The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
‘Karma, Precious Karma!’ Karmawhoring on Reddit and the Front Page’s Econometrisation image
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In Reddit’s numerous topical subsections, so called subreddits, users post and share diverse content. The social news aggregator claims to be ‘a website about everything, powered by community, democracy and you’ (Figure 1). However, one can observe internal conflicts which indicate discrepancies between such idealistic claims as opposed to quantitatively-oriented participation. While some users emphasise topically focused motivations for their participation, others suggest that they mainly post content with the aim of collecting ‘Karma-points’. The latter approach has been called ‘Karmawhoring’. The term references Reddit’s ranking and evaluation system through the allocation of Karma-points. This paper examines how such a quantification of user participation influences interactions and content posted on Reddit. By looking at participatory practices and users’ interplay, it investigates opposing justifications and controversial incentives for contributions. It analyses particular cases of Karmawhoring, user criticisms of such merely achievement-oriented contributions as well as attempts to counteract (alleged) ‘Karmawhores’. The website’s ranking system is described as strategy that aims at decentralising the governance of content: it leaves the subjective determination of quality criteria to the crowd. The aforementioned conflict between idealistically and quantitatively motivated contributions has however led to a discrepancy between value assessments of content. The numerical representation of a contribution’s value through Karma-points, calculated by users’ up- and downvotes, does not function as uncontested signal of content quality. Instead, Karma-points have been criticised by users since they seem to economise participation and inhibit innovative content. Such an ‘econometrisation’ of participation particularly appears to be a result of the community’s rapid growth in scale. A focus on achieving Karma-points becomes primarily appealing once the visibility of communication is regulated by a vast amount of users and interpersonal feedback becomes less likely. Subsequently, Karma functions as main, quasi-monetary incentive and reward of participation. By analysing Karmawhoring and its criticism on Reddit, this paper describes how users’ claimed social values and the website’s quantitative valuation of content fall apart.

Reddit, participatory media, social news media, gift economy, econometrisation, karma and value, governance

Annika Richterich

1. Introduction

Reddit is a social news aggregator topically divided into various subsections, so-called subreddits. Users, most of whom have never met one another, share personal experiences, give each other advice, support e-learning, or even send each other gifts. Besides submitting posts, registered ‘Redditors’ can up- or downvote other users’ contributions. Their voting has the dual function of ranking content and likewise enabling the collection of Karma-points. While up- and downvotes indicate the feedback to a contribution through a direct, numerical representation of negative and positive assessment, Karma-points are calculated by an algorithm which takes into account factors such as the date of a post or its classification as initial link or added comment. Depending on the topical subreddit, reasons for considering a contribution as ‘(un-)valuable’ and signalling such an evaluation through up-/downvotes or comments may be helpfulness, informativity, provocativeness, creativity, or wittiness.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Screenshot excerpt of Reddit’s frontpage, available at:, accessed on 2 May 2013

The notion of value is crucial in this context, since recent developments on Reddit suggest that the numerical representation of a contribution’s appreciation often deviates from users’ qualitative assessments. Critical comments or discussions regarding ranking issues on Reddit show that Karma is a contested quality-indicator. Karma-points might suggest a high value by representing a large amount of upvotes, however within the community one can observe controversies that the allocation of Karma-points and a (subjective) quality of Reddit’s content may stand in contrast to each other. Instead of acting as reliable signal of a post’s/comment’s value and quality, Karma-points are meanwhile considered as a symbol for quantitatively oriented content selection.

Crucial internal conflicts and critical discussions regarding developments on Reddit have evolved around the notion of ‘Karmawhoring’. While some Redditors insist on following somehow altruistic, topically focused motives for their participation, others suggest that they mainly post content with the aim of collecting Karma-points. Such a quantitatively-oriented participation has been called Karmawhoring. The term references Reddit’s aforementioned ranking system in which contributions are evaluated by allocating Karma-points. The term does not merely refer to a pejorative designation by critical users, but is also self-referentially applied by users who admit to Karma-oriented posting strategies (see or

As Reagle (2013) points out, the notion ‘Karmawhore’ as well as the evaluation metaphor ‘Karma’ originally arose from Slashdot. The social news website is focused on science and technology related topics. The earliest use of the term dates back to January 2000, when it was mentioned in a comment’s subject header: ‘the karma whore/no lifer’ (see On Slashdot, users’ comments are evaluated by moderators who attribute points to comments. Those points are then translated into users’ overall ‘Karma’. Similarly to the dynamics on Reddit ‘[…] users accumulate karma for positive contributions, including posting content and comments and moderating others’ contributions. However, some users attempted to gain karma using tactics that were of little or negative value’. (Reagle 2013)

Particularly in combination with the rapidly growing amount of Redditors, it seems that the possibility to quantify participation through Karma-points has led to an ‘econometrisation’ of users’ involvement. The term is derived from ‘econometrics’ referring to the utilisation of statistical methods, mathematics and digital visualisation for economic data analysis and performance optimisation (see Wooldridge 2012; Geweke/Horowitz/Pesaran 2008). Here, the concept of econometrisation shall indicate users’ tendency to post content depending on its likeliness to appeal to a vast majority of Redditors. It addresses users’ monitoring and strategic anticipation of quantitative indicators such as Karma-points and additional statistics, as for example provided by Those quantifying features facilitate economised usage practices which aim at optimising participation in terms of maximised numeric feedback.

For December 2013, Reddit registered 2,424,880 logged in Redditors and 100,744,653 unique visitors (see Seeing these numbers, direct textual interactions are obviously difficult to achieve and merely happen on subreddits with a small amount of subscribers. Since such interactions are becoming less and less likely (due to the scale of the community), the quantification of feedback through Karma-points acts as a crucial incentive for contributions. Communication is often reduced to an exchange of Karma-points. Therefore, users are more likely to pursue an efficient, output oriented participation in terms of maximising Karma-feedback. Quantifying participation through Karma-points leads to an adjustment content-choices and contributions. Such an econometrisation of participation, according to criteria which enhance the chances of achieving Karma, consequently influences the type of content present on Reddit. Once a majority of users chooses content which they deem most likely to appeal to the lowest common denominator among a user group, repetitive rather than innovative or controversial content is encouraged.

