On my emotional attachments to online spaces (mourning Reddit)

As I write this, Reddit might be imploding. Reddit has been planning changes to the availability of their API for the last few months: namely, they will be charging fees of heavy users of the API in order to use it. Reddit’s API has traditionally be very open, to the extent that there has been little to no company-driven regulations with regard to who can use it, what it can be used for, or how many API calls can be made. This has been a boon for researchers (like me), but also for developers who have made (and make money off of) third party Reddit apps using the API, people who have made tools so that moderators can more efficiently moderate their subreddits, tools that allow people with visual and other disabilities to access content, and more. Reddit’s large amount of public user data has also been used to train AI and various other text-based algorithms. As Steve Huffman, Reddit’s cofounder and CEO noted in the New York Times in April, “The Reddit corpus of data is really valuable. But we don’t need to give all of that value to some of the largest companies in the world for free.” Like many other social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, Reddit has noted that the value in their company lies in data generated by its users. There are rumors that Reddit is planning an IPO later this year, and speculation is that Reddit is attempting to take control of its API as a means of having greater control over both revenue (third party apps are largely ad free, and ad revenue accounts for the bulk of Reddit’s total revenue) and greater control over its user-generated data.

Subreddits, the diverse forum-like communities that populate Reddit, are run by volunteer moderators. Most platforms, like the aforementioned Twitter and Facebook, enforce moderation from the top down, employing numerous people and utilizing algorithms of various sorts to assist in the process. Subreddits, on the other hand, are created by users, who form and enforce their own rules within the subreddit. Anyone with an active account can create a subreddit or be a moderator of an existing subreddit. Not only does this user-focused structure contribute to making subreddits, particularly subreddits focused on more niche topics or niche communities, into interesting, vibrant, and supportive communities, it also gives the volunteer moderators of subreddits a disproportionate amount of power on the platform relative to other online spaces.

Right now, moderators across Reddit are using that power to protest. Moderators also have the ability to switch subreddits into private mode, meaning no one who isn’t a moderator can see the contents of the subreddit. When done at a large scale, this can vastly reduce the amount of content on Reddit that is publicly available, which reduces traffic to Reddit’s website and subsequent ad revenue. This technique has been used to good effect in the past to protest the repeal of a law protecting net neutrality in the U.S. in 2017 and the sudden dismissal of an instrumental Reddit employee in 2015, among other examples. At its peak on Tuesday, June 13th, nearly 8500 subreddits, many having millions of subscribers, were set to private, according to the reddark.untone.uk tracker. Some of my favorite subreddits, including r/GirlGamers and r/WitchesVsPatriarchy, are still participating in the protest as I write. For more information and nuance about the protest, I found this article from The Verge to be helpful.

How I use Reddit

All of this hubbub with Reddit has got me thinking about my own relationship to the platform, and where it fits more broadly into my online life. I’ve had a Reddit account for over 10 years, but I’ve only been a regular user for the past 5 years or so – dating back to when my brother (also a long-time Reddit user) recommended Relay for Reddit to me, a third-party mobile app for Android. Prior to that, I flirted with Reddit, finding and engaging in smaller communities for a month or two and then floating off again. Relay has a much more streamlined design than Reddit’s website and made Reddit much easier for me to navigate and interact on. Aside from Relay, the other key tip I got from my brother that really shaped and sharpened my Reddit use was to avoid r/all (the feed that collates “top” posts from all other subreddits) and focus on finding subreddits that really clicked with me. Being able to pull up Reddit anytime on my phone using an interface that didn’t suck and seeing content that I genuinely enjoyed was a gamechanger for me.

Since I discovered how to curate Reddit to suit my own needs, Reddit has been a solid source of funny, entertaining, uplifting content for me. Reddit has been a more reliable source for this need than any other social media platform I’ve ever been part of it in large part because the platform lends itself so well to curation. On Reddit, I’m not following individuals like on Twitter or Instagram, or real-life social connections, like on Facebook. I’m following interests, because that’s what subreddits tend to revolve around. If I want to see fiber-based craft projects based on Nintendo characters and properties, there’s r/NintendoStitch. If I want to be inspired by what women and queer folk are doing to positively affirm their existence in a patriarchal society, r/WitchesVPatriarchy is my go-to. My partner and I have spent many a cozy night sitting on the couch, browsing our phones, and sharing fun things we see on Reddit with one another.

