How do online communities welcome new users?

By Erty Seidel


When I signed up for the link-sharing site Reddit in March of 2008, my junior year of high school, I did so because it was popular among my nerdy friends. Our conversations would often start with, “Hey, did you see this thing on Reddit?” or, “I saw on Reddit…”. After a while I started to consider myself a “Redditor”, part of the Reddit community, and began contributing my own links and content to the site. Yet many come to Reddit and are quickly disillusioned and become alienated from the community.

Reddit is an online content aggregator, and it has become one of the largest and most influential aggregators on the internet. Users can post links to interesting internet sites on Reddit, and other users can vote up or down on those links, which influences their placement on Reddit. The more “upvotes” a link gets, the higher it will be placed and the more user views it will get. Vice-versa for a “downvote”, which quickly buries a link and leaves it to obscurity. Users accumulate these upvotes and downvotes, the sum of which is their "karma", a good measure of how well a user contributes to the site.

Reddit is divided into smaller groupings of links called "subreddits", designated by "/r/". For example, /r/cars is about cars, /r/gifs is a collection of animated gifs, etc. Each subreddit has a different moderator team, style, and subscriber list. Only content from the most popular subreddits shows up on the "default homepage", shown to new or not-logged-in users. Anyone with an account can choose to subscribe to, or unsubscribe from, these subreddits.

In 2008, two programmers put together a free question and answer site called Stack Overflow in response to sites like the poorly-url’d pay-for-answers The idea behind Stack Overflow is a Q&A site where "Professional and Enthusiast Programmers" can ask questions and get answers from their peers. The site operates like Reddit in terms of upvotes and downvotes - good questions are given online "karma" to both reward the user and allow more users to see the question.

Stack Overflow uses a much more utilitarian sorting scheme. Questions are tagged according to the content of the question - Java questions get the tag "java", etc. This allows potential future askers or answerers to find questions about certain topics. Users can also choose to feature more or fewer questions with certain tags on their home page.

Both of the sites rely on user-generated content, and rely on those same users to rank the content by democratic process. Additionally, each site has moderators who police the content, although the way each site selects its moderators is quite different. Reddit has moderators on a first-come-first-serve basis, whoever creates a subreddit first is the mod for that community. Stackoverflow mods are grown naturally from the community - users gain more privelege on the site as they gain more karma. For example, a user is not allowed to talk in a chat room on the site until they reach 20 karma, and not permitted to edit other users' questions until 2000 karma. This serves the triple purpose of making sure users have learned the ropes before becoming a moderator, fighting spam, and providing incentive to acquire karma.

The best way to define these two sites in terms of RLST 245 is to look at Bellah's definitions of Expressive vs. Utilitarian Individualism. Reddit is driven by Expressive Individualism: feeling, art, and intuition. Stack Overflow is defined by Utilitarian Individualism: the users are expected to ask their question, select the best answer, and move on to their next question. These sites are an amalgamation of lifestyle enclaves which create a community, and even though they are quite different, Reddit and Stack Overflow have the same problems with turning away potential new users.

Communities or Lifestyle Enclaves?

Let's turn to Bellah's comparison between Communities and Lifestyle Enclaves, the two kinds of gatherings we've been studying in class:

Whereas a community attempts to be an inclusive whole, celebrating the interdependence of public and private life and of the different callings of all, [lifestyle enclaves are] fundamentally segmental and celebrate the narcissism of similarity. -- Bellah Et Al, Pg. 72

Reddit falls solidly into both categories. Although each individual subreddit is almost the definition of a lifestyle enclave, the site as a whole is one massive slice of humanity. According to some estimates, only about 1% of people who visit Reddit actually comment or post on the site. Even so, 1% of Reddit's 400 million visitors is a lot of people. Reddit's loudest users have gained the site a reputation. User NerdzRuleUs explains:

Remember, reddit is a bunch of individuals. In a site like this, the loudest minority is often the most heard, until the masses get fed up with a particular type of annoyance, and rear their mighty self-post self-righteousness. --NerdzRuleUs

Stack Overflow, catered toward programmers, trends toward being a lifestyle enclave, yet still feels like a community more than a hive mind. One could compare it to a church - although everyone is at Stack Overflow to talk about programming, they come from a large variety of backgrounds. Because of people's differences, moderators have to shut down the occasional flame war or comment fight. Stack Overflow has a much more structured system of reporting offensive comments to moderators to take care of, whereas Reddit usually downvotes and moves on.