In the following section, I will introduce Reddit in more detailed. Subsequently, I will look at particular cases of Karmawhoring and examine usersʼ critique of such merely quantitatively-oriented contributions as well as attempts to counteract (alleged) Karmawhores. In doing so, I will discuss how the quantification of participation through Karma-points shapes and economises users’ interactions.

2. Reddit: ‘the front page of the internet’

Reddit was founded by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian in June 2005. They sold their project to Condé Nast Publications in October 2006. With regards to how much Reddit was sold for, Ohanian said in an interview: ‘You can Google it, and you’ll find it was between $10 million and $20 million.’ (Lagorio-Chafkin 2012) In 2012, it was estimated to be worth controversial amounts somewhere in between 50 million and 700 million USD (see Greenfield 2012). Since June 2008, Reddit is an Open Source Project: most of the codes and libraries are freely accessible on Github under a Common Public Attribution License (see

What you first see when you go on is the so called ‘front page’ which contains topically-varied posts from diverse subreddits. The order of these contributions can be ranked by the criteria ‘hot, new, rising, controversial, top, saved’; the default view is set to ‘hot’. The aforementioned categories represent different algorithms that determine according to which selection criteria posts are being arranged.

User interactions on Reddit mainly start from initial posts.i Those may contain questions, statements, stories, recent news, external links, pictures, videos and so forth. Posts are classified as ‘self-posts’ which do not contain links to external websites, or ‘link-posts’. ‘Self-posts’ cannot receive Karma-points. Users can comment on both types of posts, or merely up-/downvote them. Their comments again can receive Karma-points. Users do not need to be registered in order to read posts, but an account is necessary to contribute actively. Registration does not necessarily require users to provide their email or any personal details. This facilitates the creation of fake accounts which are then used in order to upvote posts from another account by the same user. Many Redditors appear to have several accounts: such as a NSFW (not-safe-for-work/porn) and a more sanitised, office-friendly account. This relates to subscriptions of particular subreddits as well as Reddit’s bookmarking function.

Users can create subreddits dedicated to issues of their choice. Originally, Reddit’s front page used to be a subreddit itself, but nowadays acts as part of the website’s gratification system since only highly rated or controversial posts will appear there. ‘Making it to the front page’ is therefore also an incentive for posting content that has a potential to gain a lot of upvotes (ranked: top) or results in controversial assessments (ranked: controversial). The algorithms which are responsible for ranking these contributions take into account the relations between up- and downvotes a post has received so far, the amount of comments as well as the time passed by since the content has been posted (see Yeo 2012 for a more detailed description). Besides achieving up- and downvotes for a contribution which leads to the achievement of Karma, users can also gain virtual awards (see These trophies are placed as thumbnails on the respective user page (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Screenshot excerpt of Anomander’s user page, available at: Anomander, accessed on 7 January 2014

Currently there are 339,585 subreddits (January 2014, see The most accessed thread so far was a so called ‘AMA’ (Ask-Me-Anything): a question and answer session given by U.S. President Barack Obama in August 2012 (see It received 5,598,171 page views which is more than double than the second most accessed thread on Reddit in 2012. Subreddits which new users are by default opted into are ‘technology’, ‘music’, ‘gaming’, ‘funny’, ‘worldnews’, ‘science’ and ‘politics’. It is common to use browser add-ons such as the ‘Reddit Enhancement Suite’ which allows for additional features and individual customisation.

The traffic generated on Reddit functions as incentive for embedded advertisement and sponsored links (see Advertisements may refer to diverse products and services such as newspaper subscriptions, online games, or merchandise from Reddit’s marketplace ( Users participating in the aforementioned ‘redditgifts’ exchanges can (but do not have to) buy their gifts from Reddit’s internal marketplace (see Reddit’s business model is currently based on advertisement and merchandising sales through the marketplace as well as paid subscriptions. Shih (2013) described the marketplace a ‘geek-culture bazaar’ and as ‘step towards a milestone it [Reddit] has been trying to reach since its founding in 2005: profitability’. ‘Reddit gold’ is the website’s paid premium membership program which provides users with additional features.

3. Incentives for Participation: ‘Upvote if you like bacon’

I approach Reddit as platform of peer production and collaboration. The term indicates ‘[…] a subset of commons-based production practices. It refers to production systems that depend on individual action that is self-selected and decentralized, rather than hierarchically assigned.’ (Benkler 2006, p. 62) The discursive threads which evolve through contributions of various registered users are the core of Reddit’s user generated content, and form the website’s product. Those combinations of an initial post and subsequent comments constitute the collaborative, intellectual product.

Since input is neither monetarily rewarded nor defined by objective market regulations, one is left wondering about alternative incentives, as well as value assessments of Redditors’ efforts. Benkler identifies the difference between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ motivation as key feature of peer involvement.ii While extrinsic motivations involve distinct, external inducements (f.i. money, reputation or quantifiable rewards such as Karma-points), intrinsically motivated actions exclusively affect a person’s internal state, such as happiness or personal fulfilment (see e.g. Ryan/Deci 2000).

On Reddit, peer production and users’ interactions appear to be torn between (at least) two main motives for contributions: on the one hand, there are users who emphasize the importance of topical variety and content quality. They perceive a (self-)responsibility to ensure that the value of a contribution corresponds to its benefit to the community. Surely, I cannot verify whether this is their actual motivation, but merely reflect on the communication of such incentives. On the other hand, users reveal an interest in maximising their Karma-points. Such ‘powerusers’ follow an extrinsic motivation by pursuing strategies of Karmawhoring.

As mentioned before, the allocation of Karma does only account for link-posts: self-posts (text-posts) are not eligible to achieve any points. This gratification logic is already a result from past strategies to exhaust Karma-feedback. The discussion below explains the development: a user whose account has since been deleted asked ‘Self posts get no karma, even though 99% of the good stuff on reddit is self-posts? Shouldn’t it be the other way around—you get karma for things YOU have written, not just linked to?’ In this context, the user Anomander replies:

‘Self posts used to give karma, this was disabled because ‘UPVOTE IF YOU LIKE BACON’ was an honest to god karmawhoring strategy, and in such great effect and quantity that they were deemed problematic and there were concerns they were taking over from legitimate content. I think the top story from the time was ‘upvote this if you think George Bush is a shitty president.’ No content, no discussion, no effort from OP, just a lot of people agreeing that GB looks like a chimp and was unfit for office.’ (source)

This explanation indicates that the possibility to collect Karma encourages a user behaviour which might not endeavour to contribute to lively discussions, but merely aims at maximising upvotes. Such self-posts were not conducive to encouraging textual interaction or provoking controversial discussions (since that could have led to downvotes as well). Rather they aimed at affecting mass agreement expressed in pre-defined yes/no options of up-/downvotes. Also, they were mainly concerned with minor issues with a high likeliness of compliance. In this sense, disabling the collection of Karma points through self-posts is an early example of implemented counter strategies in order to ensure a certain quality of Reddit’s overall content, topical variety and depth.

