While others such as Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder (2017) and Erika M. Sparby (2017) have offered suggestions for how reddit might be used in classroom contexts, no one has explicitly explored using reddit to help students understand discourse and discourse communities. In this section, I will explain the process of how students are walked through discourse on reddit. While the discussion here focuses on a series of assignments in a first-year composition (FYC) class, this assignment could be easily modified for other contexts as well. In particular, I think it would be useful in writing across the curriculum or writing in the disciplines contexts (WAC/WID), such as courses on disciplinary writing, business writing, or technical communication.
Step 1: Explore reddit together
The students and I start off this series of assignments by exploring discourse together. We choose a subreddit that no one in the class has ever used before. When I first did this project, this was relatively easy. As time has gone on, I have a higher number of students in my classes who have used reddit before. This simply means I need to dig a little deeper to less popular subreddits. It is a good idea for teachers to come to class with a dozen or so possible ideas that they are sure are not going to have content that is too objectionable. In small groups, students are asked to explore the subreddit, specifically looking for the “rules” of the space. These could be rules explicitly stated or rules that are implied through how the subreddit is used. Then, the groups are asked to check out content, both current and past, both successful and unsuccessful. In that content, they are trying to look for patterns: What are the primary genres of the space? What subgenres are likely to appear? In particular, students are looking for the main features that make up those genres: Should a post contain an image? What kind of image? What are the conventions of the titles of the post?
We get back together as a class and discuss what students have found. We look for prototypical examples of the main genres and what they have in common. We look at poorly received posts and try to figure out why they failed. The most recent time I taught this series of assignments, we used r/reactiongifs (Figure 8), so that is what I will use here as an example. When the students finished their initial discussion, they found that all posts began with “MRW” (“My reaction when”) and had a GIF attached. They learned that text posts were not allowed, and they found that posts were generally funny, with very few serious or somber posts that were successful. They also found that posts that were successful were usually relatable to many users—not only to a small number of people.
During this initial exploration, we discuss the concept of discourse communities. In particular, we are often looking for the “broadly agreed upon set of goals” put forth by John Swales (2017) and trying to identify the multiple genres of posts that are used within the space. We explore specialized language as we come across it: sometimes I already know what the terms or phrases means, and sometimes we have to figure them out together.
Step 2: Post in groups
After we have had sufficient time to discuss the rules and genres of the space, I ask students to go back to their groups and make a post. We try to make posts that we think will succeed in the space based on what we have learned. These first posts inevitably fail. Students often oversimplify the rules and genres of the space the first time around. We do a postmortem on the first round of posts, comparing their posts to both successful and unsuccessful posts to look for similarities and differences. We try to find patterns—even if the patterns are loose or fuzzy. Few subreddits have posts that always follow the “rules,” so we discuss this. Why might one post be successful and another not when they both seemingly don’t follow the primary patterns of the subreddit? After students have had a little time to discuss and process, I ask students to make new posts. Even after discussion, these often fail as well. It usually takes a few tries to get a post that is successful in a new space.
For example, on r/reactiongifs, students began by assuming all that they needed was a relatable title, the abbreviation “MRW,” and a relevant GIF. Their first round of posts all failed, and in fact, some of them were deleted by moderators. A few had broken rules of the space: they linked to a GIF website that had been banned or had posted what the moderators called an “analogy GIF” instead of a reaction GIF. They realized after a few posts several additional things were important: using GIFs that were not commonly used, titling their posts in a simple but relatable way, getting GIFs from approved sites, and using GIFs in a way different than what might be expected. Of course, the rules of the space are flexible, so students are often able to find counterexamples that are successful but break these rules. We talk about how genres are often the same way: they serve more as guidelines than strictly enforced regulations. Figure 9 is a sample post that meets the criteria that the students set out. It’s titled, “MRW I find out I’m going to be an older brother in my 30’s,” and many of the students in the class chose to use it as a model because of its popularity.
