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HindustanTimes Thu,23 Oct 2014

Picking up the threads: A look at the community behind Reddit India

Pankti Mehta, Hindustan Times   July 13, 2014
First Published: 10:56 IST(13/7/2014) | Last Updated: 11:01 IST(13/7/2014)

“I’ve met hundreds of gay men and slept with quite a few. Ask me anything.”

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“I am a beneficiary of India’s reservation policy. Many of you don’t have friends from lower castes that you can discuss caste issues with, particularly reservation. Ask me anything.”

“North Indians, what’s your honest opinion of south Indians? And vice versa?”

These have been some of the most popular threads on social network Reddit India over the past eight months.

Others have included a recent controversial AMA (Ask Me Anything) with actress Priyanka Chopra and a vibrant AMA with three scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). While the first three threads were started by anonymous users, the Isro session and actor Imran Khan’s AMA were organised by Reddit India.

Together, they represent the mix of spontaneity and direct access that have driven the number of subscribers for this sub-forum — Reddit India is a ‘sub-Reddit’ of the US-based Reddit.com — from 16,000 a year ago to more than 25,000 today.

“The international growth of Reddit has been phenomenal over the past year — especially in India, where we have seen a 228% increase in the number of unique visitors to Reddit,” says Ismail Jadun, international community manager at Reddit.com.

The Reddit India sub-forum was started six years ago, by US-based user qgyh2, but it is only over the past two years, as the Indian community became more active in the run-up to this year’s national election, that its subscriber numbers began to soar.

In that time, it became a window to the young, urban Indian mind, offering peeks into what youngsters are discussing — and what they’re really thinking. In this respect, it is vastly different from other social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

On Reddit, the focus is not on profile pages, followers or newsfeeds. All posts are viewed by all visitors, making the platform a real-time, 24x7 discussion panel.

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Since comments in each thread are organised based on the number of ‘upvotes’ or ‘downvotes’ they get from the community of users, trolls, white noise and irrelevant links drift to the bottom of the heap.

Discussion is frank because of the high degree of anonymity. When you join Reddit, you sign up for a handle and that is your only identity. Choose a handle that is not your real name and you can say what you really think, without fear of censure or reprisals.

Users believe that this, more than anything, fuels the frankness and relatively high quality of debate on Reddit India.

“As they say, give a man a mask and he’ll show you his true face,” says Reddit user Plsdontbraidmybeard, a 26-year-old banker from Hyderabad. “Reddit is like this huge social experiment that proves, every day, what the power of anonymity can achieve. This becomes even more relevant in countries like ours, where there is always the fear of offending somebody ‘powerful’ or being judged because of your views.”

How it works
As soon as the Reddit India sub-forum was created by qgyh2, it was immediately handed over to Reddit user Neoronin, who is now the ‘top moderator’. Neoronin, a businessman in his late 20s based in southern India, was chosen because he had been a long-time user and his posts and comments had reflected the vibrancy and sense of balance that is sought in all Reddit moderators. He now chooses the moderator for each Reddit India sub-page.

Each moderator may approach other users to help moderate their sub-page, thereby creating a team that works in informal shifts virtually around the clock.

Each volunteer moderator spends two to three hours monitoring the site. If a user is too hateful, abrasive or mean, the moderators have the administrative authority to ban him or her either temporarily or permanently.

There are currently 10 Reddit India moderators located around the world, split between time zones so that discussions can be moderated around the clock.

On average, Reddit India bans one or two users a week.

“The format of the platform itself also helps keep discussions sane and civil,” says Neoronin. “Comments and posts go higher up in each thread on the basis of the votes they receive. In the sense, the community is also self-policing.”

Ask me anything
Ask Me Anything posts, or AMAs, are perhaps the most popular discussion format on Reddit and have been a success around the world, featuring the likes of US president Barack Obama, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and musician Snoop Dogg.

Over the past year, Reddit India has had its own rash of celebrity AMAs, which have also drawn new users and eyeballs to the platform. These have included AMAs by actors Imran Khan and singer Monica Dogra, editors from leading publications and a group of ISRO scientists involved in the Mars Orbiter Mission. While Priyanka Chopra’s AMA was not on Reddit India but on Reddit.com, it garnered a lot of eyeballs from the country and sparked several discussions on the India page.

Organising an AMA is simple. A user can post an invitation himself, or contact a moderator. A moderator, in turn, can also get in touch with a subject, inviting them to conduct an AMA — as in the case of the ISRO scientists.

“One example of a Reddit India AMA that went off extremely was the one with Imran Khan in April. He’s been a Redditor for a while, so he was sporting and knew how to answer even tough questions,” says user Rahulthewall, 26, a Switzerland-based researcher and moderator for R/India. “The community loved him, and it helped legitimise celebrity AMAs in India.”

Khan was asked hundreds of questions, ranging from ‘How do you respond when people accuse you of only making it in Bollywood because of your connection with Aamir Khan?’ (“I don’t... what kind of response could possibly satisfy those people?”) to ‘Have you had sex with all the actresses who you’ve worked with? If so, who has been the best of the lot?’ (‘Unfortunately (and in some cases, fortunately) not. But I’ve heard stories...”).

Priyanka Chopra’s AMA on July 2 went less well. The actor answered very few questions, ignoring tricky ones.

It did, however, lead to some offline activity, in the form of an RTI application.

Online to offline
Most participants in the Priyanka Chopra AMA wanted to know why a road in Andheri, Mumbai, was recently named after her father. She didn’t answer.

