This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
Reddit, the so-called “front page of the Internet”, is many things. It’s the safe space of neckbearded conspiracy theorists and flat earthers. It’s the virtual sinkhole of online smut, from thirst traps to porn to erotic Harry Potter fan fiction. And it is also, as it turns out, a place for people who have engaged in unprotected sex to verify whether or not they’ve contracted an STI. With pics.
This according to new research from the University of California, San Diego, which found that thousands of netizens are turning to Reddit for a "crowd diagnosis" on their potential venereal diseases. Often these requests for advice are accompanied by photos of the poster’s symptom/s, along with a simple and straightforward question: “is this herpes?”; “could I have gonorrhea?”; “what’s wrong with my penis?” And other people, for reasons unknown, will offer their often less-than-professional insights.
"It's different from 'Dr Google' because on Google, you're searching from information and ciphering through it yourself and trying to figure out what's relevant," said Dr Alicia Nobles, a data scientist at the University of California San Diego and the lead researcher of the study, according to the ABC. "Whereas on Reddit, you're reaching out to people like you, asking them what their experience is."
One of the more popular subreddits for this kind of thing is called r/STD, which has more than 10,000 members and more than 17,000 posts. Researchers analysed a sample set from r/STD and found that 58 percent of posts were "explicitly requesting a crowd-diagnosis". Of those, 31 percent included a picture.
As Dr Nobles is quick to point out, crowdsourcing sexual health advice from faceless strangers on the internet poses some worrying pitfalls. "If people are using [this information] to inform their medical decisions, it could lead to them not receiving the treatment or resources they need," she said. But Andrea Waling, from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, argues that these kinds of online spaces “can give a bit of peer support” and allow people to engage with others who "understand what [they're] going through".
"There's a lot research that suggests peer-informed information is really useful and valuable," she told the ABC. "[Particularly} if you're a young or an older LGBTI person, you're not likely to want to go to a mainstream provider for fear of homophobia, transphobia or biphobia. [And] if you're from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, there's a concern about racism or discrimination, or cultural barriers—maybe you don't feel you can go to a sexual health service."
In Dr Waling’s views, it is precisely the faceless and informal nature of Reddit that so many people might find appealing. Anything to avoid having to interact with a real, flesh-and-blood human when getting out one’s possibly infected genitals.
"It's just as common as catching a cold or flu,” she said. “But we still frame STIs in this kind of notion as dirty or unhygienic."