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Mobilizing Online Consensus: Net Neutrality and the India Subreddit

Posted by Sujeet George at Sep 27, 2016 04:30 AM |
This essay by Sujeet George is part of the 'Studying Internet in India' series. The author offers a preliminary gesture towards understanding reddit’s usage and breadth in the Indian context. Through an analysis of the “India” subreddit and examining the manner and context in which information and ideas are shared, proposed, and debunked, the paper aspires to formulate a methodology for interrogating sites like reddit that offer the possibilities of social mediation, even as users maintain a limited amount of privacy. At the same time, to what extent can such news aggregator sites direct the ways in which opinions and news flows change course as a true marker of information generation responding to user inputs.

 

Introduction

It is almost an Internet truism that the comments section on any website is the cesspool that festers the basest of human instincts. Insults and abuses abound, users ‘call out’ each other’s opinions, their choice of words and, on a bad regular day, even each other’s parentage. The spectre of online anonymity, it has been suggested, affords the possibility of channelling opinion without being accountable for it. This is the more cynical outlook on how online opinion forums function; a viewpoint which although credible is limited as it sidelines the more engaging aspects of these forums. Such an interface dynamic has historically offered two modes of checks and balances: the original content to which users commented on was determined (and often written) by the administrators of the website, and in many cases the comments were moderated by those who ran the website.

Social news websites in the age of Web 2.0 have radically altered the means of production of content. By handing over to web-users the keys to the content generation storehouse, news aggregator websites like 4chan and Reddit have supposedly democratized the volume and direction of news flow. Users create (and recycle) content on which other users comment and add more content through memes, sharing of links, pictures and videos. Somewhere along the line, the original post (op) may trigger more specific discussions.

The content generated on a news aggregating website like Reddit can thus, theoretically, range across a broad spectrum. From discussions on current technology and sharing of world news to more specific conversations on gardening or anime, the website brings together diverse interests under a singular platform. Topic-based posts and discussions are categorised into subreddits, subcommunities which converge around similar interests. Thus, a subreddit like /r/cricket may serve as a platform for cricket enthusiasts to share news and views on the game. These subreddits together constitute Reddit as a whole. Only registered users can post submissions or comment on other posts, although unregistered users can access the submissions without being able to comment on them. Registered users can upvote and downvote both the posts submitted and the comments posted by other users.

Any registered Reddit user can create a subreddit to initiate submissions and discussions on a particular area of interest. Reddit has a series of default subreddits, including /r/AskReddit, /r/books, /r/history among others. When an unregistered user accesses the website they are likely to see the current top-voted posts from a combination of the default subreddits. The voting system is inextricably linked to visibility: the more the upvotes a post receives, the more likely it is to be top of the list on the self-proclaimed front page of the internet. The posts are thus sorted as a combination of top-voted submissions from an assortment of default subreddits. Comments on specific posts also follow a similar voting logic whereby users can upvote/downvote a specific comment based on how useful or relevant they find it to the original post. Registered users can curate their own page by subscribing to subreddits of their own interest, and unsubscribing from the default ones.

Being a registered user entails choosing a username under which a user’s submissions and comments are collated. Every user comment receives an aggregate score which is the sum of the upvotes and downvotes the comment has received. The cumulative comment scores for every user, called karma, is visible to every other user, and is often an indicator of the level of (in)activity of a specific user. Karma scores are the veritable fiat currency of the reddit space, with prolific users being visible on multiple popular threads attempting to scale their karma aggregate through comments that employ a combination of wit, hyperbole, cliché and outrage.

Reddit with its two-way dynamism—the users are the creators of content and the very people who comment on it—seemingly throws open the spectrum for content to be self-generated and moderated. Every subreddit has a set of moderators who attempt to maintain a modicum of direction amidst the chaos. Moderators are often users who are active on that particular subreddit, or have volunteered (or have been chosen by the subreddit community) to take up the task of maintaining the decorum and coherence of the subreddit. Reddit’s voting system, where users upvote and downvote submitted content, purports to ensure that the cream can constantly float above the morass. The infrastructural logic of Reddit—an algorithm that ensures that posts do not stagnate on the front page and get regularly refreshed by newer content—seeks to instill a participatory ethos where content created/submitted by users gains traction based on the extent of discussion that it generates among other users [1].