Posting content and checking back to see how it did is usually spreads across several class periods: we take a few minutes at the start of each class to discuss why posts did well or did not, and then students try to make new posts. We continue this until at least one group is able to make a successful post. “Success” is relative depending on the subreddit chosen. Sometimes success means a few comments and a few upvotes, sometimes it means getting to the top of the subreddit, and occasionally it even means getting to reddit’s “front page”—that is, the top posts on all of reddit at a given time. In the past, getting a successful post has usually taken at least three tries. In the case of r/reactiongifs, each group posted at least four times before they were able to get a post that had more upvotes than downvotes and did not get deleted by the moderators.
Step two allows students to reinforce ideas about the goals of the space. They often must revise what they see as the “rules” and values of the space as they post and repost. Often, students figure out additional norms in the culture of the subreddit through failure: they learn about an unstated rule when their post is deleted or figure out a common norm when their post is downvoted.
Step 3: Ask students to choose a subreddit
After students have a basic idea of what to look for in new discourse communities on reddit, I ask them to choose a subreddit of their own. They will be spending a lot of time with these subreddits, so I encourage them to choose something that they are very interested in. Many students choose subreddits for their favorite sports teams, TV shows, or recording artists. A few usually choose subreddits related to outdoor activities, such as fishing or cycling, and a few usually choose something related to their major. I ask that no two students have the same subreddit, but I allow for students to have the same subject matter. Because there are so many subreddits, this is often not a problem: someone can choose r/harrypotter and someone else can choose r/ImaginaryHogwarts, for example.
I encourage students to follow a general set of guidelines as they look for a subreddit. First, I ask them to choose one that is completely new to them. They cannot have ever posted in the subreddit or read posts from the subreddit before. I also ask them to choose one that is interesting. I ask them to view several posts and see if they actually would like to consume more. If not, they should move on and try to find something new. It is also important that they choose one that is reasonably sized. Choosing a large subreddit, such as r/funny or r/askreddit, means that they will have too much content to keep up with. Those subreddits often get several posts per minute and are difficult to manage. But by the same token, choosing a very small or private subreddit may make the project difficult for them as well. They may have too few posts to build conclusions. And finally, I ask them to choose a subreddit that is active. There should be a few posts in the last day at minimum. Many times, students choose a subreddit for their favorite TV show or sports team—but if episodes are not currently airing or if it’s the off season, few people will be posting content. The space will only be active enough to use during a time when there’s new content to explore.
Inevitably students will want to change subreddits after they have observed for a little while. That is normal and encouraged. Once they have settled on a subreddit and begin collecting data, however, I encourage them to stick with what they have chosen and only switch if there's a major problem.
Here is a short list of some subreddits that were used the most recent time I taught this course. Each of them worked well for the assignment and can serve as models for subreddits that meet the above criteria..
This portion of the assignment allows them to apply lessons from steps one and two: again, students are looking for the goals and values of the space, and they’re trying to identify major genres common in their subreddit. Of course, this is also an opportunity to begin working toward facilitating learning transfer. Student can apply lessons from the group posting to their individual cases. These connections can serve as a bridge to larger discussions about discourse communities outside of reddit.
Step 4: Explore
This is a more individualized version of step 1. Students go into the subreddits that they have personally chosen and try to understand the space. They again look for both explicit and implied rules. They also again check both posts and comments, looking at old ones and new ones, successful and not. After they have spent some time in the space, I suggest that they start getting in touch with users. I suggest they interview the moderators of the subreddit and any users that they have noticed either post often or are particularly successful when they do post. This serves as a good opportunity to discuss the ethics of researching the space with them. I encourage them to ask these people about their experiences of the space, including what they think makes a successful post or comment. I even encourage students to create surveys for multiple users, but this is not possible in all subreddits. In some spaces, these are banned and may get deleted if posted.
