tech-features

Confessions of a Reddit 'Karma Whore'

My years-long journey to the top of Reddit's karma leaderboards has only made me feel more alone.

by Brian Burlage
03 June 2019, 4:46pm

Image: Hunter French

In September 2017, I was browsing Reddit and came across a side-by-side photo comparison of Kim Jong-un. In the left photo, the leader was shown to be normal size, and in the right photo, he’d been photoshopped to look noticeably more thin, making him seem bizarrely agile and stringy. “Skinny Kim Jong-un would make the situation with North Korea more intimidating,” the post read. It held the number one spot on the front page for a few hours and garnered 156,000 upvotes, a massive total for a single post.

I’d been aiming to go viral on Reddit for a while, and I saw my opportunity when someone commented, “Gotta say, skinny Un would make a decent Bond villain.”

“Slim Jong Un,” I quickly replied.

My comment earned 34,700 upvotes in the hours that followed.

The scales shifted for me then. A horrible pun that took all of five seconds to conjure had led tens of thousands of people to give me an upvote, a measure of validation and approval.

I had been lurking on Reddit for a few months and had recently begun to comment. Little did I know that this initial taste of virality would be the beginning of a years-long ascent to the top of Reddit's karma leaderboards.

*

I began my Reddit career on some of the site's true crime communities. I’d been watching groups of Reddit users in subreddits like r/UnresolvedMysteries volley around theories about unsolved crimes. It was sort of thrilling to think of the community as being on the verge of cracking a cold case. I wanted to be an internet sleuth.

I posted comments with my own interpretations of missing persons cases and perplexing murders. On the rare occasion one of my comments sparked a new conversation about a case, I felt proud, as though I’d performed real detective work.

This was during a period in my early 20s, shortly after college, when I was unexpectedly living at home, friendless and jobless. To stave off my boredom, I spent hour after hour on my computer. Reddit seemed like a place of spontaneity and excitement, and in my growing loneliness, the idea of a large community—and its thousands of subcommunities—appealed to me.

One day, a man directly involved in one of these cold cases responded to a comment I’d made. The man kindly corrected my uninformed speculation about a mother and daughter who had seemingly vanished, confirming for everyone in the comment section that the two remain missing to this day.

I read the comment and stopped, astonished. In all the time I’d spent on true crime subreddits, I’d never been directly confronted by someone involved in a case. I’d never considered that something like this was possible, that my online comments would have some sort of real-life consequences, no matter how small.

As much as Reddit had helped me to fill empty time, it exposed a more significant emptiness within me

As powerful as my interaction with the man from the cold case was, my mind kept returning to the fact that it was only a single comment on a single post in a single subreddit on a single day. I tried to calculate how many millions of discussions were taking place at the moment I made my comment, and the enormity of the sum made me feel like nothing but a blip on the radar, a shadow of a point.

Reddit, I realized, is vaster than I could imagine. It seemed sort of like magic.

In its sprawl, Reddit shapeshifts. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. While no two posts are ever quite the same, synchronicities and inside jokes emerge. On Reddit, people around the world play touch-and-go with news stories, politics, memes, and their hobbies, participating in an exchange of mood and culture. It's a community that entertains itself and makes a concerted effort not to be captured by the views, angles, and attitudes of more mainstream social media.

As I explored Reddit's vastness, I decided I wanted to stay away from discussion-based subreddits and subreddits focused on news and politics altogether. After learning about the rise of incels in Reddit forums, the exchange of "jailbait," and the incident in 2013 when Redditors misidentified the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and terrorized an innocent man’s family, I decided I would stick to subreddits focused on pictures, gifs, and memes.

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I recalled users I’d seen here and there who had a gimmick, like the particularly talented poem_for_your_sprog, whose every comment is an original, themed poem in reply to a post. These types of users—and there are only a famous few—exist simply for their novelty and operate independently of Reddit’s self-righteous diatribes.

It became clear to me that my next Reddit incarnation would have a simpler purpose: to do as the jokers do. My username is dickfromaccounting; I was halfway there already.

I could post cheap puns and wisecracks in the hope of scoring fake internet points, known as karma, earned by sharing a post or making a comment that gets upvoted. It’s a way to gain a hollow kind of influence, and having a lot of karma is proof that you can repeatedly capture the attention of scores of people on a site as huge as Reddit. Amassing karma is a game of hard-fought strategy, and I wanted to win.

I started making and maintaining extensive notes in my phone, compiling bits and pieces of jokes or dialogue I’d hear while watching a video on YouTube or a show on TV.

