By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Alert reader JB suggested that NC look into “antiwork crowd from Reddit.” So I thought I would, albeit superficially because I’m not all that familiar with the platform (though I have a weakness for “Am I the [glass bowl]?”, which is rather like a collective Ann Landers column for people who are too young to remember Ann Landers). In fact, my only experience with Reddit came in 2008, where I got some good hits from it posting my own material, until Obots ganged up and started downvoting me. And to be fair, I was trying to use the platform, not contribute to it.
Reddit has come a long way since 2008. Paraphrasing the potted history at Wikipedia, Reddit is the seventh most popular site in the United States. Founded in 2005 by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, and kickstated, Reddit was kickstarted, as we say, by Y Combinator (and coded in Common List (!!)), then sold to Condé Nast in 2006. Here is how the site works:
Registered members submit content to the site such as links, text posts, images, and videos, which are then voted up or down by other members. Posts are organized by subject into user-created boards called “communities” or “subreddits”, which cover topics such as news, politics, religion, science, movies, video games, music, books, sports, fitness, cooking, pets, and image-sharing. Submissions with more upvotes appear towards the top of their subreddit and, if they receive enough upvotes, ultimately on the site’s front page.
Although there are strict rules prohibiting harassment, it still occurs, and Reddit administrators moderate the communities and close or restrict them on occasion. Moderation is also conducted by community-specific moderators, who are not considered Reddit employees.
As you, dear readers, and we backstage players know, moderating “communities” is hard and doesn’t scale well; the Wikipedia entry has a whole section of controversies, most of which will have involved moderation in one way or another. The “r/antiwork” media dogpile is one such, and to it we now turn. (I should caveat that I am not a “Redditor” and have no plans to be, so I am sure that community customs and mores that Reddit users regard as essential will be opaque to me; readers will naturally feel free to correct me in comments.)
In short form: r/antiwork, a Reddit community — motto: “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!” — increased its membership greatly in the first two years of the pandemic, as well it might have. Last week, an r/antiwork moderator, “u/abolishwork” (one “Doreen Ford,” hereafter “Ford”) went on FOX (!!) and gave an interview that gave rise to a feeding frenzy. There was a good deal of agita among the other moderators and admins, the community was closed for a couple of days, and split into two factions, but now has reopened. Just another day in social media? First, I’ll try to give the flavor of the community with some posts I’ll immediately admit are not signficant, statisitically; then, I’ll briefly review the media controversy; and finally, I will look at what abolishwork (Ford) really said, not just on FOX, but in two other interviews. I’ll conclude with some thoughts on platforms.
These are from the top ten or so posts on the subreddit; that is, they were upvoted by the community. (Posts are ordered by votes, and not chronologically, latest first, as in blogs.)
(There is also a genre of post where an especially horrid workplace is described; posts like this are ubiquitous, so I didn’t dig deep to find an especially egregious one.) I think it speaks well of the subreddit that these are the upvoted posts (though see the Conclusion for some comments on contradictions within the subreddit.) I think the evident non-old-codgerdom of the posts is also heartening.
Since we have the Daily Mail, there’s no reason to do a serious aggregation. From “‘Laziness is a virtue in a society where people want you to be productive 24/7′: Fumbling advocate for the ‘Anti-work’ movement – which has 1.7million Reddit followers – goes viral for all the wrong reasons after car-crash interview“:
Doreen Ford, 30, a dog walker from Boston who serves as a moderator for the r/Anti-Work subreddit, went on Fox and fumbled to explain the group’s ideology to host Jesse Watters.
Worth noting at this point that Watters just got a promotion from “Watters World” (8:00PM) to “Prime Time” (7:00PM), and ginning up controversy would have been even more useful to him than it normally is. The Mail actually does some reporting, aggregating Redditor reactions:
A user with the handle SamSepiol also lamented the interview and its impact, writing, ‘That interview was so awful and fulfilled so many stereotypes that it’s hard not to wonder if it was deliberate sabotage.’
Another reddit user with the handle Puffy_Ghost also criticized Ford’s performance.
‘They fell right into the trap Fox News wanted them to. The only acceptable things go do there would be to decline the interview, or hire a media professional to represent you,’ they wrote.
‘If you agree to an interview representing nearly 2 million people you better look and act like you know what you’re doing.’
(Interesting how media savvy these Redditors are.) The rest of the coverage is, frankly, conservatives performing their own highly ritualized version of aghastitude: “OMG, a dog walker. Who wants to teach philosophy. OMG. OMG.” (Anybody who’s read E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class knows that the self-taught worker who teaches others is a real historical figure, and a laudable one.)
