For some academics, the social network Reddit is becoming less of a guilty pleasure and more of a credible platform to discuss academic interests with people whom they otherwise would not have had a chance to debate.
Because of Reddit’s decentralized structure, any user is free to create a community, or subreddit, around any topic. That structure has spawned a range of forums, including those organized around broad subject areas such as politics, technology, and video games to catalogs of bizarre memes and safe havens for racism and misogyny. But more tightly moderated communities have also sprung up, including subreddits where anyone can post questions and receive answers from people with relevant educational or professional backgrounds.
Geoff Keelan, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Western Ontario, posts on Reddit under the username CanadianHistorian. He is particularly active in AskHistorians, a subreddit that has its own list of verified contributors. Keelan, for example, earned his Ph.D. this spring at the University of Waterloo, and the AskHistorians subreddit identifies him as an expert in—as his username would suggest—Canadian history.
For Keelan, Reddit is one part of a broader social media strategy. At conferences, he said, he prefers to follow discussions on Twitter. He uses Academia.edu, the Facebook-like social network for academics, to connect with other scholars. Reddit, he said, enables him to discuss history with people outside of academe.
“The Internet always seemed like a place that can connect people who wouldn’t normally meet,” Keelan said. “I’m really interested in … how historians can talk to Canadians about history, how we can explain the history of Canada to these people who are making it, one way or the other. Reddit seems like a community and a platform where this is possible.”
Keelan said he views the time he spends on Reddit as an extension of his more formal scholarly work, and he is not alone. Professional organizations such as the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association are searching for ways to evaluate digital scholarship in tenure and promotion cases. Interacting with the public on Reddit may fall into that category. Still, the role of digital scholarship in higher education remains a controversial topic. Just last year, the International Studies Association considered (but eventually decided against) banning its journal editors from blogging.
“There’s an obligation for historians to communicate history to the public, for scholars to connect to people,” Keelan said. “I want to study the past and discover new things about it. I need to communicate it to people in such a way that it is understandable. It’s a natural part of what historians should be doing.”
Establishing a presence on Reddit is easy for individuals, but for organizations, Reddit is one of the trickiest social networks on which to self-promote. If a user is discovered to post nothing but links to his or her own content, that account may be banned. Entire subreddits are devoted to calling out “astroturfing”—product placement and other forms of advertising made to seem as though the posts were written by real people.
Which posts become popular and which never crack the front page is ultimately up to the users. Most subreddits feature the ability to “upvote” or “downvote” posts, as do individual comments in response to those posts. “You can’t just go in there and think that people are going to pay attention to you—unless you’re a celebrity,” said Victoria Costello, senior social media and community editor for the open-access publisher PLOS. “When it comes to discussing something like an article, you have to put your time in.”
Like many online publications, PLOS occasionally checks its traffic metrics to find Reddit is sending scores of readers to seemingly random articles. Instead of trying to control that flow of traffic, the publisher recently began its own weekly AMA series—short for Ask Me Anything—in which journal article authors appear for a question-and-answer session with users in the Science subreddit.
AMAs have become one of Reddit’s signature features. The most popular one to date, featuring President Obama, attracted more than 23,000 questions and comments. “It’s very democratic in its own way, and it kind of insists on commitment in a way that we can’t or just don’t see happening fluidly in other forms, even in our own comments section,” Costello said. “If you only post your own thing, you’re considered a freeloader.”
The AMA series, known as PLOS Science Wednesday, has so far featured discussions on artificial intelligence, 3-D printing lab equipment, and fighting Ebola, among other topics. The posts normally attract anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred comments. Miriam Barlow, an associate professor at the University of California–Merced who focuses on antibiotic resistance, last month appeared in one of the AMAs to discuss a study she co-wrote. Barlow, who is not a regular Reddit user, said the experience helped her rethink her research.
“The cool thing was that we were able to answer questions to a very broad audience,” Barlow said. “They were questions that real people have.” As she and one of the other co-authors discussed how to respond to the questions, they came up with new research ideas that they intend to pursue, Barlow said.
PLOS views the AMA series as a pilot, Costello said. Future plans for the effort include focusing on a single topic—climate change—in August, and possibly expanding to other subreddits and subject areas. “What we’re looking at now is a way to find venues that are not our particular real estate on the Internet,” she said.
The pilot is also giving PLOS some insight into the role of open evaluation in peer review process—if such a role exists. “We’re moving to a place at PLOS where we really want to see publication as just one stage of the discussion,” Costello said. “The one thing that’s great about Reddit is from the first moment of the AMA, there’s a dozen to a hundred questions already waiting. It’s become more of a discussion.”