It has already been pointed out that involvement of users in peer-production may not be regulated by conventional property- and contract-based logics as is the case for companies or markets. It differs from profit-oriented, private business production as well as from public production by state enterprises since its ‘[…] product is not exchange value for a market, but use-value for a community of users’ (Bauwens 2006, p. 1). However, recent dynamics on Reddit indicate that there is a tendency to create substitutes for monetary achievement measurements: quantitative assessments of social media participation through likes, upvotes, trophies, awards or (Karma) document a transfer from gaming elements into social media contexts. More generally, such developments have been described in terms of ‘gamification’.

Econometrisation and Reactivity

‘Gamification’—a term coined by Nick Pelling in 2002—has been depicted as ubiquitous, though somehow transparent layer of social media (see Zichermann/Cunningham 2012; Fuchs 2012; O’Brien 2010). The concept which informs website designs encouraging users’ active participation, originally started as a project to rework electronic devices. Pelling himself wrote about his idea that he ‘[…] coined the deliberately ugly word ‘gamification’, by which I meant applying game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both enjoyable and fast.’ (Pelling 2011) Today, the concept mostly describes the transfer of elements, typically known from video/computer games, into non-gaming contexts. Gamification refers to ‘[t]he process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and to solve problems’ (Zichermann/Cunningham 2012: xiv). On Reddit, Karma-points and, to a lesser extent, trophies (Figure 2) could be conceptualised as elements of gamification and incentives for active participation.

With regards to the effects that such elements yield in social media contexts, gamification however seems to be a misleading, uncritical concept. Social media platforms act as crucial, shaping intermediaries: in contrast to games, they do not offer fixed procedures in order to gain achievements and rewards of participation. Following a game’s pre-defined structure will usually lead to predictable in-game rewards. Social media users, however, do not interact with a calculable programme. If they want to gain rewards for their participation, they have to acquaint themselves with comparatively more complex, often unstable ranking logics, audience preferences and communication habits of the respective social media. In order to achieve and maximise feedback—or rather gratification, they adjust their social media participation to an assumed audience and to the structure provided by the respective platform. For these reasons, I have chosen to speak of econometrisation in order to stress economic imperatives and their qualitative impacts on users’ posts rather than indicating ludic motives.

Karma-points should therefore not be seen as descriptive measurements or neutral inducement. Instead, platforms such as Reddit influence and economise the very processes they claim to reflect. As Gillespie shows in an analysis of the trope ‘platform’, this concept has been heavily instrumentalised in favour of marketing so-called web 2.0 online services. In these contexts, it dissembles ‘[…] a functional shape: it suggests a progressive and egalitarian arrangement, lifting up those who stand upon it.’ (Gillespie 2009, p. 8) It is however important to understand the social media platforms as the exact opposite of a ‘carrier’ and expression of users’ interaction:

‘[C]ommercial Web 2.0 platforms are not simply about facilitating user-produced content and carrying content across networks to large audiences or ‘end-users’; rather, they are primarily concerned with establishing the technocultural conditions within which users can produce content and within which content and users can be re-channelled through techno-commercial networks and channels.’ (Langlois et al. 2009)

In that very sense, the quantification of user participation on Reddit does not merely measure, but produces user practices aiming at optimised Karma-outputs. This type of performance is shaped in anticipation of Reddit’s ranking logics and evaluation mechanisms. Those mechanisms again are aimed at optimising the website’s conditions for achieving profit through advertisement, sponsored links or merchandising. In this sense, site traffic and user numbers are placed above topical depth of interactions and discussions—as long as those are not expressed in quantifications which influence the economic potential of Reddit.

More generally, such interdependencies have been described as issue of reactivity: ‘In sociology, reactivity is usually depicted as a methodological problem. Campbell’s (1957, p. 298) classic statement defines a reactive measure as one that ‘modifies the phenomenon under study, which changes the very thing that one is trying to measure.’ Reactivity blurs the distinction between the act of measuring and its object which ‘contaminates’ results.’ (Espeland/Sauder 2007, p. 3)iii While Karma-points are presented as tool which reflects and documents participation, users in fact start to interact with the points themselves. Practices such as Karmawhoring only result from the fact that users’ behaviour is measured. In that sense, quantifying elements are functional constituents which shape social media platforms in favour of economic demands and profitability.

4. Case Analyses: ‘Karma, precious Karma!’

Considering the spiritual background of Karma as a core concept of religions such as Sikh or Buddhism, the term implies very distinct connotations. Even though the meaning of ‘Karma’ differs slightly within the respective religions, a common denominator is the belief in a direct relation between cause and effect. The impacts of any behaviour may only be perceivable in another, following life, but they are necessarily interlinked with the personal behaviour. Hence, ‘Karma’ also refers to a conviction that any event expresses justice.

As part of its ‘About’ information, Reddit already anticipates the questions of ‘Why should I contribute?’ in terms of ‘Why should I try to accumulate Karma?’ (see

‘Why should you try to score points in a video game? Why should your favorite sports team try to win the championship? Or, to look at things from a less competitive and more altruistic perspective, read what philosophers have said about the matter—namely, don’t set out to accumulate karma; just set out to be a good person, and let your karma simply be a reminder of your legacy’.

This reasoning refers to an internalized logic of collecting points which is well-known from games and sports. It does so without questioning the particular gratification mechanisms behind such endeavours. Moreover, it refers to a ‘do good—feel good’ mentality which is meant to provide benefits for altruistic user behaviour in a rather spiritual way.

Despite this idealistic framework, increasingly Karma-oriented contributions can be observed in several forms among Redditors and currently polarise the overall user group. In the following sections, I will analyse particular examples for this development.

