Online Communities: Exploring the Complex Relationship Between Online and Offline Interaction

Online Community Personas 01

A year ago I began working on a research based dissertation that explored ideas of anonymity and community on the Internet, specifically on Reddit. It was an incredibly exhausting and rewarding process in which I carried out a number of interviews with users through the Reddit messaging system. This proved problematic as many of these conversations petered out before I would have liked them to, but with the help of a handful of very passionate and patient strangers, and after a yearlong emotional rollercoaster, it finally came together.

Throughout my research I became increasingly interested in the ongoing debate between ‘traditional’ and ‘virtual’ communitarians. This is not to say that there exists two distinct schools of thought on the matter, but rather a contentious ambiguity that is perceived to represent a variety of symptoms in Western society.

I decided to use Reddit as a case study, because after a couple of years of using the site I had started to notice a strong sense that Reddit as a group is made up of individuals who see themselves as existing outside of mainstream society. This creates two effects on the users behaviour, on the one hand they feel as though they are part of a group whose identity is defined in contrast to an external Other. On the other hand, there tends to be a great deal of aggression on the site when the trust of the users is violated, something that my informants attributed to the projection of frustrations from offline life. In this quote an informant is discussing an instance in which someone stole an artist’s work and claimed it as their own, and were subsequently harassed until the profile was deleted. (Note: OP is shorthand for original poster)

"Suddenly their memories of being stolen from, jilted, or overlooked come to the forefront. They are powerless to fight for their own long-gone rights, but they'll be goddamned if they let it happen to someone else. OP becomes the face of every bully, bad boss, abusive partner and surly dog. Not only that, once a few dozen people show the same response it becomes a "cause" and everyone fighting for it begins polishing each-other's halos".

When I began this project I had been expecting to find some sort of comparison between online and offline life, but what I ended up finding was an immensely complex and interdependent relationship between the two. What is most important when looking at communities is to ask "why", why do people need these communities, these interactions? What do these spaces, whether tangible or virtual, do for them? How are their lives enriched? When thinking about Reddit in particular, many critics see it as an escape from reality, and ask why we are allowing ‘real’ interactions to be given up for the somehow inferior virtual kind. The real issue here, however, is not the user, but rather the society that leaves so many feeling marginalised to the point of needing not only an escape, but also a space to release their pent up aggression.

If you are interested in finding out more, have a look at my original research paper: A Study of Reddit Users.

Samantha Rosenthal