The Malicious Mallard 

How online popularity contests are killing politics

Luddite? Not me. I was obsessed with the TRS-80, Commodore 64 and Apple II. One of my first jobs, as a traffic engineer for an Ohio suburb, had me programming a Honeywell 77 computer the size of a small car.

I was among the first cartoonists to put my email address on my work; I loved the instant audience feedback. Still do. I blog and I've embraced social networking. I tweet, post to Facebook and Google Plus, though I'm not sure why. LinkedIn has the dumbest business model ever, but I use it anyway.

So, when a friend told me I should post my cartoons and columns to Reddit, I did.

Reddit, which was owned by the Conde Nast media conglomerate from 2006 to 2011 and is now its sister company, is a bulletin board whose registered users post items to various categories: links, images, thoughts, whatever. As these entries appear, redditors can "upvote" or "downvote" them. Each reddit has a front page where posts with the highest net number of votes appear first.

Officially, votes are intended to indicate importance and relevance to the topic, and not popularity. Nice theory. Like capitalism, it doesn't work so well in the real virtual world.

First, I posted under my name. There's no rule against it, but it turns out redditors dislike self-promotion, so I created an anonymous handle.

Here's the thing: What makes the top listings at Reddit is usually dumb. Really really dumb. Rock-bottom low-brow. Stoopid.

As I write this, here are the top three:

• No matter how old I get, I will always put my fingers in these (A link to a photo of rolls of Christmas wrapping paper in a store, with the shrinkwrapping punctured on each).

• So I went diving with sharks recently but this guy couldn't help but smile for the camera (A link to a photo of a shark that appears to be smiling).

• Malicious Advice Mallard on marriage (A link to a "meme," a joke photo of a duck with the caption "Marriage failing? Have a baby that will fix it").

This is a typical mix: Fluff, fluff, fluff. Yeah, I'm biased. Whatever. I think my stuff deserves as much play as a photo of a smirky elongate elasmobranch. The good news is that hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Reddit readers follow the links to each of my cartoons and columns. Then an interesting pattern occurs. There's an initial flurry of upposts. The item climbs. Then there's a flood of downposts.

This mirrors what I've seen elsewhere online. Left or right, political content often gets an initial burst of positive responses posted by people who agree with its point of view. Popularity-based metrics like Reddit's bring the item to wider attention, including people who disagree with it and then vote it down.

It's not just my stuff. Most content with a strong political point of view gets crushed by downvoters who evidently don't know or care about Reddit's "vote it up if it's interesting, even if you disagree with it" admonition. The result: Political content is vanishing down the cyber memory hole. It's still there--if you can find it. But most people won't bother.

It's not just the specific political content that's disappearing. It's the idea of politics itself. When politics isn't part of the dialogue online, the idea that we can and should argue about the laws and ideas that govern our society disappears from our national consciousness. People simply stop thinking about it. Those who remember to look for political content take note of the disappearance of politics and draw the conclusion that they are alone, that politics aren't popular. Soon, the subject starts to fade from your own brain.

As the crisis of print media continues to shrink mainstream reporting, analysis and opinion, sites like Reddit are supposedly poised to step in to fill the void. A clunky transition is inevitable.

The problem is, Michael Barthel wrote in Salon, too many online consumers and gatekeepers think they're already awesome: "One of the weirdest things about the Web is its eagerness to obsessively criticize every other form of media except the Web itself. Traditional journalism is dying, and it's just a matter of time before the Internet figures out a new and improved form that will make everything perfect forever," Barthel wrote.

He was criticizing "citizen journalism." But his Web skepticism can also apply to social media's unwitting contribution to depoliticization: "The Web seems neutral, because it is an open platform that anyone can use. But just because anyone can does not mean everyone does. The stories that get covered are the ones citizen journalists care about most, and these citizen journalists tend toward a certain social-cultural-economic orientation."

The Internet is exciting. Old media is stodgy. But democracy will suffer unless the Web gets better at politics.

Thanks to the social-cultural-economic orientation of too many Redditors, it's the Malicious Advice Mallard's world. We only live in it.

Not that you can see us on Reddit.

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