Both Stack Overflow and Reddit have been experiencing steady growth over the past few years, and I'm proud to say that I've been a contributor to both sites. That said, they both seem to share some themes that I've experienced in other places around the internet:

Theme One: Get Off My LAN

A common complaint among older users in these communities is a slow degradation of site quality by new users. Check out this comment on Hacker News by rospaya, posted about a year after the implosion of competitor Digg in 2010 which saw a mass-emigration from Digg into Reddit. redthrowaway's comment makes an excellent point about how "old-timers" (whatever their IRL age) complain about the degredation of their communities:

"Is it still Digg they're on about? I thought the complaint now was that reddit was turning into 4chan? HN is turning into reddit, reddit is turning into 4chan... Shall we take bets on how long it will be until people start bitching about G+ turning into facebook?" -- redthrowaway

There's even a three part comic, with amazing satire and detail, about the Digg "refugees" of 2010. But people continue to complain about the site "getting worse". /u/Carinix posted on March 3rd 2013, titled Already mentioned, but possibly getting worse?, which complains about exactly what redthrowaway complains about above: that Reddit is turning into an image board like 4chan.

And this has been a problem since the dawn of the internet. The Eternal September of 1993 was an influx of college students to Usenet servers in September who never left. The strong sense of netiquette among the established users on Usenet was overwhelmed. From the Wikipedia article on Eternal September, linked above:

In September of 1993, the online service America Online began offering Usenet access to its tens of thousands, and later millions, of users. To many "old-timers", these newcomers were far less prepared to learn netiquette than university students. This was in part because the new services made little effort to educate their users about Usenet customs, or to explain to them that these new-found forums were outside their service provider's walled garden, but it was also a result of the much larger scale of growth. Whereas the regular September freshman influx would quickly settle down, the sheer number of new users now threatened to overwhelm the existing Usenet culture's capacity to inculcate its social norms.

The "old-timers" here had established social norms and rules over the time spent on the service, and the newcomers (noobs) had no idea that these norms existed. The same phenomenon has been seen on 4chan, and even IRL.

Theme Two: Alienation

Meanwhile on, a Q&A site for questions about Stack Overflow itself, the second ranked post of all time by votes is "Could we please be a bit nicer to new users?". Most of the comments on this post revolve around "downvoting without explanation":

As a noob here myself the most irritating thing I have experienced is being voted down without explanation. I'm not here to gain reputation but to get help. I try to be helpful in return. So if an answer is deemed unhelpful I would like to know why so that I can make better answers in future. -- Noel Walters

As I mentioned, Stack Overflow has a much more structured report/flag system for bad posts, and many are removed almost as soon as they hit the front page. Often, a short explanation is given: "Is not a valid question", "Could not understand", etc. Yet those users who have made "bad" posts are suddenly disincentivized to post again. It takes either time spent just lurking on the site - a kind of probationary period - or trial and error, to learn the format.

This problem is the same as exists on Reddit - people "downvoted into oblivion" because they posted something controversial to the voting masses. It is much easier to downvote someone than write out a long response about why you think they deserved that downvote. The problem with this is that the more controversial ideas never find their way to the front page. One such controvertial comment, by /u/WhyRedditIsSnotty, on the Reddit 101 post:

Here's some fucking tips:


-- WhyRedditIsSnotty

WhyRedditIsSnotty has struck a nerve, as the community at large disagrees with him - he only has about 6 karma on that comment, compared to over 1000 on the top posts. Yet he points out the kind of posts that will gain karma on the site: Atheistic, Liberal, Meme-filled, etc. Despite the diversity of Reddit, the voting is overwhelmingly controlled by a select group of people - everyone else has been alienated by that community, since they were "there first" (see NerdzRuleUs' comment above).

So we have an established user base downvoting and bashing on new users who are then less likely to return to the site. Even if this makes the established user base feel good, the community suffers and begins to turn into a lifestyle enclave, and begins to shrink. The noobs become alienated and leave to start their own enclaves, where they can tailor the style and atmosphere to their liking. For example, the site 9gag is very popular among younger users who were shunned on Reddit for being "annoying", creating a strong rivalry (NSFW language) between the two sites.

