reddit: The Virtual Coffeehouse

After finishing Writing on the Wall, my life’s new goal is to either locate or become the proprietor of a real-life coffeehouse that operates like the ones Standage describes in Chapter 6.  Whether or not they actually existed, the idea of an “egalitarian new intellectual space” (104) where all can exchange new knowledge in diverse fields and imbibe my favorite caffeinated beverage sounds like heaven on earth.  In the words of Liz Lemon:

Liz Lemon always knows what’s up.

Sadly, I can’t think of a single real-life commercial establishment that functions as such.  I have never in my life been in a chain or independent coffee retailer that fosters the actively social “speculative environment” of their predecessors; they are more often filled with people glued to their technology, books, or other distractions in an otherwise social and public place.

Where I do find those environments, or at least analogous cultural structures, is in the virtual world.  Like the alleged coffeehouses in the days of Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren, certain online communities function as networks driven by discussion and transactions that are based around knowledge sharing.   As the resident reddit enthusiast, I have to admit that upon reading the chapter on coffeehouses, the self-professed “front page of the internet” was the first comparable website that came to mind.

In June of 2012, redditor /u/Dapper77 described reddit as “a place friendly to thought, relationships, arguments, and to those that wish to challenge those genres.”  Subreddits, or topic/theme-based forums within the site, parallel the coffeehouses that developed a specific client base.  Like Jonathan’s, which drew seventeenth-century businessmen, /r/history attracts historians and history enthusiasts for questions, debate, and other content that is relevant to their interests.  The site has areas for users to talk about literally almost anything they can think of, and if a subreddit doesn’t exist, you can create it.  Best of all, it’s all free!

The diversity and availability of content options can mean different things for different people.  Personally, I like it for the opportunity to learn new things about any topic that strikes my interest.  Serial killers, suggestions for slowcooker recipes, adorable corgis, colorized historical images, and tips on skincare routines:  I can find information and communities immersed in each topic online.

Like the coffeehouses, most of our myriad social networking or information-sharing sites have been vilified as “distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful work” (111).  At least with reddit, you’re (generally) learning something new, whether or not it is actually useful information.  Plus, the site hasn’t been overrun with irrelevant content such as ads and games, like the fictional “Friendface” from British Channel 4’s The IT Crowd.

While the environment of intellectual sharing and discussion is one of reddit’s strong points, there are certainly detracting factors.  For instance, there will always be people whose sole purpose in life seems to be posting responses that are rude, offensive, or generally irrelevant or irritating.  Often, these exchanges function like the one that Standage describes on pages 40 and 41, particularly the “comment thread” between Severus and Successus.

Additionally, instead of having face-to-face, real-time interaction, users are separated by time and space, which negates the socialization aspect that makes the idea of coffeehouses so attractive.  If you wanted to get really meta, you could go to a coffeehouse and use reddit from there!  As someone who is often most comfortable interacting with strangers through friendly, down-to-earth intellectual discussion, and assuming that they did actually exist, I look forward to the day when coffeehouses make a triumphant return!

7 thoughts on “reddit: The Virtual Coffeehouse”

  1. Gabrielle (or do you prefer Gabby?),

    As a fellow redditor, I had a similar reaction to Standage’s coffee house chapter (which I discussed in my comment on Caitlin’s post). While I agree with the vast majority of what you say—particularly the part about being able to find information on ANYTHING on reddit—there was one part of your post that gave me pause. Namely, that you assert that “with reddit, you’re (generally) learning something new, whether or not it is actually useful information.”

    Admittedly, reddit is very different for every user depending on what subreddits he or she subscribes to, but it still seems to me that the majority of reddit is overrun with things that would be more aptly described as a “waste of time” rather than “learning something new.” Yes, technically I did not know of the bad luck situation that some other user went through, but I can’t seem to relate this to the type of knowledge gained in the more academic subreddits (such as the one you point to, r/history). I guess my issue is with thinking about how “most users” use the site.

    1. Gab is fine!

      I completely agree with you, and I probably should have stated that it’s an entirely subjective experience depending on the user. I’m sure there’s people who subscribe only to things like /r/todayilearned, /r/news, /r/religion, and /r/politics, just like there are people who subscribe to groups like /r/catgifs, /r/onetruegod (a forum devoted to photoshopped Nic Cage pictures), and /r/guessthemovie, which don’t even try to pretend they’re anything but distractions. Then there are people, like myself, who subscribe to a healthy mix of both types.

