Led it on Reddit: An exploratory study examining opinion leadership on Reddit
First Monday

Led it on Reddit: An exploratory study examining opinion leadership on Reddit by Danielle K. Kilgo, Joseph Yoo, Vinicio Sinta, Stephanie Geise, Melissa Suran, and Thomas J. Johnson



Abstract
Is it possible to identify opinion leaders in a semi-anonymous online network? To answer this question, this study examines the social news site Reddit to determine whether opinion leadership can be recognized in an online network that, at face value, does not allow users to associate with their off-line personas. Identifiable characteristics, such as commenting, longevity, karma scores, posting frequency, and posting scores were analyzed. Results indicate that semi-anonymous opinion leadership may exist, as several users appear frequently as top-voted posters and commenters. In addition, Reddit’s reputational value karma may help users and researchers identify opinion leaders.

Contents

Introduction
The semi-anonymous world of Reddit
Political opinion leadership
Online opinion leadership
Reddit and network size
Research questions
Hypothesis
Methods
Data analysis
Results
Discussion
Conclusion, limitations, and future studies

 


 

Introduction

Social news and networking sites allow users to manage their news consumption individually and tailor content to their interests. While news organizations have utilized such sites as outlets to distribute news content, users have also played a central role in sharing, reposting, and recirculating media content. Media consumers can act as citizen journalists — sharing, reframing, interpreting and judging news content through social features like commenting and sharing. The most influential individuals among these users are known as opinion leaders. While there is a growing library of research related to opinion leadership in emerging digital platforms, there is limited knowledge about opinion leaders’ characteristics in online environments, such as Reddit, where users are primarily semi-anonymous.

Well-established social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, boast millions of users who identify themselves with profile information that includes their names, photographs, and demographic information [1]. However, social news sites, like Reddit, Digg, and Slashdot, incorporate different configurations and feature users publishing in semi-anonymous platforms. Reddit is considered a semi-anonymous environment because it requires at least some identifying information. For example, users are required to provide usernames, though these are rarely real identities (van der Nagel and Frith, 2015). Further, while redditors are discouraged from providing identifying information about themselves, Reddit has a culture of authenticity.

Reddit, created in 2005 by Huffman and Ohanian (Kincaid, 2009), was used by six percent of Americans in 2013 (Duggan and Smith, 2013) and had grown to more than 168 million unique users as of March 2015 (Reddit, 2015a). Nevertheless, as a hub for news and viral material, Reddit remains widely under researched (Ovadia, 2015). This study investigates what characteristics can help identify opinion leaders in a virtual semi-anonymous environment such as Reddit.

The concept of opinion leadership is one of the oldest theoretical approaches to public opinion formation (Nisbet, 2006). The transfer of communicative interactions to mostly virtual surroundings also necessitates a re-examination of how opinion leadership is constructed and exercised on the Internet (e.g., Huffaker, 2010; Jin, et al., 2002; Lyons and Henderson, 2005; Sun, et al., 2006; Tsang and Zhou, 2005). As more people obtain their news from social media platforms, the role of opinion leaders in online environments has become an increasingly important concept.

This study aims to determine if opinion leadership plays a role in the spread of news on an online platform where off-line social reputation and leadership status appears unidentifiable. Using Reddit as a platform for exploring the facets of “digital only,” semi-anonymous opinion leadership, we identify theorized characteristics of online opinion leadership, such as longevity, reputation, activity levels, and audience interactions within political divisions of Reddit. We also discuss empirical evidence for the formation, construction, and exercise of semi-anonymous opinion leadership online.

 

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The semi-anonymous world of Reddit

Reddit, a social news site, characterizes itself as “the front page of the Internet.” Reddit’s intriguing atmosphere — one that encompasses the alarming, the serious, and the superficial — has several facets that have been largely unexplored in scholarship (Ovadia, 2015). Reddit users can post original messages, links, and comments within specialized communities called “subreddits,” which include a broad variety of social, cultural, and political topics (Silverman, 2012). Contributions are generally in the form of text and may include an embedded image, video, or a link to information published on another Web site, such as a news article. Within subreddits, the subject of posts and comments can vary greatly, ranging from breaking news updates to humorous and disturbing visual critiques (Vickery, 2014).

The interaction in subreddits is moderated by volunteers who have the power to delete posts that they believe violate the subreddit community’s standards. Moderation criteria vary widely by subreddit — some are heavily moderated while others have little evidence of censorship (Reddit, 2015b). Thus, subreddits can have distinctly different environments in terms of the volume and nature of user participation. Readership can range from 100 subscribers to three million subscribers. In some subreddits, such as the highly populated “r/news” and “r/politics,” users tend to post links to content on other Web sites rather than user-generated content. In other subreddits, user-generated content is more prevalent. Social interaction and discussions are initiated when a user comments on a published post. Dialogue expands as users continue to respond to an initial post or comments in response to that post.

