Very Serious Populists

Ben Shahn Voting Booths (1950)

The point of online voting systems like Reddit is not to highlight the best content, but to build and maintain hegemony

There is this strange notion, mainly in the United States, that votes are the atomic unit of democracy, giving it structure and tangibility. The civic work of picking candidates to vote for, registering people to vote, talking about whose votes matter the most and are hardest to get is supposed to culminate in an exuberant climax of polls and balloon drops. Voting is so deeply embedded in the collective conceptualization of democratic governance that one could mistake the mere opportunity to vote as sufficient proof that democracy is happening. But to reduce democracy to dutiful voting is to pull energy away from direct action and defer responsibility to civil servants invested in the status quo that protects their job. Voting, and not clicking, is the original slacktivism.

Challenging the utility of voting when so many in the U.S. are systematically disenfranchised might seem strange — if voting didn’t change anything, why did civil rights activists die for the right to vote? Why would anyone try to keep people from voting? Voter suppression, however, is arguably less about preventing people from casting ballots than about discouraging them from political involvement altogether. As the most basic emblem of political participation, voting can work as a prerequisite to a more significant engagement with politics.

Violence and intimidation tactics have always been at the heart of voting. As David Graeber puts it in The Democracy Project, “Voting is divisive. If a community lacks means to compel its members to obey a collective decision, then probably the stupidest thing one could do is stage a series of public contests in which one side will, necessarily, be seen to lose.” And even if radicals are elected to office, the structure of that office imposes demands that lead them to reinforce mainstream politics. According to Alexander Berkman in What Is Anarchism, elected radicals will find that they “must show that they are practical,” and each situation “compels them to take a ‘practical’ part in the proceedings, to ‘talk business,’ to fall in line with the matters actually dealt with in the legislative body.” Today’s “practical” people are what Duncan Black and Paul Krugman call Very Serious People: those whose prominent status as elites justifies anything they prescribe.

The Zuckerbergs of the world have taken note. They want to be Very Serious People themselves, not populists. Or, at least, they want to be Very Serious Populists. Populism should be realistic. It should ask for things within a predefined system. You can break stuff so long as its your own (think SOPA website blackouts) or the end goal is to make the thing you break stronger ("the hacker way"). They have seen representative democracy work for them and are eager to recreate it in their products. It’s no coincidence that Silicon Valley and its creations try to foster a love of meritocracy, which masks structural inequalities with mechanisms like voting. Similar to meritocracy, voting presumes that all the relevant questions and perspectives are represented and on the table, ready to be fairly implemented by a harmonious majority. There is no acknowledgement of the vast swaths of ideas and people that aren’t even considered.

This voting-as-alibi dynamic benefits tech companies in two ways. The first is rather straightforward. You don’t want your user base voting against measures that run counter to your fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. Extremely delimited and controlled votes like the one Facebook held ahead of its IPO in June 2012 exemplify Very Serious Populism: a small vote on a relatively small portion of its privacy policy that is binding only if 30 percent of its user base votes.

Just like its government equivalent, voting on social networks is also a nice way to give the illusion that anything and anyone can succeed on merit while actually maintaining the status quo through sociotechnical structures. Tech entrepreneurs deploy voting to show allegiance to their fantasy of a color-blind and genderless meritocracy, predicated on what PJ Rey has shown to be an outdated and debunked notion that the Internet allows us to transcend race, class, and gender by entering a space of pure information. Popular posts are good, the logic goes, because only the best makes it to the front page. Sites use a combination of moderators, reporting procedures, and spam filters to keep the meritocracy in order, but it is the user community (which sometimes includes volunteer moderators, depending on the platform) that polices the boundaries and defends the site from would-be attackers. In practice this often means strict enforcement of majoritarian politics. On Reddit (a completely user-moderated site), this has taken the form of protracted embargoes of Gawker media and internal conflicts between an insurgent “fempire” (a consortium of subreddits that compile and deconstruct problematic content) and the rest of the site. Gawker and the Fempire threaten the legitimacy of Reddit's system by highlighting the terrible things it enables and promotes. By ignoring the existence of other subjectivities online, these sites reproduce (as bell hooks would call it) the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Implementing voting in online forums, evidence suggests, is a good way to keep them white and full of dudes.


