Why Reddit?

The primary reason why reddit is a good model for teaching about discourse communities is that its structure mirrors the academy. In both instances, there is a larger community built of smaller communities. The larger community shares some features with discourse communities but is not itself a discourse community. Each of the smaller communities overlaps to a greater or lesser extent, but they each have their own separate discourse. Biology discourse is separate from comparative literature discourse is separate from international business discourse. There is overlap, but it is not extensive. In general, people will not be able to use their discourse to communicate with other discourse communities effectively. The same is true on reddit: r/gaming has very different discourse from r/running or r/aww. While they might share some features in common, in general, there are very different expectations, very different genres for communication, and very different language conventions used.

The main—perhaps only—thing that connects subreddits is the interface itself: the shared login and profile, the system of upvoting and downvoting, the system of commenting, and the overlap of users across subreddits. Stephanie Vie, Deb Balzhiser, and Devon Fitzgerald Ralston (2014) noted the importance of interface in behavior within social media spaces, so this connection is not arbitrary. While users have control over content (posts and comments), they do not have control over design of the space (the look of the reddit interface)—and this unifies the subreddits. Kristin Arola (2010) noted that both content and design are rhetorical, and while she thought taking design away from users is problematic, John Gallagher (2015a) noted that there is still ample space for rhetorical play within a static system. Redditors use this play to reshape individual subreddits, posts, and comments, and this helps to separate the subreddits from one another. It could be argued that the academy also shares a similar “interface” overlap through the infrastructure of the university—and that different disciplines “play” within that infrastructure in different ways.

Not every composition scholar will agree with my point above that academia is not a single discourse community but instead is several discourse communities. While I stand by this point (see, for example, Russell, 1995), I do not think it is necessary to accept it to see the value in the parallel structure of reddit and academia. When students enter academia, they are trying to learn the discourses of several communities at once: the discourse of their major, of course, but also the discourses of first-year composition, minors they may pick up, clubs or groups they may have joined, and any specific class they may take. I do not think there is a single set of practices that constitute a single discourse community for all of academia (or for all of reddit), but I also do not think you have to agree with that point to see the value of exploring smaller and overlapping discourse communities.

Beyond the parallel community-of-communities model, reddit is also a helpful model when learning about discourse communities because of its structure. Unlike most discourse communities, most subreddits are relatively easy to join—with the only barrier to entry being having a reddit account. The content of most subreddits is all online for anyone to view, multiple people can view the content at the same time to analyze it, and the barriers to enter a discourse community are relatively low. A user can learn the discourse of a subreddit in a few days or weeks, whereas that is simply not possible in academic disciplines (and many other discourse communities). Users also get immediate feedback on their success with using the discourse. If they are doing it well, they will get upvoted. If not, they will get downvoted. This is one of the benefits of the “two-way” qualitative affordances—that is, ways of showing support for content—that Rebecca Tarsa (2015, p. 22) described. While many spaces allow for like-based or shared-based feedback, reddit is one of few spaces that allows for simple negative feedback in addition to positive feedback. Users may also receive feedback through comments, in which other users may let them know what they are doing well or doing poorly. These kinds of feedback may be available in other discourse communities through things like course grades, written feedback, performance reviews, and so on, but the feedback usually comes much more slowly. On reddit, this feedback comes quickly—often in hours or even minutes. This accelerated feedback can help students learn about the discourse communities they’re studying more quickly.

And finally, the branching structure of subreddits covering multiple (often only subtly different) contexts means that it is almost certain that students will be able to find a subject they are interested in.

Criteria for discourse communities

To demonstrate the similarity of academic discourses and reddit discourses, I am going to go through the eight criteria that define a discourse community and apply them to discourse communities in each space. These criteria are taken from John Swales (2017) in which he updates the list from Swales (1990). Overall similarities are summarized in Table 1.