In my experience with my students, not all moderators will answer interview questions, but if the students ask all of the moderators of a space for an interview, usually at least one will reply. Other regular users are more difficult: in general, my students may have to message between 5 and 10 active users to get even one to reply. Of course, not all users are interested in being studied, much less interviewed about their activity on the site.
During this stage and all that follow, students should be taking copious notes and taking screen captures of all content they think may be important—especially content that is image or video based. I always tell them to remember that users can delete posts and comments without warning, so it is best to document a post when they see it instead of trying to hunt it down later (sometimes without success).
This step serves as a more in-depth continuation of previous lessons from this assignment, but it’s also a good opportunity to discuss methods of ethnographic research. We discuss dual-entry logs, removing bias, and waiting to draw conclusions. Students learn how to gather primary data through observation and how to back up observations with evidence. They also begin to form theories about the site that they can then test in the next step.
Step 5: Participate
After students have had a lot of experience observing and have a good sense of what might be the main genres of the subreddit and what makes a specific post successful, I ask them to start taking part in producing content. They are asked to “join the conversation” taking place, and I often put it in those exact words so that we can also discuss the idea of a Burkean parlor. Students both make their own posts and comment on other users’ posts, but I also ask them to take this a step further. I ask them to run tests. For example, if they believe that titles in the space must include certain information, I ask them to make two posts that are the same except for one variable: one with a “good” title and one with a “bad” title. Certain subreddits frown upon or even ban doing multiple posts like this, so students should be aware of that. It may be necessary to create two accounts to run the test or to post the content a day apart, so it is less obvious. Of course, students may decide not to push the rules at all. I leave that choice up to them. Discussions of whether or not to stretch the rules of the space offer another good opportunity to discuss the ethics of this practice—and whether or not they want to engage in it.
Posts inevitably fail at this stage, and I ask students to theorize about why the post failed and try again. Usually students are able to get a successful post after a few tries. In fact, usually at least one person per semester makes it to the top position on their subreddit—occasionally even to the front page of reddit. Again, I ask students to document this stage through notes and screen captures. Even if they get a post that gets deleted or gets them banned from the subreddit, I ask them to document what happened.
This is often the most illuminating part of the assignment for many students. They find that the simple “rules” they’ve created for the space may fail, and what the site “values” in good content may shift over time—even from day-to-day. The rules and genres are not solid but are instead fuzzy around the edges. A rule might be overlooked if specific other things happen. I encourage students to explore this messiness and to learn from what they find.
Step 6: Write a report
This is the part of the assignment that fits most traditionally into an FYC class. I ask them to write up their findings about the discourse community that they have chosen on reddit. Early on when I did this assignment, I left the report fairly open ended: I asked students to simply write up what they found. This usually resulted in very poor reports—narratives about what happened without much reflection or focus on which findings were important and which were not. Now, I ask students to create a central focus for their reports. Currently, I ask them to create a statement that explains what the subreddit values in good discourse, and then to use their evidence to support it. I tell them that their statement does not need to cover all possible posts, that it just needs to be true and verifiable with the evidence they have. I also tell them that they will not use all of the evidence they have collected. They will need to curate their evidence carefully to find the best examples to support their points. I encourage students to use explanations and quotes from the subreddit, but I also encourage them to use screen captures, links, and videos when they are relevant.
Below, you will find the most recent version of the assignment sheet for this report. Previous versions are available on my website and are listed as “WP2” in ENG 1510, ENG 101, and ENG 107. Future versions of the assignment will be revised to more fully embrace the messiness that students often find within their subreddits: values shift over time and are not homogenous or universal. Students should be allowed to explore that more fully than this version of the assignment allows.