Reddit is probably the biggest and best known site to rely heavily on voting. Even if you don’t care about Reddit, the site’s power to raise something from relative obscurity —which is different from marginality— to front-page fame is worth paying attention to. It’s worth asking who has ready access to this power, and what do they value? In November 2013, Reddit claimed to have 90 million unique visitors. Reliable demographic data on those visitors is only just coming out and the numbers point toward white, male, and straight. According to data collected by Google, only seven highly trafficked social-media sites have more men than women: Quora, Reddit, Orkut, Github, Stack Overflow, Hacker News, and Slashdot. Of those, five — Quora, Reddit, Stack Overflow, Hacker News, and (arguably) Slashdot — ask users to vote, give “karma,” or otherwise rank one another’s participation on the site. This is corroborated by a recent Pew study that found that while 15 percent of male internet users ages 18 to 29 used the site, compared with only 5 percent of females. Two years ago a Reddit user made an informal survey that garnered 26,887 responses: 84 percent were men, 56 percent were ages 18 to 25, and 92 percent self-identified as straight. Race data is a little harder to come by, but the Pew study suggests that the site is mostly white, even though a larger percentage of Hispanic internet users use the site. 

Reddit is organized into themed subreddits, with the most popular content making it to the front page. Users can subscribe to different subreddits, with a unique URL and vastly different content requirements. Anyone can start their own subreddit and unless the moderator chooses to make the subreddit private, anyone can visit, submit links, and vote on content. No matter the subreddit submission rules, the reddiquette for voting is always the same: “If you think something contributes to conversation, upvote it. If you think it does not contribute to the subreddit it is posted in or is off-topic in a particular community, downvote it.” Comments are subject to voting as well, assuring that ones most people agree with are seen first by default. The votes on your submitted links and your comments stick with you in the form of karma points prominently displayed on a user’s profile — a mark of status that lets others know how (very) seriously one’s opinions should be taken.

On the face of it, voting mechanisms don’t force Wikipedians to misgender Chelsea Manning or lead Quora users to conclude that Eminem would win a rap battle against Kanye West. Rather, the decontextualized up or down votes on news stories, people, or lines of code — Do you, or do you not like this photo of my nine-foot Spaghetti-o bong? Do you or do you not think the CIA’s drone program is constitutional? — reinforce the status quo by choosing the topics that are up for discussion before nuanced debate can take place. You can vote up or down, but both choices reinforce the binary that directs and frames conversation aorund topics that are already established as being of interest or concern to a white male readership.

If the Internet were a direct-action consensus meeting, Reddit would be the charismatic guy trying to convince everyone to talk about Ron Paul’s thoughts on Bitcoin. It's not a perfect metaphor, because Reddit is not monolithic — the "fempire" is proof of that. But Reddit's idea of controversy is usually not so politically confrontational. At this moment, its all-time top three controversial posts are “Can reddit keep this post at equilibrium?”, “my dog is retarded but adorable,” and “I've had my PS4 controller for a little over a week. The left stick is already a flap of rubber…

This testifies to how poorly voting deals with ambiguity and divisive topics. The Very Serious Populists (some of whom are moderators) may not see an article dissecting rape culture as something that “contributes to the conversation” of r/comedy. The voting system is left as the proving ground for otherwise amorphous social phenomena, and then the upvoted rape joke and the downvoted gender analysis are taken as proxies for the subjects’ relative importance. Worse, the voting system itself reiterates the pervasive social mechanisms of control that perpetuate rape culture, producing new instances of psychic violence.

Each is different, but the process generally goes like this: Rape culture exists in the world, comedians like Daniel Tosh capitalize on it, thereby providing lots of high-production-value content advocating sexual harassment. This broadly appeals to the users of Reddit, who have already seen similar content rewarded with karma on the front page. They then can post it for their own karmic profit, which grants them further power to reinforce rape culture in the media spaces they dominate. (If you search “Daniel Tosh” on Reddit, the story with the highest net upvotes is the Louis CK interview with Jon Stewart where they discuss the “rape joke controversy,” and Louis says feminists can’t take a joke and Jon applauds him for “growing as a person.”)