“A DC has a broadly agreed upon set of goals”:
Each discipline and subreddit has a relatively clearly defined goal or set of goals. For example, in biology, the goal is to study the mechanisms of life on Earth. For a subreddit such as r/harrypotter, the goal is to discuss Harry Potter media, theories, and questions. In both cases, there may be multiple other goals that offer a Venn diagram of overlapping and competing points of view, but at the heart of most disciplines and subreddits, the goals are fairly clearly defined and often explicitly stated. In the case of a discipline, the goals are often stated in major journals in the field, in major conferences, and in the documents for major organizations. In the case of a subreddit, the goals are often explicitly stated in the right column of the subreddit in the form of a subreddit description or in the subreddit rules. For example, in the subreddit r/AskAcademia, it is stated that “This subreddit is for discussing academic life, and for asking questions directed towards people involved in academia (both science and humanities)” (AskAcademia, n.d.).
“A DC has mechanisms for intercommunication among its members”:
Disciplines have classes, department meetings, conferences, and articles that allow for communication. These are used to put novice and experienced members in communication, to continue ongoing conversations among experts, and to maintain the structure of the disciplines and the discourse communities they support. The structure of reddit allows for many mechanisms for intercommunication as well. All subreddits use posts, but those posts may take different forms: images, text, or links, for example. Most subreddits also have a robust system of comments as well in which individual members can offer support and feedback on any given post—often putting individual users in direct contact. The reddit interface allows for chat and private messages, which are not open to the public. The private message feature allows individual users to open a private dialogue, including dialogues between regular users and moderators. This is how a user would be notified of a rule violation, for example. Chats allow multiple users to communicate privately. Many subreddits have side chats in addition to the main content of the subreddit—some of these chats take place within the reddit structure while others take place on other applications, such as Discord or GroupMe. Links to these chats may be referenced publicly in the description of the subreddit.
“A DC uses its participatory mechanisms to provide information and feedback”:
Information and feedback are often provided through books, classes, and grades at the lowest level of a discipline, but through things like articles, books, tenure, and peer review at higher levels. Novice scholars can learn about their position within the discipline through grading and written feedback. Experienced members can learn about their position through tenure, awards, and annual reviews. In subreddits, information and feedback are provided through the reddit infrastructure. Posts, comments, and forms of private communication provide information, as do the information sections of subreddits: the sidebars, the FAQs, and the wikis of many subreddits. Feedback is often provided through upvotes/downvotes. An accumulation of upvotes gives users a score that’s called their “karma.” While users can be perceived to “cheat” the system to rack up karma (Thompson, 2014), it is at least a semi-accurate measure of the experience a user has on the site. Karma can be broken down further on a user’s profile to see on which subreddits the karma was earned.
“A DC utilizes and hence possess one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims”:
Genres in a discipline vary wildly but may include things like types of lab reports, rhetorical analyses, and variations on the IMRAD structure in scientific articles. Each discipline has specific kinds of manuscripts and other texts that are expected to follow certain conventions by members of the discipline. For example, in the field of rhetoric and composition, a person submitting to a journal may be expected to follow certain conventions, such as providing an abstract and bio, using a specific citation format (often modified for the specific journal), following a loose structure for the body of a text, and falling within a certain word-count range. There is play within the genres of the field, but the general structure will often be somewhat similar across specific types of texts. As with different disciplines, the genres associated with specific subreddits vary wildly, but usually are limited to certain kinds of posts and comments. Each subreddit will allow and ban specific things: r/reactiongif requires that all posts be in the form of a GIF, but this can be broken down into further generic conventions for types of GIFs posted. Titles for posts must have the abbreviation “MRW” (“My reaction when”) and an active description. As with other genres, there is play within these conventions as individual users see how far they can push expectations before moderators step in and delete posts. Because posts are required for each subreddit, all subreddits develop genres for types of posts over time. Rules and social conventions may rein in genres, and the genres will shift through future usage.
“In addition to owning genres, it has acquired some specific lexis”:
By definition, a discipline will have a set of words associated with it that outsiders may be unfamiliar with or use differently. An obvious example is how the words “theory” and “hypothesis” are used quite differently in scientific disciplines than in popular culture. As members of the discipline of rhetoric and composition, we will understand the words “writing” or “composition” differently than the general public. We will immediately understand words, phrases, and abbreviations such as, “multimodality,” “identity performance,” “WPA,” and even the word “kairos” whereas a member of the general public might not. On reddit, the same is true. Because subreddits are often focused on a specific topic, users frequently borrow the discourse associated with that topic. However, users also often build on the lexis of other spaces and create unique discourse that is specific to the subreddit. Someone on r/running might mention their PR or VO2 max, someone on r/parrots might discuss a GCC or binding, and someone on r/android might be talking about pie or notches. These would be easily understandable to members of those subreddits but likely not to members of other subreddits.
“A DC has a threshold of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise”:
In academic disciplines we have standardized methods of demonstrating expertise: getting a PhD, publishing articles, or getting tenure to name a few. These are recognizable achievements and often give certain members of the discourse more freedom to shape discourse conventions. In subreddits, the markers of expertise are much more informal. Moderators of communities may have built-in expertise because of their position, and other users may or may not recognize this expertise. Regular users of subreddits simply show expertise by knowing and being able to discuss certain topics. This mirrors how expertise is shown in “passionate affinity spaces” as described by James Paul Gee and Elizabeth R. Hayes (2011, p. 69).
“A DC develops a sense of ‘silential relations’”:
This criterion is a new addition to the Swales’s 2017 article, and can simply be defined as knowing what does not need to be said. For example, a biologist does not need to explain evolution to another biologist, and a member of r/harrypotter does not need to explain who Ron Weasley is to anyone on the subreddit. It is assumed others will already understand.
“A DC develops horizons of expectation”:
This criterion is another addition to the 2017 article, and boils down to having a shared sense of history. Many disciplines have some scholars who focus on the history of their discipline, and even in those disciplines that do not, history is often easily accessible through journals and other manuscripts. While there are subreddits that specifically focus on reddit theory and history (such as r/TheoryOfReddit), history may not be referenced directly by users or moderators often. However, the structure of reddit does allow for users to view and comb through the history of a subreddit. In addition to the default view of reddit, each subreddit can also sorted in a number of different ways, including “top” which will allow users to see the highest upvoted posts for the week, month, year, or “all time.” These posts may often be referenced in other posts on the subreddit.
Table 1: Similarities of academic discourses and reddit discourses
Set of Goals Communication Feedback Genres Lexis Expertise Silential Relations Expectation
Academic Discipline
Individual Subreddit
Reddit's EDIT function used in context
Figure 7: "EDIT" used in context

