Cracking up: what Reddit does to your personality

By Jeremy Wilson on October 30th, 2012

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”
– René Magritte

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.
Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

– Oscar Wilde

The recent Gawker report into online bully nonpareil Michael Brutsch was a fascinating delineation of the modern trolling phenomenon. Under the username Violentacrez, Brutsch unleashed a deluge of racism, misogyny and his personal speciality – images of scantily-clad under-age girls – on the online social news community Reddit. What is particularly striking about Brutsch’s activities is the relative simplicity with which he, as a professional troll, was unmasked.

It may seem odd that a man who used two accounts, a clean one and a “dirty” one, would fail to separate his trolling identity from real life. But the fact that he didn’t make much effort to do so is revealing about the experiments in identity playing out on Reddit, perhaps the last mainstream social website still holding out against consolidated and/or socially corroborated identity management.

Understanding how online identity on Reddit works not only shows why Violentacrez evolved as a version of the real life Michael Brutsch, but hints at a new way of perceiving ourselves online, outside the clutches of the data grabbers.

The way users of Reddit perceive their identity begins with the registration process for usernames. It is disconcertingly easy to join the network: enter your desired username once, a password twice, fill out a Captcha and that’s it. No email address, no terms and conditions. All the activity that has taken place on the username is visible to anyone who clicks on the username – the comments made, the pictures linked to.

And, with the ease it was created, the username can be deleted – as can activity logs.

This approach to online identity varies considerably from much of the rest of the web. It isn’t the no-holds-barred, determined anonymity of 4chan, a site which in many ways could be seen as Reddit’s forerunner. 4chan has no username registrations and wipes its servers every day. While the proponents of this type of internet use believe that it breeds healthy inhibition, in reality it spawns the likes of the Anonymous hacker group; a collection of hormonal oddballs with a psychotic collective delusion of grandeur.

And it certainly isn’t Facebook’s idea of online identity, which is closer to real-world authenticity. (That’s something we feel increasingly uncomfortable with, because – how do I put this delicately? – most of us have more nuanced social skills than the company’s chief executive.)

Reddit’s most crucial feature is its subreddits, which are topical subforums. Users of the site frequent the subreddits they find of interest and form communities around them. These subreddits become like subcultures, with people taking part in communities that reflect their own views. Identity becomes a group construct in these spaces, with the limited proliferation of views leading quite obviously to narrow viewpoints.

We know that digital representations will never truly reflect who we are, who we perceive ourselves to be and how those around us in the real world see us. In a world of consolidated online identities, the pseudonymous users of Reddit by and large keep their Reddit identitiy or identities separate from the real world and the rest of their life online. That makes it even easier for them to adopt a sort of median crowdsourced personality, formed after the observation of others.

Whatever our perception of ourselves, we behave differently depending on the social setting we find ourselves in. Our altered behaviour isn’t deception: we’re simply adapting to a social construct; presenting ourselves appropriately to reduce social friction. But when the rules of social engagement aren’t established – and a key component in interpersonal communication is a static, coherent interlocutor – the worst elements of a person’s character tend to emerge.

Official and unofficial “reddiquette” governs how people present themselves on Reddit. It varies from subreddit to subreddit, dictating how users forge their disposable personas in different areas of the site. Thus, if you were to look at the activity history of someone who has posted in both the “beatingwomen” and “science” subreddits, which, unsurprisingly, have somewhat different views on what constitutes appropriate behaviour, it is likely you will see quite a different personality on display in each destination.

Moving between subreddits allows users to compartmentalise their identities, which in some cases can make for extraordinary reading. Take, for instance, the man who made one of the all-time most popular posts. In it, he explains how he once bought a homeless teenage girl lunch, learned that she had run away from home several years earlier, convinced her to call home on his mobile and ended up buying her a ticket home to be reunited with her family.

Touching stuff. But a quick browse through the man’s history on the site will reveal that his previous post was an account of how he made his wife orgasm five times in a row “through an alternating combo of missonary and doggy, pulling her hair a bit and dominating her”. Not the sort of thing you see on a Facebook timeline, and perhaps cause for concern if you’re a young teenage runaway.

We don’t like sharing everything on Facebook because what might be appropriate for one audience isn’t for another, and that social network doesn’t provide intuitive or flexible enough tools to siphon off different parts of our social graph. By the fractured nature of subreddits, on the other hand, users are constantly interacting in new environments that promote the relaxation of self-censorship.