A characteristic of the reddit platform is the Ask Me Anything feature where notable individuals set a pre-determined time slot to answer questions raised by users of a subreddit community. The AMA format offers an interesting take on the possibilities of public engagement and publicity in the virtual domain. A unique feature of reddit, the popular AMAs are held on the default /r/IAMA subreddit. The earliest AMAs were coordinated by the founders as well as employees of the website; to an extent this is true even today although in recent times the public relations team of various celebrities have coordinated AMAs for their clients. It remains one of the most popular modes of user engagement, ironically functioning through external, mediated mechanisms. Most AMAs serve a dual purpose: celebrities offer to answer questions when they are ‘in the news’ or when they wish to publicize a new venture, which also serves as an endorsement of the popularity of the reddit platform in reaching out to a wide, primarily North American, audience. An early instance of an acknowledgement of the reach of the reddit platform was an AMA conducted by/for Barack Obama as he sought to be re-elected during the 2012 U.S. Presidential elections. Other notable ‘celebrity’ AMA sessions include those by Bill Gates, Madonna, and Edward Snowden. While celebrity AMAs remain a popular feature, the AMA format itself is utilised even by relatively less established personalities who have their own unique story to share. While /r/IAMA remains the default subreddit used to reach out to the reddit community, specific subreddits often conduct their own AMAs with personalities relevant to the group.

The India subreddit /r/India, the forum for content “directly about India and Indians,” has been a part of Reddit since 2008. At the time of writing this essay there are over 55000 registered Reddit users (including this writer) who subscribe to submissions posted on /r/India. Of course, there may be many more who ‘lurk’ around, a term for those who may not have subscribed but view submissions posted on the subreddit by visiting the subreddit page. /r/India typically draws in over 2 million page views every month. Over time the community has developed a vocabulary of its own, which is often self-referential and draws on submissions and comments that have been made at an earlier time. Many prolific users with characteristic usernames are recognized by fellow users, the sociality perhaps further strengthened through the annual city-based meet-ups that are planned as part of a larger Reddit tradition.

This essay looks at the mobilization of community opinion on /r/India on the issue of net neutrality, the efforts made by some of the users to raise awareness about it, and the ways in which the community responded and reacted to a wider online movement that sought to maintain a more egalitarian approach to Internet access and availability. Drawing on an analysis of a few posts submitted during a period that witnessed a flurry of activity in connection with the debates around net neutrality in India, the essay attempts to sketch out the contours of the debate around the axis of online activity and participation. It seeks to ponder on the extent to which a forum like the India subreddit offers the possibilities of a civic participation, of mobilizing public opinion and contributing to the decisions undertaken by policy makers. How do purportedly diverse online communities interact, draw consensus and stake a claim to the decision-making processes that involve multiple stakeholders often with conflicting interests?

The Social in the Virtual Rear-view Mirror

The form of any subreddit, with its defined purpose and rules of submission, ensures a certain coherence even amidst the cornucopia of memes, images and other web links that may be shared and commented upon. The governing logic of a particular subreddit accords it a certain hue, which most users attempt to conform to or occasionally subvert. The specificity of any subreddit, thus, is a mutually constitutive process where the original tech-interface guidelines are negotiated by the content submitted by users of the subreddit.

Tragedy of India
Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/4s5bpn/tragedy_of_india/.

User behaviour on new media platforms can be understood as a virtual manifestation of traits that are exhibited in the domain of the social in real life. Consider the discussion sparked off by a post that was submitted about 4 weeks back, and which has catapulted to the top of the all time top voted submissions on the subreddit [2]. It contrasts the shoddy construction by the Maharashtra government in 2013 of a section of a fort staircase, with the more stable lasting section built by Shivaji in the 17th century. The user who posted the image commented on the dubious nature of infrastructural work in the present day, blaming corruption for the disparity in the quality of work. Juxtaposing historical nostalgia with an apathy about the present state-of-affairs, the comments and discussions around the post veered from questions of the feasibility of implementing older construction methods, to the widespread nepotism and corruption prevalent in public work contracts in the present day. One user remarked, “I'm guessing Shivaji didn't hand out the contracts for building his forts to the lowest bidder.” Another chimed in that “[no] tender is clean. It's often created, mapped, prepared and executed by the company and middleman willing to shell out the most to the bureaucrats and politicians.”

A popular motif on many submissions on /r/India is a lamentation on the tangled mess between the bureaucracy and legislature. It extends the generic urban middle class antipathy towards governance and its deep suspicion of the probity of the administrative processes of the Indian State. One user-comment tried to explain the popularity of the submitted post—a common indicator of content popularity on Reddit is the number of upvotes it receives and the extent of user participation through comments—to the highly ‘relatable’ nature of the submission.