Karmawhoring and Redditors’ Criticisms

A rather simple case of Karmawhoring is embodied in posts providing narrative teasers of possible stories. The respective users assure they would be willing to tell more, if only other users would upvote the post in advance. Hence, the effort of participation is only made under the condition of a noticeable reward. In a thread on sexual encounters with prostitutes a user wrote, for example: ‘I’d go into a lot more detail if I knew there was a chance that people would see the comment—so I’ll see if this has any replies before I spend any time writing stuff out’ (see Figure 3; the original post has since been deleted). Seeing that a main way to ensure that a post has gained attention is through the numerical measurement of Karma-points, the user awaits other users’ feedback as a quasi-monetary prepayment. S/he does not mainly express a desire to share a story and information, but aims at ensuring that the contribution gains quantifiable attention.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Screenshot excerpt of a thread on, the source has been deleted, accessed on 29/01/2013

Avoiding self-posts which are not eligible to receive Karma, or reposting former self-posts as links to screenshots (mainly uploaded on is another strategy of Karmawhoring. In this context, the subreddit r/keto (which topically focuses on Ketogenic dieting) has even excluded the possibility of posting links, since it disables Karma-oriented posting. In the beginning of 2013, it was announced that ‘/r/keto goes self-post only to increase post quality’ (source). One reason for this was a moderator’s link-repost of another user’s self-post—which resulted in an outraged discussion (see Figure 4): ‘Scumbag mod[erator]… Hides my self-post thanking the mods for the achievement and links an image to reap the karma’.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Screenshot excerpt, available at:
_50000_subscribers_congratulations/, accessed on 15/07/2013

A main reason for critical comments on Karmawhoring is that those users address the lowest common denominator and usually extend already popular topics. In particular, reposting quantitatively ‘successful’ content inhibits the innovative potential of contributions. The importance of appealing to many users, may also explain the success of highly repetitive memes such as ‘grumpy cat’ or ‘paranoid parrot’. The figures 4 and 5 moreover suggest that the discussion of Karmawhoring has affected the creation of memes itself. On Reddit, the challenge of addressing a mass social media audience partly undermines users’ reasons to contribute with posts that encourage more than up-/downvoting or leaving a short, witty comment. Such a development—and this is a trend that particularly long-term Redditors render problematic—results in (subjectively determined) lower quality content. In a thread which explicitly questioned the meaning of the term Karmawhore, the user ‘ascendant23’ commented critically:

‘Karmawhore means someone who submits cheap, circlejerky posts, or appeals to the lowest common denominator in order to max out their karma. In more or less the same reason why, in other creative endeavors, the effort that makes the most money isn’t necessarily the most culturally or artistically valuable. And some of us view some of those creators as not even trying to make anything artistically or culturally meaningful, but generally lowering the overall quality of both while cashing in a fat paycheck. Karma whore means basically the same thing, except they’re making karma points rather than, you know, actual money.’ (source)

The comparison between Karma and money as well as the mentioned criticism refer to evaluation criteria which are not guided by the numerical value of a post. Instead, s/he uses a subjectively determined understanding of quality which involves aspects such as innovation, news value and artistic impression. Even though these characteristics will certainly vary from person to person, a main commonality is an endeavour to follow idealistic values which may be compared to the mantra of ‘art for art’s sake’.

It is particularly interesting that even the wording of this comment refers to some of Benkler’s early observations in peer production. As he wrote, ‘[…] it begins with the opposite of lowest common denominator. It begins with what irks you, the contributing peer, individually, the most.’ (Benkler 2006, p. 259) According to the aforementioned user, this characteristic cannot be claimed for parts of Reddit’s production logic. Instead for some, Karma-points function as equivalent to monetary reward: they predominantly post content according to selection criteria—such as the popularity of certain topics, genres or memes—which will maximise positive feedback and hence Karma.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Meme template hinting at a de-valuation of Karma-points, available at:, accessed on 15/07/2013
Figure 6

Figure 6: Meme template addressing the possibility to employ Karma-critique as strategy to gain Karma-points, available at:, accessed on 15/07/2013

Users show a particular critical assessment of Karmawhoring in cases where rather emotional, sensible topics are discussed. After the death of James Gandolfini in June 2013, a user posted the actor’s picture along with the comment ‘Rest In Peace, James Gandolfini.’ (source). As highest ranked ‘top’-comments one could then read other users’ controversial reactions: ‘The last thing he said was ‘don’t use me to get imaginary points on that website you visit with the cats’’, ‘Honestly this is really just shamelessly cashing in on his death for karma’, but also: ‘There’s more karma going around to the people bitching about others trying to get it than there actually is going to the karma whores themselves’.

One main reason for the critique of users who are mainly posting in order to accumulate Karma is that they merely multiply content at the expense of Reddit’s uniqueness and quality. A similar claim is that the multiplication of Redditors (due to its recent popularisation) has had a similar effect, and that only niche-subreddits with a small number of contributors allow for non-hierarchical communication:

‘The worst thing about Reddit is how hard it is to become part of the conversation. By the time you notice something on the front page, unless you’re replying to a reply to a top comment, there’s no way anybody is ever going to see whatever it is you have to say. […] The smaller sub-reddits that I post in (r/lawschool and r/vegan, for example) usually have interesting content when I visit and they have small but devoted communities. But the nice thing is not being drowned out if you feel you have something to add to a conversation’ (source).

This statement also feeds into an argument which I made earlier: that the increasing number of users and the popularisation of Reddit discourages in-depth discussion and instead promotes expressions of dis-/approval by quickly up- or downvoting posts.

In contrast to other social media such as Facebook or Twitter which both offer platform features allowing for an ‘accountability’ of original contributions as well as their re-distribution (see Paßmann/Boschoeten/Schäfer 2013), the numerical feedback mechanisms on Reddit remain anonymous. While the ‘Like’-button on Facebook reveals which users supported a contribution and—as the aforementioned authors describe—retweeting and faving on Twitter is often clustered around networks between socially tied accounts, Reddit does not encourage reciprocity on such a basic, platform-structural level. Interaction via Twitter and Facebook may be compared to an iterated prisoner’s dilemma where the likeliness of cooperation and sharing are encouraged, since participants know that they will have to interact again. Hence, they are more likely to show balanced reciprocity. Reddit meanwhile only offers very limited, vague possibilities to verify that a user has been supporting a specific post or account. Besides personally assuring or explicating their support in eventual face-to-face communication, comments or messages, up- and downvotes cannot be used as a communicative medium of verified exchange, since the voting accounts stay anonymous.