For a while, I searched for posts through the “New” filter on popular communities that I was subscribed to, so that I could pinpoint a post that I thought would have a good chance of going viral (and would thus get more visibility and traffic for upvotes), and I could be one of the first users to leave a comment, which is another way to increase visibility. After a while, I learned to place my comments well enough to time a post’s ascent to the front page of Reddit, where only a select number of posts appear to millions of users. There, the posts would get several thousand upvotes each, translating into a few thousand karma and upping my score. I knew really successful comment-oriented users boasted karma counts in the millions, and that was a tally I was absolutely determined to match.

Just a few weeks after I began this new strategy, I made the Kim Jong Un post, and suddenly, virality didn't seem so distant a dream.

But I hesitated. Going viral had been a matter of perfect timing—how was I to possibly set myself up like this again? It occurred to me that making posts, as opposed to comments, would give my karma lure more precision: I could choose when and where the hook landed.

I became a student of the site’s complicated info-sharing dynamics. Every subreddit has a different persona with its own habits, preferences, and faults. I wanted to study them all, to learn what each one wanted and how it would respond to this type of gif or that kind of image. It felt like a sociological endeavor to study the subreddit personalities and characteristics, like I was collecting data points and observations on human behavior and identity online for no purpose other than my own digital self-gain.

I shut myself up in my room. The further I removed myself from the people I knew in the real world, the further I descended into the minds of people I’ve never interacted with and would never meet again.

One day, I was perusing the all-time most upvoted posts of r/askreddit, a community where people pose questions like “What movie is so ridiculously stupid, but you love it anyway?” and “Which conspiracy theory is so believable that it might be true?”

I noticed that there was a pattern in the phrasing of some of them, that they used the same leading approach. “How would you feel,” one of the posts asks, “about a law requiring parents that receive child support to supply the court with proof of how the child support money is being spent?” What caught me about this question is that of all the questions and ways a question that can be asked, asking someone how they feel about something is plausibly the most basic way to start a broad conversation.

There was no turning back. I was, and still am, a "karma whore."

A discussion I’d had with my Mom earlier that day came to mind. We talked about how alarming it was that a person like my grandmother, who can barely see or hear and has a lead foot, can continue to drive. “How would you feel,” I asked in my post, mimicking what I'd learned about the format, “about a law that requires people over the age of 70 to pass a specialized driving test in order to continue driving?” Within a day, the post became the most upvoted question in the history of the subreddit, raking in over 120,000 upvotes. It held the record for several months, until the real Bill Gates himself (by his username thisisbillgates) broke it with a leading question of his own.

With this record-breaking post, I’d reached the end of one plane on Reddit and found the beginning of another—the mega-viral, hundreds of comments per second, karma-ka-chinging, all-time great inspiring, fame-teasing front of the “front page of the Internet.”

There was no turning back. I was, and still am, a "karma whore."

The act of seeking karma is a sensitive issue on the site. Some users post original content, or stuff that they only make themselves. These users, Redditors will tell you, are respectable because their pursuit of karma is funded by their own work and energy. But the site’s system is volatile, and not all original content is well-received. Karma whores know this in their core. Karma whores learn to be clinical and bot-like. Karma whores make nothing themselves and often pull their content from users on other sites without crediting. This recklessness, Redditors will tell you, reveals the true emptiness dwelling inside these people.

For several months, my daily routine was monastic: as soon as I rolled out of bed, I’d open Imgur, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and scour for something I could post, continuing the search through the morning, afternoon, and evening until I’d rounded up at least three or four viral posts and satisfied my own made-up quota.

This was a process of trial and error. I studied the rates at which my viral posts were upvoted minute by minute, hour by hour. I posted at different times of the day to determine when users were most active. For every viral post I made, I deleted a dozen others that failed to stick. If another post was competing with mine to trend within the subreddit, I’d downvote it, and others, in an attempt to trigger the algorithm that would give mine a boost. I reached a point where, within 15 minutes of sharing it, I could tell whether or not a post would make it to the front page.

The subreddits with the most subscribers would give me the best chances of going viral, since they have the highest number of active users, meaning the highest upvote potential. Based on the type of content I’d collect on other sites—usually cute animal gifs, interesting images, and memes—I’d target popular, media-based (as opposed to text-based) subreddits for very general interest groups: r/aww for all things cute, r/pics for all photos, and r/gaming for everything about video games. Although I could predict whether or not a post would go viral, there was no real way for me to know exactly how viral it would go. The degree to which the content went viral on other sites (measured by the number of likes or upvotes) would be some indication, but it wasn’t always a clear sign. Of the 17 Reddit posts I’ve made that have topped a hundred thousand upvotes, for example, maybe half of them were proportionally viral on the other sites. What made the other half go viral on Reddit was simply a mixture of mood and momentum.

