This story was originally published on February 12, 2018.
In mid-January, a man needed some advice about a little love problem, so he turned to the most logical source: reddit. r/relationships, a subreddit dedicated solely to doling out relationship advice, has almost 1 million readers, and as the kids say, it can get pretty buck wild in there. Our 28-year-old guy had a pretty unremarkable problem: He was having a bit of a tough time, which included drinking and driving and crashing the car he shared with his girlfriend. Oh, and he thought his 28-year-old girlfriend should quit her “awful job,” because he could afford to support her with his job at a financial startup and his investment in “cryptos.” (For the uninitiated, that’s “crypotocurrency,” currently subject to a looming investment bubble.)
Okay so maybe I lied: This guy’s problem is, in fact, totally buck wild. People promptly roasted him on Twitter and he deleted the original post, but fortunately, the internet is swift with screenshots. For many, “crypto guy” may have been the first taste of the labyrinthine, and actually deeply fascinating, world of r/relationships. Twitter dunking aside, the subreddit has its own syntax, community, and culture. Reddit has long made news for its vile and abusive culture, but r/relationships is a strange example of highly effective community moderation that creates a tolerable space for complicated conversations.
It’s not surprising that people turn to the internet for relationship advice, usually with throwaway handles and identities obscured. When we’re struggling to figure out how to relate to each other, or how to resolve situations that are going horribly wrong, we turn to other humans for solace—whether to back up our righteous indignation, provide actually helpful advice, or use as a sounding board. Something about taking advice from strangers can be oddly soothing—as Ask Metafilter, a similar community that answers questions of all kinds, illustrates. But what about the people who read r/relationships religiously, without ever submitting or even participating? “I read r/relationships because my marriage is happy and boring and I enjoy schadenfreude,” commented Twitter user Courtney Imbert. “[F]avorite pastimes: crying in public to Modern Love episodes, scrolling through r/relationships for hours at a time, people-watching,” Twitter user Trinity Chapa remarked.
“Sometimes I read r/relationships just to feel like my life is okay,” says another.
We love advice columns. And in an era when amateur advice columns are springing up seemingly every day, r/relationships provides a delightful opportunity to both offer and critique advice, while also reading tales of woe (or, sometimes, joy) that give us glimpses into other people’s lives and struggles. There’s the earnest teen asking for advice on asking out a trans classmate, the guy with the racist “friend” who called ICE on his girlfriend, the guy who wanted to force his wife to get an abortion after a possible fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome. (And my personal favorite: The woman with a relationship that sounds pretty great, except for the fact that her fiancé “runs up stairs like a dog.”) Even when they get repetitive, as author Morgan Jerkins observes of posts from young people new to dating and relationships, they provide moments of shared humanity—or a “wow I’m glad that’s not me.” Those who feed on the trainwreck nature of r/relationships are not alone: Research suggests that people really do derive deep satisfaction from observing the misfortunes of others. Popping in on r/relationships during a lunch break or or while riding the train to school can provide a brief moment of escapism: Someone, somewhere, is having a worse day than you are.
But within the seeming chaos of the subreddit, there are very strict rules, detailed in an ever-evolving post that sets out specific standards for the community. These rules standardize formatting requirements, including providing succinct, clear titles like: “I[26M] was going to take my fiance’s [27F] last name, friends and family are giving me hell over it,” with the subsequent post outlining the story but also including an encapsulation of what’s going on, appropriately preceded by tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read,” an internet acronym with origins in early 2000s forums). Posts are also assigned a tag, like “infidelity,” “dating,” or “personal issues.” That rigid formatting is necessary for a site with thousands and thousands of submissions, and it creates an almost calming, normalized browsing experience for visitors. You can sort in any number of ways, but you’ll be presented with a neat, orderly list of people’s romantic catastrophes. This narrow scope, the moderators say on their policy page, is by design: This is a landing place for conversations about relationships. That’s it.
The subreddit’s moderators aim to create a “safe space,” and considering the size and scope of r/relationships, they do a reasonable job of making good on that promise. That’s possible not just because of tight moderation policies, but because of an overall collective agreement. Skip through an assortment of posts and you will find, by and large, people giving actual constructive advice and feedback, affirming each other, or offering examples from their own experience to help people make decisions. r/relationships is definitely not a utopian paradise, as evidenced by comments that are deleted or hidden, as well as ample examples of judgmental, unpleasant, or inappropriate comments that pop up. But it’s startling to come across a thread with hundreds of postings and not feel like you need to view it with your hands splayed across your face, peeping through your fingers at the horror.
r/relationships users love living vicariously through other people’s trauma, just like we enjoy reading Miss Manners and Dear Abby. And for some, that extends to a desire to weigh in, whether out of genuine concern or a simple zest for wading into drama. But the real potential of r/relationships may lie not in what people talk about, but how they talk about it. For years, we’ve been telling each other to not to read the comments, and calling the comments on major websites, including (and perhaps especially) reddit, cesspools. Some news organizations have eliminated their comments sections altogether, while others have instituted draconian commenting policies in an attempt to control vicious, hateful voices. Sites of years past with particularly pleasant (and very well moderated) comments, like Shapely Prose, are remembered fondly: This, we tell each other, is what comments should be.
What we’ve learned about internet comments is that it’s not enough to have a stern commenting policy with moderators who aggressively deploy their ban hammers. We need to deliberately cultivate supportive and respectful communities that can develop their own internal structures to keep comments sections not just bearable, but actively enjoyable and readable. The larger and more broad these communities get, the more challenging that becomes. On r/relationships, users have worked together to build the comments section they want to see. They’ve banned politics, though sometimes discussing politics is unavoidable in the context of specific stories. Instead, bad comments get downvoted, and in some cases, members may discipline each other before moderators even have a chance to act.
“Don’t be rude” is one of the guiding principles of r/relationships. Maintaining standards of basic human decency, though, is something comments sections of very large websites, with paid moderators, still can’t seem to manage. I absolutely read r/relationships to gawk at dramatic posts; I might be having a bad day, but at least I don’t have to tell my wife about my pregnant girlfriend. I also read it, though, because it provides a kernel of hope for the future of the internet. Maybe it’s possible for comments to not be bad. Maybe it’s possible for people on the internet to care about each other, even when surrounded by gawkers.