      I guess my thought was that because everyone has different interests, the definition of “useful” will vary from person to person. Personally, I like to accumulate knowledge and know a little about a lot of things, whether or not that information is applicable to school or my job. I don’t see that as a waste of time, because I find it fulfilling to learn about diverse things. On the other hand, I’d likely see /r/Skyrim, /r/celebs, or /r/theredpill as completely useless subreddits, because I don’t play Skyrim, don’t care about celebrities, and I am uninterested in discussing “men’s oppression.” But to people who are interested in those things, those might be fulfilling places to have discourse and gain useful knowledge. Thanks for your ideas!!

  2. Gab,

    The connections you draw between Reddit and Standage’s mid-17th century coffeehouses is definitely compelling. But I wonder sometimes if Reddit doesn’t inhibit conversation as much as it stimulates it. To illustrate: A few years back, I was a habitual “lurker” on Reddit (it may have had something to do with the lax web browsing restrictions on my sometimes-dull front desk job…). My point is: I never posted ANYTHING. Not once. And I visited Reddit at least once a day, if not more often. Apparently I wasn’t alone in this; the very emergence of the term “lurker” in internet community vocabularies seems proof enough.

    To come back to the coffeehouse comparison, there is really no circumstance under which I can imagine myself visiting the same real-life establishment once or twice a day for a couple of years, a place filled with lively and intellectual conversations between strangers, and not ever “dip my oar” in. I am by no one’s account an extrovert, but even I can’t see myself resisting the draw of eventually participating, while surrounded day after day by such dialogue.

    So why is Reddit so different? Reflecting on my own experience with the site, I think it was a combination of factors. Certainly there’s the fear of being “downvoted,” mocked, attacked, or shunned by other users– but to a certain extent, that sort of fear exists in “real-life” public spaces, too. I think one of the big factors was actually the overwhelming amount of text involved in any single conversation. If I ever considered posting something, I would feel compelled to read everything to make sure I wasn’t ignorantly parroting what someone else had already said, or contradicting someone who was likely to attack me. In other words, it felt like it took forever to catch up on the conversation, whereas in real life, you can usually drop in and need only listen for a minute or so to get the gist. Each time on Reddit, I felt like I was hitting a textual wall.

    There’s also no way to “lurk” for that long in real life– your physical person announces your presence to everyone around you. If you attended a bookclub for years, and each time just sat and listened but never contributed anything to the conversation, people would start to think it strange. Not so on the internet. And altogether, it seems like these elements make for a much different experience in “virtual coffeehouses” like Reddit.


    1. Kiley, I’m struck by your observation that you can’t really “lurk” in real life in the same ways, or for the same amount of time, as you can online. Or at least you can’t do so without seeming kind of dodgy—which made me think: “Lurker” makes the quiet user seem sinister, as if they are choosing to stay in the shadows. But what if they’ve been pushed there? What’s a word that suggests “shouted down”? ~Joe

  3. Taking things in a different direction, I confess that I hate the look of Reddit. I wouldn’t ever go into a real life coffeshop with all white walls and bland signage. A Reddit Coffeeshop on Main Street would also boast capitalized signs listing available drinks, all with numbers of upvotes and downvotes.

    In short, there’s something about Reddit, aesthetically speaking, I just don’t get. Can Gab or Heather explain your take on the look and design of the site?

    (I googled “aesthetics of Reddit” and this was the first entry returned: What do you know?! A Reddit about aesthetics!)

    1. I see what you mean, but I just meant it does the coffeehouse thing in terms of the content and discussion-oriented nature of the site, not necessarily the way it looks.

      I’m a bit unclear as to what you mean when you say that the aesthetics put you off. Personally, I really have no thought on the look of the site, beyond that I like the forum thread setup that just stacks the comments according to which other response they’re replying to.

  4. Gab,

    I’m intrigued by your post and this thread,. On the one hand, I feel pretty persuaded by your and Heather’s view of Reddit as a virtual coffeehouse, while, on the other hand, I also agree with Janel and Kiley in personally finding Reddit both ugly and intimidating. It feels, to me, like on Reddit I’d need to type very fast, and to be very witty, in order not to be downvoted before I even have a sense of what the conversation is about.

    But I’m not trying to argue for or against Reddit here. Rather, I find it interesting that it is a space that seems to spark very different responses from this otherwise warm and fuzzy, otter-loving group of academics.


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