Since learning how to master the process of matching content with its best-fitting subreddit, I have gained more than 8 million karma. Of the 250 million or so users on the site, my account is ranked 13th, and I plan to crack the top 10 very soon. According to one statistical model shared in a data subreddit earlier in 2018, my posts that year reached the front page more times than any other user on the site. "The top poster, /u/dickfromaccounting, represents about 1% of all posts that reached the front page," that analysis said.

I had conquered the front page of the front page of the internet and won an anonymous fame. All problems solved, all ailments allayed, all goals achieved. Right?

I retreated to my room, where the silence of everything but my own clicking and typing and wandering mind filled the air around me. I worked in what felt like a four-walled enclosure, a laboratory and not a bedroom.

I must admit that critics of karma whores do hit a nerve. What I do is a form of thievery. I can’t deny stealing content, nor can I pretend that attention isn’t my primary motivation for doing so. The thousands of posts I’ve made throw a spotlight on my little portion of the internet, where a tiny share of the day’s digital dialogue focuses on something I place in front of people. Without my intervention, they might not have enjoyed this interesting, funny, moving, surprising bit of media. This attention, even if only on a single post for an hour or so, makes me feel powerful, like I can exercise a certain control over what occupies people’s minds.

And yet, all along, a feeling of voicelessness and meaninglessness crept beside me. I was in pursuit of a daily adrenaline shot, this singular form of power that came from watching a post rocket to the top of Reddit’s popularity ladder. Nothing else mattered. Nothing beyond my fake internet points.

Gradually, I started eating less. I saw people less. My parents and I talked less, and I retreated to my room, where the silence of everything but my own clicking and typing and wandering mind filled the air around me. I worked in what felt like a four-walled enclosure, a laboratory and not a bedroom. When my back would ache or my neck would get tight, I’d pull myself away from my computer long enough to observe the thinness of my wrists.

As much as Reddit had helped me to fill empty time, it exposed a more significant emptiness within me. Attention on Reddit, after all, is like quicksand. Every post I shared made me feel closer to getting out, but the effort that it took to make those posts plunged me deeper into the pit.

Moderation, I thought, could be my rescue. I could resort to the thing that had initially drawn me to Reddit: a sense of community. I could become one of the users who oversees posting and commenting activity on a subreddit. I could be one of the gatekeepers, the socially responsible leader who removes the rampant hate speech and sexism and bigotry, bans repeated rule-breakers, and guides the community to more civil interaction. I might not be able to purge the site of all of its evils, but at least my time on Reddit wouldn’t be spent in total self-service.

I joined the moderation team of r/iama, a subreddit where famous celebrities, scientists, politicians, and other notable figures and groups host “ask me anything” sessions, one of the largest communities on the site. I joined the teams at r/BikiniBottomTwitter, the place for SpongeBob memes, and r/oldpeoplefacebook. I joined r/WhitePeopleTwitter, a subreddit that consists mostly of jokes and observations poking fun at white people but, in the comments, sometimes devolves into a racist spam machine and requires very active moderation.

Moderating these communities and doing my part to keep them clean and amicable does give my fascination with Reddit a bit more meaning. I know that maybe I could play some role in helping someone—a person like me passing time on their computer—feel as though the world is not always out to get them.

But emptying the site of all hatred and apathy is impossible. Every time I open the moderation tab, no matter how many times a day, new posts and comments have been reported for one reason or another. The cycle never stops, and how could it? Users wield their anonymity like a regenerative get-out-of-jail-free card, continually renewing the choice to be selfish and inconsiderate without facing any immediate consequences.

Moderators are supposed to perform the grunt work for the company, handling the day-to-day site maintenance and operation without compensation. It’s thankless work, even though moderators are the users plugging and replugging the same hole in a ship that’s perpetually taking on water. And as the Reddit public has informed me many times, I’m not only attention-hungry as a karma whore, I'm also power-hungry like all moderators. There seems to be no way to redeem myself.

By now, I know that my thinking is tinged with this strange, digital stardom. I’ve seen my posts, the work of my amused fingers, hold the attention of a sliver of the world. I’ve owned and managed places on the internet where people from all walks of life come together to talk. I’ve exceeded every goal and exacted every plan that I established for myself when I committed to wasting time on Reddit.

And now that my fame has brought me here, I find, more and more, that I’m in oddly familiar territory: As the days slog on, I can see that most of the rocks are turned over. There are very few corners left for me to check. The effort that began as a trek away from time spent by myself has, in its own time, returned me to my point of origin. I am certainly more viral-savvy for having made this online journey. I probably know people and their media consumption habits better than most. But even here, at the top of Reddit, with all the attention I’ve ever wanted, I am no less alone.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Tagged:
Reddit
personal essays
moderation