The default page for each subreddit is labeled on the site as the “hot” results page and essentially serves as the most recent and trending posts on the subreddit at the time. Posts that appear as “hot” results are calculated by Reddit’s algorithm, which accounts for a combination of upvotes, downvotes, and time the post has been on the site. Posts with the highest net votes are placed at the top of the “hot” thread and continue in descending order, weighted to favor recent posts (Van Mieghem, 2011). Likewise, comments with the highest net votes become top-level comments, thus, helping organize longer commenting threads. High-ranking comment threads often take on the characteristics of conversation and debate. Reddit’s algorithm also causes scores to decay over time, so items with few recent votes will effectively lose their top-ranking positions as newer topics are posted and generate user activity. It is this content on the first page of this default “hot” setting that we use to examine opinion leadership.

Reddit provides voting and commenting mechanisms that allow users to interact with other users. For example, users can “vote” for or against content via a process called upvoting and downvoting. Through this interaction, however, Reddit users can be identified by usernames only, which are typically unique screen aliases.

In addition to the username, Reddit account profiles are equipped with only two additional identifiable variables: karma and longevity. These variables require active investigation of the readers, as they must click on individual usernames to view these characteristics through profile information. Karma is essentially the number of upvotes minus the number of downvotes, although Reddit admits those numbers might be manipulated “to prevent spambots” (Reddit, 2015c). There are two types of karma: “link karma” (for posts) and “comment karma.” Karma is awarded for comments made to the post and the upvotes and downvotes of such contributions. The link and comment karma scores that appear in a redditor’s profile indicate the total score for all their posts and karma. A high karma score indicates that a user is an active and productive participant on the site (Bergstrom, 2011). Karma is also a numerical measurement of virtual social reputation because it calculates the cumulative score of how many people approve posts and comments (Leavitt and Clark, 2014). The only other identifying factor is the date an account was created, which relays information about individual user longevity on the site. Apart from these factors, the general culture of Reddit is anonymous [2].

Anonymity can have various effects on computer-mediated communication. For example, anonymity can lower social barriers by normalizing communication for participants in computer-mediated discussion groups (Dubrovsky, et al., 1991). In anonymous environments, communicators may feel more comfortable doing or saying certain things they may not communicate in the real world (Suler, 2004). This premise validates Kushin and Kitchner’s (2009) findings that online discourse may be rife with inappropriate, uncivil behavior and “flaming” due to a lack of accountability. While scholars have explored anonymity and online behaviors to some degree, we found no research describing the possibility for opinion leaders in semi-anonymous networks like Reddit. This research fills this gap in the literature by examining potential variables that may help us recognize and understand opinion leaders within the Reddit network.

 

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Political opinion leadership

Opinion leadership is one of the most established theoretical approaches used to explain the public formation of opinions about politics (Nisbet, 2006), Previous scholarship has repeatedly highlighted the role opinion leaders play as pivotal actors in the formation of attitudes, opinions, and public knowledge. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues (1944) initially theorized the concept of “opinion leadership” in the seminal work The people’s choice. They proposed the two-step flow of communication, where opinion leaders gather news and information about an election and then pass it on to others. Recent scholarship has further synthesized the informational and social foci of opinion leadership and conceptualized “opinion leaders” as “individuals who have a high density of social relations and act as exchangers of information through their information giving and seeking behaviors ... furthering the diffusion of information and ideas” [3]. Nisbet’s (2006) definition will serve as the basis of our opinion leadership analysis as we examine indicators of opinion leadership through karma, longevity, and net votes as well as the number of comments and posts on Reddit.

One dimension of opinion leadership refers to the identification of people’s social position and recognition, especially regarding their social reputation (Katz, 1957; Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955). In this dimension, networking can be seen as a valid result of a person’s reputation; an individual who gains a higher social status, and thus a higher perceived social reputation, is most likely in the center of communicative activities (Schenk and Rössler, 1997; Noelle-Neumann, 1983). Likewise, while social recognition and networking identify the number of contacts in someone’s circle of friends and acquaintances, they also indicate the individual’s position in these social networks (Katz, 1957). In accordance with this notion, opinion leaders often display higher levels of political activity through various communicative and social interactions and voluntary associations (Weimann, 1991; Chan and Misra, 1990). Thus, through karma — a quantitative representation of reputation, longevity, and activity levels on Reddit — opinion leadership can possibly be established in Reddit’s semi-anonymous network.