The character of an online forum, while being shaped by diverse user behaviour, is invariably crystallized by the more dominant modes of representation. The anonymity afforded by the online medium and the potential infinitude of the range of submissions should theoretically stretch the spectrum of representations. Yet user behaviour often conforms in a bid to confirm its own shared identity within the group. What is then understood as relatable is not necessarily a universal, but merely an accommodation of difference through consensus. In the following sections I attempt to make sense of the processes through which such a consensus is drawn by considering the trajectory of discussions on posts pertaining to debates on net neutrality [3].

The Anatomy of an Online Mobilization

The discussions around questions of net neutrality, Facebook’s Free Basics, differential data pricing, and restricted access to OTT services have captured the Indian public imagination in the last 18-odd months. Multiple consultation papers shared by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) have served as a rallying point for domain experts, media policy analysts and the general public. The series of consultation papers and the questions that have arisen over specific practices of telecom companies are imagined through the essay as a single event punctuated by temporal fissures. It has its own prehistory, a call to arms, and the eventual (fleeting) redemption. The differing discourse around the issue is contextually singular even if separated by chronology.

On February 8 this year, an /r/India user shared a news report about TRAI declaring zero-rated products as illegal [4]. Months of collaboration among faceless internet users had managed a key victory in what was repeatedly termed a battle to save the Internet. User comments highlighted the scale of the task accomplished as “a bunch of folks on the Internet [stopped] a $300 billion market cap corporation [Facebook] and a bunch of telecoms with strong lobbying capabilities.” Some users could not see past the irony of the Internet itself serving as a means for the public to halt rapacious tech companies in their stride. The David v/s Goliath analogy seemed apt. The task, though, had just begun, as one user presciently noted: “Mobilizing people is hard. Mobilizing people against a better funded lobby, and on a dry technical topic ? really hard. We are probably going to need a dedicated NGO, mailing lists, donations and members for this and similar issues.”

The debates surrounding net neutrality have sparked a diverse range of questions related to Internet access, differential pricing, restraints on technology, impediments to freedom of expression and questions of consumer choice. The range of issues and stakeholders encompassed within the policy regulation has simultaneously atomised and collectivised the problematic of Internet. As an increasingly everyday technology for many urban Indians, Internet usage has carried the possibility of innovative and easy access to a range of services and information while circumventing hitherto static structures of the administrative machinery. Internet usage in the Indian context can be regarded as both a symbol of egalitarianism and privilege; a conflation of the larger ideal of enterprise espoused by the technological boom and a reluctantly understated reflection of the very technology being of limited wider accessibility. The debates on Internet usage through the very medium thus contains some of the tensions that were echoed in the responses to the questions on net neutrality that were raised on the Indian subreddit.

These debates, circulating across news mediums both print and digital, found their way into the /r/India cosmos through efforts to raise awareness about the issue and to bring about a greater collective bargaining momentum to the efforts in the digital space. A post on December 25, 2014 announced the efforts being undertaken by various media practitioners through the creation of the website http://netneutrality.in/ which later became http://www.savetheinternet.in/ [5]. As a submission in the early life of the net neutrality event the post garnered enough attention to find its way into the vocabulary of the subreddit.

It was, however, not until three months later that perhaps the most comprehensive early exhortation came through a post titled Let's fight for Net Neutrality before it becomes necessary. E-Mail the TRAI now [6]. submitted on March 28, 2015 by one of the subreddit moderators. The post called for users to mail the TRAI and join in the efforts to influence upon policy makers on the need for a neutral Internet. User comments ranged from a creating email templates to a brief primer on the meaning and scope of net neutrality. That the public counter fight was still in the planning stage is evident in the numerous user comments volunteering to craft an email template to be sent.

The possibilities of a collaborative enterprise were much more evident in another mod-post, submitted on April 8, 2015 titled Fight for Net Neutrality: The way forward [7]. The post assembled the increasing momentum that the net neutrality movement had garnered in the Indian virtual space. Varying email templates to be shared among peer groups were presented, enterprising users created memes and infographics, while more sinister minds listed out companies that openly flouted net neutrality rules. The aim was not just to organise, but to also synchronize the efforts of a purportedly disparate group of users.

Even as user efforts were directed towards raising awareness about net neutrality among a wider audience, the sheer scale of the task and improbable hurdles on the road where highlighted by some. One post speculated on the connection between the timing of TRAI’s consultation paper and the fact that the Director of TRAI was due to retire in May 2015 [8]. The user feared that “the decision on TRAI proposal has already been made. The public is asked to comment on the OTT proposal because it is required by norm (not sure about law). They are waiting for Mr Khullar to retire, so they can blame him for the colossal backlash that will happen when the proposal is ratified.”

