Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reddit, Online Hubs, and Street Gangs

Yes, yes, sensational title. Today's thesis is completely crazy and unlikely to actually be correct. But hey, I thought it might be interesting. Of course, this post's written mainly from an American perspective.

Reddit has a multifaceted reputation. As one of the most popular websites on the Internet, the online hub has earned a name for itself as a place where you can find funny pictures, personal insights from celebrities, and atheists. Lots of atheists. As we've also seen, however, it has its seedy underbelly, harboring MRAs, racists, and literal pedophiles.

The things that lurk behind that friendly gaze...

We can praise or condemn the site as much as we want. Reddit's existence, for better or for worse, has overtaken the role of the traditional internet forum. Sure, social media has played a role in the decline of online forums in general, but Reddit is easily the most forum-like of the big sites today. Reddit's features make a lot of smaller forums redundant, and over time, forums have been dying out.

What can we learn from this? Let's go way out into left field and talk about street gangs.

If you're like me and grew up in affluent white American suburbia, gangs are probably first presented to you through the romanticized lens of film and television. As one wises up, the illegal and violent activities associated with gangs make them seem more like a threatening "other". Anyone who's watched Gangland can tell you that the threatening image is certainly more accurate than the romanticized one, but gangs require being aware of some nuances in order to be better understood.

Gangs often start out as neighborhood affairs, typically in poorer areas with people that do not find adequate representation in mainstream society. Ethnic identity is also a factor, but underrepresented minorities, by the fact that 'underrepresented' is in their very category name, fit into this generalization. Majority ethnic groups form gangs as well, but their members often fear losing their representation in society. Prison gangs, though technically outside of the scope of our discussion, also fit into the framework of being motivated by greater societal disenfranchisement, by virtue of being in prison.

When whole regions of the population are disenfranchised (or perceive themselves to be disenfranchised), they will typically find ways to compensate for it. When the system is not offering a path of adequate subsistence to them, they will seek their own path outside of the system. The result is a community-focused group that is willing to bypass legality for the sake of those that they represent. They carve out their own power structures and evolve into massive functional entities, complete with internal politics and economic demands.

Every now and then, I'll see someone online proudly showing their affiliation with one of these organizations - because, yes, gangs definitely use the Internet. It throws me off at first, because I can't imagine why anyone would want to broadcast that kind of connection.  But then I think that these groups mean something different to them than they do to me, a privileged outsider.

In the absence of benefits from greater American society, they turn inward towards their own societies. Where our governmental powers fail, they make their own governments.


Some gangs are more easily forgotten than others.

My intention, of course, is not to romanticize gangs - gang violence is a real and awful threat to many communities. I just want to make the connection clear between the existence of gangs and the shortcomings of our system. It is useful to think of gangs as micro-governments, existing in regions within our own official government's domain. In a way, gangs are to the disenfranchised as libertarianism is to entitled Americans. It's just that entitled Americans aren't particularly motivated to do anything more than be whiny on the Internet.

Mainstream society and our official government have a stake in keeping these gangs in check. Since gangs emerge in regions with poor social services, the best way to do that would be to render gangs redundant through better services.

So where would we be able to see such a strategy in action? For that, let's turn back online.

We've seen online hubs in action before - subcultures with their own customs, their own leaders, and even their own online wars. The devoted members of online hubs get something out of their online hangout that had previously gone unfulfilled - identity, community, a perceived sense of power, or whatever else. For a long time, Internet forums and bulletin boards were the arenas for insular communities and online hubs to develop. But as we've mentioned in the beginning of this post, the advent of social networking - and, most pressingly, Reddit - has come along with the waning of forum use.

Reddit's online infrastructure is instrumental to its success. The website allows for the use of pseudonyms, much like traditional online forums. Having an online handle keeps your personal identity private, but still identifies you as a distinct contributor.  This allows you to accumulate a reputation online among your peers. Reddit's upvote/downvote system is a direct quantitative measure of your reputation as an individual. While similar systems exist on other forums (often in the form of "karma"), the upvote system also affects what gets globally displayed on the website. Upvoted, crowd-approved content floats to the top, while downvoted, crowd-rejected content sinks to the bottom.

And of course, to allow for more controllable spaces for niche interests, the subreddit system allows anyone to make their own unique bulletin board on the website. Each subreddit is independently regulated, and can be themed so that the subreddit can pertain to niche content. This subverts the issue of talking about less popular interests on boards with larger populations, where your content might otherwise be overlooked in favor for some cat pictures.

