Three months ago, I was desperate. I couldn’t talk to my parents. My therapist had been MIA since the beginning of the pandemic. The subject matter was too personal to bring up with any of my friends. So, I turned to the internet, making my first post on Reddit.
I posted on the subreddit—the term Reddit uses to refer to topic-oriented forums that users can follow and post within—r/relationship_advice to a handful of responses and private messages. But despite having only posted on the forum once, r/relationship_advice—along with a series of other subreddits such as r/relationships, r/AmITheAsshole, r/raisedbynarcissists and r/JustNoMIL—has become a regular part of my routine. A few times per week, I traverse through the posts in search of laughs, advice, wholesome content and justified outrage, a tiny ecosystem of emotional support and camaraderie.
I learned about advice subreddits not as a Reddit user, but through the Twitter accounts that document their greatest hits: the funniest, cringiest, most absurd, most outrageous, most wholesome or most depressing posts on r/relationship_advice are collected on @redditships, and similar accounts like @AITA_reddit and @JustNoMIL1 have followed. A handful of these have gone viral on Twitter, picked up by pop culture news sites like Vice and Mashable. “AITA for Throwing Away my Boyfriend’s Potentially Illegal Yogurt Collection?” “My (25M) subs (23F, 26F, 22M, 28M, 28M) have unionized.” “My (30M) girlfriend (30F) buried all of my beans in the woods and won’t tell me where, causing a fight between us.”
Originally, I read the screenshots posted by these Twitter accounts and sent the most amusing ones to my friends. But since the pandemic hit the United States in March, Reddit has become a part of my day-to-day life, some small reminder that while the world around us has stopped, life has soldiered on.
Reddit is structured with an anarchist spirit. Rather than regulating speech of its own accord, the platform has traditionally relied on individual communities to regulate themselves, with individual subreddits moderated by a cohort of rule-makers called moderators or “mods.” These individualized rules give the posts their distinctive flair: on r/relationship_advice, the ages and genders of the people mentioned in each story must be present; on r/AmITheAsshole, the redditor must genuinely be unsure about whether they’re in the wrong. Still, what makes them so valuable is that, despite the complicated moderation process, these communities are largely self-regulating. For the most part, people genuinely seek to solicit and offer advice.
Each subreddit has a particular moral flavor. For instance, frequenters of r/relationships and r/relationship_advice already know the types of people who get lambasted on the platform: we hate relationships with large age gaps; we hate cheaters; we hate liars. Since the start of the pandemic, many commenters have become crusaders for social distancing. And people are unlikely to tolerate your mother-in-law—let alone the husband who enables her—or the friend who’s taken advantage of you time and time again.
Frequenters love it when two people involved in the same situation make different posts on an advice column, when they can search through someone’s search history to discover posts revealing that the original poster’s (OP’s) partner is abusive, or when a particularly unpleasant OP gets discovered by a family member or friend and roasted in the comment section. It takes some time to understand these small victories, to get swept in by the high that real, meaningful change could result from a nighttime scroll through Reddit.
On these subreddits, justice feels more prevalent than anywhere in the real world. There are comments declaring “LEAVE HIM” or “PACK YOUR BAGS” or “GET OUT” that have thousands of upvotes and several Reddit “awards.” The Twitter crowd joins in, replies full of red flag emojis and references to previous posts. Get therapy is perhaps the most common response of all.
It’s unclear whether people are actually taking this advice. The majority of people on Reddit—and its constituent subreddits—are Millennials, some of whom likely cannot afford $100-a-week sessions. Many of the issues they post are too fickle for therapy; others feel less like mental health failures and more like general confusion about doing life and relationships properly. Unlike teletherapy, the space is built on trust without members of the subreddit needing to masquerade as experts. This is an insular, self-referential community desperately trying to figure out life together.
Of course, some of the posts are fake. But most of them feel genuine; people offer detailed updates about the situations for which they wanted advice—some about discovering that their partner is indeed having an affair, others about resolving their disputes with their parents. But most of the updates are just about moving on, often just as confused as when they initially sought advice.
This, I think, is the magic of r/relationships. Whereas so many other communities on the internet and in person demand payment or expertise, there are no credentials or blue checks here. And platforms like Twitter and Facebook often cater to a performance of morality incompatible with the vulnerability on r/relationships. The goal in these spaces is not groundbreaking. In many ways, it’s just a group of people—admittedly a large group of over 3 million—trying to be less shitty and trying to not get treated like shit.
This is why I don’t just relish in scrolling through these subreddits. I actively enjoy them. I enjoy participating — even just as an observer — in the process of becoming better. It feels hopeless to want to make the world better. But it doesn’t feel hopeless to watch people better themselves. And sometimes, it doesn’t even feel hopeless to want to be a bit better myself.