The ephemeral and unpredictable nature of Reddit usernames is apparent from surfing the site. People who have contributed huge amounts of content sometimes delete their username, leaving their activity intact but authorless. Very active accounts can suddenly go dead. The user might be operating under new aliases, or simply have left the site. Throwaway accounts are commonplace, used for anything, from trolling to writing confessionals.

A degree of control over who you are, even if who you are is somewhat fleeting, is built into Reddit’s DNA.

Reddit makes it easy for people to present many different versions of themselves, which, in a strange way, yields a more truthful complete picture than the increasingly sanitised façades on mainstream social media websites. The ability to assume new personas in so agile a fashion, and to explore them in a group setting, can help to develop neglected or undeveloped aspects of a person’s identity, allowing these aspects to, for better or worse, be explored.

It may also, of course, encourage a more fractured approach to personality in real life.

But we live multiple identities in real life too. And it turns out, given the opportunity, people take to it just as naturally online, even if perhaps the online versions are a little more violently divergent. Of course, the multiple identities that some perceive themselves to be living on Reddit and the identity they leave in digital form don’t always match up: subreddit culture can lull users into using the same login when engaging different parts of their personality in different parts of the site.

Of course, the chances are that if someone is taking part in one of the site’s most popular reddits, “gonewild”, where users post links to pictures of themselves naked, they will be doing so with a different login.

There is no “usual” method for structuring your identity on Reddit and asking Redditors how they structure theirs elicits a variety of responses. From someone who separates their Reddit from their real-world existence…

Generally use my account for most posts, but avoid letting people know IRL what my account is. They may know I’m on Reddit but I go out of my way to avoid letting them see my usename. Primarily due to the fact that while most of the things I’ve said online are things I’ve shared with others, they aren’t things I would share with people I wouldn’t want to. (I know people who go out of their way to find things to talk shit about about, I’d rather not give them the ammo).

I do keep a throwaway for some of the truly more context-sensitive discussions. Those are more for personal interest.

… to those who merely treat their Reddit life separately from their other online personas.

My reddit life is separate from my other online lives. I never talk about it to anyone and I don’t post stuff from here anywhere else. 

Then there are those who consciously take damage limitation steps, in case their real identity is discovered…

I have two accounts. That way, if one of my friends recognizes one of my stories, they wouldn’t be able to read my comment history and find stories I wouldn’t want them reading, as I spread them out. I also use my second account to make comments which I know will get downvoted because they go against the reddit hivemind. This way, I can karma whore my main account and rake in the upvotes, and get into petty internet arguments with my second account. 

… and those who who live a separate and secret existence.

I’m using a name not affiliated with my other social media. I primarily post about videogames, and have distanced this account from my “main” Reddit account where I post on the subreddits that are seen to be more cerebral. I am doing this to keep my hobbies separate from my work life, which is academic – I have known colleagues to be savaged for admitting to playing World of Warcraft and the like, colleagues who have never been taken as seriously by the elder members of my department afterwards.

The degree to which Reddit users are consciously aware of the way they manipulate their identity varies wildly. Michael Brutsch apparently had very little self-awareness about what he was doing, but others are at least conscious of their desire to explore untapped, and sometimes dark, corners of their personality. While some people, those with higher levels of self-awareness, make choices about who they will be under what digital identity, most don’t – which is why so many trolls get nailed so easily.

One of the most thrilling but also the most disorientating effects of the internet is that it allows fantasies to become reality – or at least to become almost-reality. But Reddit goes a step further, facilitating, ameliorating and gilding the fantasy existence in a socially reinforcing context. This fantasy-play on Reddit is an aggregate of a thousand acts of self-actualization: individuals looking for belonging, social acceptance, a feeling of competence and respect from others. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

This is where the Zuckerberg ethos falls apart. True identity isn’t the face that we are comfortable showing to everyone – the claustrophobia that envelops Facebook and Twitter. Submitting to subreddit culture allows dislocated individuals to illuminate darkened corners of themselves. And while the opportunity to divulge what you really think and feel doesn’t always make for pretty viewing, it is certainly a better vehicle for self-discovery. As one Redditor puts it:

This is one of the few places that you can be who you are without people knowing who you are.