Digital debating cultures: Communicative practices on Reddit

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Thomas C. Messerli

    Universität Basel (University of Basel)

  2. 2. Daria Dayter

    Tampere University, Finland

  3. 3. Axel Bohmann

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (University of Freiburg)

  4. 4. Lisa Donlan

    University of Manchester, UK

  5. 5. Gustavo Maccori Kozma

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (University of Freiburg)

  6. 6. Sven Leuckert

    TU Dresden, Germany

  7. 7. Aatu Liimatta

    University of Helsinki

  8. 8. Hanna Mahler

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (University of Freiburg)

  9. 9. Adrienne Massanari

    American University, Washington D.C., USA

  10. 10. Kyla McConnell

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (University of Freiburg)

  11. 11. Rafaela Tosin

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (University of Freiburg)

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Panel abstract

The social media platform Reddit understands itself as a “home to thousands of communities”, where every used can find their community ( As researchers in humanities, we find that the submissions and comments posted to Reddit’s subreddits do indeed comprise authentic digital human interaction by groups of people that are in some cases prototypical communities and in other cases merely chance encounters of users who find themselves oriented towards the same virtual space. The collective communicative acts of Reddit users can be positioned in the tradition of computer-mediated communication (CMC) – as one key site of digitalised communication, shaped partially by the affordances provided by the platform, and uniquely available to researchers not just in terms of their linguistic content, but also their multimodal context and discursive structure. Importantly, however, Reddit (sub-)communities are not necessarily subject to identical communicative patterns – within each community, user types and even individual users communicate following particular patterns or even idiosyncratically. 

Our recently formed interdisciplinary network, copRe (
practices on
Reddit –, is dedicated to exploring Reddit discourse(s) from different theoretical perspectives, but all with the aim to contribute to the understanding of Reddit’s own communicative culture as well as the exploration of digital practices more generally. 

Specifically, our panel at the DH2022 conference explores aspects of digital culture and participatory culture, manifest in the communicative acts of different (sub-)communities on the online social platform Reddit. These subreddit-communities and the digital genres they give rise to are sites of linguistic innovation as well as of new debating practices – from the combative far-right subreddit r/The_Donald to the more harmonious r/changemyview. They let us gain insights into individual and group identities, as on r/Mountaineering, and they raise question of methodology, such as the understanding of text length as both a challenge for research and a motivated choice of text authors and the employment of mixed-methods to gain insights that are both driven by big data as well as by in-depth understanding of individual and collective communicative acts.

Language innovation and diffusion online.
Lisa Donlan (University of Manchester)
Who are the innovators of lexical terms online? What are the community roles of the early adopters who successfully diffuse linguistic innovations?
In offline communities, the weak-tie theory of language change envisions the innovators of linguistic forms as peripheral to a community while early adopters are the community's central members. However, the only study to explore the applicability of the theory in an online Community of Practice (CoFP) was grounded in an unusual linguistic context. My research addresses this gap in the literature by using a mixed-methods approach to analyse the status of the innovators and early adopters of four community-salient innovative linguistic forms which diffused through an online music-orientated CofP, Popheads.
Contrary to expectations, three of the four forms studied were innovated by non-peripheral members who scored highly across multiple markers of status. This departure from previous findings may be related to the fact that linguistic creativity is highly valued in many virtual contexts. Consequently, high-status members may perceive linguistic innovation as desirable behaviour online. 
This research also found that identifying the hierarchical structures that underpin a community leads to more precise descriptions of the characteristics of early adopters. Specifically, it has been possible to conclude that early adopters are prolific contributors, whose posts are successful at generating discussion, and who are on inbound trajectories in the community. Therefore, to speak of an early-adopter as being 'central' or 'high-status' is, I argue, ultimately too vague and fails to acknowledge the multidimensional nature of status. 

Functions of text length on Reddit
Aatu Liimatta (University of Helsinki)
In corpus-linguistic studies, text length is typically seen as a potential confounding factor (see e.g. Liimatta, 2020), largely because its effects have been difficult to study using even the largest traditional corpora. However, like any other linguistic choice, the length of a text is also a choice made by the writer or speaker: it is also affected by the communicative purpose of the text and the limitations and affordances of the communicative situation.
Fortunately, large social media datasets with a range of text lengths have allowed us to approach this previously unassailable topic. Reddit is particularly interesting in terms of text length, since the length of a Reddit comment is free to vary according to the commenter’s needs. Recent studies have shown that Reddit comment length is linked to the distribution of functional linguistic features: for instance, simple information-seeking comments tend to be very short, whereas narrative registers appear to favor longer comments on average (Liimatta, forthc.).
In order to further explore the role and functions of comment length on Reddit, I analyze a number of subreddits in terms of both the distribution of comment lengths and the distribution of functional linguistic features across comment lengths. To do this, I make use of a large-scale dataset of Reddit comments and a simple but powerful pooling-based computational methodology.