I’ve also discovered, as many others have, how useful Reddit can be when searching for answers to esoteric questions, or when searching for recommendation for things to buy, books to read, places to visit, and more from people who have actually done the buying/reading/visiting/etc. Append the word “Reddit” to any Google search and Google returns a treasure trove of useful information from Reddit’s archives about what people have done or experienced that might be helpful for what I want to know. I’ve also found Reddit to be a useful resource for troubleshooting tech and programming-related issues, up there with StackOverflow.

Reddit isn’t only a space where I go to see funny, uplifting content or to find information about miscellaneous things. I’ve found subreddits that have proven to be excellent learning communities. I learned to cross stitch a couple years ago thanks to r/crossstitch. The subreddit hosts a number of resources on how to get started and where to find good patterns (or make your own). It’s also actively moderated to make it a safe space for people who are learning and people who have been stitching for years alike. Members are warned not to shame other users for using unconventional techniques, or for not understanding basic aspects of the craft. Moderators and users alike work to enforce these rules, making the subreddit an excellent and supportive space to learn and grow with the craft. Posts asking questions and seeking help are welcome and encouraged. It’s also a wonderful place to get new ideas for future projects, as members routinely post projects they’re working on or have recently finished.

I’ve also found Reddit communities which have been extremely helpful in terms of providing emotional and social support for members. Last October, I was told a hysterectomy would be the best way to address ongoing health concerns I’d had for years; I ended up having the surgery in mid-March this year. In the few weeks after the initial talk with my doctor, I found r/hysterectomy, which has proven to be an invaluable resources. Through what users had posted and linked to on the subreddit, I was able to find resources on what the procedure was like, what kinds of questions to ask my doctor, what to expect when recovering, what kinds of foods to eat and things to have around the house to help me recover more smoothly, and more. It also proved to be a helpful place to post when I had questions or worries that wouldn’t go away – there would always be someone (usually many someones) giving advice or simply wishing me well and reminding me that I’d be feeling better soon. The help and support I’ve received through the subreddit motivated me to provide support for others in return.

Communities on Reddit have also had a direct and impactful affect on my own research interests. I entered my current PhD program in 2019 with the goal of studying gender and toxicity in video game communities, a topic that had caught my interest in large part due to reading posts and comments on r/GirlGamers. In the years since, my focus has shifted away from toxicity and towards how women and queer folk make space for themselves in gaming communities. Posts and comments on r/GirlGamers have shown me so many examples of how gender impacts people’s experiences in video games and gaming communities, and also given me many examples for how women and queer folk are fighting back in those spaces and supporting one another in the process. Being a part of r/GirlGamers has also informed how I approach playing games with others and being in online spaces in ways that actively and positively support other players.

The Impact of a Changing Reddit on Me

Many third party mobile apps, including Apollo and RIF (Reddit Is Fun), have already already announced they will be shutting down at the end of June before Reddit’s new API pricing structure kicks in. As one of the smaller third party apps, the developer of Relay is somewhat optimistic that he can continue offering the app, though only if he charges users monthly for the privilege of using what is currently a free app. If Relay goes, or if the cost-to-value ratio is too high for me, I’ll be stuck with the mobile website (which is abjectly terrible, from a usability standpoint) or the first party mobile app, which I haven’t tried but am not expecting to be any better. Or I could constrict my Reddit usage to the desktop, where old.reddit.com is still somewhat usable, though I understand Reddit plans to eventually phase it out in favor of their redesigned – and ad-heavy – primary website.

Part of what makes Reddit’s first party mobile and web offerings so awful from a usability standpoint are the ever present ads. The worst of these for me are Reddit’s own “recommended posts” which show posts from other subreddits I’m not subscribed to in the hope that I’ll deepen my engagement with the platform. I’ve spent years curating the subreddits I belong to so that I won’t be faced with content I don’t want to see – I avoid many of the bigger subs, for example, because of how bro-y and toxic they tend to be. This aspect of Reddit’s website actively works to erode the boundaries I’ve put up for myself that make Reddit a pleasant place for me to be.