We have transcripts of three interviews with Ford. First FOX, then in Medium, and lastly on WBUR. I will look at each in turn.
Here is the FOX interview. It’s only three minutes long, so that’s not too agonizing. I will quote parts of the autogenerated YouTube transcript (cleaned up and punctuated):
WATTERS:… over 1.6 million subscribers.
Those are good numbers. I would suspect that Watters doesn’t regard Ford merely as an interviewee to be ambushed, but as a rival. This is probably the worst of the ambush:
WATTERS: Is there something you want to do besides being a dog walker? Do you aspire to do anything more than dog walking or is that kind of your your pinnacle?
FORD: Uh, I love working with dogs. If I had to do this rest of my life, you know, I wouldn’t be super complaining you know. Dogs are wonderful animals, uh, but I mean I would love to teach, I would love to, um, uou know, work with people and stuff like that.
WATTERS: What would you teach, Doreen?
FORD: Uh, philosophy, mostly. Philosophy, critical thinking, reason[ing], stuff like that.
WATTERS: Well, I would love to take your class, Doreen. I would just be taking notes the whole time, and you know what? A professor has a very similar schedule [t] something that you’re imagining, so I think that actually might might work perfectly for you. Listen, I think this might not be the greatest idea, but who am I to judge. To each their own. They say it’s a free country. Sure, not everything’s free, but it is a free country. Thank you so much, we gotta run. We gotta pay the bills.
The interview was a typical Fox News ambush. Ford made reasonable and clear arguments for what many members of r/antiwork want, but Watters invited her on only to ridicule the notion that anyone would be “against working,” not to have a substantive interview. She had wandered into a den of wolves and didn’t realize anything bad was happening even as she was being eaten alive. To Watters, Ford was everything conservatives have been warning about the Woke Leftists Who Are Destroying America and want free things from the government.
Here is a second interview with Ford by Lewis Parker, on Medium. He begins:
What’s written below is completely unedited, beyond some grammatical touch-ups. Unfortunately for r/AntiWork, the Doreen Ford that represented them on Fox News is a far cry from the Doreen Ford exhibited below. The intent behind both interviews is clearly very different, as the former was orchestrated to embarrass whereas the latter was designed to inform, but I hope it goes some way towards potentially clarifying the sort of ideals that Anti-Work (and possibly even Doreen) stand for.
And from Ford:
How do you personally think the pandemic has affected anti-work? What about it do you think has made people sympathetic to your cause?
[FORD:] It has made folks wake up to how the meetings are unnecessary, how expendable we all are under capitalism, and how easy it is to automate and make so many sectors remote instead of awful commutes. Its impact on the economy shows just how fragile this system is and how it depends on us much more than the capitalists who get so much of its benefit.
What would you say is the overall goal of the Anti-Work subreddit? What kind future do you hope to work towards?
[FORD:] The goal of the subreddit is to abolish work. Not to just reform capitalism or to alleviate some of its worst effects, but to actively undermine and discredit it as a viable economic system and replace it with something better. What that looks like depends on who you ask, whether they be a communist or a social democrat or an anarchist. I am an anarchist myself so that’s the kind of future I’m working toward.
How does anarchism tie into the Anti-Work movement?
[FORD:] So, I’m something of a individualist or mutualist anarchist. My ideal society would be one that’s built up of solidarity, equality of authority and the ability to easily direct action to positively change society. I want an economy where people are easily able to either work for themselves or work in cooperatives, but not in the same way that they work today. Not in the sense that they need to, or otherwise they will starve or be homeless. People will be able to pick multiple lines of work and switch fairly seamlessly without it defining their identity or self-worth.
Do you think your ideal society is something that the majority of moderators/founders of Anti-Work share, or do you find that while you hold a common goal you often disagree on the endgame you’re working towards?
[FORD:] Yeah, there’s a lot of disagreement about the end game for the community. I’m also weird in that I’m not completely against markets or money or even property at a certain level. So I’m definitely an odd duck when it comes to anti-work and ideology. In other words. I’m basically telling you to not take me as a representative sample of what your average anti-worker believes.
Which does leave open the question of why Ford went on Fox to begin with.
And a group interview from WBUR, from which I pull some Ford quotes. (“Doreen” is Ford):
Doreen: Back when I first started working actually is when I got into into antiwork and when I read Bob Black’s Abolition of Work, which is a very influential essay on the movement.
Doreen: You know, I’m not even anti-jobs. You know, I’m fine with people having professions and things that they want to do. You know, I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. I just think it’s it’s a bad thing under capitalism in the state and the way that it’s done, they’re like, I would still take care of dogs if capitalism didn’t exist.