 

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Online opinion leadership

Opinion leaders are essential to the diffusion of information in social communities, off-line as well as online (Gladwell, 2000). While online venues offer different opportunities to both lead and follow, online opinion leaders are not entirely distinct from their off-line counterparts. Lyons and Henderson (2005) found that opinion leaders in computer-mediated environments broadly share the same attributes with off-line opinion leaders in terms of having higher levels of innovativeness, exploratory behavior, and self-perceived knowledge. Likewise, influential people are often well-connected users in social networks and thus have the ability to influence more people (DuBrin, 2012; Rogers, 2003). Similar to direct social interactions, online users who gain a high social status or well-received reputation are considered popular sources for information seekers (Gould, 2002). Reddit also underlines the social status through karma, albeit this score does not necessarily provide the same cohesive personality and opinion leadership characteristics that existing literature may suggest. At face value, Reddit users do not directly link their online username with their off-line persona, making this a fertile research area for the evolution of opinion leadership theory.

Recent studies of online opinion leadership in social media provide some examples of the characteristics of opinion leaders online. As in other virtual environments, opinion leaders in online discussion groups yield the most comments and are extremely active (Cassell, et al., 2006; Yoo and Alavi, 2004). Online discussion groups have peer-to-peer transmission in which users post and share information. Within these groups, participants label themselves according to a series of typical characteristics — including experts and conversationalists, or “flame warriors” and trolls (Burkhalter and Smith, 2004; Golder and Donath, 2004; Haythornthwaite and Hagar, 2005; Herring, 2004; Turner, et al., 2005; Welser, et al., 2007).

Himelboim, et al.’s (2009) study explored characteristics of opinion leaders in Usenet discussion groups, one of the oldest online forums that serve as digital bulletin boards of threaded discussions in topical areas known as newsgroups. Their findings suggest that only a small number of authors of original posts were present, and an even smaller number of those authors had significant activity and replies to their initial posts. The authors, who functioned as the opinion leaders in this network, were also active commenters, although they frequently responded to themselves instead of interacting with their audience. Messages were often brief with outside links to traditional media or news Web sites. While posting structures are similar site-wide, opinion leaders relied on reader and user responses to ratify themselves as opinion leaders (Himelboim, et al., 2009). Park’s (2013) study of opinion leadership in Twitter discovered perceived knowledge and expertise may prove to be especially important personality characteristics of opinion leaders (Park, 2013). However, Park surveyed self-identified opinion leaders, providing only one dimension of how the public may perceive opinion leaders.

While no study to date has directly examined opinion leadership on Reddit, research on other social news sites such as Digg and Slashdot, which have similar user interaction mechanisms, might provide some insight. The voting system on a social news site affords members the collective ability to establish social norms for what type of content is boosted to the front page and what becomes buried. In turn, those who want their stories to be upvoted most likely abide by the norm for choosing content, form, and style. This popular-vote function suggests that those who are opinion leaders are users who have been on the site long enough to know what types of stories are well received (Halavais, 2009; Leavitt and Clark, 2014). In line with that notion, Huffaker’s (2010) findings demonstrated that time spent in a group was a strong predictor for opinion leadership, as long-time members were not only more experienced, but also perceived to have stronger reputations and higher credibility. These findings also support other research that argues opinion leaders are the ones reaching out to the community while developing and maintaining relationships that contribute to the group as a whole (Wellman and Gulia, 1999). Thus, longevity may help identify opinion leaders within Reddit.

Studies on social news sites, such as Digg, Slashdot, and Google Groups, provide insight about audience and user interactions. Ma, et al. (2012) explored which factors affected willingness to share stories on Digg. They found that news salience, measured in terms of the number of comments, had the strongest influence on news sharing, and Digg users were more likely to share soft news instead of hard news. However, opinion leadership, as measured by the number of followers, failed to predict news sharing (Ma, et al., 2012). Huffaker (2010) found that in Google Groups, opinion leadership was best measured by the number of replies to posts rather than the number of original posts, although the number of original posts was also important. In particular, engaging in reciprocal relationships (i.e., individuals responding to those who reply to them) seems particularly important because it creates bonding and relationship development. Likewise, Ganley and Lampe (2009), who examined the different types of networks Slashdot users resided in based on their karma scores, found that those with high karma scores had smaller, tighter networks, suggesting that karma could be a major indicator of opinion leadership in a sub-forum.

Examining how posting content refers to source credibility, Leavitt and Clark (2014) explored what characteristics determined whether people on Reddit posted content from professional news organizations or other sources. They found that more frequent posters, and to a lesser extent, more experienced ones, were more likely to post stories from professional news sources (Leavitt and Clark, 2014). Interestingly, Leavitt and Clark (2014) found no evidence that karma made any difference to the types of stories posted. In line with the idea of gained familiarity with implicit social norms in the network, they surmised that that active posters may have a better understanding of Reddit and understand the primary purpose of the forum is to share professional news. Still, the authors argued that karma may not be an important variable, as users primarily vote for posts that interest them, so that humorous posts and content may get more votes than more serious topics. Levitt and Clark (2014) also suggested that more frequent posters and commenters were more likely to be leaders on Reddit, as were those who had been members of the site longer and who had authored more posts. Ultimately, the degree to which karma may influence leadership roles remains unknown.