In the next few months the momentum of the movement ebbed and flowed, with diligent users posting regular updates on the progress. Even as the Internet rights discourse on the forum sought to be balanced with the logic of the market, there emerged a series of reactionary submissions that seemed to combine a distrust of large telecoms with the emancipatory spirit of a virtual civil disobedience.

Zero Rating the Zero-Rated Apps

Concurrent with the efforts at the level of governance, /r/India users employed creative means to show their displeasure towards companies who seemed to oppose the tenets of net neutrality. One such instance was when a user galvanised forum opinion to down-rate the Flipkart and Airtel apps on their phones. Flipkart CEO Sachin Bansal’s justification for zero-rated apps as sound business practice was turned inside-out as users gave a zero rating to the Flipkart app on their phones. The impact was ostensibly evident as the daily average ratings for the app saw a sharp fall [9].

Diatribes against telecom companies and their profit-driven enterprise have now become a regular feature on the forum. The mobile network Airtel, which has been at the forefront of the anti-net neutrality lobby, has faced its share of the community ire. Branded Chortel—an (un)imaginative coinage characterizing the supposed thieving policies of the company—the company along with Flipkart has been subject to a series of memes that invoke ridicule and hint at the sense of disconnect between consumers and the products on offer. The image shown above contrasts a popular biscuit brand Parle-G with the recently launched Airtel 4G Internet [10]. It employs Parle’s long unblemished reputation as a brand of reliability; its iconicity a signifier of a purported business of ethics that feels anachronistic in comparison to the business practices of the telecom companies.

Chortel Four-G
Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/3r25gr/chortel_four_g/.

The movement to generate awareness about Internet policy also sought to initiate dialogues with administrators who are in a position to ensure that the community’s voices are heard. Thus Independent Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrasekhar did an AMA at the height of the net neutrality discussions [11]. Since the person doing the AMA can choose to answer or ignore from the range of questions posed by the community, the supposed mutuality of participation is often minimal. Nevertheless, Chandrasekhar’s AMA not just points to the interactive (propagandist) possibilities of reddit or any other social media platform but it also asserts the relevance of the medium as a significant domain where policy regulation impacts people whose voices need to be acknowledged. As an entrepreneur who has previously worked in the technology sector, Chandrasekhar symbolizes /r/India’s imagined ideal scenario of a ‘rule of experts’ in matters of governance. That a sitting MP would seek a dialogue with an online forum also hints at the relevance of such mobilizations, where enterprising tech-savvy politicians understand the potential to stir public action through the domain of the virtual.

Consensus in/and New Media

At one level, it could be suggested that the discussions which emerged on the India subreddit around the debates on net neutrality hint at the potentials of virtual mobilization of the public. Social media, the Internet and social networking forums like Reddit could potentially widen the level of information access and dissemination where the early groundwork has been laid by the RTI Act. But at stake in the whole discussion is not merely the extent to which an online community can modify the direction of a policy discourse. Even as the development of a ‘networked public sphere’ has transformed the means of consensus building, the elements of its discontent are difficult to ignore. The formation of a public sphere in a virtual environment presents the possibilities of conformity as much as of consensus.

The discourse around net neutrality on /r/India forum is notable for the wide-ranging consensus that it managed to appropriate from the community. Such a consensus could be interpreted in at least two ways. The form of any subreddit as a forum for all things related to a specific context—be it a common activity, nationality, gender identity—contains within itself the language of adequate acceptance and rebuttal. At the same time, the algorithmic technique of determining the visibility of a post through upvotes and downvotes renders real the possibility of consensus through conformity.

It is more interesting to look beyond the veneer of consensus and question the supposed diversity of the group and its implications, rather than infer collective action as a signifier of the rightness of the action. One could suggest that the terms of the debate, of limiting the control that mega-telecos wield over internet policy in India, offered an easy medium to galvanise opinion on the subreddit. Any nuanced stance will however need to read collective action in relation to the (im)possibility of individual opinion-making in a structured environment of an online forum.

An online platform with a voting system linked to visibility offers a peculiar type of consensus. A majority of the top-voted submissions and comments pertaining to the net neutrality debate on /r/India fall within a broad overlap of consensus linked to a participatory, egalitarian technological ethos which is characteristic of the post-liberalization Indian milieu. The possibility of dissent, or even voicing differing viewpoints, is structured in a limited spectrum since what will be shared/read is inextricably linked to what users understand as acceptable within the forum. Such an understanding can inadvertently suggest a consensus, or worse offer a monochromatic presentation of an issue. This is not to discount the possibility of informed discussion, or exaggerate the ‘hive mind’ of reddit. But the link between visibility and popularity of content often ensures that the nuances of a debate get sidelined and unidimensional. Thus, even though aspects of differential pricing may be understood as a means to wider access, or as a way to open Internet services to the vagaries of the market rather than State whims, such viewpoints find less credibility when articulated within a forum like /r/India [12]. While discussions may emerge which consider the issue beyond the limited rhetoric of free speech and consumer choice, they often get presented in the ‘anti net neutrality’ garb or as afterthoughts to a debate the terms of which have ostensibly been settled [13].

