Look, we all know Reddit can be annoying. The internet’s favorite repository for cats, cultural criticism, and online content has good and bad users, just like the rest of humanity. Today, the online forum expanded its “block user” function to a site-wide blackout of that person’s point of view, which could have interesting ramifications for our consumption of information on one of the world’s biggest online platforms.
Previously, Reddit’s block function only worked in private messages. If a user was harassing you via PM, you could cut off the flow of abuse. But now, users can block any other account that replies to their public comments or private messages. That means that if you block a user, you won’t see their messages, or any of their public comments or submissions. They’ll be effectively invisible from your experience on the site.
There are two sides to this. On one hand, muting trolls and silencing some of Reddit’s more harmful points of view could go a long way to making the site a better experience for users who are bothered by its consistent sexism, subtle (or not-so-subtle) racism, or just plain harassment.
But being able to delete entire points of view from your browsing experience could also accelerate another trend that’s sweeping modern internet usage: the “filter bubble.” For the most part, “filter bubbles” are the result of algorithms from companies like Facebook, Google, and Netflix that tailor the results and content we see when we search and browse their services. Eli Pariser went in-depth on filter bubbles in this TED talk in 2011, saying that they can actively change how we think about the world — using the examples of two friends searching for “Egypt” on Google. One gets information and news about the 2011 uprisings, the other gets vacation and travel information.
“There’s this kinda shift in how information is flowing online and it’s invisible, and if we don’t pay attention it, it could be a real problem,” Pariser said in the TED talk. “The internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see but not necessarily what we need to see.”
On Reddit, the user is in control, which means blocking points of view will be more subject to cognitive dissonance a psychological phenomenon that explains the feeling of unease people feel when confronted with a conflicting point of view. Cognitive dissonance governs everything from how people choose their news channels to who they hang out with in real life.
But Reddit’s administrators hope that the function won’t turn their site into an “echo chamber.”
Still, there’s no question that the new function will only increase Reddit’s “hivemind” phenomenon, which by simple nature of the upvote/ downvote mechanism governs most of the site’s content.
This trend is particularly pronounced on smaller subreddits, as one user pointed out. User Donnadre assumed that a “cartel of active users” could “groupthink to death” points of view that don’t fit the popular point of view.
It’ll be interesting to see how this function pans out on the site. As the administrators noticed, there’s always a risk of abuse. For users who are being harassed, the changes will be instantaneous, but we may have to wait a little longer to see the effects that cognitive dissonance and filter bubbles play on the site’s overall discourse.