Partially, this condition has been circumvented through so-called ‘voting cliques’, where a group of accounts consistently and repeatedly votes on specific content’ (source). In these cases, a repeated and (roughly) numerical distinct number of upvotes ensures the reliability of a social sub-network. This problem has been identified by Reddit already however and is being addressed through (temporary) account bans. Anonymised up-/downvotes and the large scale of Reddit users prevent rankings that mainly derive from personal relations between users. This makes its rankings less prone to biases as, for example, Reagle described them for the photo sharing platform ‘Quantitative mechanisms beget their manipulation: people ‘mate’ rated friends, ‘revenge’ rated enemies, and inflated their own standing. ‘Fixes’ to manipulation have their own, often unintended, consequences and are also susceptible to manipulation: non-anonymous ratings led to rating inflation.’ (Reagle 2013)

Supporting a specific account is therefore either an expression of particularly liking the respective content or is based on a social relation accompanied by such a strong trust in the other person’s reciprocal support that any further assurance of it is no longer necessary. Such an evaluation system also implies that building and relying on social ties is highly risky since there is no possibility of validating your peer-group’s support. Up- and downvoting on Reddit cannot follow any reliable signals that would allow for account-bound reciprocity between strangers. Moreover, the scale that is required to achieve top-rankings is numerically too high in order to be achievable through mere networking (automated vote cheating, which I will describe further on, may circumvent this). The decision to up- or downvote a post therefore tends to be based on individual content evaluations, or a (content-related) basic affection for or aversion to another user’s account. Nevertheless, an analysis of ‘in-real-life’ (IRL) meetings of Redditors could be additionally insightful for further studies.

Karmawhoring and Counter-Strategies

On one can find Reddit’s collectively written and continuously changing ‘reddiquette’. The rules are meant to instruct users’ interactions and reflect an ideal code of conduct. By explicitly referring to unwanted behaviour, the Reddiquette also indicates a history of previous Karmawhoring approaches—some of which one can still observe. One main rule listed in the guideline is: ‘Don’t… try to manipulate the voting mechanism’. This includes, for example, the following tactics:

‘Send out IMs, tweets, or any other message asking people to vote for your submission—or comply when other people ask you. This will result in a ban from the admins. Your submission should get points for being good, not because the submitter is part of a voting clique.’

‘Create mass downvote or upvote campaigns. This includes attacking a user’s profile history when they say something bad and participating in karma party threads.’ (This kind of mass downvoting has been called witch-hunting, see

There are several disciplinary strategies to counteract Karmawhoring which can be differentiated into bottom-up and top-down mechanisms. The Reddiquette is an example for a top-down attempt to prevent Karma-oriented postings. It condemns user behaviour exclusively aiming at accumulating Karma, appeals to idealistic, moral ambitions and encourages an impartial evaluation of content. Additionally, there seem to be three main disciplinary mechanisms: direct censorship through top-down interventions by moderators/administrators; self-discipline and conscious maintenance of non-repetitive content; community discipline and downvoting of presumable Karmawhores. The last two examples are forms of bottom-up governance.

Example for direct censorship and top-down strategies are interventions made by moderators who warn users, delete content or (shadow-)ban individual Redditors for violating reddiquette. This aspect also makes clear that examples of Karmawhoring are either particularly  and very volatile (since they may be subject to enforced deletion), or rather ambiguous cases of Karmawhoring which may be disputed, or they are merely reflected in meta-discussions. This is a structural condition for any analysis of Karmawhoring since its object of interest is potentially subjected to ‘extinction’. Cases where one can still observe moderators’ intervention are usually documented by their official statements. This is, for example, the case in /r/leagueoflegends, an e-sports subreddit. In this context a moderator addressed the problem of vote-cheating. After defining vote-cheating as something ‘inorganically being done to manipulate votes on a post or comment’, the moderator countered users’ reactions to the negative enforcement:

‘If we catch an account or set of accounts vote cheating on reddit, then there is a good chance we’ll take some sort of action against those accounts (such as banning). The reason I’m directly bringing this up on the big e-sports related subreddits is that the problem of vote cheating has started to become very commonplace here. It is damn near ‘expected behaviour’ in some folks eyes, so recent banning incidents have been met with arguments such as ‘everyone does it!’—this is not an acceptable excuse.’ (source)

The same message has been placed in other subreddits such as /r/starcraft, and /r/DotA2. It indicates the necessity of direct administrative intervention in order to minimise the dominance of posts that are getting upvoted due to unfair competition. An example for automated vote cheating is described in the blogpost ‘Cheating Reddit—Auto Votes’ (source).

Such an intervention also raises issues of governance in peer production. I have stated before that Reddit’s content can hardly be judged according to consistent, objectively definable good/bad criteria. In this sense, it differs from peer production cases where small, expert communities work together towards an aim whose success can be easily defined by objective criteria, where contributions can easily be classified as (counter-)productive. This difference implies that governance and control of content through administrators on Reddit are defined by subjective criteria and are often a topic of negotiation themselves. It also shows that governance through ‘charismatic leadership’ such as referred to in former studies on peer production of Wikipedia (see O’Neil 2011) or free software (see Dafermos 2012) is ruled out due to the scale and heterogeneity of the Reddit community. Topical or charismatic authority may only exist in distinct, smaller subreddits. Since content cannot be defined as verifiable knowledge anymore, but instead is classified as entertainment or art, its judgement therefore becomes a ‘question of taste’ and authority based on specific ‘knowledge’ and performance can hardly be claimed.