Now, there are certainly problems with Reddit's infrastructure - mainly, the lack of global regulation allows for subpar content on the website itself. Despite this issue, the website administration certainly offers enough support and features to the website to keep people accommodated. This isn't a question of Reddit being a good service. It's just a matter of Reddit being a better service than other options.

And ultimately, it is Reddit's capacity to accommodate that makes it able to render most forums redundant. Although the website probably did not set out to become a great unifier of online circles, it's certainly done a good job in amassing nearly every type of community there is to find (though, funnily enough, you won't find too many gang members on Reddit).
Your so-called front page of the Internet.

So what can governments do to become great unifiers? Can our society do to gangs what Reddit could do to online forums?

Let's quickly go over why the online medium would make things easier for Reddit to do what governments could not. For one thing, the online environment is a lot more homogeneous than the gang environment. People who go on Reddit are most likely to be white and affluent. Gangs generally have socioeconomic disenfranchisement in common, but are more racially and culturally heterogeneous. Do we choose to believe that socioeconomic disenfranchisement is the more important factor than cultural differences? I'm willing to choose 'yes' - though that's certainly a choice that some people could disagree with.

Another issue is that the Internet is a bubble where scarcity doesn't really exist. It's easy for Reddit to adapt to the online environment, because implementing new features is cheap and has no real impact on physical resources. For real political entities to institute new services, there needs to be investment of capital, resources, and manpower. This assumes that getting the new services passed through legislature goes smoothly, which is a massive assumption.

All that said, let's explore legal analogs to Reddit's digital infrastructure in order to critique our current system.

The pseudonym and reputation system: Perhaps this is the farthest removed concept from the real world. Having a pseudonym online allows you to separate your real identity - the one that you did not choose - from your online identity. The pseudonym is a fresh start, allowing you to define yourself in however way you'd like online.

Seeing as identity is a very strong component of gang culture, it would be very useful to offer a path to a new identity. Real-life pseudonyms - perhaps in the form of a more sophisticated witness protection program - would be a great way to offer the benefits of the online pseudonym system in a real life setting (though, obviously such pseudonyms would take the form of a new first and last name). Such programs are likely to already exist, but a more targeted program towards disenfranchised individuals wanting to escape the gang lifestyle may be a very lucrative option for those looking to integrate into mainstream society.

The upvote/downvote system: This voting system allows for a measure of reputation to your pseudonym. It also determines which content is most visible to the community. The latter function, when translated to the real world, seems to be most tied to market dynamics and concepts of meritocracy and democracy. On the individual level, we likely would not need to monitor the equivalents of 'upvotes', but 'downvotes' would be important. To address potential abuses of the pseudonym pathway, there can be different weight put on repeated crimes when under a pseudonym.

The subreddit system: This allows members of niche groups to form "safe spaces" that won't be influenced by the opinion of the majority. Even under a pseudonym, we can't expect that a disenfranchised individual will suddenly be able to perfectly integrate into society. Repeated crimes under a pseudonym may be a sign of abusing the pseudonym pathway, but it may also be a consequence of having further trouble escaping disenfranchisement. We certainly wouldn't want to set people up to fail, so intermediary social programs with safety nets, with special legal stipulations, may provide the necessary "safe spaces" to ease the process of participating in mainstream society.

Global rule domain: Reddit offers all of these services as infrastructure. They are top-down services, managed by the website administration. Likewise, social programs in integrating gang members into greater society must come from our government. There needs to be global backing to these programs, and federal power is as "global" as one can get.

...Wait, did I just waste everyone's time?

I'm writing all this out, and I'm thinking that I haven't really provided any earth-shattering insight on gang culture. Smarter people have been thinking on this for longer than I have taken to write this blog post. As I said earlier, my background is in affluent white American suburbia - my life experiences do not leave me properly invested to address this subject. I don't even have a clue as to what legal infrastructure already exists that achieve the things that I'm suggesting. I might even be proposing something that already exists.

But maybe there's something interesting in the concept of what I am suggesting here. Maybe we should be able to use online observations to solve offline problems. With the amount of information about ourselves online, it seems to make sense that we'd be able to do something like this with it. How insightful could such approaches really be? Well, it depends on the data we have.

Reddit is interesting on multiple levels. Maybe something about its greater role in the online network is useful in guiding discussion about policy.

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