A Window into Humanity
On Saturday, January 13th 2018, at around 8:07am, almost all residents and tourists in Hawaii received the following message on their phones:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL”
Of course there was no missile attack. No one was ever at risk - it was a false alarm due to a glitch from a systems test. Following this non-incident, articles around the world mostly reported on it as the oddball story of the day. There was the occasional more serious piece about the security regarding warning systems and precisely how this could have happened, but the whole thing was generally taken lightly, and within a few days the story was forgotten.
Hawaii has a residential population of nearly 1.5 million people. A significant number of these people surely thought their imminent deaths were certain, or at least very likely, when they received the warning. 40 minutes elapsed between receiving the message and being informed that it was, in fact, a false alarm. In a situation like that, this length of time is an eternity, during which much of the population was forced to confront the question: what would you do if you only had a few minutes to live? If even 1% took the message seriously, that's 15 thousand people who had this experience.
What would you have done?
I was informed of these events the same way most non-Hawaiian residents were – through various news websites. However, while the news gave me the facts of these events, Reddit gave me the story.
Reddit is the 6th most popular website in the world at the time of this writing, and yet I feel it’s commonly misunderstood. For those who browse it casually, it’s often perceived simply as a generator of memes and a way to procrastinate. To those who know a bit more, perhaps it’s understood as a nerdy internet forum. Reddit certainly is these things, but it’s much more. What Reddit truly is, is a window into humanity.
Anonymity is in the culture of Reddit – everyone on the website is anonymous by default, and all accounts have old-school internet usernames such as hitchhiker54 or goodguyfrank. This culture is preserved through the isolation of the website: it exists on the internet as a singular disconnected island, removed from the globalised network of the social media giants. There are no links to Facebook or Instagram. You don’t even need an email address to register as a user. With Reddit, no one knows who you are, and no one cares. While there are plenty of famous people who use Reddit (and reveal themselves) there are no Reddit users who have become famous.
This is incredibly liberating. Anonymity is an increasingly scarce resource in our world. Our online identities are our real identities, meaning we are, in some way, in view of everyone at all times. This is exhausting. We used to live in a world where almost all of what we did in life was forgotten. Now, so much of life gets retweeted, saved, and reposted perfectly for eternity, whether we like it or not. This means that the anonymity Reddit offers on the internet is all the more freeing – there are so few spaces in our world where you can be comfortably assured that no one is watching, ready to pass judgement. Almost everyone has to keep up a mask of some kind in their lives; everyone has a dark secret, a strange hobby, or a controversial view that, if made public, would estrange them from their friends. For millions of people worldwide, Reddit is the place they go in order to express what they cannot say as themselves.
Also, almost all conversations are public. This means that reading through the message boards of Reddit is like peering into the secret lives of everyone around you. People can say what they want without consequence, and dare to ask and discuss things that they couldn’t in public.
When people can say whatever they want without consequence, sometimes those things aren’t pleasant to hear. There are certainly communities on Reddit that are poisonous – subreddits (sections of the website) dedicated to alt-right figure worship, various forms of misogyny and misandry under different names, and far worse. But I put it to you that anonymity doesn’t corrupt us; it reveals us – or at least, our less refined selves. From this illumination, there are many things we can learn.
A chilling example was watching the subreddit dedicated to Donald Trump supporters during the recent Las Vegas shooting. Looking at the comments as the first wave of reports were coming in, lacking any details about the shooter, users spoke of immigrants and Islam being the cause. As soon as the information that the shooter was an old white male became available, their tone changed: suddenly comments were far more unsure and reserved. Questioning whether there were missing details, or simply that “there has to be more to this.” You could literally see the cognitive dissonance happen in real time.
But while these darker corners of this website undoubtedly exist, for every one of these I have found, I’ve found another that rekindles my optimism for humanity. One cannot help be cheered reading posts of encouragement from the users of loseit ¬(a subreddit dedicated to weight loss) where the support each member shows for every other seems to usurp that of the platonic ideal of the supportive best friend.
I have felt more than a bit emotionally healed reading the advice intended for others in posts on the relationships subreddit. In this community, people in situations of emotional distress often pour their hearts out about their spouses while pleading for guidance. They are almost always met with a tidal wave of love and understanding from strangers. For me, there’s an unmatched authenticity to this support. Those who take the time to write these considered messages have no obligation to do so; they get no reward or public recognition for it—after all, they’re all strangers to each other. They simply write out of compassion for their fellow human being.
I don’t know who these people are, but I do know that they’re out there, and they care.
Ultimately, Reddit is a place for stories. You can listen in on conversations that you’d never get to hear in real life, have your views challenged, and get answers to questions you’d never even thought to ask. In the case of the Hawaii story, the question was simply:
“People who made an impulse decision when they found out Hawaii was going to be nuked, what did you do and do you regret it?”
Having read the mainstream news, it had never even crossed my mind what a traumatic, and potentially transformative experience this must have been for some people. Reddit humanised the story - and reminded me that actual people were involved. Here are only a few of the thousands of responses:
“I made an impulse decision to stay in bed with my wife. Nowhere to go for safety, no time to get there anyway. Might as well be comfortable in bed with someone I love.”
“Cleared out the fridge and hid in it for 6 hours. Got the alert with 2% battery, so had no idea it was fake”
“Rolled out of bed and told my boyfriend “well, how about i make us one last cup of coffee before we die” then proceeded to the kitchen to brew a small pot. All I wanted was one last time do one of my favourite things, sit and talk stories with him with coffee and cigarettes in the morning. Maybe it wasn’t so impulsive, but there was something about it being the last time to ever do that.”
The window of Reddit is shrinking. Recently, the website has been changing: shutting down public access to more controversial communities and discussions as advertising money gets more involved. The site’s commitment to free speech as a platform is becoming more inconsistent. This anonymous town is becoming more closed off from the world, with different districts restricting access to each other.
Some believe this is a good thing, but I’m not one of them. It was a great reassurance to me to know that there was a place I could go to observe and listen in on those whose views are counter to mine, however radically they may have differed. It was even more reassuring to me that those with such radical views had a place to vent them, and a public one at that.
I used to know what these people thought; now, increasingly, I do not. In our world it seems to be increasingly difficult to truly listen to and understand one and other – it’s a challenge that we must overcome. Reddit once offered a tool that was useful in this endeavour. It was a way to examine views and opinions entirely removed from the bias of knowing who they belonged to. It was a place of brutal and beautiful honesty, where we could learn about the hidden lives everyone has, for better or for worse. This is slowly being lost, to the attrition of more corporate interests.
The unique, strange window of Reddit may soon be gone. Before it is, I urge you to peer through it. This is not a drill.
This piece was written as part of a writing course I took with Tim Kreider. He edited several revisions times, and provided invaluable feedback and sage wisdom in the process.