These differences can also be explained in terms of Stalder’s analysis of ‘expressive’ and ‘functional’ domains of cultural productions. Stalder discusses why the free and open source software movement (FOSS) has been so successful while cultural, literary or artistic production has not experienced such a strong decentralisation and de-commercialisation under the influence of digital technologies. He suggests that characteristics of Software development—such as the possibility for modular, collaborative production—can only rarely be reproduced by cultural projects. According to Stalder, cultural projects ‘[…] face two problems. If they are of an ‘expressive’ type, then the communities that agree on quality standards are so small that collaboration tends to be more club-like than open source. Even if the works are functional, like Wikipedia, the challenge of determining who is an expert without relying on conventional credentials is significant.’ (Ibid. 2007)

In this sense, Reddit’s Karma-system and the possibility of up-/downvoting is a way to deal with the challenge of creating consent regarding quality criteria of cultural content. Depending on the subreddit, some assessments can be substantiated rather objectively by moderators. This accounts for example for the various science forums (such as r/askscience or r/sciencediscussion) which can be considered as examples for ‘functional cultural projects’. Other subreddits, such as r/funny or visually oriented forums such as r/pics are rather ‘expressive types’ and come along with highly subjective, controversial quality criteria. Hence, by enabling the allocation of Karma-points, Reddit aims at decentralising the governance of content, leaving the decision of its subjective quality to the crowd.

The intervention of administrators shows however that such a bottom-up control only works to some extent and needs some additional, authoritarian interference from time to time. On r/science for example, the denial of climate change has been generally banned. On most subreddits, users are asked to read and consider the respective rules for posting content. Inappropriate posts can be deleted and users might be banned for a certain time. Similarly, Loubster and den Besten have described Wikipedia as a rather conditionally democratic/egalitarian form of peer production. The authors noted that the Online-Encyclopaedia ‘[…] has strayed from its idealistic origins and has been able to sustain itself only by adapting more and more of the features found in regular firms’ (Loubster/den Besten 2008, p. 1).

In addition, users exert bottom-up influence on other users’ behaviour. This kind of community discipline involves for example mass downvoting that punish a respective user for (allegedly or rather subjectively crowd-defined) ‘bad’ posts. Moreover, the self-reflexive discussion of issues in meta-comments regarding the development of Reddit can be considered as a peer-to-peer approach that aims to regulate users’ self-discipline. They play a ‘consciousness raising’ role, point out issues on Reddit and reflect on possible reasons, such as this post by a user who questioned the inhibiting impact of default subreddits on traffic in newly founded subreddits.

‘The current system of congregation into default subreddits is causing Reddit to splinter into many offshoot subreddits. Some users are so deep in the meta/real/true/republicof hole that they do not even participate in the default subreddits. This is a sign that Reddit is getting so top-heavy that people are falling off. Participating in a community with so many voices and differing opinions makes your own opinions feel small and unimportant. You may start to enjoy other people’s voices in the community less. This might happen until you find a smaller, niche subreddit that fits your interests. This is a sign that Reddit is getting so top-heavy that people are falling off.’ (source)

This post has been submitted to the subreddit ‘Theory of Reddit’ which is defined as ‘[…] a mildly navel-gazing space for inquiring into what makes Reddit communities work and what we in a community can do to help make it better’ (source).

In addition to this ‘educational approach’, there are other bottom-up strategies trying to prevent certain developments which are not intended by Reddit’s platform features, but are rather induced by users’ appropriation of the up-/downvote-system. Mass downvoting campaigns can target certain user profiles, and punish those users for their posting-behaviour. With ‘mass downvoting campaigns’, I mean cases where a group of users agrees on collaboratively downvoting a specific post/a certain user. Particularly well-known is the case of the user Apostolate which I will analyse in the next section.

Peer pressure: ‘Nobody cares, Apostolate’

Apostolate can be regarded as one of Reddit’s most famous, though highly controversial ‘celebrities’. S/he belongs to a user group that is registered on, a website which visualises the quantifiable aspects of Redditing in diagrams (see Figure 7). In July 2013, Apostolate still led the list of ‘Top comment Karma’ (see Figure 8).

Figure 7

Figure 8

Figures 7 and 8: Screenshot excerpts showing statistics and visualisations of Reddit ‘powerusers’, available at:, accessed on 08/07/2013

Apart from being a ‘successful Redditor’ in terms of accumulated Karma points, Apostolate has become particularly famous after commenting ‘I hate the movie ‘Avatar.’ on a post by another user starting with the question ‘What do you hate that everyone else seems to enjoy?’ (source) This post was submitted on 24th of July 2012. When sorting this thread by ‘top’ one of the first comments is ‘HIMYM. Awful, awful show’. Apostolate replied to this comment with a .gif, a moving image, showing the actor Neil Patrick Harris in ‘How I Met Your Mother’ with the message ‘You’re a jerk’ (Figure 9). This led, at first, to the repost of a user-generated .gif, containing the message ‘Nobody cares Apostolate’. Gif-replies by the users Quarter_Centenarian ( and Drunken_Economist ( have respectively gained 1,863 and 1,386 Karma points. In the aftermath, plenty of similar gifs were produced and became a common reply to any comment or post by Apostolate. The saying has since been frequently referenced on the subsequently created subreddit /r/nobodycaresapostolate.

Figure 9

Figure 9: Gif screenshot, available at:, accessed on 15/07/2013

The thread described above was even reposted in /r/bestof. Some users’ aggression towards Apostolate becomes very obvious in this context, and the affinity to witch-hunts seems intuitively comprehensible:

Why is this best of? Why do people give a fuck about shit like this? (first comment sorted by ‘top’ or ‘hot’ likewise)

Good, shut that fucking Apostolate dude up. He is a fucking loser. Doesn’t he have any free time to GET OFF THE INTERNET???? (first and second comment sorted by controversial)

Briefly before the incident, which led to Apostolate’s comment being subjected to repetitive ‘Nobody cares’-replies (as were other comments by users who were suspected of Karmawhoring), another user pointed towards Apostolate as a rising power-user. On 22nd of July 2012 WuhanWTF posted:

‘Well look over here, there seems to be a new one on the rise: Apostolate. Redditors are swarming around him like flies on shit. […] I also noticed that, to some degree, he panders to the hivemind. Yesterday I saw him reply to a comment about ‘Myspace Top 8 drama’ talking about how people who use that site are retarded. Typical anti-social network circlejerk.’ (source)

More generally, similar comments and community events draw users’ attention towards single accounts. Those users subsequently experience the rejection and disapproval of the crowd. Such cases are examples of community discipline and mass-downvotes aiming at affecting a certain user behaviour. The user can either give up their account and create a new username (abandoning the collected, non-transferable Karma), show a change in behaviour to calm the angry ‘virtual mob’, or wait and hope that the aggression might subside over time.