In my heart, I’m already saying goodbye to Reddit. Despite the protest, I don’t expect Reddit to change its new policies in any substantial way. I expect many of the communities I love to change, and not for the better, as moderators lose access to tools or lose their faith in Reddit as a system and leave (or get kicked out). Where will the people who have shaped these communities end up, I wonder? Interest-focused Discord servers, perhaps, which would be an option for some community-focused subreddits. I joined a cross stitch-focused Discord server which I found through Reddit that provides much of the same value to me as the subreddit and has allowed me to foster more personal connections with other cross stitchers around the world. The mods of r/GirlGamers also run a Discord server, though I find it much less valuable than the subreddit because my interest in that community is geared more towards following and joining deeper conversations about gender and gaming. Conversations on Discord are much more ephemeral and harder to follow.

Discord also doesn’t provide the same value in terms of searchability or providing valuable resources for members. Some Redditors have spoken of decamping to Lemmy, an open source and federated forum-like system similar to Reddit – Lemmy is to Reddit as Mastodon is to Twitter. Unlike Twitter and Reddit, Mastodon and Lemmy are decentralized, consisting of software and servers run entirely by volunteers. On the one hand, changes will be less likely to be motivated by greed. On the other hand, as Reddit is discovering, running a platform on the backs of volunteers is a shaky proposition at best when it comes to maintaining the stability of the platform. I was not particularly sorry to delete my Twitter account, and so was unwilling to try out Mastodon in an attempt to replace it. However, I’m seriously considering trying out Lemmy, for the sole reason that belonging on Reddit has meant enough to me that I actively want to find similar spaces elsewhere.

What I want – what I think all social media users want – is to find spaces where like-minded people congregate. Spaces where I can learn from others, where I can share my knowledge with others, where I can have conversations (or debates) with others about topics that are important to me. Over the past few years, I’ve found some of these spaces on Reddit. Because I have an attachment to these spaces, I also have an attachment to Reddit, the platform that, through its structure and design, enabled these spaces to exist. Reddit, to me, is like a city I’ve loved living in. I don’t particularly want to move to a new place right now, but the cost of living is becoming too high to bear.

The Disappointing Lack of Female Body Diversity in Overwatch

Overwatch is a multiplayer, online, team-based game, the primary mode of which pits one team of six players against another team of six with the goal of gaining control of a map. It’s currently one of my favorite games to watch and to play. The game is engaging, because every match is different. It’s easy to hop into, play for half an hour, and hop back out. It’s also easy to play for hours at a stretch. There are lots of tricks and techniques to learn, and lots of potential for mastery. There’s also a lot of potential for hilarity when the mastery part of it just doesn’t work out. I even find it a fun game to watch – I enjoy watching my partner play, I enjoy watching streamers play on Twitch, and I enjoy watching official esports league for the game, the Overwatch League.

What really drew me to the game at the start was the design. I enjoyed watching the game and learning about the characters well before I started playing it myself. The maps are gorgeously illustrated, with so many fun, hidden details and random corridors and rooms to explore. The gameplay is smooth, colorful, and engaging to watch. The UI is surprisingly elegant and simple, and tailored to each character’s abilities, which are each impressively unique. And the characters themselves are well designed: they are cartoonish, but not overly so. They each have their own distinct personalities, with voice lines and emotes to match. They are characters designed not only for the game, but for compelling media in general – video shorts, comics, etc.

The characters in Overwatch are geographically, ethnically, and socially diverse, in a number of important ways. About half of the current roster of characters (14 out of 30) are female, or present as female. They represent different countries and cultures – India, China, the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Nigeria, Egypt, Australia – with corresponding skin colors, clothing, accents, and languages to match. Some characters even represent people in social minorities, such as gay and lesbian (Soldier 76 and Tracer), autistic (Symmetra), PTSD (D.va, Mei, Reinhardt), all of which are officially a part of their background stories, as governed by Blizzard (the game’s developer). There are elderly characters, well past their physical prime: Reinhardt, Ana, Soldier, Torbjorn. There are characters from impoverished backgrounds: Sombra, Baptiste, Lucio, probably a few more. There are even a number of characters with obvious physical disabilities: missing an eye (Ana), missing limbs (Junkrat, Torbjorn, McCree, Symmetra), or more serious damage requiring extensive cybernetic support (Genji, Reaper).

