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how reddit's 'am I the asshole' forum is crowdsourcing emotional intelligence

AITA? Are you? Probably!

by Rebecca Bellan
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13 September 2019, 12:06am

We’ve all been called an asshole at least once in our lives. But how about 4,000 times? By strangers on the internet? If you’ve ever posted Reddit’s ‘Am I The Asshole Subreddit’ to learn how to improve your shitty behaviour and gain some perspective, then probably yes.

With 1.3 million members, ‘Am I The Asshole’, commonly known as AITA, is one of the most engaged subs on reddit, regularly ranking in the top nine for most comments per day.

Sometimes the queries are petty (Am I the asshole for telling a lady at the airport to shut up?), sometimes they’re profound (Am I the asshole for saying no to being a caretaker for my father who has a traumatic brain injury?), and sometimes they’re flat-out absurd (Am I the asshole for sending a coworker an unsolicited dick pic?) but in its purest form, the sub helps posters gain the perspectives of a diverse audience within a safe space. An OP (original poster) posts a moral conundrum and the community responds with a judgement and justification: YTA (You’re the Asshole), NTA (Not the Asshole), ESH (Everyone Sucks Here), or NAH (No Asshole Here). Commenters offer advice and judgement backed up with considered explanation. After 18 hours, a bot tallies up the community responses and provides a final judgement based on a majority vote.

To keep the forum from spiralling into trolldom, there are 13 rules enforced by the team of over 20 moderators. The first, and arguably the most important, is Be Civil. Commenters are encouraged to attack the argument, not the person. “The subreddit is called ‘Am I the Asshole?’ Not ‘Come rip this guy a new one,’” says Claire, 29, one of AITA’s moderators. Based in Chicago, Claire has been active on the sub for five years -- back when there was only 20,000 subscribers -- and a moderator for three. “We’re looking to find a solution”, she says.

Seeking judgement from the AITA community as a way of crowdsourcing emotional intelligence can have real value, especially for young people, who are the majority demographic on Reddit. Millennials and Gen Z, the digital natives of our society, don’t always have the highest EQ, what with being raised behind a screen. According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center and Elon University in 2012, by next year, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults will be wired differently. They willl “spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They’ll also lack deep-thinking capabilities and face-to-face social skills."

While Reddit itself has a reputation for hosting a myriad of echo chambers, AITA offers up more solutions to emotional and social problems simply by encouraging a larger range of voices to chime in. “I wanted to see a place that made people reconsider their own thoughts and ideas,” says Marc Beaulac, founder and moderator of the sub by day, product photographer in Providence, Rhode Island by night. “ Every once in a while, it pays to think, 'Am I just being defensive? There’s gonna be one asshole in this conversation. Is it possible it’s me?'”

Take the case of the guy who wanted to know if he was an asshole for not wanting to go out to restaurants because the food his girlfriend cooked at home was just as good, if not better. The TL;DR was: “Am I the asshole for not wanting to pay a restaurant to cook my meals because I practically have a private chef of my very own?” “Good lord, completely YTA…” one person replied. “Do you think your wife wants to cook every single night for you? Fuck no. She makes sacrifices of her time every time she cooks for you, which sounds like a lot, so why can’t you sacrifice some of your time to take her out and possibly show her thanks for the things she does for you?” The OP took all of the comments that explained why he was an asshole to heart, but a recent update to the post shows that his woman left him to find his own food, and he’d do anything to get her back.

Generating multiple approaches to a problem promotes a higher likelihood of making a good decision, even if you stick to your original choice, according to Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, an expert in using crowdsourcing to solve business problems and co-author of Innovation As Usual and author of What’s Your Problem? “Crowdsourcing can help you reframe the problem,” said Wedell-Wedellsborg. “When we have a problem, we tend to think, 'Hey, I’m the innocent victim, and there are these idiots in my life who are creating chaos for me.' One of the helpful reframing perspectives is to say: 'How am I contributing to this problem?'”

Anonymity helps make AITA a safe space for posters to bare their sinful souls and enjoy catharsis of social shaming without the burden of knowing they’ll have to own up to their confessions IRL. “I don’t know if it helps to shame someone for a wrong-doing,” said Dr. John Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University and author of The Psychology of Cyberspace, “but it does help to encourage them to understand why their actions might have affected others and to suggest a better alternative.”

AITA posts get a rough average of 60 comments per post, but the more popular ones can go into the thousands. Sometimes the comments are witty hot takes, but most are thoughtful and informative, encouraging an open forum that’s increasingly rare online. AITA’s strict rules and moderator system ensure a mature, safe space. But things still get heated. “Reddit tends to be younger and more liberal,” says Claire. “But conservative opinions should be valued here. You often see them at the bottom of the page, downvoted.”

Downvoting is one of the biggest threats to the sub’s integrity. Built into the fibres of Reddit is the upvote/downvote system. You upvote things that contribute to the conversation, and you downvote things that don’t -- like advertisements and trolling. You’re not meant to downvote to disagree, but people do it nonetheless, exacerbating the hive mind and doubling the value of an opinion that’s already been upvoted. Disagreements are often made irrelevant, hidden beneath a trail of comments that all espouse the same opinion and can stifle conversation. One recent post asks: “Am I the asshole for referring to a recently engaged woman as ‘sweetie’?” The OP is an older man who was recently informed by a woman at his restaurant that the term was sexist and offensive. The majority of commenters say he is an asshole, but way down at the bottom of the nearly 2,500 comments there are dissenters. They’re just harder to see. “It’s almost like an American election where it’s winner take all, and the votes don’t get divvied up as much as you might expect,” explains Stephen, another moderator.

Unsurprisingly, the mobilisation of trolls is another threat to the spirit of the sub, with right wing and misogynistic groups infiltrating AITA and taking over discussions. They also often create false scenarios designed to generate outrage in favour of their position. “At one point, it seemed like almost a third of every story was about someone having trouble relating to a trans person in life or dating,” says Marc. “And we’re certain that those things do happen to some degree, but the sheer volume of them told us that some large group was on a crusade to make people think it’s a huge problem when it isn’t. They’re there to insult, to hurl invectives that are tied to gender, and those are things that we outlaw.”

Little pockets of humanity like AITA matter in the digital world, especially ones that encourage us to question our answers and listen to different points of view. The internet inflames the tendency we have to be aware only of thoughts we already have, and less tolerant of adverse opinions. If you need an example of this, look to who’s sitting in the Oval Office right now. For the younger generations, the AITA creed could even help build up both digital and emotional literacy by challenging people to leave the bounds of their mental comfort zones. Gen Z specifically is the least independent generation; held back by feelings of fear, trepidation, and hesitation, they’re not effective problem solvers and kind of suck at dealing with stress. So it’s no wonder they turn to online communities for guidance about what is socially and emotionally normal behaviour.

An open and honest discussion -- we love to see it.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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