This prompted user Agentbigman, a 24-year-old Mumbai-based entrepreneur and MBA student, to file an RTI application seeking an explanation.

This isn’t the first time a Reddit threat has led to offline activism. Agentbigman alone has filed seven RTIs sparked by Reddit discussions, including one for a Redditor who was having trouble with police verification for his passport and was being asked for a bribe (the RTI demanded to know the reasons for the delay, after which the process was swiftly completed), another for a Redditor being charged unfair Custom duties, and yet another on why bollards had not been installed to prevent bikers from riding on a particular footpath in Mumbai.

Another example of a Reddit discussion having an impact offline is Plsdontbraidmybeard’s in-depth posts about personal finance. His sub-Reddit called IndiaInvestments, created a year ago, has more than 900 subscribers. Encouraged by the response, he now plans to quit his job at a bank and become a full-time personal finance consultant.

“Most people are hesitant about posting personal finance details online, so here the anonymity was a big help,” he says. “People have so many questions, and it’s hard to find a reliable source for answers, so I think it worked all around.”

The community
‘Despite anonymity, the community is very generous’

Natasha Sahgal, 27, a freelance writer, was introduced to Reddit by a friend four years ago and now scrolls through the website for roughly one hour every day.

“Somehow, the stuff posted on Reddit is cooler than anywhere else on the Internet,” she says. “I especially like reading AMAs — not just on Reddit India, but on the main Reddit pages as well. You get to learn about people whose lifestyles are starkly different from yours, from prostitutes to child prodigies, air force pilots and celebrities. AMAs are very different from magazine interviews, in that sense. People ask questions journalists would never ask.”

Sahgal doesn’t use her real name as her username on Reddit, and believes that allows her to ask questions and make comments she may think twice before posting otherwise.

Despite the anonymity, Sahgal adds, the personal connections can be very strong.

Last year, a Redditor asked people to name with what they might want for Christmas. Sahgal named a Lord of the Rings book. “I got it in the mail soon after. Reddit is awesome like that,” she says. “It invites people to experiment. I still have no idea who that person was, and he or she has no idea who I am. But we connected.”

‘We can ban abusive users, but it rarely comes to that’

Envia, a marketing professional, is in her mid-20s and has been a Reddit India moderator for two years.

“Being a moderator gives you a lot of authority, so each one is chosen carefully,” she says. “Your history should show that you are sensible and serious. Your main role is to make sure that everyone gets an equal voice.”

Moderation is voluntary and the rules are difficult to define. Envia spends a couple of hours a day on

Reddit, scrolling through posts and comments to make sure that order is maintained. This could be before or after work, or even for a few minutes during her working day.

“We have banned users when they are continuously abusive or are harassing other users,” she says. “But this isn’t a regular occurrence. Most Reddit India users seem to be actively seeking information and genuinely open to discussion.”

‘I take discussions forward through RTI applications’

A top question Reddit users asked Priyanka Chopra on her AMA was why a road in Andheri, Mumbai, was recently named after her father. This question went unanswered, prompting Agentbigman, 24, an entrepreneur and Reddit user, to file an RTI request demanding a response.

This is not the first time a Reddit discussion has prompted him to do this.

Agentbigman has filed a total of seven RTIs sparked by Reddit discussions, including one for a Redditor who was having trouble with police verification for his passport, another for a Redditor who was being charged unfair Custom duties, and one on why bollards had not been installed to prevent bikers from riding on a particular footpath in Mumbai.

“You keep seeing posts about every day about incidents of corruption, crime and harassment on R/India that are not picked up by mainstream media,” he says. “This is largely possible because of the anonymity. But as a community, we can still take them forward, and that is what I do.”

In many cases, the response is quick and positive. In the passport verification incident, for instance, the officer had been delaying in the hope of a bribe. After the RTI application was filed, the passport was cleared and arrived within days.

How reddit works
Reddit.com was set up in 2005 and is funded by US-based media company Conde Nast.

Reddit India or R/India is a ‘sub-Reddit’ set up in 2008 by US-based user and moderator qgyh2.

As soon as it was created, R/India was handed over to Reddit user Neoronin, who is now the ‘top moderator’. Neoronin, a businessman in his late 20s based in southern India, was chosen because he had been a long-time user and his posts and comments had reflected the vibrancy and sense of balance that is sought in all Reddit moderators. He now chooses the moderator for each Reddit India sub-page.

Each moderator may approach other users to help, creating a team that works in informal shifts around the clock.

Each moderator spends two to three hours on the job. If a user is too abrasive or abusive, they have the authority to ban him or her temporarily or permanently. “If it’s an angry and unpopular opinion, that’s not breaking rules. The moderator needs to make this call,” says Neoronin. On average, Reddit India bans one or two users a week.

There are currently 10 Reddit India moderators.

R/India now has more than 25,000 subscribers, up from 16,000 a year ago.

“It was very slow for the first few years,” says Neoronin. “After 2011, the number kept growing, mainly over the past two years, thanks to election — and sports-related discussions.”

Apps for quick answers
Jelly

In a user-friendly flashcard format, you can post questions about anything or anywhere on Jelly. Upload a picture and ask a question about it, and Jelly will display your question to other users who may be able to help. When you sign up, Jelly asks you to select a list of topics you can help with, and will display questions to you accordingly.

AskMe
An aggregator that uses resources from Yahoo! Answers, Answers.com, Wikipedia and WolframAlpha, AskMe will scour these resources for an answer that matches your question.

Quora
A popular service, Quora is a knowledge-sharing network that displays all questions to all users, and invites responses. Quora also has an 'India' page, featuring questions related to the country.


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