Am I the asshole for asking my family and friends for money then canceling my wedding at the last minute?” So starts one of my favorite online threads. A couple raised $30,000 in donations to fund their wedding, then postponed it indefinitely and channeled the funds toward a holiday. Seems like an asshole move to me, and most of the internet seems to think so as well.
The thread is one of thousands of this type on Reddit, a social media and discussion site known for the diversity of its users and content. This particular community or “subreddit,” where people recount situations of conflict or moral ambiguity and ask if they behaved badly, has been alive since 2013. Reddit allows users to chime in with their comments, as well as to “upvote” or “downvote” comments, so that more popular statements appear higher up and more prominently on threads, and the most downvoted comments appear less so. Users respond with insights and their choice of acronyms: YTA for you’re the a-hole; NTA for not the a-hole; NAH for no a-holes here; and my personal favorite, ESH for everybody sucks here.
What results from these “AITA” (Am I the Asshole) threads is something new and interesting, an Agony Aunt page for the social media age: posters mostly get the answers they deserve, while everyone else gets to enjoy schadenfreude and the internet’s favorite activity of pointing fingers and apportioning blame.
The pros and cons are what you might expect when you crowdsource emotional intelligence and ethical know-how. Passing judgment based on a few paragraphs of information is par for the course. The subreddit gets its fair share of trolls, though moderators and users are quick to shut down pointless verbal abuse. The community is both entertaining and instructive, and users benefit from the experience and insight of thousands of others. It helps to make sense of gray areas or moral dilemmas, the guide to which may not show up in our good books or humanist manifestos. The dilemmas range from the petty (“AITA for not allowing my boyfriend to listen to Britney Spears?”) through the substantial (“AITA for not allowing my father to meet my dying mother at the hospital?”) to the downright absurd (“AITA for defecating into my husband’s glass bowl?”).
This community, unlike many of its cousins, is anything but an internet echo chamber. It opens up the poser of questions to all sorts of criticism, and serves as an avenue to generate multiple solutions to what might be real mind-bogglers to those of limited experience or low EQ. It allows us as users to question, and perhaps modify, our own behavior in a way that might not be possible outside of the internet’s anonymity, in an environment where civility is the watchword. That’s probably what’s kept it going strong, with 1.5 million subscribers and counting, where other anonymized soundboards have degenerated into cesspits of cyberbullying and abuse. It’s not a perfect community, but perhaps one able to accomplish more good than bad.
I often think of what it could be like if our public figures had the ounce of self-awareness or openness to criticism that most of these posters have. If troubled Reddit users take to keyboards to unburden themselves over questions like “AITA for serving ham instead of turkey at Thanksgiving,” then why don’t our country’s “brightest political stars” lose sleep over “AITA for installing the VP as antidrug czar and firing her out in a matter of days” or “AITA for calling the UN ‘inutile’”?
The noise of media must be such that any public figure might have trouble listening to public opinion and reasonable perspectives are drowned out by trolling, name-calling and personal attacks; but at the same time one wonders what would happen if prominent officials could be treated to the same civilized, constructive environment as an AITA message board, without the sycophants and echo chambers with whom they surround themselves. They might benefit from this crowdsourced intelligence. I think they might be surprised to find that, these days, more frequently than not… YTA.
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