My Reddit Utopia

Everything you think you know about “the front page of the Internet” is wrong.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Illustration by J. Howard Miller courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Morning naptime is complicated. My baby doesn’t just drift off alone in his bed. He generally needs to nurse for at least 20 minutes to fall asleep. He frequently demands to nurse for the entire “nap.” This means I am stuck lying down, breast-feeding in a dark room, for much of every morning. It gets boring pretty fast: It’s too dark in there to read a book, I’m too wired to sleep, and I cant write emails very well with just one hand holding my phone, lying on my side. The only thing that makes it bearable for me is Reddit.

I joined Reddit about three years ago, after watching my husband browse the site and skip over all the interesting posts in favor of ones about fantasy baseball and piano jazz. (Our computer is also our TV, because my husband built our computer from scratch, an idea he got from Reddit—shout-out to r/buildapc.) When I made my own account, I quickly discovered that Reddit was going to be The Thing I Do on My Phone. I’m not on Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media. The New York Times app only gets me so far. Reddit is my Internet home.

The media portrayal of Reddit is as a bastion of child pornography, sexist harassment, and mob fervor. Anderson Cooper famously blasted Reddit for its “jailbait” subreddit. (Subreddits, or “subs,” are smaller forums within Reddit dedicated to specific topics.) The Gamergate controversy revealed a truly disturbing, violently sexist side of the website. The witch-hunt in the aftermath of the Boston bombing, fueled on Reddit by the wild speculation of amateur sleuths, resulted in several people being falsely accused of awful crimes. When Reddit sensibly banned five “questionable” subreddits after repeated warnings against online harassment, many Redditors went berserk in the name of free speech. Recent coverage of Reddit has focused on the resignation of interim CEO Ellen Pao, who was viciously attacked, bullied, and threatened by Redditors for supposedly firing a well-liked employee, despite a complete lack of evidence that Pao was involved (she wasn’t).

The Reddit portrayed in these episodes bears almost no resemblance to the site I visit daily. And when you think of Reddit—if you ever do—you probably don’t picture me. I don’t use the anonymity of the Internet to stalk, harass, or threaten anyone. I don’t play video games or engage in cosplay (a term I only learned through Reddit). I don’t gravitate toward sci-fi, I don’t live in my parents’ basement, and I’m not an engineer. I am not a neckbeard (another term that Reddit taught me). I’m a stay-at-home mom with (if I say so myself) pretty exemplary social skills and my act (for the most part) together.

Once in a while, these facts make me feel like a minority among Reddit users. R/suggestmeabook, for instance, one of the many subreddits to which I subscribe, seems to consist mostly of an endless stream of requests for sci-fi or fantasy books that are just like ASOIAF (I had to look that one up). I’m not a moderator or even a particularly frequent commenter. Mostly I lurk. And I love it.

The posts and links on Reddit are often interesting, but it’s the comments that draw me in, because Reddit is a huge community of smart, educated, witty, insightful, and kind people from all over the world. The comments on Reddit make me laugh out loud; they lead me to other fascinating articles I wouldn’t have known about; they reference Reddit inside jokes that I’m now finally starting to get. (Google “Reddit Kevin” and you will find one of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve ever come across on the Internet, or anywhere.)

Reddit is what you make it. I never even see most of the racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive stuff that everyone’s always complaining about. I was aware of the harassment of Ellen Pao, but mostly via the friendly people at r/outoftheloop, who kept many of us informed. Since I don’t subscribe to any subreddits that would condone or permit such harassment, that sort of hate is largely invisible to me.

My Reddit is utopian. It consists of daily updates on Bernie Sanders’ campaign from r/progressive, which actually make me think he has a chance in hell of becoming president (he doesn’t, right?). Or mesmerizing GIFs and images from r/whoadude that would totally make me say “Whoa, dude” if I weren’t lying next to a sleeping baby. Or pictures of people’s amazingly intricate cakes and cookies on r/baking, or crazy relationship drama on r/relationships, which is often entertaining and often totally nuts. I have learned so much from r/askscience and r/askhistorians, not to mention r/slowcooking, which has been a solid source of dinner recipes.

My Reddit is also extremely feminist-oriented. There’s r/feminism and r/breastfeeding and r/TrollXChromosomes, which I recently joined and seems to consist mainly of reaction GIFs about women’s issues, but which has given me tremendous insight into how delightfully bawdy and sexually expressive younger women can be. (On TrollXChromosomes, menstruation is known as “shark week” and discussed with the same gallows humor and occasional light self-pity that I’d only previously encountered among my girlfriends.) R/bigboobproblems is fun for those of us who have those sorts of problems. R/raisedbynarcissists is a bona fide support group for people who are often suffering greatly under the weight of trauma and abuse, and it’s one of the warmest, most supportive, and empathetic spots there is. I have personally found so much helpful advice and information there that have literally transformed my relationship with the narcissist in my life.

And then there are the parenting subs—I am subscribed to no less than 15 of them, and my favorite is one whose rules specifically prohibit me from mentioning it here (it’s like Fight Club). It is a community of moms only, often women who are isolated geographically or socially; Reddit is their primary form of social support. These women are brutally honest about their daily trials and give me so much perspective about my life as a mom and housewife. They share their minor frustrations—with humor, empathy, and sometimes rage—but also their struggles with addiction, divorce, domestic abuse, illness, death of a partner, suicide, you name it. And the comments on this sub are so warm and open, so kind and compassionate, that it brings tears to my eyes sometimes. In some ways, it feels like the most feminist subreddit that I read, because for these women—who feel so alone in their problems and whose work is so often invisible—it’s a safe space where they can be honest and seek non-judgmental advice and commiseration from other women.

I’ve witnessed so many kindnesses on Reddit: people donating organs to each other; people sending each other money and gifts; people showing up at someone’s Atlanta barbecue that all his friends bailed on (seriously, that actually happened!); people offering couches to sleep on, medical and legal counsel, and streams of advice. Arnold Schwarzenegger literally lurks on Reddit, waiting to dispense helpful counsel to discouraged gym-goers!

In my experience, Reddit is just a microcosm of humanity. It’s a generally tech-savvy and scientifically inclined sliver of humanity, sure, but a much more diverse group of people than you might think. Any other Reddit user could write a completely different piece than mine, detailing his exploits on various subreddits that I’ve never even heard of. Just like any group of people, some of them are immature, insecure bullies. Some of them are people I would never want to associate with in reality or on the anonymous Internet. But most people IRL are great, and most of Reddit—or at least, most of my Reddit—is, too.