Doreen: I mean, look, I work with literal angels put on this planet. You know, I’m talking about dogs, of course, and there are still mornings where I’m like, Nah, I’d rather not get up and go to work.
Doreen: And that’s why we’re so hard line about it. People are like, “Oh, but the state is violence and capitalism is violence, and so many people are dying and like, How can you not want to at least have us defend ourselves,” is how they put it. And it’s like, yeah, I don’t necessarily disagree with all that ideologically. But like terms of service wise, it’s not going to go well for us. I’d rather have the platform than not. And also, I prefer nonviolent solutions over violent solutions, just about any day.
Doreen: Between 60 and 70 K new people per week, still top 10 comments in days and posts for three months now. Comments per day are at all time highs and we’re in the top five for most of December.
Staggering numbers. (And a lot of work for a moderator, too. Moderation is work!)
Doreen: We are a radical, anti-thought tearing leftist movement. We’re not nonpolitical. We very much have concrete demands about capitalism and subverting it. We’re not all anarchists and communists, necessarily. You know, there are Social Democrats and people from more liberal backgrounds and stuff like that. We’re pretty big tent. But I think generally, you know, we’re very anti-authoritarian at our core and really want to undermine capitalism as much as possible.
I’m not here to expound Ford’s ideology. However, Ford is clearly a thoughtful person, and for whatever reason, the Fox interview caused them to melt down, in an enormous self-own for Ford personally, and more importantly the community. People had every right to be ticked off. But there but for the grace of god go I. The same would have happened to me, I am sure.
A few thoughts on the internal contradictions in r/antiwork, how FOX sharpened them, and how the controversy resolved them.
In the end, few or not enough Redditors came to Ford’s defense, and they were removed as a moderator. Partly, that’s because Ford chose to represent r/antiwork without being selected or elected in any way. More fundamently, the subreddit’s base and leadership were in contradiction with each other, as user No-Garlic-1739 pointed out:
In part, this is a not-unexpected (I won’t say “natural”) phenomenon on Reddit, and a result of scaling; those impressive numbers I keep commenting upon. From Forbes:
On Reddit, subreddits often shift in tone as they increase in popularity, as regular users become drowned out by a rapid influx of visitors, and clout-chasers post oversimplified or inflammatory content; inevitably, radical and niche spaces become oversaturated, and therefore, subdued. The antiwork subreddit has changed since its inception, building a userbase that is not opposed to the idea of work, but opposed to worker exploitation.
But the result was a split with which, well, students of Bolshevism will be very familiar. The reformists split from the revolutionaries. From Business Insider:
A new subreddit r/WorkReform has gathered more than 300,000 members a day after it was formed…. However, many longstanding members [had] expressed frustration about how the movement is often misrepresented as being anti-work and promoting laziness, rather than as a platform to discuss and change exploitative labor practices.
Hence, as so often happens, the reformers were happy to join a dogpile precipitated by reactionaries. So it goes!
It will be interesting to see how the now-parallel work Subreddits fare, and how they compete with each other. Will the reformers make a real world impact? Bordieu introduces the interesting idea of “social technology,” which, being action, is quite different from messaging:
What is at issue is what we might call a social technology. or a technique of action in the social world… [T]here are inventions in the social world, as elsewhere. Max Webt makes a point of the fact that the popular jury, with which we are so familiar that we don’t even think about it, was a great invention in the history of law. It completely changed the structure of the judicial field.
Here are some of the social tecnhologies r/antiwork originated:
Most of the viral posts on the subreddit over the last few months have been from workers who have told their bosses to fuck off, people calling for solidarity during unionization efforts and strikes, people who have automated their jobs and used the free time to pursue their hobbies, or posts about worker exploitation.
A few times the members of the subreddit also organized labor actions that had consequences off Reddit. Members organized a boycott on Black Friday and the spamming of Kellogg’s job portal with fake applications for “scab” positions to replace striking workers during a work stoppage at its cereal plants last year. Users also spammed receipt printers around the world with “anti-work” manifestos.
I loved the japery of the receipt printers. Still, when one thinks of the truckers currently blocking roads in Ottawa, or of the Capitol seizure, it’s hard to conclude anything other than that the right is making more effective use of “social technology” than the “left” (if I may file anarchists with the left). Interesting times.
 There are also some personal assaults on Ford’s character, but I don’t have the time or energy to sort them. Suffice to say that discussing real life relationships on Facebook — if these indeed happened; digital evidence is not evidence — shows a charming naivete. I’d also say that anybody who’s moderated as long as Ford has isn’t weak, stupid, or ineffective. Moderators like that get rapidly weeded out.