When following Apostolate’s ‘Reddit career’ chronologically by looking at collected contributions on the user profile, it seems that overall his performance on Reddit became more ironic and reflective. For example, in response to the question ‘Who is the most hated Redditor of all time?’ s/he replied ‘Haven’t posted as much in about a year :0’ and after another user’s comment that Apostolate was unpopular due to his ‘Karmawhoring’ s/he noted ‘You can’t prove that in court’ (source; Figure 10 and 11).

Figure 10

Figure 10: Reddit thread screenshot, available at: who_is_the_most_hated_redditor_of_all_time/cay2985?context=3, accessed on 15/07/2013
Figure 11

Figure 11: Reddit thread screenshot, available at: who_is_the_most_hated_redditor_of_all_time/cay2amz?context=3, accessed on 15/07/2013

Karmawhoring is a phenomenon which can only be determined according to very subjective as well as highly normative criteria. In this sense, the case Apostolate is an example of negotiation processes between certain user attitudes and social values. A Karmawhoring-critical ‘philosophy’ normatively idealises particular contributions: these users emphasise the relevance of intrinsically motivated contributions, benefiting the community. With the practices and strategies I described before, users exert pressure on peers who deviate from such idealistically inspired motivations for contributions.

5. Conclusion: Economised Redditing

Reddit is an insightful example of peer production since it does not merely involve content whose value could be easily defined by objective criteria. While the result of software crowdsourcing, for example, can be rather easily assessed—basically by if and for what purposes the software works—the (e)valuation of content on Reddit is guided by subjective, interpersonally fluid criteria. As Bauwens writes, peer production projects ‘[…] are open to all comers provided they have the necessary skills to contribute to a project. These skills are verified, and communally validated, in the process of production itself.’ (Bauwens 2006: p. 2) On Reddit however, skills and therefore value can barely be validated objectively. As I have argued by analysing cases of Karmawhoring, counterstrategies and internal conflicts on Reddit, the numerical value of a contribution represented by Karma-points does not function as a universally accepted measurement of qualitative value. Quite the contrary: Karma has gained a reputation for indicating less innovative, mainstreamed content which is able to appeal to social mass media audiences. Hence, one is facing dynamics which seem significant for opposing value evaluations in peer production of cultural content. The features and criteria which determine the value of a post or comment are controversially negotiated among users.

These discrepancies appear to have a historical dimension: in particular, long-term users reject Karma-oriented posting. Opposing Karmawhoring also complies with an effort to minimise the influence of users who may not share the principled convictions of early contributors. One has to take into account that Reddit started as a community with a sub-cultural appeal, a counter-project to mainstream information and entertainment sources. Conflicts and criticisms among users also document the consequences of Reddit’s more recent popularisation which stands in contrast to its former sub-cultural status. They are highly normative expressions of negotiations between users who claim to represent the ‘traditional’ and idealistic Reddit so far, and users who are identified as cause of the various changes in Reddit’s culture and appearance. The contrast between practices of Karmawhoring and resistance against those powerusers indicates a divide between (long-term) Redditors who claim a more intimate knowledge of the community and its rules. Early users familiarised themselves with Reddit when it was still a comparatively small-scale community. In such a context, the rules for interactions and the conditions for gaining positive/negative attention differ from possibilities to be appreciated among the vast number of members that Reddit has meanwhile obtained.

‘Digital economies of scale’ are especially relevant here: discussions are feasible as long as the overall community has a relatively manageable size. The number of users on Reddit however makes it more difficult to provide a virtual environment where people may directly engage in discussions. The competition for attention is high, and there are various factors (bad timing, boring topics, badly phrased or titled issues) which may lead to posts and comments being ignored. Breaking the website into multiplicities of subreddits was one strategy of dealing with this issue, but even such a strategy only works for some, less popular topics.

Since value on Reddit cannot be conceptualised in terms of following a coherent ‘value theory’, one encounters the depicted clash of asserted user motivations. On the one hand, there are users who seek to maintain a mentality that complies with the concept of ‘gift economy’. Their claims are very much in line with early hopes accompanying cooperation on the internet:

‘Within the universities, the gift economy already was the primary method of socialising labour. From its earliest days, the technical structure and social mores of the Net has ignored intellectual property.  Although the system has expanded far beyond the university, the self-interest of Net users perpetuates this hi-tech gift economy. As an everyday activity, users circulate free information as e-mail, on listservs, in newsgroups, within on-line conferences and through Web sites. As shown by the Apache and Linux programs, the hi-tech gift economy is even at the forefront of software development.’ (Barbrook 2005 [1998])

Similar to those early hopes concerning a high-tech gift economy, some Redditors defend their idealistic, not quantitatively aligned motivations for participation. Moreover, they describe such an attitude as the community’s traditional and preferable state. However, these idealistic, somehow conservative users are confronted with a quasi-monetary econometrisation of participation. The latter, Karma-oriented aspirations promote an adjustment of contributions in favour of their likeliness to appeal to a large number of users.

Seeing that I stated that this opposition results from historical developments and a growing community scale, it is significant that the notion of ‘gift economy’ has mainly been applied with regards to early virtual communities more generally, as well as to the early stages of more recent networks. Seven years after publishing the ‘The high-tech gift economy’ [1998] Barbrook stated in an interview: ‘In 2005, the dotcom commodity economy and the hi-tech gift economy are—at one and the same time—in opposition and in symbiosis with each other.’ (Barbrook 2005)

Even earlier on, Rheingold described the ‘The Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link’ (WELL) network as ‘[…] a kind of gift economy in which people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo.’ (Ibid. 1995, p. 59) More recently, Paßmann, Boeschoten and Schäfer (2013) have applied the notion of ‘gift economy’ in order to describe parts of the German Twitter scene and quantitative monitorings of user participation via ‘favstar’: an ‘application that tracks retweets and favourites (called Favs).’ (Ibid., p. 7) They also observed that an ‘[…] inflated number of Favs in question here sheds doubt on their value as a gift’ (Ibid., p. 9).

