Diving into Reddit: authority networks in history forums

by Daniela Linkevicius de Andrade and Demival Vasques Filho

Writing history in the 21st century means considering the digital space as a significant space for the production of historical knowledge, especially since dichotomies such as “offline” and “online” fail to do justice to how “real” and “digital” intertwine. These elements, currently approached as complementary, imply that one of the challenges that historians now face is understanding how the digital is constituted as part of our experience, playing a great influence in the way we interpret and perceive the world. If the digital modify every aspect of our lives, it is plausible to ask what this would mean for the historical field, especially regarding standards of authority, which are the pillars of the discipline. For this purpose, our objective in this project is to identify and analyze what types of authority networks we can find in Reddit history forums.

Created in 2005 by two young US-Americans, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, and acquired in 2006 by the media company Condé Nast, Reddit has become one of the largest digital platforms on the Internet, popular among activity-focused communities. The initial idea of the website was to act as social news and link-sharing platform. This means that users could submit and comment on the content created by Redditors, creating discussions through forums, so that the site could gather and classify diverse types of content collected from the web. As an effect, it would promote the best (and worst) of the web through its voting process. This way, the users, not the site’s creators, would determine what is new and interesting.

From 2008 onward, the platform made it possible for its volunteer users to create and moderate subreddits – smaller, independent forums dedicated to a specific topic. These subreddits host discussions on the chosen topic (History, for example), but each one has its own rules, created by the team of moderators, who determine what users can discuss and how they should behave in these discussions. Thus, by subscribing to a subreddit of choice, Redditors can participate in various discussions, asking and answering questions, commenting on a certain topic, or engaging in a threaded conversation.

One fascinating thing about this Reddit universe is the plurality of proposals aimed at discussing the same field of history. We can find serious forums fostering academic-like discussions, but also others less rigid, sometimes even comical. Often, these subreddits contain the same registered users, and here one might ask: how can a user be considered an authority when discussing history?

In this regard, we understand authority as an essential element for the organization of life in the digital space. Authority is a social and historical concept that has undergone several interpretations over the centuries, and here we build upon the idea it rises from the mutual recognition by the parties in a relationship – one party has an advantageous position and uses it to guide discipline, and change the way the other party acts, through reference to a higher standard. Thus, we define authority as a dissymmetry accepted by users on the network, without the need for coercion.

Some authors have related authority directly to the command/obedience relation, but this project so far has been showing us that the main ingredient of authority in digital space is dialogue. The individuals who are considered “authorities” frequently act in the forum –not just any kind of action, but action based on conversation. A user who posts something on the forum and does not receive a response cannot be considered an authority in that community, regardless of her academic credentials as a historian. She will not engage in a conversation, have the possibility of being recognized by her peers as an expert, and, consequently, will not have her authority granted. Therefore, discussion forums can be a fascinating historical source to analyze authority in the digital space as its structure is thread-based, that is, dialogue-based.

Threads can be thought of as the backbones of forums. They consist of asynchronous sequences of messages that are related to each other. That is, a conversation between users that takes place asynchronously. Usually, a user starts the conversation by submitting a post that will be called Original Post (OP) or Thread Starter. Then other users can respond and comment on this submission. This structure, in which several users communicate with each other in the same thread is called “fully threaded”, and visually resembles a tree, where each larger branch may contain several smaller branches, each containing a conversation that derived from the Original Post.

Thus, we intend to offer a systematic framework for understanding authority standards established in three Reddit history forums: r/history; r/AskHistorians, and r/badhistory. We will create networks through empirical information from the dialogues established in these forums between 2008 and 2020. The dataset consists of metadata from the submissions and comments of these subreddits extracted from two Reddit APIs: the main API, known as PRAW (The Python Reddit API Wrapper), and the PSAW (Pyhton Pushshift.io API Wrapper) developed by volunteer moderators from Reddit itself. In both, the information is stored in JSON format. The table below presents a summary of the variables present in a comment’s metadata:

{
"author":"[...]",
"author_created_utc":1222750735,
"author_flair_css_class":null,
"author_flair_text":null,
"author_fullname":"[...]",
"body":"[...]",
"controversiality":0,
"created_utc":1314593142,
"distinguished":null,
"gilded":0,
"id":"[...]",
"link_id":"t3_[...]",
"nest_level":1,
"parent_id":"t3_[...]",
"reply_delay":5140,
"retrieved_on":1427532096,
"score":5,
"score_hidden":false,
"subreddit":"AskHistorians",
"subreddit_id":"t5_[...]"
}

From that, we will construct weighted directed networks, in which the nodes represent the forums’ users, and the directed links are the dialogues established between two users, such that the link points to the user receiving a comment/answer. The link weight indicates the number of interactions (in each direction) between the pair of users.

It is important to point out that we will analyze only discussions (i.e., interactions between users who engaged in conversations), unlike submissions without comments. Also, we discard posts from the AutoModerator and deleted accounts, such that they are no longer part of the network. The AutoModerator, a bot that has moderation properties in the communities, is programmed by other users; although it appears in some discussions, its participation is usually not recognized but condoned by other users.

We believe that this analysis will give us some insights, such as: who the central authorities in the network are (e.g., most common comment recipients and senders); how recognition takes place in the community (i.e., what the pattern of recognition established in the hierarchy structured by the forum is), what kinds of user-profiles we can find in these forums; if there are central users in a subreddit that repeat themselves in the others; and, for instance, whether there is a direct correlation between frequency of discussions and variety of users with whom they interact with karma and authority.

In the graphic below, it is possible to look at an example of one of the networks that were built from comments and submissions from users of the subreddit r/AskHistorians in 2011. It is interesting to note that in this graph we can verify that some of the central users in the network, that is, those who participate in more dialogues in the community, also acted as moderators in the subreddit.

Fig. 1. A weighted directed network of Redditors in the r/AskHistorians subrredit in 2011. Node size is proportional to its out-degree, i.e., the number of unique other Redditors to which that node has replied to with an answer/comment. Link width is proportional to the number of replies in that direction, between a pair of nodes.

Regarding the moderator’s agency, so far, the analysis has shown us some interesting results. In r/AskHistorians, between 2011 and 2020, out of the ten users with the largest out-neighborhood (i.e., users providing comments to the largest number of unique other users), six still act as moderators in the community (and at least two others were moderators in the previous years). We also see six current moderators within the ten users with the largest in-neighborhood (i.e., users receiving comments from the largest sets of other users).

From this, we can assume that moderators can be users who occupy higher positions in the community hierarchy and are recognized as authorities. Note, at this point, that moderators, besides being the most active users, are also the ones who determine the rules of each subreddit, responsible, therefore, for managing the everyday issues of the communities. Thus, decisions made by these actors can influence the social structure of the forums, to the extent that their position of authority affects what is seen, what is valued, and what is said in the dialogs.

In the end, we hope to indicate whether it is possible to state that there is not only one way to authorize discourses about the past on the web, but several. This can lead to a pluralization of authorities that work through the constant negotiation between tradition, innovation, and adaptation. In a history forum, this means that formal training as a historian (with a university degree, for example) is not necessarily the most important standard for recognition of a user as an authority in the community.

Cite this article as: Daniela Linkevicius de Andrade and Demival Vasques Filho, “Diving into Reddit: authority networks in history forums”, in Digital Humanities Lab, 12/11/2021, https://dhlab.hypotheses.org/?p=2297.

 


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