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MIT Students Can Get 'Credit for Reddit'

MIT began offering a Reddit research course last spring.

by Jason Koebler
Aug 25 2014, 3:20pm

Image: Flickr/Blake Patterson

Judging by just  how crazy popular the site is, lots of college students spend lots of time fooling around on Reddit. But now, at MIT, students can actually get credit for studying the site in a new class that's been dubbed "Credit for Reddit" by its instructor.

There's obviously a bit more to the class than browsing and participating on Reddit. Instead, students study the theory behind what makes the site work, and compare and contrast it with other social media

The idea came to the class' co-instructor Chris Peterson as he was doing a research project on Reddit, and then crystalized about 10 months ago (naturally, through a Reddit post he made about forming the class), when he realized there was a dearth of research about the site.

"When I was looking for a researcher for my thesis, I got an email from a student that said well, 'I already spend all of my time on Reddit, I might as well get credit for it,'" Peterson, who teaches the class with colleague Ed Schiappa, told me. 

nobody disputes that something's important if it's on the front page of the New York Times

The class grew out of that comment, and out of the idea that social media is deeply understudied. "One of the things we try to do in this class is make sure people understand that the technology they use in their daily lives is rooted very deeply in important social issues," he added.

Among those are groupthink and group behaviors, the origins and psychology of crowd funding, and social power dynamics. Last spring, students also did more specific projects, taking a look at whether cryptocurrency tipping (with Doge tip bot) actually inspired people to use Dogecoin (turns out it does), what sorts of headlines did best on the site, and why people find Tinder swiping so addictive.

In other words, the class isn't just Credit for Reddit, though that's how it's popularly referred to on campus. Technically, it's a comparative media class in which Reddit is used to teach students how to scrape information from huge databases, perform statistical analysis on it, and spit it out in an easily digestible way. Students could also study other social media, and Peterson says the class wasn't "joined at the hip" to Reddit.

"I had to explain to faculty who didn't use Reddit why it was important. Well, nobody disputes that something's important if it's on the front page of the New York Times," he said of his original thesis project. "It might be there for different reasons [than the Times], but if something is on the front page of Reddit, now it matters. It tells you something about that community and what they find important."

He's right. By some metrics, social media now drives more traffic to news sites than search does, and that percentage is only growing. Understanding how and why people use social media to share things, and why people upvote, downvote, or comment on certain content has massive implications for how information is disseminated (and who's doing the disseminating). 

Peterson won't be offering it this semester, but the class will be back in the spring, he said. We've already got classes about Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, and The Sopranos, so perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Reddit finally has one, too.

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