This study combines findings from political opinion leadership, social media leadership, and social news site studies to examine opinion leadership by using the identifiers available in an otherwise semi-anonymous, online-only network. Using the few identifiable characteristics associated with accounts, this study evaluates the following opinion leadership variables: poster activity — the frequency of appearance in post and top-level comments; interaction with audience — the number of comments, top-level comments, and net votes; reputation — a collective quantitative figure of Reddit’s karma dimension; and longevity — the amount of days since accounts were first created.

 

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Reddit and network size

“I am Barack Obama, President of the United States” was the thread that marked Reddit’s foray into national politics. In the instance of Obama’s appearance on Reddit, one might expect that his dialogue online would reflect opinion leader characteristics, as predicted by his reputation and off-line opinion leader status. While we acknowledge this possibility, this type of political discussion within Reddit is not limited to the “r/AMA” (Ask Me Anything) subreddit. Reddit communities both small and large are rife with conversation. Due to its unique characteristics and structures, we contend that opinion leadership may have different characteristics on Reddit than in traditional social interaction settings where opinion leadership is exercised.

Weber (2014) found significant correlations between the news factors of content and audience participation. In particular, he contended that political content encourages participation and sustained interactivity among audiences. In light of these findings, this exploratory study isolates opinion leadership inquiry to political subreddits, where audiences may be more likely to participate and interact consistently with posters and commenters.

Subreddits with large readership, such as r/news and r/politics, have more than three million subscribers. In a forum consisting of millions of readers, one might expect that opinion leadership qualities would be vastly different than subreddits with smaller readership numbers, such as “r/politicaldiscussion” (34,592 readers), “r/neutralpolitics” (36,671 readers) and “r/americanpolitics” (14,189 readers). Because the degree to which readership affects subreddit dynamics is unclear, the sample includes the aforementioned subreddits with varied readership, in an attempt to provide a broad examination of Reddit.

 

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Research questions

RQ1 acknowledges the democratic architecture of Reddit as a driving force for identifying how commenting relates to Net voting scores. Building on the fact that popular content gains more votes, this research question examines the extent to which crowd voting might predict future replies in various forms:

RQ1: Does the Net vote of a post predict how many a) top-level comments and b) total comments it receives?

The remainder of our research questions seeks to identify individual opinion leadership characteristics identified in previous literature. Concerning off-line opinion leadership, Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) found that political opinion leaders often act as discussion leaders. Lyons and Henderson (2005) also discovered that off-line opinion leadership characteristics are relatively similar to online opinion leadership characteristics.

We identified the top 15 percent of posters in terms of posting frequency. This percentage of possible opinion leaders is similar to the percentage predicted in marketing research (King and Summers, 1970). Therefore, the subsequent research questions are based on shared opinion leadership characteristics as adapted for the Reddit platform.

Opinion leaders may initiate and subsequently participate in conversations (Himelboim, et al., 2009). Accordingly, posters would be expected to lead discussions on multiple occasions. Because Reddit’s algorithm ultimately determines a post’s ranking in its default “hot” view by evaluating upvotes, downvotes, and time, we propose the following research question:

RQ2: To what degree do users reappear in “hot” posts?

To analyze the relationship between the interaction with audiences in online activities and appearances as top-level commenters, we ask:

RQ3: Do users who frequently appear in “hot” posts also appear as top-level commenters?

 

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Hypothesis

Longevity in the online community has been named an important indicator of opinion leadership (Huffaker, 2010; Leavitt and Clark, 2014). The more time users spend with the community and the more active they are, the better they will know how to speak to its collective priorities, and therefore, the more credibility they will gain. Hence, this study hypothesizes that:

H1: Posters with more longevity on Reddit will have a) more top-level comments and b) more total comments.

Karma reflects “how much good the user has done for the Reddit community” (Reddit, 2015c). If we consider karma scores as a collective identification of reputation, we can consider karma as a quantifiable form of credibility, popularity, and/or reputation on Reddit. Thus, we posit that:

H2: Posters with more karma will have a) more top-level comments and b) more total comments.

We recognize that commenters, more specifically top-level commenters, may also facilitate lively discussions, thus adding a dimension of potential opinion leadership. Following this idea, we propose that:

H3a: Top-level commenters with more karma will receive more replies.
H3b: Top-level commenters with more longevity will receive more replies.