Step 7: Reflect and connect
This final step may be the most important one for ongoing learning. Students reflect on what they are doing and connect what they learn to other discourse communities throughout the project. However, there is an explicit focus on reflection and connection at the end of the series of assignments. I ask students to generalize what they have learned and extend it beyond reddit. I want them to think about how what they have done on reddit mirrors their experiences joining other discourse communities in the past, and I want them to use what they have learned to create a set of best practices for what to do when they encounter new discourse communities in the future. In particular, we spend a lot of time talking about how they might join the discourse communities in their majors, and how they might use what they have learned when they start a new job. It is this practice that is specifically focused on encouraging learning transfer. By asking students to reflect on connections between learning to join a subreddit and learning to join other discourse communities, we are attempting to “generalize” (Wardle, 2007, p. 67) what they have learned beyond the immediate context.
By connecting to discourse communities other than those on reddit, I want them to think about what they have learned and extend that knowledge to facilitate joining other discourse communities as well. Because reflection and connection are ongoing processes throughout the project, most students find this final reflection rather easy. It is a review for them, but this final reflection is crucial to getting them to think metacognitively about what was helpful when joining a new discourse community.
The ethics of studying reddit
As many readers may be aware, the assignment above raises a few ethical concerns that I encourage teachers to address directly with their students if doing a similar assignment. The primary concern is using real people as test subjects. The public nature of reddit content and the lack of real names associated with reddit accounts does make risks minimal, but the people using reddit should still have their privacy taken into account.
All of the subreddits that students have chosen for this assignment are publicly viewable without logging into reddit. No one has chosen a private subreddit to date—and if they were to do so, I’d require them to disclose that they were studying the space. However, since the subreddits that students have used are public, I leave the choice of whether or not to disclose up to the students themselves. We discuss the dangers that their research may expose users to on a case-by-case basis. For example, engaging with subreddits that discuss TV shows or sports puts users at less risk of adverse outcomes than engaging with subreddits that encourage people to leave the Mormon church, that help users decide how to come out, or that involve posting nudity or other sexual content.
Because reddit is both public and pseudonymous, the dangers to users of studying most subreddits are minimal. Even so, the majority of students choose to disclose that they’re researching the subreddit—at least to the moderators and often to other users as well. Disclosure often helps with the assignment, as they can then directly ask questions to more experienced users about the subreddit they're researching. The reactions have been mixed when students have disclosed their research. Some users have been excited that an outsider has taken interest in the space, and other users have requested that the student stop studying their space entirely. Sometimes the reaction has been mixed even within a single community. When this happens, the student and I discuss the reactions together and decide how to proceed. In most cases, if the community prefers not to be studied, I encourage the student to choose a different community to observe. When specific users have requested not to be included in the research (but other users and moderators are on board), students are encouraged not to use examples of posts or comments from those users in their final project at all. In rare cases, students have blurred usernames to protect anonymity, but this only partially solves the problem: content from posts can often be searched online and usernames can be found by other means. Paraphrasing content instead of quoting directly is a better option when a user prefers not to be included.
In addition to privacy concerns, students may also deal with the emotional work of negative reactions. Working with real people means that students get real reactions. Sometimes these reactions are negative. Students may get downvoted, posts may get deleted, and occasionally students may get banned from the subreddit they’re studying. Some students roll with these missteps without many issues. They’re often avid social media users and have experienced these problems in other spaces before. However, other students find the negative feedback distressing or demotivating. Usually, these same things happen when students are still working in groups, so that serves as an opportunity to discuss how to handle failure and learn from it. For example, every time that I’ve done this project, at least one group has gotten their post deleted for breaking a rule of the subreddit. When this happens, it gives me a good opportunity to discuss what to do next. Often, the next step is to simply learn from the experience and post again. In my most extreme example of failure, all of the groups in a 2015 class were banned from the subreddit that we were studying for posting the same image with different titles as an experiment. I now use that experience as an example when introducing students to posting on subreddits. In that specific case, I messaged the moderators and asked them to unban the students, which they agreed to do if the students followed the rules of the subreddit in the future. Knowing that this kind of discussion is sometimes possible often makes the project less scary for students worried about doing poorly.