Register variation in Reddit comments - A multidimensional analysis
Hanna Mahler, Kyla McConnell, Axel Bohmann, Gustavo Maccori Kozma, Rafaela Tosin (University of Freiburg)
Researchers are increasingly becoming interested in the many opportunities that Reddit provides for linguistic analysis. In this large-scale natural language processing project, we focus on register variation within Reddit comments (inspired by Liimatta 2016, 2020).
We analyze Biber’s (1998) linguistic features for register analysis, as well as platform-specific features, on all Reddit comments since 2005, using the Pushshift Reddit Corpus (Baumgartner et al. 2020). We are using this feature annotation to implement a short-text MDA (Clarke & Grieve 2019), a version of Biber’s (1988) multi-dimensional analysis, to find out which dimensions describe the linguistic variation found on the platform and whether the topical "subreddits" can be described as different registers. Our method also promises to serve as a useful tool for analysing other topics such as adaptation of linguistic norms or register diversification over time.
Our study therefore adds to the state of knowledge in several ways:
1. We regard a single comment as one text (with features extracted on the sentence level), which allows us to accurately locate linguistic variation within individual users.
2. We train a tagger specifically to overcome previous difficulties of tagging social media data (e.g. Banga & Mehndiratta 2017), based on data from Behzad & Zeldes (2020) and Gessler et al. (2020).
3. The feature extraction script, a refined and elaborated version of Biber's (1988) initial features, is written in Python and will be made openly available.
4. Our long-term goal is to develop an MDA solution that captures variation within and among all (English) subreddits.

Combating the Far-/Alt-Right on Reddit: Lessons from r/AgainstHateSubreddits
Adrienne Massanari (American University, Washington D.C.)
Reddit embodies a carnivalesque spirit, often reflecting a kind of geek masculinity (Kendall, 2011) that champions both niche, technical prowess and clever humor (Massanari, 2015). At the same time, communities engaging in far-right rhetoric, such as the now-banned (and widely popular) r/The_Donald, have flourished in part because the platform relies almost exclusively on volunteer labor to moderate and grow communities (Matias, 2019). Shifting the responsibility and risk of moderating onto unpaid individuals allows Reddit to remain a “lean” organization with few employees, but also creates a kind of plausible deniability when it comes to so-called “alt-right” subreddits.
In response to the growing threat that these subreddits present, and the lack of response from Reddit administrators, activists on the platform have created their own communities focused on highlighting hate speech pervasive on the platform. One such example is r/AgainstHateSubreddits, which is dedicated to exposing subreddits that may superficially conform to Reddit’s few rules, but also engage in transphobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic, and racist rhetoric. Through a critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 2013) of popular postings on the subreddit, I explore how this community challenges Reddit’s politics and offers an ethical counterpoint to the toxic geek masculinity that pervades much of the platform. Drawing on work from platform studies (Bucher, 2018; Gillespie, 2010) and design justice (Costanza-Chock, 2020; D'Ignazio & Klein, 2020), I argue that Reddit’s governance, design, and platform policies work implicitly welcome and mainstream far-right communities, but that spaces like r/AgainstHateSubreddits provide critical forms of resistance and community for activists.

Share my view: Harmonious debating culture on r/changemyview
Thomas C. Messerli (University of Basel), Daria Dayter (University of Tampere)
In current times, digital discourses are often understood in terms of polarization. Public lay metadiscourses are full of references to social bubbles and disparate parts of society, whereas academic scholars give a lot of focus to binary categories such as information/disinformation, truth/post-truth or outrage culture. Within this context, the debating culture on the subreddit r/ChangeMyView (CMV) stands out because it encourages what we could term persuasibility – the capacity or willingness of someone to change their opinion when encountering new information. While some work has been done on the specific strategies that commenters use to achieve the task at hand, i.e. to change the original poster’s (OP) view, little attention has been paid to the question how prepared OPs actually are to change their mind and how this “malleability of opinion” (Tan et al. 2016: 621) is discursively constructed. From this perspective, original posts –
submissions in Reddit terminology – are firstly performances of persuasibility, and secondly access points to persuasible-persuasive pairings, in which the subreddit community enacts its codified and tacit norms. In order to explore these pairings, we make use of the CMV corpus we have compiled and specifically compare submissions, delta-awarded comments, i.e. those comments that have changed the OP’s view, and the OP’s responses to delta-awarded comments. We do this comparison itself with a mixed-methods approach that is grounded in qualitative annotation of persuasibility in a sample of r/changemyview threads and scaled up to the corpus using corpus linguistic methods.

“Science has no business in the mountains”: Stance-taking and expert knowledge on r/Mountaineering
Sven Leuckert (TU Dresden)
Stance-taking, as popularised in pragmatics and sociolinguistics by Du Bois (2007), refers to “the speaker’s (or writer)’s relationship to (a) the topic of discussion, (b) the interlocutor or audience, and (c) the talk (or writing) itself” (Kiesling et al. 2018: 684). On social media, stance-taking plays an important role in the discursive construction of relationships and may be employed as a gatekeeping device. In this talk, I focus on strategies of stance-taking as it is linked to the expression of expert knowledge on the subreddit r/Mountaineering. On this subreddit, stance-taking represents a dominant tool to establish who can be considered an expert and, hence, part of the knowledgeable in-group.
In this talk, I explore which specific linguistic phenomena are employed by users of the subreddit to express stance in situations where expertise in mountaineering is in focus. After an initial manual assessment of recurring phenomena on the basis of randomly selected threads, a quantitative approach inspired by Kiesling et al.’s (2018) annotation scheme is used to establish the bigger picture of how stance-taking is employed as a gatekeeping device on r/Mountaineering. For this study, the entirety of r/Mountaineering from 2012 to August 2021 has been scraped and is taken into consideration. In sum, the findings suggest that, while quantitative methods are a useful addition in the investigation of stance on Reddit, they can only be complementary to an in-depth study of stance-taking phenomena in their discursive context.


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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2022
"Responding to Asian Diversity"

Tokyo, Japan

July 25, 2022 - July 29, 2022

361 works by 945 authors indexed

Held in Tokyo and remote (hybrid) on account of COVID-19

Conference website:

Contributors: Scott B. Weingart, James Cummings

Series: ADHO (16)

Organizers: ADHO