“If the numbers go up, you’re having more fun”?


Karmawhores of Reddit.com—Questioning the ›Front Pages’‹
Karma Econometrics

This is an abstract for a paper which I am working on at the moment:

Social News Websites such as Reddit temptingly suggest that we regard the collaboration and communication between users as rather idealistic exchanges. It is not only “a website about everything”: it also claims to be “powered by community, democracy and you”. Reddit is a social news aggregator topically divided into subsections (subreddits) where users (Redditors) willingly share personal experiences (/r/todayilearned/), hand out advice (/r/relationships; /r/Drugs/), support e-learning  (/r/IWantToLearn/) and even commute material gifts (/r/mysterybox). Users can up- or downvote posts and comments which has the dual function of ranking content (Reddit’s self-professed democratic structure), while enabling the collection of user ›Karma points‹ representing the value of a contribution. The respective measurement may be helpfulness, informativity, creativity, provocativeness, innovation, wittiness etc. This paper sets out to investigate and differentiate the logics of exchange and inducements for collaboration that allow for productivity and traffic that one can observe on Reddit.


One may be drawn to the assumption that one is dealing with rather altruistic exchanges. However, developments such as karmawhores.net which enable users to statistically monitor their up- and downvotes by other Redditors (‘comment Karma’ and ‘link Karma’) suggest that a more complex reading of Reddit’s reciprocity is necessary. The possibility to achieve Karma points has led to a user profile coined Karmawhores among Redditors which is commonly defined as “(…) someone who submits cheap, circlejerky posts, or appeals to the lowest common denominator in order to max out their karma  (…) they’re making karma points rather than, you know, actual money”. (here) This accusation is to be tested in this paper.

This paper shall systematically elaborate on the distinct incentives which drive collaboration on Reddit. Practices such as posting, commenting, and exceeding exchanges cannot merely be explained by a respective need to talk or through altruistic  motives/philanthropy. Instead, one needs to take into account complex processes of reciprocal exchange and numerical rewards as expressed in user statistics.

The prospective paper will therefore analyse Reddit as a hybrid system of collaboration which is based on (suggestive) gift economies as well as ‘gift econometrics’. In particular cases, or rather with respect to particular topics, a numerical gratification works as a steepening incentive in order to stimulate collaboration.

Methodically, this paper will provide an analysis of internal and external forms of measurements for user participation and up-/downvotes expressed in Karma points. It also takes into account the role of Reddit-Gold as a virtual currency and analyses its influence on users’ experiences and how it conducts virtual agency on the platform. One aim of this paper is to explore if one can determine with respect to which topics one may speak of a gift economy and where the impression of altruistic collaboration is merely backed up by gift econometrics. In other words, this paper asks to what extent the statement applies to practices on Reddit that “If your numbers go up, your having more fun”.

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