When it comes to language games, Internet forums are a unique and novel kind. Internet forums—also referred to as only “forums” elsewhere in this text—are websites where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages. In our discussion, we’ll be considering all Internet forums, but focusing on Reddit, a specific and representative example of them.
The initial goal of Reddit is communicated in its tagline—“the front page of the Internet”. Pages of all kinds from around the Internet would get posted on Reddit, and through the voting mechanism only the best ones would surface on the ‘hot’ page; in this way the website would act as a “front page” of the Internet, aggregating the best of what Internet has to offer. Furthermore, that is the model for many other popular forums on the Internet, such as Hackernews and Digg. But as research has shown, this model doesn’t hold up for Reddit; as the community grows, Reddit becomes more self-referential and less of a link aggregator1. In the first section, we explore this aspect of forums through the lens of Wittgenstein’s language-game paradigm. In later sections, we explore how this language-game can be also be understood as part of the Lacanian symbolic order, how interpassivity plays a role in the dynamics of social navigation, and how all these ultimately conforms the nature of the posts of a forum to a particular standard, albeit the standard is different for every forum.
A peculiar three-person language-game, analyzed differentially
Language games are the emergent rules or maxims of communication, often subconsciously followed, which occur in ordinary conversation2. We can not find language-games in the syntax or semantics of a linguistic construct—we cannot find them in the rules of a language; instead, they’re hidden in the meta-rules. Whereas rules dictate what’s linguistically valid, meta-rules tell us how to deal with the rules, how to use them, or where to break them. An example relevant to the Internet could be the memes that play upon language and generate alternate variations thereof—such as lolspeak3—which are humorous in the right context.
As Saussure insisted, signs or signifiers are a differential system: no sign can be defined in isolation from other signs, they can only be defined through their relations and differences with other signs. In this Sausserian spirit, we intend to get at the nature of the players involved in this language-game of Internet forums by contrasting forums with other similar platforms.
Internet forums are where people hold conversations in the form of posted messages—through this sentence, only an obvious similarity can be observed between forums and online chatrooms: they’re both places for people to have a discussion online. Chatrooms are usually used as an online replacement of real-life group discussions, wherein multiple participants converse with each other simultaneously. So, we can understand it as a many-player language-game, each of the players being human individuals. The number of players doesn’t always have to be more than two, two people hold a conversation in a chat room as well, disregarding everyone else.
The language-game being played out in Internet forums might seem similar at first glance; however, they differ from chat rooms in an important way, the point of difference being a central part of our discussion. Messages posted in chat rooms are supposed to be temporary and read by the people active at that time only, whereas messages in forums are archived—usually indefinitely—so that they’re available for any and all future visitors. When someone writes on an Internet forum, his audience is not only the person he’s replying to, rather, his audience is the entire populace of the future visitors of that thread. So, instead of it thinking of it as a language game between human individuals, we can imagine it as a three-player one, where the third person is the set of visitors to that forum.
The existence of a third-party observer to a conversation by itself is not unusual or particular to Internet forums only. Public debate, for example, is a form of discourse having a comparable format, which existed before the Internet. A difference we can notice is that the audience of a public debate is usually passive listeners, whereas in online forums, everyone is free to actively participate as they like. However, more importantly, the audience of a debate usually meets for a brief time, so there is not much opportunity for language-games to be established, and this is the key difference between them in the context of language-games.
Social navigation, the big Other and interpassivity
Reddit used to describe itself as4,
… a source for what’s new and popular on the web. Users like you provide all of the content and decide, through voting, what’s good and what’s junk. Links that receive community approval bubble up towards #1, so the front page is constantly in motion and (hopefully) filled with fresh, interesting links.
The fundamental principle upon which Reddit works is social navigation, but it’s far from foolproof. Social navigation is defined as when “movement from one item to another is provoked as an artifact of the activity of another or a group of others”5. On Reddit, social navigations is materialized in the form of upvotes and downvotes: users can vote on a thread or message—either upvoting or downvoting it—and the threads with the most upvotes rise to the top, the motivation being that the most interesting links will rise to the top through this mechanism. Nevertheless, there is an underlying assumption here, assumption that most users will do the community service of going through new threads and voting on them appropriately. If most of the population don’t do that and instead rely on “others”—the symbolic order or the big Other as it’s frequently called in psychoanalysis6—to do this community service, the system starts to crack. This means not only the “interesting-ness” of new threads determine whether it will rise to the top, but many contingent factors also come into play as well. And this is indeed what’s happening on sites like Reddit: according to a study, Reddit overlooked 52% of the most popular links the first time they were submitted7.