Communicative technologies, as Lisa Gitelman notes, often converge around an overlapping mental landscape that seeks to make sense of an act/event through synchronized ontologies of representation. Consensus in such an instance is not to be seen as a final validation of the community’s stance on an issue. It should prompt us to be wary of the pitfalls of online mobilization that could be travelling in an echo chamber. The task then would not be to debunk actions drawn on consensus, but to be aware of the limits of inclusivity of such online forums [14]. Further research has to consider ways in which individual users negotiate the possibility of presenting an individual stance to the community within interface-induced limitations to the possibility of such an enunciation. This would involve interviews with a pool of /r/India users, examine the types of news outlets and viewpoints that gain credence within the community, look at voting patterns, and perhaps undertake a more thorough examination of a wider range of concerns relevant to the community. This essay has attempted a preliminary gesture towards such an endeavour by picking a particular event and the community’s response to it. Reddit, in contrast to Facebook for instance, offers the possibility of peering into an online space where anonymity commingles with community enterprise and the meaning of accountability is extended beyond individual motive of mere sociality or recognition. As such, it could potentially offer an understanding of online behaviour beyond the limits of the individual-liberal paradigm of action orientation and widen the debate on the functioning of social news websites by being acutely aware of the thin line between the individual and the social.

Disclaimer

The writer has been a frequent lurker on Reddit, and the India subreddit since 2011. Beyond voraciously consuming the submissions on /r/India he does not claim to have contributed in any meaningful manner to the online discussions referred to in the essay.

Endnotes

[1] The literature on reddit is a fast growing domain, with innovative research looking at Reddit’s voting patterns, user behaviour, and news outlets linked to glean an understanding of the news aggregating website. For an examination of questions of identity and anonymity on Reddit see, Shelton, M., Lo, K., Nardi, B. (2015). Online Media Forums as Separate Social Lives: A Qualitative Study of Disclosure Within and Beyond Reddit. In iConference 2015 Proceedings. For an engagement with questions on what motivates Reddit user to contribute see, Bogers, T., & Nordenhoff Wernersen, R. (2014). How 'Social' are Social News Sites? Exploring the Motivations for Using Reddit.com. In Proceedings of the iConference 2014. (pp. 329-344). IDEALS: iSchools.

[2] See: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/4s5bpn/tragedy_of_india/. Last accessed on August 2, 2016. Unless stated otherwise, all links posted hereafter have also been accessed on the same day.

[3] My understanding of social media and the social dimension of new media has been shaped from my reading of Dijck, José Van. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. For an examination of social media practices see, Ellison, N. B. & boyd, d. (2013). Sociality through Social Network Sites. In Dutton, W. H. (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 151–172.

[4] See: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/44qddb/trai_to_make_zero_rated_products_illegal/.

[5] See: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/2qcvhp/i_created_a_site_to_educate_people_about_airtel/.

[6] See: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/30lz1p/lets_fight_for_net_neutrality_before_it_becomes/.

[7] See: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/31vvf2/fight_for_net_neutrality_the_way_forward/.

[8] See: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/322iv8/trai_asking_for_feedback_on_their_proposal_is_a/. For Kullar’s own views on the issue, see: http://thewire.in/1624/lets-be-practical-about-net-neutrality/.

[9] See: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/31ykxj/flipkart_and_airtel_are_fucking_with_your/.

[10] See: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/3r25gr/chortel_four_g/.

[11] See: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/387req/hi_rindia_i_am_rajeev_chandrasekhar_member_of/.

[12] CIS’s note on its position on net neutrality points to the multilayered nature of the policy: http://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/net-neutrality-war-is-not-just-facebook-versus-internet-mullahs/story-s9eZpZnomaaiz4De8fYfaK.html. Last accessed on September 9, 2016.

[13] Consider the discussions that emerged in two separate posts: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/31peb4/lets_respond_to_this_anti_net_neutrality_piece/ and https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/336u8f/woke_up_to_this_pro_internetorg_article_in/.

[14] Gitelman, Lisa. Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. Especially chapter 3.

Author Profile

Sujeet George has an M.Phil from the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. His research interests are in histories of science and commodities, and new media and digital humanities. He has previously worked with the Mumbai City Museum and The Southasia Trust.

 

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