Without getting too much into the weeds of the r/creepshots story, I don’t think there’s much difference between that subreddit and the website PeopleOfWalmart. Both exploit the freedom to take pictures of strangers to satisfy, from a safe and antiseptic distance, the baser desires of their audience. Both are distasteful but will probably always exist in some form or another. But I don’t think that’s the most disturbing thing going on here, or the most interesting.
I’ve written before about how reddit’s design necessarily creates an echo chamber and pushes its users to be as average as possible. Based on a recent interview r/creepshots disgraced and now-unemployed former moderator, I think there’s a case to be made that consequences of reddit’s design could be even more pernicious. In his interview with Anderson Cooper, “ViolentAcrez” explained that for him, “the biggest thrill I got was those meaningless internet points,” also known as karma.
Reddit’s karma works like this: Every user can give away an infinite amount of karma to anything and anyone they like–one point at a time. If a user posts something that others like they will receive karma from their peers. My earlier argument was that since there’s no cost to giving away karma people will give it away readily. If a user wants to maximize the amount of karma they receive they should post things that the largest subset of users will enjoy. Said another way: they should target their content to the fat part of the distribution curve.
In very popular subreddits like r/funny and r/atheism, this makes for bland, recycled, and predictable content. It’s the lowest common denominator as chosen by groupthink. Here, the law of large numbers keeps everything mostly kosher. But since anyone can create a subreddit on any topic, you’re going to start getting smaller and stranger echo chambers that also push their users to the middle. On subreddits like r/creepshots, the middle happens to be completely inappropriate and borderline illegal. This meant that for a user to thrive in the subforum, they had to go out into the real world camera in-hand and be a real life creep.
All of this is really weird already, but there’s still a missing piece of the puzzle: why do people want karma? Why was it worth taking things way too far in the in the wrong direction in the real world for pixels on a screen?
Redditors want karma because on reddit, karma is what people want. Part of human nature is that we want what we perceive to be valuable. If someone else thinks something is valuable there’s a good chance we will too. This drives people to collect otherwise meaningless points. Further still, having lots of karma is seen as a mark of being an worthwhile contributor to the community. Each karmic point becomes further confirmation to each user that they should keep doing what they’re doing. For users like ViolentAcrez, that meant continuing to take pictures of underage girls without their knowledge or consent, then posting those pictures online.
Snake oil salesmen touting the power of “gamification” to boost engagement ought to be delighted to read ViolentAcrez’s interview, because it confirms that there is a subset of people who, given too many points and too little context, will compulsively try to collect points because that’s what’s expected of them in a community. This is “gamification” at its worst. Points don’t make sense without context, they should provide feedback on the journey the user is taking, relative to an end point instead of to their peers.
Sites like reddit are, knowingly or not, exploiting the greediest and oldest parts of our brain. It’s not that points made these users do what they did. Instead points in the absence of external context legitimized, encouraged, and re-inforced pre-existing perversions.