On Reddit, April Fool’s jokes turn into insights on human psychology

Posted: April 2, 2016 by Jaden C. Kilmer in Article
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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Here’s a question for you all. How many random internet users do you think can join a chat room before someone starts ruining it for everybody? Or in other words, what’s the ratio out there of trolls to, well, normal interneters?

Reddit’s annual April Fool’s joke seems to have an answer: About one in fifty.

The website perhaps better known for being the birthplace of the Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord theory and the hosting site for celebrities to answer questions from its user base (called AMAs, here’s Obama’s.) unveils an April Fool’s joke every year that usually ends up acting as a strange sort of social experiment. This year, users can elect to push a button, which sends them to a chat room with one other person, and the options “abandon, stay, grow” on one side as a notification informs them that they have x minutes to make their choice. If you abandon, it kicks you out of the experiment. If you stay, nothing happens. If you grow, you get sent into another room, merged with members of another group that also decided to grow.

So what would happen? It’s easy to think nothing of it- to say people will just go from room to room at their own desire, and it will be essentially chatroulette just with anonymity and less nudity.

But that’s not what happened at all.

Instead, people tended to stick with their initial group. With no prior interaction with these people, no more than usernames on a screen, groups formed. Alliances were made. Almost instantly, the experiment became something of a game- make your group grow as large as possible, while controlling the course of conversation and not lose control to spammers, or even other “factions.”

Some people rallied around people with catchy usernames, others found members with the same colored username and tried to make groups of all one color. And other people quickly created spamming bots to ruin all the fun. As it turns out, once groups hit around fifty people, there would be at least one bot spamming special characters so no one could talk effectively with each other.

So once the spammers take over, it’s game over, right? Experiment over, return to standard interneting? Not really. Turns out, it seems those first groups of people actually made a bond. And once the trolls overran things, I saw more than a few groups trying to create a subreddit so that group of people could all stay together and talk more often.

It turns out, humans are social creatures. Even I, a Meyers-Briggs certified introvert, felt that weird little connection with the initial group of people I got. And that warm and fuzzy sorta-kinda internet friendship did not extend to the next several groups we met. Once one finds a group, lines are drawn. The experiment turned into a sort of virtual recruiting contest, where everyone tries to pick off members of other groups to join their own. The ones that did the best had a leader, a motto, or even hierarchies and fake backstories and legends.

It would be easy to dismiss this as lonely internet people taking a joke and running with it. But what’s so fascinating is that this is what everyone did. As humans, our first reaction is to establish a connection, a sense of belonging. Once established, we become combative. Our first friends are often the strongest and the most easily made.


 

The fact is, very few people actually seem to be at home as lone wolves. Almost everyone seeks the comfort of the group and the strength of numbers, but there are those… that thrive in chaos.

This isn’t the first time April Fool’s hijinks on reddit revealed something deceptively insightful about human interaction. Last year the reddit admins installed a virtual button, with a countdown clock ticking down from 60 seconds, saying the button would end when the clock hit zero, but if a user pressed the button, the clock would reset. Users could not press it more than once, and only accounts made before April 1, 2015 could press it. So it had a finite lifetime.

After a couple hours of curiosity and chaos, again two sides formed. One sought to keep the button going as long as possible, organizing users into shifts, waiting 50 or so seconds to click the button to prolong its existence. The other faction wanted to “destroy” the button, by infiltrating the ranks of the first faction and letting time run out when it came time for them to press.

Is this just bored redditors playing a game of “don’t let the balloon touch the ground” or indicative of something larger? Again, the sides were quickly drawn and once they were organized the two groups began to spar with each other. Again, each side picked a leader and developed a hierarchy. They even created some pretty well done art to support their “cause,” whether it be the button’s continuation or demise. And they did all this without any suggestion. Reddit simply let the button be and let the internet take over.

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In times of chaos, our first instinct is to seek order. Perhaps, extrapolating the actions of bored internet users, where the only consequence is the fate of a button or a chat room, we begin to see revelations about certain things deeply rooted in the human psyche. Perhaps we can see this effect, both to good and bad results, in organized religion- groups of people seeking order in a chaotic world, and then turning on the other groups. People seek leaders, be it God or the Pope or some dude with a catchy name on a chat room, to idolize and serve. It brings a sense of purpose and usefulness to someone. The fact is, very few people actually seem to be at home as lone wolves. Almost everyone seeks the comfort of the
group and the strength of numbers, but there are those counter examples that dinhasithrive in chaos. That follow their own rules, indifferent to the arbitrarily drawn lines. And as heroic as that sounds, it can be a detriment as well. Spamming a chat room into uselessness is one thing, but what’s its real world equivalent? What happens in the outside world when someone doesn’t feel as though they belong to anything, be it a religion, a political party, a nation, a hobby, what have you? I won’t pretend to know the answer, but there are certainly some darker possibilities.

Just how many people in the world are there like this?

I’m going to guess one in fifty.

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Comments
  1. samratkel says:

    This is a really enjoyable read. It is interesting how the internet user behaviors mirror what happens in “real life”, providing more information about how society functions where ever or how ever it forms.

    @Samantha/samratkel from
    Shadow Realities

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jenn says:

    Fascinating stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

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