 

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Methods

In this study, we examine a set of posts and associated top-level comments in political subreddits. Post and comment data of five political subreddits were collected through a software program. A Web developer wrote the software in PHP using a MySQL database, and the program collected data from Reddit’s API. The program scraped the Reddit API three times per day (at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.) for two weeks. By collecting data multiple times during the day, the analyzed posts were less susceptible, though likely still affected by, the Reddit algorithm factor of time. No duplicate posts were found in the sample. Data included all information from the first page of the default setting. For each post retrieved, the scraper compiled the text, author username, and score of every top-level comment. Moreover, the data set for each post comprises the title, link URL, poster’s username, user karma, account creation date, Net votes, total comments, top-level comments, and date and time posted. For each top-level comment, the scraper collected the post title, comment text, commenter’s username, user karma, account creation date, Net votes, and number of replies. Posts were collected from 1 September 2014 through 15 September 2014. In all, 988 posts were retrieved from active political subreddits: 553 from r/news, 194 posts were from r/politics, 157 from r/politicaldiscussion, 72 from r/americanpolitics, and 12 from r/neutralpolitics. A total of 16,784 top-level comments were collected.

Net vote scores were calculated for both posts and comments. As described above, Net votes are calculated by Reddit and are the combination of downvotes and upvotes. Highly active posters and commenters are Reddit users who were identified as top 10 posters and commenters based on the frequency of posts and comments in the studied period. In the case of top-level commenters, there were two users with the exact same number of posts, so 11 top-level commenters were considered. Additionally, variables were collected from posters’ and top-level commenters’ accounts: account creation dates, “link karma,” and “comment karma.” Longevity, the cumulative number of days users have spent on Reddit, was calculated by a subtraction of the final date (15 September) from account creation dates. Users’ total karma scores, the amount of “how much good the user has done for the Reddit community,” were also collected (Reddit, 2015c). “Link karma” and “comment karma” numbers are combined to produce a total karma score. Top-level comments and number of replies were collected similarly for each post. The total number of comments and the number of responses to top-level comments were also collected.

 

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Data analysis

In addition to reporting descriptive statistics, one-tailed Pearson correlation coefficients (r) were utilized to examine relationships between all posters’ variables. The Pearson correlation measures the linear relationship between two variables, and r is equivalent to the standardized beta for simple linear regression (Zou, et al., 2003). In order to examine H1 and H2, a regression analysis was conducted. Karma and longevity for posters were independent variables, while top-level comments was the dependent variable. To examine H3, a regression analysis was conducted to measure the influences of Karma and longevity of commenters on number of replies to top-level comments. All results about specific redditors were reported using pseudonyms to ensure the privacy of those examined in this study.

 

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Results

RQ1a&b examine if the net vote of posts is indicative of top-level comments or total comments. Net vote is highly correlated with the number of top-level comments and total comments. Thus, these scores suggest that readers are more likely to comment, and that more users can rise as top-level commenters. Here, results of a one-tailed correlation indicate that the Net vote is positively correlated with the number of top-level comments (r = .786, p < .001) as well as with total comments (r = .435, p < .001). This finding indicates that reader autonomy to participate in upvoting or downvoting a post plays a significant role in fostering conversation through comments on any given thread.

RQ2 examines the frequency of multiple users submitting posts or comments. The findings suggest that only a small percentage of users post frequently. For posters, this was only 15 percent of the total sample of all posts. Table 1 provides descriptive data about these highly active posters (n = 11), illustrating the variance in the number of posts, karma, and longevity features in this top 15 percent.

 

Table 1: Descriptive information about top 11 posters.
User nameSubredditNumber of postsKarmaLongevity
M[1]News, Politics, PoliticalDiscussion26141581391
AC[1]News20208122610
L[1]News202046118693
R[1]PoliticalDiscussion201024721396
MD[1]PoliticalDiscussion128182377
B[1]PoliticalDiscussion1186011367
DJ[1]Politics, News94774001069
BS[1]PoliticalDiscussion81101553
JH[1]AmericanPolitics8905751089
M[2]Politics, News825903051426
PN[1]Politics, News8880192809

 

Interestingly, these top 11 posters have considerably different characteristics than a similar sample of top-level commenters. To be more precise, users appeared more frequently as top-level commenters than they did as posters. Table 2 shows descriptive information about top-level commenters who appeared in top-level comments multiple times, including karma and longevity scores. Commenters in this top 15 percent appeared more frequently than posters. Overall, commenting frequencies reveal that almost two-thirds, or 64 percent, of top-level commenters only appeared once or twice, while 18.2 percent appeared more than six times. The findings also show that the top 10 top-level commenters who posted most frequently accounted for only three percent of the total top-level comments. Because the sample size of comments was significantly larger (n = 16,764) than the number of posts (n = 988), the numbers are vastly different.