This “crack” in the system of social navigation can be understood as a phenomenon of interpassivity. The theory of interpassivity8—as developed by cultural theorists Robert Pfaller and Slavoj Žižek—shows us how supposedly interactive forms of enjoyment are rather passive. An example of interpassivity is how canned laughter in TV sitcoms lets us enjoy the show without being amused ourselves; somehow, the task of enjoyment is delegated to the show itself. It can be argued that interpassivity is not only limited to consumption and enjoyment; it also extends to other social phenomena, where participation is recommended but not mandatory. One such phenomenon is social navigation in Internet forums: as long as the individuals know that the posts on the hot page are vetted by the big Other, they don’t bother doing it themselves. The fact that the big Other is nothing material—it consists of and is driven by the individuals only—gets lost in the dynamics of social navigation. We can also observe that the enjoyment of the posts—such as memes—in a forum is inherently dependent on interpassivity. One does not necessarily have to enjoy the meme or find it funny, the fact that it has been vetted and approved as funny by the community they’re part of makes it funny by itself. In this way, the quality of a post depends more on the big Other than its intrinsic nature.
Social conformity, self-referentiality and lack of dissent
Another factor behind the self-referential nature of forums is the tendency of the members to conform to the social norms. These norms might not be in the form of direct rules; they might be meta-rules that are not stated directly but internally “known” by most members. People posting on forums are aware that their message will be there for everyone, so more often than not there is kind of a peer-pressure so that he conforms to the language game and thus be accepted as a part of the community.
The existence of karma makes the previous point more prominent. Karma is the total upvotes an account has received through the various posts and comments in the forum. A high karma count is usually perceived as a sign of being an active contributor to the forum, thus warranting respect. One can easily observe that people often post messages which do not address a conversation directly, rather it appeals to the broader language-game which is familiar to the frequent visitors of that forum. In this way, the messages posted become more and more self-referential in nature. The motivation behind this being, again, the approval of the community, which is conveniently measured by the upvotes—the karma—the post got.
The association of respect and status with the sum of karma of a particular account encourages this social conformity. Thus, dissent is less likely to emerge in such a community. Contrasting it with forums like 4chan, where there is no concept of karma and every account is anonymous, we can see how there the social conformity game applies to a lesser degree, and subsequently, chances of emergence of dissent and novelty is greater.
To summarize, the third participant of the language-game—the big Other—takes a much more active part in forums. Human beings are social creatures, social acceptance and popularity being the fundamental currency of the social economy, especially so in an urban society like the Internet. Becoming more and more self-referential is a norm that emerged freely out of the chaos of minimal rules.
Interestingly, Reddit has changed its description. The new description reads9
Reddit is home to thousands of communities, endless conversation, and authentic human connection. Whether you’re into breaking news, sports, TV fan theories, or a never-ending stream of the internet’s cutest animals, there’s a community on Reddit for you.
Seemingly Reddit has understood how its fundamental nature has changed, how its not a “source for what’s new and popular on the web” anymore, rather a site for “… communities, endless conversation, and authentic human connection”.
Cody Buntain and Jennifer Golbeck. 2014. Identifying social roles in reddit using network structure. In Proceedings of the 23rd International Conference on World Wide Web (WWW ‘14 Companion). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 615–620. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/2567948.2579231 ↩
Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations, 1953. ↩
Dourish, P. and Chalmers, M. (1004). Running out of space: models of information navigation. Proceedings of HCI’94, Glasgow, August 1994. https://www.lri.fr/~mbl/ENS/CSCW/2013/papers/Dourish-HCI94.pdf ↩
Johnston, Adrian, “Jacques Lacan”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/lacan/. ↩
Eric Gilbert. 2013. Widespread underprovision on Reddit. In Proceedings of the 2013 conference on Computer supported cooperative work (CSCW ‘13). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 803–808. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/2441776.2441866 ↩
Pfaller, R. Interpassivity: The Aesthetics of Delegated Enjoyment, 2017. ↩