This leads to the question:

How can Online Lifestyle Enclaves become Online Communities?

Actually, I think a better question to ask is:

Does the Internet Even Want Online Communities?

Short answer, no. But unlike Batman, online communities are what the internet needs, not what it deserves. The main issue is the size and use of the sites, as Bellah points out:

Lifestyle enclaves may be most obvious in large cities, where groups of people have little in common except how they spend their leisure time. -- Bellah et al. (73)

For Reddit, the issue is double: the site is where people spend their leisure time, and it resembles a large city made up of small neighborhoods (the subreddits). The average user is not necessarily going to want their beliefs challenged or deep, intellectual conversation: they want some funny meme pictures to distract them from whatever they're supposed to be doing, or at least that's my impression. (See: the popularity of /r/adviceanimals and /r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu). People exist in communities all day, and retreat to their lifestyle enclaves for leisure. Especially on a site that focuses on Expressive Individualism, a user does not want to do anything particularly difficult.

(This is amplified on sites like 4Chan, which - possibly because of the lack of being able to simply downvote - has a culture of ridicule for those who deviate from the rules (and those rules aren't even actually the rules, since the real "rules" are a bunch of unwritten guidelines.))

Meanwhile on a site like Stack Overflow, the Utilitarian Individualism drives a different type of elitism - the best questions on the site are those asked by people who already have a lot of karma and know how to ask a question that will get upvotes. New users to the site, who have good potential to learn and contribute to the community, are often turned away (see: problem two, above) by the established users:

Several posters have no idea what they're doing. They need to speak to a friend who does, not post vague abstractions on [Stack Overflow]. They fail to provide important information such as: what they want to do, which tools they are using, and where in their code the problems are found. [Stack Overflow] is becoming elitist because it is frustrating to explain basics to new developers. This is a place for specific, complex questions, not "WHUT A GOOD LANGUAGE IS?" or "my srever dont boote up!!!!" -- user133687

Thus the new users are pushed away and Stack Overflow becomes an impenetrable enclave of intelligent code-writers, to the demise of diversity. As a contrast to user133687, some of the Stack Overflow members understand the need to branch out:

SO is great for asking problems you can't find solutions to online, but the community is usually cold instead of warm and welcoming to new users. We should be guiding them, not chastising them for not knowing everything before signing up. --ADTC

So, does the internet want communities or lifestyle enclaves? It's already a community - a huge number of people all mucking around on the internet, and yet it's made of enclaves like Reddit and Stack Overflow which are further divided into sub-enclaves of even more specialized interest. Jaron Lanier describes the power that these communities have in his book, "You are not a Gadget":

... digital Maoism doesn't reject all hierarchy. Instead, it overwhelmingly rewards the one preferred hierarchy of digital metaness in which a mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed. A blog of blogs is more exalted than a mere blog. -- Lanier, 79

Stack Overflow and more explicitly Reddit both bring together these enclaves to great effect, creating a mashup of mashups. For example, Reddit's /r/athiesm and /r/christianity had a charity-donation contest (/r/athiesm won, by sheer number of people). From that article:

"At first I was worried this would turn into a big war ... but this is a friendly thing," Crymes said. "If it means that two communities that historically have animosity towards each other can tone it down for a while, that's great."

(talk about this a bit more)


Most of this I'm making up as I go along, and I could use a lot of theory to back up these thoughts (My new-media anthropologist girlfriend is going insane trying to edit this: "I have four articles on media ideologies that you need to read!"). Working with what I have - mostly Bellah with a bit of Lanier and lots of original research (which would be removed from Wikipedia), I feel as though these two community/enclaves have some interesting similarities. Despite Stack Overflow's more restrictive structure and more hierarchical organization, it faces the same complaints and issues about welcoming new users as does the loose, democratic, "hivemind" Reddit.

As NerdzRuleUs says, Reddit is a "bunch of individuals", which reflects the internet - Humans posting comments - and that creates a community. But when that community becomes a gated community, it risks alienating new users and stagnating. Downvoting without explanation creates a large disincentive to return.

And yet the internet spirals on, creating and consuming, and its fragmentation and life-cycle are dependent on the humans who drive it along.