 

Table 2: Descriptive information about top 10 commenters.
User nameSubredditNumber of commentsKarmaLongevity
S[1]News50125
Z[1]New, NeutralPolitics, PoliticalDiscussion4527091113
GE[1]Politics, AmericanPolitics41781771
DQ[1]PoliticalDiscussion37548539
FB[1]News3442124
H[1]Politics, News, PoliticalDiscussion2915871278
B[2]PoliticalDiscussion271250
GD[1]News, Politics2795921481
C[1]PoliticalDiscussion25451438
M[1]AmericanPolitics256142349

 

RQ3 examines if highly active posters appear as top-level commenters. To answer this question, we used the top 10 posters who appeared more than 10 times (see Table 1). The results indicate that about half of these posters appeared in top-level comments. The most visible poster, named “M[1]” (with a karma score of 14,1581 and a longevity of 391 days) appeared twice in top-level comments in r/news. However, “M[1]” posted and commented in different subreddits, namely in r/news, r/politics, and r/politicaldiscussion. This specific user can be identified as a discussion catalyst, as described by Himelboim, et al. (2009). Other users are more elusive, as their specific roles in the online network were harder to identify. A user named “L[1]” appeared four times in top-level comments in r/news, “MD[1]” appeared in r/politicaldiscussion once, “B[1]” appeared in r/politicaldiscussion two times, and “BS[1]” appeared twice in r/politicaldiscussion. Interestingly, these users do not necessarily appear as posters in the same subreddits in which they appeared as top-level commenters, indicating potential networking capabilities among political subreddits. Moreover, their top-level commenting frequencies are often fewer than their actual posts.

Although highly active posters infrequently appear in top-level comments, these results provide insight about possible variations by subreddit. Subreddits with smaller readerships, specifically r/politicaldiscussion, have a set of frequent users who serve as posters as well as commenters. This finding indicates that the characteristics of political opinion leadership may be more evident in some subreddits than in others. At the same time, it is striking that that these opinion-leading posters are not necessarily exclusive to a specific subreddit, but rather, they appear in multiple subreddits selected in for this study.

 

Table 3: Variable correlations across all subreddits.
Note: * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.
 KarmaLongevityNetvoteTotal commentsTop-Level comments
Karma1    
Longevity.207**1   
Netvote.194**0.031  
Total comments-0.034-0.02.435**1 
Top-level comments.155**-0.028.786**.327**1

 

H1a&b and H2a&b look at the individual characteristics of posters, such as longevity and karma, to examine if these are correlated with commenting frequencies. First, one-tailed correlations were conducted among variables including karma, longevity, net vote, top-level comments, and total comments (see Table 3). As this table shows, the Net vote of a post is highly correlated with top-level comments (r = .786, p < .001) and total comments (r = .435, p < .001). Longevity only turned out to correlate with karma (r = .207, p < .001) and does not explain activity in terms of Net votes, top-level comments, and total comments. This may be because some users who create accounts do not actively or regularly contribute posts or comments. There are also significant correlations between karma and Net votes (r = .194, p < .001), as well as between karma and top-level comments (r = .155, p < .001). Results indicate that posters that have more karma will have more top-level comments (r = .155, p < .001), but this will not necessarily predict the number of total comments. Because karma is considered a measure of user-recognized reputation, our findings suggest that posts by users with higher karma correlates with more commenting, thus advancing Ganley and Lampe’s (2009) claim that karma is an important factor in determining opinion leadership.

 

Table 4: Regression analysis for posts.
Note: * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.
Predictor variablesReplies
Karma.168***
Longevity-.063
Adjusted R2.028
Sig.< .001
N988

 

Regression results show that while karma and longevity of posters had no significant relationship with total comments, the karma of the poster did predict that the post would receive more top-level comments, as shown in Table 4. H1a&b were rejected; longevity was not significantly related to top-level comments or total comments. H2a was supported; karma positively predicted the number of top-level comments (β = .168, p < .001). However, H2b was rejected; karma did not predict the total number of comments.

 

Table 5: Regression analysis for top-level comments.
Note: * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.
Predictor variablesReplies
Karma.023**
Longevity-.009
Adjusted R2.001
Sig.< .001
N16,784

 

Hypotheses H3a and H3b predicted that karma and longevity of top-level commenters would lead to a greater number of replies. As illustrated in Table 5, karma predicted more replies (β = .023, p < .01). However, longevity had no significant relationship with replies. Thus, H3a was supported while H3b was not.

 

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Discussion

Opinion leaders play an important role in the dissemination of information throughout social networking and news sites. While users in networks such as Twitter and Facebook can build their leadership status with their off-line influence among other variables, opinion leadership has not been explored in a more anonymous setting, such as Reddit. Therefore, this study provides insight about online opinion leadership in Reddit, an environment that typically detaches users from their off-line personas.

