Can Big Data Be Feminist?

As I’m making completion noises re: my dissertation, I have started fleshing out my next major research project.  I’ve been working on some case studies (including the anti/feminism memes project that I’m wrapping up) but the abstract below is my first investigation using the entire 52 million Reddit posts in my database.  I’ll be presenting this work at ICA in May as part of “Data-Driven Data Research Using Data and Databases: A Practical Critique of Methods and Approaches in “Big Data” Studies”.

Can Big Data Be Feminist? Exploring User Disengagement on
Kelly Bergstrom & Richard Hydomako

Reddit is currently one of the most visited sites on the Internet according to statistics provided by While the site has been lauded for its users’ collective efforts to protest against the recent Stop Online Piracy Act (Rushe & Devereaux 2012), Reddit has also been the subject of intense scrutiny for its role in the search for the Boston Marathon Bombers (Kaufman 2013) and its use as a venue to trade child pornography (Chen 2011). The site requires no personally identifying information to submit content or comments; communication is relatively anonymous. It is also an online community overseen by administrators who adamantly refuse to moderate content unless it is explicitly illegal (Chen 2012). This, we argue, has led to the development of a sense of community achieved through the use of exclusionary language and self-referential humour that can be impenetrable to outsiders.

 Case studies have made gestures towards a toxic culture that exists within many Reddit sub-communities (Bergstrom 2011; Massanari 2012, 2013) but critiques of this community, especially those coming from external sites, are frequently silenced. Volunteer moderators have taken it upon themselves to block content that are seen as being overly critical of Reddit, such as the banning Gawker, the site that broke the child pornography scandal described by Chen (2011, 2012). Looking to bridge the gap between feminist interventionist inquiry and quantitative methodology, the goal of this paper is to explore the ways in which silencing critiques can influence individual user participation in this online community.

Moving beyond the tightly focused case studies referenced above, this paper draws on a dataset comprising of all 52 million publically available top-level posts made to the site since its launch in 2005. This work employs large-scale network analysis techniques to track the events leading up to user disengagement with the site. However, isolating the moment that a user stops participating is only part of the picture. Drilling down, content analysis of a user’s final public engagement with Reddit seeks to determine the conditions under which previously prolific posters decide to no longer engage with the site.  While still a work in progress, this paper will report on research to date about why users quit Reddit, if these reasons have shifted over time, and indeed, if the toxic culture reported by Bergstrom, Massanari, and Chen are a contributing factor in their decision to disengage with this community.

Bergstrom, K. 2011. “‘Don’t feed the troll’: Shutting down debate about community expectations on” First Monday, 16 (8). Retrieved from

Chen, A. 2011. “Reddit’s Child Porn Scandal.” Gawker. Retrieved from

Chen, A. 2012. “Reddit Reluctantly Bans Child Porn.” Gawker. Retrieved rom

Kaufman, L. 2013. “Bombings Trip Up Reddit in Its Turn in Spotlight.” The New York Times. Retrieved from

Massanari, A. 2012. “Reddit hates EVERYTHING, including Reddit: Identity, Community, Participatory Culture, and Engagement on” Presented at the 2013 Association of Internet Researchers, Salford, UK.

Massanari, A. 2013. “Playful Participatory Culture: Learning from Reddit.” In Selected Papers Of Internet Research. Retrieved from

Rushe, D., & R. Devereaux. 2012. “SOPA support drops off as blackout protest rattles the internet.” The Guardian. Retrieved from