much more than he does. I couldn’t help but to be fascinated by how Hitler jokes, cat gifs and political conversation all live side by side on the front page.
I know that for many, Reddit is just a pastime, but for me it’s also a part of what made me who I am. I hung out on the site pretty much all my early adulthood, so Reddit actually molded my values and beliefs. I wouldn’t be skeptical of even mundane things, I wouldn’t have know not to take any ambien – Reddit even encouraged me to shift to open atheism. And imagine all the cute r/aww posts I would’ve missed!
Reddit is a very easy place to hang out on. What was your methodology and how easy was it to stay focused on it? How much time did you spend there daily?
My methodology was something called netnography. Netnography is basically a form of ethnography. Ethnography is a branch of anthropological research and it means studying people and culture by taking part of the said culture. One of my favorite ethnographies is actually on Harley Davidson bikers. Netnography is like the nerdy and boring cousin of ethnography – instead of hanging out with African tribes in real life I hung out with Redditors online. I studied Reddit actively for a period of one year. The first half of that year I spent a few hours a day on Reddit. After that, I was more focused on writing.
Reddit has always been my go-to procrastination site: the place where I was when I was supposed to study. Now I was allowed to hang out on the site as much as I wanted to! I thought it would be really cool – what could possibly be an easier way to conduct a thesis? Well, surprisingly things didn’t turn out to be so easy. As soon as Reddit became a chore, I somehow managed to stop enjoying the site altogether. Instead of browsing what I wanted, I was supposed to analyze my experience, save interesting content and not to get strayed to irrelevant pun threads – needless to say I did get strayed to irrelevant pun threads all the time.
To be honest, I was really happy when I was done with my thesis and could actually start to enjoy the site again.
What did you expect to discover and how did your conclusions differ?
I didn’t expect things to get so deep. Reddit is mostly about entertainment: funny memes, cute videos and mildly interesting coincidences, you know the drill. Still, I found countless of people being irrationally angry: faking cancer for karma points – or getting some much-needed courage: for example for leaving an abusive relationship. I was touched and angered by posts more than my fair share as well. One of the most touching posts on Reddit is called, “Today you, tomorrow me” Please do read it, it’s awesome!
What were the three most surprising things you discovered about Reddit?
1. Karma DOES matter
Karma’s the number of upvotes minus downvotes your username on Reddit has. It’s basically useless Internet points. You can’t trade karma for anything, nobody else on Reddit is really not interested in your points, and nobody in your real life even knows you have them. Still, we are deeply social creatures and most of us crave for acceptance.
Many Redditors reported pondering endlessly on what they dare to post scared of critique and downvotes. And after posting, it is not uncommon to be super excited and scared of the reaction of others. And good forsake if you make a typo…
2. You are not alone
Do you think you are the only person to shave off their eyebrows while on Ambien? You are not. You think you are the only person who enjoys seeing photoshopped pictures of birds with human arms? You are not. You think you are the only baker who secretly sells cakes made of Pillsbury cake mix? Fear not, you’re not alone.
Reddit is a community where truly anyone can find their niche!
3. Reddit can save your life – or at least make it better
For some Redditors, Reddit is truly a place for emotional relief, support and confessions on things they cannot tell to anyone else. r/atheism is a safe haven for many atheists in living in the Bible Belt, r/raisedbynarcissists is an awesome, albeit depressing, support group for people with abusive parents. r/loseit has encouraged countless Redditors to lose some weight.
For me, one of the most powerful reads was the thread “Throwaway time! What’s your secret that could literally ruin your life if it came out?” The thread details dark and funny stories of secrets Redditors literally haven’t shared with anyone. One of the most awesome stories is by a guy who allegedly secretly read a friend’s diary to make her like him. That friend became his wife.
For some, this thread has actually offered significant support to get through rough times. For example, the ex-Police/Fire/911 Dispatcher /u/cuntrocket, with PTSD says on his post:
“For those of you asking how I am, or giving me encouragement via the PMs, a sincere “thank you”. There are days where I log into this account, see an orangered and use the wishes inside as my secret fuel to get through a tough day. ”
Finally, how has your opinion changed about Reddit, both for better and for worse?
I guess my thesis got me thinking Reddit as a more meaningful place – for better and for worse.
I know Reddit has its faults – it can be quite judgemental and circlejerky. And let’s not forget that time we grasped the pitchforks in r/findthebostombomber and harassed the missing student Sunil Tripathi and his mourning family on completely false premises.
Still, for example r/suicidewatch can do a tremendous amount of good for people in rough situations. That’s Reddit for you. It is as polarized and controversial as humanity is. It is capable of being completely horrible and unexpectedly awesome. For every touching cancer story, there’s a person who fakes one. For every funny joke, there is a person who steals it.
I’m sure you’ll agree Salla gives a fantastic insight into a fantastic online world. But maybe even more importantly, she also gives us a marvellous new excuse, called Reddit research, for messing around online. Needless to say, we’ve just pricked the surface of her overwhelming knowledge, so be sure to check out Ink Tank next week, when we’ll be sharing her top ten favourite subreddits. Trust us when we say you’ll never look at the Internet the same way again. In the meantime, if you have any questions for Salla, let us know down below.