If the content you find important never makes it to the front page, you write off the site as “not for you” and let your account wither and die. Repeat that process, and the site’s user base and content become homogenous and predictable.

Extreme concentrations of power in the hands of a few users has happened on past crowdsourcing-driven sites. Digg, a site that remains alive in name only, went the way of an oligarchic state before eventually failing. In only two years, the top 100 users were controlling 56 percent of the homepage content. But on Reddit, there are enough social-media banana republics that they can stave off a similar fate. Each subreddit may have its own charismatic leader, but there are enough subreddits that the promise of reaching the front page is always there.

Still, Reddit is less compelling if the popular stories don’t speak to you. One could point to the existence of an anarcha-feminist subreddit as evidence that the platform can support any number of sociopolitical beliefs and identities, but the numbers of participants in these subreddits say otherwise: 1,415 registered readers on /r/anarchafeminism to the 81,935 readers on the infamous Mens’ Rights subreddit. To be fair, interesting content and productive conversations can and do happen on Reddit, but these seem to happen in spite of or, in the case of the Fempire, as a direct criticism of the hegemonic discourse that the site excels at promoting.


Voting-oriented sites are often billed as exercises in crowdsourcing: Thousands of Reddit users take the place of Buzzfeed editors, and the hundreds of Quora users answering a question about the relative merits of Android over iOS replace the technology reviewer. But voting doesn’t foster virality so much as it encourages Redditors to play on well-worn tropes and memes to ensure a better chance at making the front page. The never-ending elections and karma hunts incentivize Redditors to try to craft perfect social media content just as canned and constrained as typical politicians. Users have begun to notice this uniformity in the sites' comments, link titles, and even the content itself but there isn’t much that can be done. While using common phrases (Reddit’s are compiled here) are one of the more basic methods of forming and performing in group status, the karma-driven voting system asks the Redditor to wield cat GIFs and Xbox stories as a presidential speech writer might wield God and family.

Sites with an inverse proportion of women and people of color to Reddit's display popular or trending content, but those posting this content are not elevated to the level of election winners. The way these other sites are structured makes it possible for contributions to be validated without earning the adoration of a male-dominated crowd. It's no small wonder, then, that Instagram is where girls can exercise self-pride (and care) through posting a selfie, and Pinterest’s (somewhat problematic) femininity has given its female users a safe space to interact online.

Sites like Reddit will remain structurally incapable of producing non-hegemonic content because the “crowd” is still subject to structural oppression. You might choose to stay within the safe confines of your familiar subreddit, but the site as a whole will never feel like yours. The site promotes mundanity and repetition over experimentation and diversity by presenting the user with a too-accurate picture of what appeals to the entrenched user base. As long as the “wisdom of the crowds” is treated as colorblind and gender neutral, the white guy is always going to be the loudest.

Of course, the stakes in voting in a government dwarf those of voting as a social media feature. It would be trite to equate the state violence inflicted by legislatures whenever, say, another abortion clinic is shut down to the proliferation of sophomoric content on Reddit. But both are a product of majoritarian voting’s enforcement of the status quo and can be defended as the “will of the people” exercising their “free speech.”

The limitations of representative democracy are much more obvious when your representative never looks like you and the issues that affect your life are never debated, let alone addressed. Then it becomes much easier to see that the electoral system isn’t broken; it is instead working to maintain power inequities. Or as Reddit’s co-founder Alexis Ohanian has said, “It's easy to get really disillusioned with government, but they still work for us.” It is unclear who Ohanian’s “us” refers to, but the fight to belong to that “us” is ongoing for many.

Voting on social-media sites eventually unites and distills the user base to a small minority of like-minded content-producers who seek out story "candidates" with the terrible accuracy of a beltway pollster. It doesn’t even matter that, unlike Facebook, Reddit’s source code is open source, because it is nearly inconceivable that the community would agree to dismantle the voting mechanism that lies at the heart of the site. The Very Serious Populists would tell you to go make your own site if Reddit bothers you so much. And maybe they’re right. When their communities die, let's hope they die of apathy.