That’s a lot of diversity and representation to cram into one game. So much so that I feel almost (but not quite) guilty about pointing out one obvious deficiency in the design of the characters: believable female bodies. Among the male characters, there are plenty of obvious physical differences beyond skin color and age. There are the conventionally attractive heroes, like Hanzo, Baptiste, Lucio, and McCree. There are big, beefy, scarred, muscular characters, like Reinhardt and Doomfist. Torbjorn is short, chunky, and scarred. Junkrat is pointy-faced, thin, and wiry (and scarred). Roadhog is tall, fat, and hides his face. In fact, many of the male heroes hide their faces: Soldier, Reinhardt, Reaper, and Genji all also have masks which makes their facial features and expressions nearly or entirely impossible to discern. There are even two male characters who are not human: Winston and Hammond. Those that don’t hide their faces might be smiling, smirking, frowning, or straight-faced.

The only thing these men have in common are well-defined muscles.

And then there are the female characters. By and large, the female characters in Overwatch have attractive, smooth faces, not obscured by masks. They have few to no scars. They smile or smirk almost exclusively. And just about all them of seem to be size 0, with skinny waists and curvy hips and chests, which you can easily discern through their form-fitting clothing. They pose in painful-looking backbends, the better to show off their boobs and butts. Or they tilt their hips, to better show off their curves and legs.

And for some characters, it gets worse. I can’t look at Tracer running around the map without wondering how uncomfortable her pants must be, they’re so shoved up her buttcrack. I can’t look at Symmetra’s outfit without wondering if her legs get cold. I can’t see Widow without wondering how much double sided dress tape she had to use to keep her boobs from falling out of her extremely low cut catsuit. And do Mercy’s (and Symmetra’s and Widow’s) feet hurt after running through battle after battle in heels?

Blizzard removed this victory post from the game, but not the super obvious butt crack.
Zarya for the win.

There are a few exceptions to the rule. Zarya in particular is represented as a tall, strong, muscular woman. According to the character’s background story, Zarya is a champion athlete, probably of the track and field variety. She is one of three female tanks in the game, and the only one who isn’t significantly supported by technology. She looks both physically strong and physically feminine. Interestingly, because she doesn’t fit the same mold as most of the other female characters, a number of players assume she is gay.

As a female gamer who enjoys the game, it’s demoralizing to me to see practicality and realism fall by the wayside in favor of making eye candy for the “ideal” player of the game, which is presumed to be only straight men. It’s disappointing to think that I could never be a hero in the Overwatch world unless I became anorexic, developed a penchant for uncomfortable, form-fitting clothing, and bowed to male society’s desire to see women “smile more.” I’m tired of feeling that female characters in games (and movies and TV and any other visual media) have to sell sex in order to seem strong. Blizzard, you did such a good job with so many other forms of diversity, so why couldn’t you put more effort into this part?

What’s the solution?

There are a number of things I think Blizzard could do to for both Overwatch and other present or future games to address this issue. First and foremost, don’t assume that all players are primarily interested in viewing female characters as sex objects and male characters as power fantasies. Characters in games often tend to be designed with the straight, male demographic in mind, and in particular, game developers assume that the people who play their games want to see sexy female characters. While some players certainly do, I would argue that players play Overwatch primarily for the gameplay. If you made the female characters less sexy and more realistic, I’m sure a number of male players would complain because Blizzard took away their eye candy. But would they stop playing as a result? Probably not.

Look at all those female fans! Photo from an article about Overwatch in the Washington Post

Secondly, get feedback on character designs from women and take it seriously. I’m making an assumption that the character designers and other people involved in design decisions at Blizzard are primarily men, because game development as a field contains way more men than women for a variety of reasons. If Blizzard did their due diligence, I’m sure they consulted people of various ethnicities when designing characters to represent different cultures around the world in order to avoid egregious stereotyping or any other faux pas that could cause offense. Obviously, Blizzard wants people around the world to play their games. But they seem to be ignoring the fact that half the world is composed of women, and that many women play and enjoy their games. The live audience for Overwatch League games often seems to be half women. So why not make an effort to include female voices in the design decisions so as not to potentially offend women like me who play the game?

Frankly, I am a bit offended that Blizzard seems to think I’m not worth the effort it would take to make how female characters look less offensive to me, and I imagine, many other players. That’s not to say I will stop playing Overwatch, or stop watching the Overwatch League. But making female characters look less sexy and more believable would make my gameplay experiences more positive. I sometimes play with my partner and his (male) friends, and it’s not uncommon for me to hear comments along the lines of “that new Mercy skin has nice boobs.” I’m told I should just ignore it, let it slide, because that’s “just how games are.” To that I say: that’s not how games have to be.