Similar to the function of “likes” on Facebook or retweets on Twitter, Reddit relies on the upvotes and downvotes of millions who pass judgment on worthy links and content, allowing certain posts — as determined by an algorithm that considers both votes and timeliness — to rise to the top. This study finds that under these circumstances, the higher a post is voted, the more comments and top-level comments it generates. Though it is likely a function of the algorithm, this finding supports Huffaker’s (2010) assertion that opinion leadership may best be measured by the number of comments. Beyond that very basic level, our results suggest that there should be aspects of posts that catch the attention of voters and commenters. Thus, this dynamic provides evidence that the role of the opinion leader may exist in this environment.

At the heart of this study is an attempt to identify pre-established opinion leadership indicators in the posters and commenters of political subreddits. The sample reveals that there are certain users who appear as posters more often than others, an indicator of opinion leadership previously found in other social media networks (Bakshy, et al., 2011; Park, 2013; van Eck, et al., 2011). More specifically, about 15 percent of posters had content that appeared more than eight times in the two-week period. However, the majority of commenters and posters in these subreddits posted and commented only once or twice, illustrating that opinion leadership may lie in the hands of only a select few, at best. These findings are consistent with Himelboim, et al.’s (2009) observations of Usenet discussion groups. Results also reveal appearance as a top-level commenter is much more frequent than appearance as a poster. Thus, it may be possible that redditors and readers are much more likely to recognize reoccurring usernames by reading the top-level comments. This potential recognition may make top-level commenters more capable of holding leadership positions.

Higher karma correlated with the number of total comments and top-level comments, and our findings suggest that karma is a predictor of increased commenting. In this case, higher levels of participation through commenting are congruent with observations from previous opinion leader studies (Bergstrom, 2011; Van Mieghem, 2011), which suggests that, like Twitter, opinion leadership is signified by those who have more dense social networks gained through information-giving and seeking behaviors (Nisbet, 2006). However, the regression analyses only explain a small percentage of the relationships explored in this study. Therefore, while this finding alone does not indicate opinion leadership, it at least shows limited potential. Karma may have an important relationship with other variables that are simply not displayed in Reddit profiles and must be discerned through a longitudinal look at the platform. For example, the number of followers is a major indicator of opinion leadership on Twitter (Bakshy, et al., 2011). Within Twitter and other social platforms, audiences can often see how many followers a user has. Users can also follow other users on Reddit, but the actual following information is private and therefore cannot be accessed for this study. A future look at the relationship of karma and other variables is necessary for further assessing and identifying opinion leaders.

Longevity, or the length of time in a community, did not play a significant role in predicting high levels of posting or commenting. The longevity of frequent posters and top-level commenters ranged from 25 days to more than six years. These findings challenge previous opinion leader studies, including those examining opinion leadership on social media, that have suggested that longevity is an important predictor, as longtime members might readily recognize the social values of Reddit and therefore post stories that are well received (Halavais, 2009; Leavitt and Clark. 2014). One reason that longevity may not be an indicator of activity is that a considerable number of users may join the network and not participate frequently. However, there could also be a curve to learning the Reddit culture, which accounts for great variation in the longevity of users’ accounts among the most frequent posters and commenters identified in this study. For example, a top-level commenter named “SH[1]” was only on the site for 25 days, but already had 50 top-level comments. Highly active posters, “M[1]” (longevity of 391 days) and “MD[1]” (longevity of 371 days) spent more time on the site and were among the top five frequent posters. Again, this provides further evidence that posters and top-level commenters may have different and separate opinion leader characteristics.

Despite frequency differences, commenters and posters did have similarities. In both top-level commenting and posting, higher karma predicted more replies. While we can assume that the very nature of commenting and posting may lead to variations in opinion leadership characteristics, we know that overall reputation — in this case in the form of higher karma — is a consistent variable that predicts potential opinion leadership within Reddit. Thus, we can infer that reputation, an enduring opinion leadership value, is just as important in a semi-anonymous environment as it would be in another social setting, and audiences expectations for opinion leaders may persist. Even without having your name and other biographical information attached to your posts, you can create an identity on Reddit by having your username associated with memorable, provocative, and useful content (van der Nagel and Frith, 2015).

It is probable that Reddit leaders do not “lead” in the traditional sense. At first glance, content and voting practices are more likely to affect audience opinion than any individual user. However, this study found it is possible for a small percentage of the millions of Reddit users to rise as opinion leaders by establishing their reputation through karma. In this respect, higher karma may signify that the poster or commenter knows how to generate conversation and foster interactivity with readers.

As our findings suggest, even in a thriving networked community that hosts millions of users, it is possible that that opinion leaders can in fact lead in the absence of traditional identifying characteristics, such as visibly large followings and off-line reputations. Because there are few identifiable characteristics — and none of which that translate identically into the off-line world — opinion leadership may take place in a different form within semi-anonymous environments.

