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The Strategic Invisibility of the Subreddit

The Strategic Invisibility of the Subreddit

Reddit, a message board to which users can submit content and comment on each other’s submissions, is widely considered a ‘black hole’ of the Internet. Users often construct themselves free from constraints of social norms, etiquette, or ‘political correctness’—arguments around free speech are quick to arise when Reddit is criticized as a forum for some of the expressions or conversations it allows. This idea of “free speech” can be considered alongside the user-voting system, which allows users to ‘up-vote’ or ‘down-vote’ what others post. The more votes a post has, the higher to the top of the thread it will move – with enough votes, a post ends up on the first page. Unlike Twitter, which is arranged according to individual chronological timelines, content on Reddit is organized through popular vote.

Perhaps, then, Reddit can be considered as another site of neoliberal individualism manifested on digital platforms—if Facebook encourages us to craft a self that corporations can craft targeted ads toward, and Twitter functions through ideas about productivity and creation of original thoughts, then Reddit is a space created and maintained by arguments against regulation and censorship as limitations against individual, autonomous will. 

Given the construction of Reddit as a ‘free zone’ that users have the choice to enter and exit—if you don’t like it, leave—it is unsurprising that sexism, racism, and other ‘isms’ are abundant and have been well documented and thoroughly discussed.

From redditisterrible.tumblr.com

What is perhaps surprising, then, is that in a space I have often heard others categorize or dismiss as a haven for white cis-het men, there are several communities of the same groups that are the same who will often come under attack in relatively uncensored platforms like Reddit: there is a feminist subreddit, a transgender subreddit, and a Black women subreddit.

These subreddits, it seems, are not seeking to transform the platform itself (except, in my browsing, for Where Are The Feminists, which “showcase[s] anti-feminist activity” on the feminist subreddits). The 'Black Ladies' subreddit describes itself as

“a broad and varied collective of women, with a plethora of interests and unique voices, and (almost) nothing is off limits. Wanna talk about how your day went? Go for it! Wanna talk about how your day didn’t go? That’s cool, too. Self-posts and linked posts are both encouraged, as we want to encourage discussion, foster a sense of community, and provide a positive and inclusive space.”

Rather, the goal seems to be to create a space for sharing a variety of resources and discussing a range of topics—some explicitly political, many not: artwork, music, news, questions—so the question is: why Reddit?

In her book ‘Unmarked: The Politics of Performance,’ Peggy Phelan argues that there is potential power for the subaltern in remaining unseen politically rather than striving for visibility or representation which, she argues, is likely to perpetuate rather than subvert dominant discourses.  This strategic invisibility may offer one way of understanding the existence of communities of marginalized identities on a space like Reddit, generally considered hostile, abusive, and offensive. While there are areas of Reddit, to think spatially, that contain highly offensive material, there seems to be a form of segregation occurring that prevents too much interaction between, for example, the users of the Black Ladies subreddit and users who would post racist material or comments; this is the only way I can imagine the Black Ladies subreddit maintaining itself as a “safe space,” as the title describes.

But I see strategic invisibility functioning more importantly in relation to mainstream platforms (only 6% of online adults use Reddit). While there are many websites, blogs and platforms geared towards women, as there are those geared towards Black users (such as The Root) there are few spaces defined by a recognition of the overlapping of those identities (a notable exception: Black Girl Dangerous). As many Black feminist theorists have described, most famously Kimberle Crenshaw, this mutually exclusive conceptualization of race and gender has often forced Black women to artificially choose or prioritize one or the other. The Black Ladies subreddit, then, offers an alternative to larger platforms where identity is narrowly defined and commodified (e.g. Jezebel) and an opportunity for safe(r) self-definition through tactical invisibility.

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