This week, Reddit hosted a live chat with President Obama. Try and ignore it, but the user-generated site — mostly known for memes, piecing together breaking news stories, and dissecting everything from atheism to Pokemon — is now massive and important enough that the president feels like he should get involved.
But Reddit, which gets about 35 million unique visits a month, is also known for its underbelly. The media widely portrays it as a mysoginistic, lady-hating site. In many cases, that’s a fair assessment. For example, in one Reddit forum, users post photos of (occasionally underage) half-naked girls found on other sites. So anyone can view them all in one handy place. And when a 14-year-old girl sought advice on the site after she said she was raped, dozens of male users accused her of lying. This episode led Jezebel to call Reddit, "Officially the Worst Possible Place for Rape Victims to Seek Advice."
That charge isn't quite fair. Despite its reputation, Reddit fosters some very active feminist communities that remain largely untainted by sexist trolls. Women active in these communities say they like the democratic nature of the site. (Content is generated by users, who post links and text that is displayed in accordance with whether other users vote it up or down.) The also enjoy interacting with fellow Redditors, and participating in the interesting discussions they spark. These Redditers acknowledge the sexism on the site, but see it as really just a reflection of the world at large, rather than a hindrance to their involvement. It's disturbing, but not deterring. The attitude is similar to that of women who have spoken about breaking into traditionally male-dominated industries and careers.
Reddit is divided into hundreds of different community forums, known as Subreddits, and female-centered Subreddits run the gamut. These boards facilitate intellectual feminist dialogue, but also simply allow users to share pictures of their pregnant bellies. Other Subreddits include discussion about makeup, hairstyles, and infertility. (Many of the women who are active in these groups are active in multiple groups, including those entirely unrelated to women's issues.)
These Subreddits have moderators, who can remove content that doesn't relate to the page, and guide discussions. The moderators of various female-focused Subreddits widely agreed that the site isn't innately sexist (or racist, or otherwise bigoted), it's just that those comments frequently (and unfortunately) get highlighted.
"I don't think Reddit is overall misogynistic — that implies an active thought towards it. I think a lot of users are unintentionally sexist, but that also comes from the demographics; the majority of users are under 35, with a big old chunk of them being college-and-just-out-of-college-age dudes. Some people just don't know any better, or they've had bad, or no, social experiences with women," spunshadow, a moderator of one popular women's forum, TwoXChromosomes, wrote in an email.
Another TwoXChromosomes moderator, with the username HiFructoseCornFeces, said the sexism isn't just a symptom of online culture, but of world culture. "Sexism and misogyny are no more prevalent on Reddit than in meatspace [the non-online world], but written statements have a way of lingering that oral statements don't," she wrote. "That (really dumb) 'that's-what-she-said' joke you muttered in your staff meeting doesn't have the same visibility that a post on Reddit does. And rarely in real life does anyone have the gall to tell you that calling someone a dick is inherently misandrist, and that you are perpetuating centuries of sexism with your one off-the-cuff comment."
TwoXChromosomes, the most popular female-focused Subreddit, is a kind of general interest women's magazine for the Reddit community. One of its moderators, who goes by the username HiFructoseCornFeces said the draw is that, "Support and advice are freely given on so many topics (menstrual cups, relationships, bras, pubes, sex, sexuality, hairstyles, work problems, school problems, you name it), and anonymously."
Some female-focused Subreddits are far more specific: /r/BabyBumps is an active Subreddit on which pregnant women share, often in excruciating detail, the ins and outs of their pregnancies. A note at the top reads: “Please do not ask if you/your girlfriend are pregnant. Take a test.” Other than that, pretty much everything is fair game. Women post belly photos and offer others pregnancy advice. They tag usernames according to how pregnant they are ("22 WEEKS", for example). When you’ve had the baby, you might move on to /r/beyondthebump. If you didn’t see the URLs at the top of the page, you frankly might think you were in an online LaMaze class.
Other boards, like /r/feminisms, includes serious feminist dialogue, and separates itself somewhat from the maternity community. Recent discussions have focussed largely on Todd Akin's rape gaffe and Ann Romney. They also discuss sexism in the workplace, sexist advertising, and global issues related to women.
"I do feel like there is a distinct community of female/feminist redditors. I don't think we're all united, but I also think that's okay," wrote user Reddit_Feminist, a moderator of the Feminisms board. Reddit has a niche for all kinds of women and men — whatever your interest, you'll probably find a Subreddit to feed it. It's not much different than the person who checks People every day versus the people who check Jezebel every day, and this is why so many people like the site so much: every niche exists in a similar yet very different way under one umbrella.
Redditor MaeBeWeird, a moderator of the BabyBumps page, says users are meme-friendly appreciators of Internet humor who, despite the sexist tendencies, actually feel most at home on Reddit.
“It's a community of women who (in general) think memes are funny, don't usually jump down each others throats for opposing beliefs, and know most of the same references from front-page posts" she wrote in a message. (The "front page" is Reddit's homepage, which features the most popular posts from various Subreddits.)
"Women of all kinds come to the women-centric subreddits for the camaraderie, the similarity of experiences, and the opportunity to express themselves in a (mostly) supportive atmosphere," added TodayIAmGruntled, a TwoXChomosomes moderator.
While these women aren't deterred or quieted by sexism apparent on the site, one admits that it's still worrying.
"The threat of a terrible post full of misinformed, loud, certain opinions emerging is constantly hovering in the air. And you read through one of those posts, and it terrifies you, because you wonder who the people really are saying that statutory rape isn't real, or men should be able to force a woman to get an abortion," Reddit_Feminist explained.
You would think, that as Reddit becomes increasingly mainstream — with cameos from the President and the like — that the site would do away with the bigotry. But Reddit_Feminist explains why it would be unlikely for that to happen: "I think as Reddit gains popularity, there is an urge to make it more exclusive. The easiest way to do that is to make certain people feel excluded. That urge, combined with the self-determined nature of the site, creates an environment where sexist, racist, and generally bigoted attitudes are not only accepted, but encouraged."