Similarly on Reddit, Karma-points have lost their commonly accepted correlation to content quality. This development indicates a historical development throughout which successful strategies in order to achieve attention have significantly changed. Rheingold already acknowledged in 1993 that in the virtual community he described ‘[…] elegantly presented knowledge is a valuable currency. Wit and use of language are rewarded in this medium, which is biased towards those who learn to manipulate attention and emotion with the written word.’ (Rheingold 1995 [1993], p. 59) Hence, adjustments and learning processes in order to appeal to Reddit’s community account for Karmawhores and users who claim to represent altruistic motives likewise. However, the described tensions show that the rules and conditions of content appeal have changed with time.

Cashing-out Karma

Regarding Reddit, Rheingold’s metaphor of rhetoric as currency is however not entirely applicable. Users’ participation and input are rather elements of free labour. As Terranova describes: ‘free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited’. (Terranova 2000, p. 37) Users’ knowledge and skills do not act as type of currency, but they ‘[…] are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect.’ (Ibid., p. 38) Their input generates the basis for advertisement, Reddit’s marketplace merchandising and sponsored links—and Karma functions as one incentive to ensure that such a basis is maintained.

In this context, the status of Karma as potential currency, which means as a medium of exchange for money, should be examined carefully. In fact, meanwhile there are possibilities to ‘cash out’ Karma and to receive monetary rewards for Reddit input. These are however marginal and merely seem to play around with the possibility of a (voluntary) payment for contributions.

Since September 2012, Redditors can exchange Karma for ‘Bitcoin’, a digital currency (and a peer-to-peer payment system) introduced in 2009 (see However, this exchange can be done one time only: the Karma-points lose their monetary exchange value after their translation into Bitcoin. The Karma does also not disappear from the respective account. Hence, as a user put it: ‘It’s not really an ‘exchange’ so much as a reward since you’re not losing your karma.’ (source) Furthermore, the exchange rate is low: ‘If you have 543 karma, you will get 0.00100000 BTC (the base amount) plus 0.00000543 BTC (from your karma bonus) = 0.00100543 BTC.’ (source) The initiative does not primarily aim at rewarding high amounts of Karma with money, but addresses users who would like to experiment with Bitcoin.

The project has been set up by the user ‘NerdfighterSean’ who also developed the Reddit service ‘bitcointip’ ( Currently, bitcointip is donation based (source). It allows users ‘[…] to manage money with their Reddit account. Redditors can tip each other with a Reddit comment or message. The bot scans user comments and messages for tips of the form: +/u/bitcointip @RedditUsername $1.’ (source) In contrast to the aforementioned possibility to merely exchange karma for bitcoin, users can actually reward particular content. In such a case, the Karma does not act as quasi-monetary intermediary, but a users’ product is rewarded financially. Such a system rather encourages usage strategies which are in line with topically focused approaches as described before. Seeing the limited (one time only) possibility to trade Karma for bitcoin, the category of currency does not generally apply to Karma on Reddit. However, it acts as quasi-monetary incentive for some users contributions.
The following comments, which came up after a user asked whether it was still possible to redeem Karma for Bitcoin, illustrate nicely how the relation between Karma, content-related and monetary value is (ironically) negotiated among users (Figure 12):
‘is your karma clean? you’ll get ban if your karma is dirty. can someone please validate his karma?—What’s ‘dirty karma’?—If you got them through reposts in /r/funny—it’s karma that needs to be laundered.’ (source)

Figure 12

Figure 12: Reddit thread screenshot, available at: can_you_still_cash_in_reddit_karma_for_bitcoin/?sort=top , accessed on 09/01/2014

Similarly ironic are subreddits such as the Karma store ( where users try to exchange ‘[…] all my karma for one WHOLE kitten, please.’ (source)

The crucial difference between what has been called ‘dirty vs. clean Karma’ is that Reddit’s encouragement of mechanisms building on large user amounts relates to economic factors. The growing community scale is supported by the platform as long as it is conducive to elements of the business model, such as the marketplace or advertisements/sponsored links. As a result, the popularisation of Reddit and the growing community scale produce shifts in the conditions for gaining attention and selecting content. The conflicts accompanying such developments seem to be a common epiphenomenon of growing communities: the development on Reddit is reminiscent of dynamics on the imageboard 4Chan where one could observe a rejection of new users who were aggressively addressed as ‘newfags/cancer’ and criticised for contaminating a former, sub-cultural status (see “The Cancer That Is Killing /b/”, source). Even historical events such as the eternal September 1993 and a certain resistance regarding the popularisation of the Usenet (source) may be seen as users’ attempts to counteract growing community scales which make a platform economically more interesting and thus vulnerable to economic imperatives.

Similar rejections of quantifications have also been observed by Reagle who quoted a member of the photo sharing community saying ‘The whole ratings business has turned into a giant pissing contest’. Moreover, Gerlitz stated in an analysis of Klout, a tool which claims to measure users overall social media influence:  ‘Since its launch in 2008, Klout has been object of repeated critque: mostly regarding its attempt to ‘quantify’ influence and reputation, but also for its introduction of competition and hierarchies to social media which once had been imagined as flat and egalitarian.’ (Gerlitz 2012, p. 13).

In this sense, some users perceive the econometrisation of Reddit as infiltration of intrinsically motivated participation and interaction. Such an assessment discursively also relates to anti-capitalist motivations and claims which have been implied in optimistic views related to early examples of peer production, and may still account for early stages of more recent projects: ‘[T]he editors of a special issue of Capital & Class on peer production noted that prime examples such as GNU/Linux development and Wikipedia initiated a new mode of production but ‘also reasserted very old-fashioned trends of profit-making and the colonisation of knowledge’ (Moore & Karatzogianni 2009, p. 11). Let’s face it: informational capitalism seems to be able to handle a zone of free digital goods reasonably well’ (Kreiss/Finn/Turner 2011).

Users’ resistance against Karma-points as the ultimate determinant of value indicates a rejection of economically optimised production practices. Similar concerns have been raised much earlier on: ‘Late capitalism does not appropriate anything: it nurtures, exploits, and exhausts its labor force and its cultural and affective production. In this sense, it is technically impossible to separate neatly the digital economy of the Net from the larger network economy of late capitalism. Especially since 1994, the Internet is always and simultaneously a gift economy and an advanced capitalist economy.’ (Terranova 2000, p. 51) The Karmawhoring-criticisms therefore relate to earlier hopes and attempts to create and maintain production practices independent from capitalist determinations of value. Rejections of Karmawhoring are symptoms of users’ resistance against a degeneration of community-oriented interactions, economised participation and content production.

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