It should be noted that the whole of reddit or all of academia do not fit these criteria. “Academic discourse” does not have a single understood lexis, for example. Nor does it have a codified set of genres or a sense of silential relations. Reddit as a whole does not have these either: genres vary wildly between subreddits, as does vocabulary and what can be left unsaid. Disciplines and subreddits often cannot communicate about their content effectively outside of their discourse communities: a biologist might not be able to easily explain their research to a economist, and a member of r/VoteBlue might have a hard time discussing their political views with a member of r/The_Donald. Disciplines or subreddits may have certain features in common, such as the basic IMRAD structure in many scientific articles or, as shown in Figure 7, the common tactic of writing “EDIT” into a comment to signal that it has been edited on reddit (Gallagher, 2015b, p. 407). However, there are not enough features in common to allow for ease of communication. All of this is to say that a subreddit or an academic discipline is a discourse community, but reddit or academia is not.

Learning transfer

Academia and reddit share some features in common. In fact, when a student enters a new discourse community in the academy, she follows much the same pattern he would when entering a new subreddit: observe, learn genres and vocabulary, attempt to produce those genres, and get feedback on how to do so better. The parallel is close enough that for many students, the act of learning how to enter a subreddit would be “hugging” (Perkins & Salomon, 1992) to the context of entering a new discipline. That is to say, by learning to enter a new subreddit, we are creating a context very close to the context we want them to learn: entering a new discipline. This kind of “hugging” can help to facilitate learning transfer, especially when coupled with reflection and mindfully creating parallels between the two contexts. It is not likely that students will make the connection between reddit and the university on their own, but with a small push, they can probably make the connection easily.