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The Common Good

Social news websites make collective kindness possible—and relatively easy.

July 25, 2012 by Kristin Fryer


Seven-year-old Kathleen Edward of Trenton, Mich., U.S.A., was dying of Huntington’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder that also killed her mother. But to make an already difficult situation worse, she and her family were being taunted by a couple of neighbours who had a feud with them. Among other things, these neighbours posted grim photos of Kathleen on Facebook, including one that showed her face as part of a “skull and crossbones.”

In October 2010, Kathleen’s story was picked up by a local news outlet and a link to the story was posted on Reddit, a social news website. The reaction among the Reddit community was swift and strong, as their collective outrage turned into collective action. After the news story was posted, a Reddit member (or “redditor”) named Hans Masing suggested that they start a collection to give Kathleen a toy shopping spree. Any money that was not used by Kathleen would be donated to the local children’s hospital.

Donations from redditors and toy companies poured in and, by the end of the campaign, approximately $19,500 had been raised.

Random acts of collective kindness like this have given Reddit a reputation for being a community of “do-gooders.” Their campaign for Kathleen is just one of hundreds of good deeds, large and small, that the community has done since Reddit was founded in 2005.

For those who are unfamiliar with Reddit, this may come as a surprise. There are many corners of the Internet that do not have a reputation for positive actions. But social news websites like Reddit prove that the Internet is at least as often a force for good as for ill. Though these sites were not made specifically to facilitate activism, their design makes collective kindness possible—and relatively easy.

What are Social News Websites?
Social news websites provide a unique forum to share and discuss information on the Internet. The content of these websites is entirely determined by users who post stories and comment on stories that are posted by others. Stories can be “up-voted” or “down-voted” by users, meaning that all of the stories on the site are “ranked” according to popularity. Because of this, social news websites have effectively “democratized” the news: a story is important if the community decides that it is, and not just because the mainstream media thinks so.

Social news websites thrive because they encourage user participation. Users know that they can play a significant role in shaping what gains popularity on the Internet. And they know that if a worthy cause comes along, they have a large community that they can appeal to for help. Reddit is not the only social news website out there—Digg and Slashdot are also popular—but it is the biggest, attracting more than two billion page views a month.

Social news websites differ from social networks, such as Facebook, in that users do not create a personal profile where they share photos and interests, nor do they have a “wall” that others can write on. But Digg users, for example, can “follow” other users, similar to Twitter, and Reddit users can have “friends.”

Crowdsourcing for Christ
The acts of kindness performed by Reddit users are a kind of “crowdsourcing,” a process that involves outsourcing a task to a distributed group of people. Because social news websites are an Internet-based phenomenon, users from around the world are able to access the same information and become part of a “crowd” supporting a particular cause. For example, donations to Kathleen Edward’s toy fund came from as far away as India.

While most of the crowdsourcing projects that show up on social news websites do not have the backing of any particular group, many Christians do participate. For example, the Christian group (or “subreddit”) on Reddit holds an annual Christmas fundraising campaign.

Social news websites can be a powerful platform for anyone who is looking to effect change, mainly because the potential audience is so large. A link (e.g. to an article about human trafficking) posted on Facebook only reaches a user’s friends, while a link posted on Reddit or Digg may reach thousands. Christians can use these websites to spread awareness of an issue, raise money for a particular cause and find out about new issues and causes. The Christian group on Reddit (www.reddit.com/r/Christianity) also provides a forum for discussion of general issues. For example, one recent topic was: What does it mean that “God created man in his own image”?

Social news websites have a lot to offer, but it is important to keep in mind that they are usually lightly moderated—meaning that there is little censorship, other than that provided by users who can down-vote offensive content—so viewer discretion is advised.

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