 

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Conclusion, limitations, and future studies

This study examined the possible characteristics of political opinion leadership in a widely semi-anonymous social news site that is well known for the aggregation of varying content. Reddit is not simply a host of political conversation, as it also has subreddits that range from humorous to serious. Therefore, this study only examined the possible characteristics in subreddits that discussed politics, leaving room for future exploration in the thousands of other genres and subreddits that exist. Within these subreddits, this study focused on the default setting and did not gather full comment sections. Future research could compare the posting and commenting practices and content, tracing the activity patterns of identified opinion leaders beyond the subreddits explored in this study.

Moreover, there is little known about what specific content was posted and what comments rose to top-level comments. Future research should evaluate characteristics of posts and comments, examining how variations in content such as topic, tone, and sourcing may play a role in opinion leadership. Additionally, isolating inquiry to top-level commenters may provide helpful insights regarding the social interaction variations within Reddit and also opinion leadership characteristics that emerge in these social exchanges.

Surveying users’ personality characteristics, online media use, and platform-specific habits may be another fruitful venue for further exploring Reddit. Additionally, a survey may provide information about how Reddit users utilize the function that allows them to follow other users. Reddit profiles do not display a total number of followers, and users with large followings likely stand at the forefront of opinion leaders. However, this method comes with major drawbacks; a survey would inevitably chip away at the veil of anonymity that Reddit users are afforded, and self-identification of opinion leaders may create bias.

In this initial exploration of Reddit opinion leadership, we can see that previous theorized variables — such as longevity in a social position or environment — may not lead to opinion leadership, while variables — such as karma or reputation — may. More importantly, we found that reputation is as important in a semi-anonymous environment as it is in an off-line setting. These findings reveal that even in the absence of the off-line persona, a semi-anonymous digital world may foster conversations and discussions lead by community opinion leaders. As Reddit continues to grow, further examination of this online space is necessary to understand how content is gathered and shared in this unique community. End of article

 

About the authors

Danielle Kilgo is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include visual communication, social media and media effects. Her work appears in Digital Journalism, Journalism Studies, and the International Journal of Communication.
Send comments to: daniellekilgo [at] utexas [dot] edu

Joseph Jai-sung Yoo is a third-year Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His research areas of interest include political communication, telecommunication policy, especially regarding Net neutrality, network analysis, and sports communication.
E-mail: jjspride [at] gmail [dot] com

Vinicio Sinta is a doctoral student in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His research centers on ethnic-oriented news media, with a focus on U.S. Latinos/as.
E-mail: v [dot] sinta [at] utexas [dot] edu

Stephanie Geise is an assistant profesor at the University of Erfut. Her research interests include visual communication.
E-mail: Stephanie [dot] Geise [at] uni-efurt [dot] de

Melissa Suran recently received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. She earned a Master’s of Science degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Suran’s work has appeared in four books and several publications, including the American Journal of Infection Control, Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business, EMBO Reports, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journalism Studies, Kaiser Health News, Moment Magazine, PBS MediaShift, and the Tennessean.
E-mail: mnsuran [at] u [dot] northweastern [dot] edu

Thomas J. Johnson is the Amon G. Carter Jr. Centennial Professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include new media and political communication, particularly the political uses and effects of social and other new media.
E-mail: tom [dot] johnson [at] austin [dot] utexas [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. While Facebook requires that posters use their real names, Twitter users can use pseudonyms and do not have to have a profile. Hence, some users on Twitter are also largely anonymous. However, the CEO of Twitter is regretting the policy that allows users to be anonymous because it has promoted trollers, who almost always use pseudonyms (Hern, 2015).

2. While redditors normally post using pseudonyms on nearly all subreddits (with AMA — ask me anything being a notable exception) and users can create multiple accounts or one time throwaway accounts, some question how anonymous it actually is (Bergstrom, 2011; Leavitt, 2015). For instance, some subreddits allow moderators or users to add flair, icons or texts next to the post that add some identifying information to the individual. In some subreddits, such as r/journalists, they may identify themselves through photos. Also, while some subreddits primarily or solely contain links to other content, others focus on comments, including those about one’s personal life.

3. Nisbet, 2006, p. 6.

 

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Editorial history

Received 2 February 2016; revised 24 July 2016; accepted 14 August 2016.


Copyright © 2016, First Monday.
Copyright © 2016, Danielle K. Kilgo, Joseph Yoo, Vinicio Sinta, Stephanie Geise, Melissa Suran, and Thomas J. Johnson.

Led it on Reddit: An exploratory study examining opinion leadership on Reddit
by Danielle K. Kilgo, Joseph Yoo, Vinicio Sinta, Stephanie Geise, Melissa Suran, and Thomas J. Johnson.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 9 - 5 September 2016
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6429/5617
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i9.6429





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