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Reddit in the Flesh

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Besse is aware that he does not fit the stereotypical Reddit mold—his favorite subreddit is devoted to the NFL. “But you can use Reddit for whatever you want,” he assured me. “There are some jokes I don’t get, and the acronyms can be tricky, but that’s a small fraction of the experience to me. My mom could use Reddit and laugh.”

Close to the footpath, in clear view of all Redditors exiting and entering the Pinetum, stood 28-year-old Joey Castillo holding aloft a sign that read R/AINBOW—the subreddit for LGBT Redditors. He was flanked by three friends, including someone who was attempting to distribute r/ainbow stickers. He was having a rough go of it: Most Redditors saw the design on the sticker, smiled awkwardly, and backstepped rapidly across the mulch.

Reddit—and, by extension, any Reddit Meetup—is a tricky place to be gay, and Castillo said he had often felt uncomfortable. Still, he was trying to put a positive spin on it. “You create the communities you want to create,” he said. “We’re here as equals. And we’re on Reddit because we believe that there are a lot of people out there that are lonely and confused—and that we can help them to feel better.”

Among the attendees at the Central Park event was Yishan Wong, the CEO of Reddit. It was his first Meetup, and Wong, who was a Redditor long before he was a chief executive, had taken up residence under a stately old pine tree, on the periphery of the picnic area.

Wong is short, soft-spoken, owlish. “I don’t have the polish and the poise and the schmoozing, and I don’t play golf. Instead, I’m an engineer and a leader of engineers and I play Starcraft (poorly),” Wong wrote in a blog post in March, when he was named CEO. In a photo, he had posed with a shoe on his head.

At irregular intervals, other Redditors floated by and quizzed Wong on various aspects of the site. He answered happily and at length.

Wong told me that an essential part of Reddit has long been the “genuine ­earnestness” of its user base. “With Facebook, you’re not really allowed to be unhappy. Think about it: There’s only a like button. Yes, you can be angry, but it’s only lighthearted rage. On Reddit, perhaps because you can be anonymous, people are willing to be openly sad or angry. They are more honest.” The way Wong sees it, there is virtue in that honesty—maybe even a healing grace.

But not everyone on Reddit is so optimistic. A few weeks before the Meetup, I had beers with Melody Peppers, a chronically shy 29-year-old from Corona, Queens. Peppers had recently been laid off from a job as a pastry chef, and she spends up to six hours a day on Reddit. She frequents boards meant for young African-American women, but she almost never leaves comments, and if she does, she later deletes them—she worries that if people know her race and gender, she might be persecuted. Redditors can be unaccountably savage with one another. In fact, three subreddits, r/WorstOf, r/SubredditDrama, and r/assholes, chronicle the exploits of the site’s worst bullies.

“I don’t have a lot of friends,” Peppers said. “I’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. I Google it a lot: Why don’t I have a lot of friends?”

At the Meetup, I found her throwing around a large rubber ball. She was standing next to a man in his twenties. They were smiling.

“You’re doing great,” I whispered to her.

She shrugged, but when she stepped away, her face was drawn and serious. “I still feel like it’s not the real thing, you know?”

By four in the afternoon, almost every inch of the Pinetum picnic area was occupied, and the mood, compared with the dour anxiety earlier, was bright and jocular. Sweaty twentysomethings ducked between the trees, gripping the butts of Jody Smith’s laser-tag guns. Warm light leaked through the canopy of leaves. A Frisbee careened overhead.

For most of the outing, Dmitri had hovered near the picnic table, a sheen of sweat coating his brow. Sometimes he struck up short conversations with fellow Redditors, usually male, but the other members inevitably wandered away. I remembered Ryan Ong telling me that Reddit was “a collection of the most awkward people you’ve ever met. They’re not socially normalized.”

But Ong was wrong. At a quarter past five, as a few Redditors began to pack up the bacon and Doritos, Dmitri, he of the white golf shirt and high socks, was visited upon by a genuine miracle. Her name was Lucy. She came from Kansas by way of Bulgaria. She was a young model. And not a model in the sense of someone whose big toe was once used in a Hammacher ­Schlemmer catalogue, but a real model working studio shoots and living with five other models in a hotel room on Houston Street.


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