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Is r/UofT up for the challenge?

Now more than ever, U of T’s community desperately needs a place to connect
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Our university is the biggest in Canada. It maintains three campuses in three cities, runs over 700 undergraduate programs, and had approximately 95,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in it for the 2020–21 school year, many of whom are now learning remotely from all across the world. Especially now that classes have moved online again, cultivating casual friendships — like with the person sitting next to you in tutorial — seems unlikely. So what does a meaningful sense of community look like at U of T? 

Our only hope of stringing together this colossal institution is the one thing that has also kept the world running during pandemic lockdowns: online platforms. 

Reddit, a discussion board-based social media site, is popular on campuses across North America, but something about it seems to especially click with our school. The Reddit forum — or subreddit — dedicated to U of T has approximately 79,000 subscribers. That may make it Canada’s largest university subreddit; in comparison, UBC’s subreddit has 63,100 subscribers and McGill’s has 39,800. 

Each day, around 65 people post questions or rants on r/UofT, and those posts are met with over 150 comments on average. The subreddit is moderated by a five-person group that oversees its content and bans rule-breaking users.    

On the surface, r/UofT merely seems like a space for mundane or meme-related material, but the platform’s impact and power should not be underestimated. “The U of T subreddit is essentially the only U of T-specific place where people can congregate online,” Jane*, a member of the subreddit’s moderating team, told The Varsity, “There is no other resource on the internet that is even comparable.” 

The sense of connection that it offers is all the more crucial now: since the first wave of pandemic lockdowns in March 2020, r/UofT’s subscriber count has grown by 77 per cent. This platform, entirely out of the U of T administration’s control, is our best shot at keeping this sprawling institution’s community intact. Whether it can live up to the task without becoming a toxic, negative cesspool like much of the rest of the internet remains to be seen.

“Come for the cats, stay for the empathy” 

r/UofT is currently many students’ go-to place for asking practical school-related questions, such as “What’s the easiest bird course?” or “How do I navigate Quercus?” In response to posts like these, other students promptly spring into the comments section with personalized answers. A survey conducted for this article indicates that users are often first drawn to the site for pragmatic matters or entertainment. Out of 689 responses from subreddit users, 44 per cent said they mostly use r/UofT for “information about courses/professors” or “general information.” In comparison, 38 per cent of respondents were drawn to the forum by “unserious, fun, or funny stuff.” 

According to Bree McEwan, an associate professor who studies online cultures at U of T’s Department of Sociology, forum users may initially seek out an online network for frivolous purposes, and then eventually remain for deeper reasons. She points to Reddit’s motto, “Come for the cats, stay for the empathy.” According to her research, people often seek out online groups to find information, as well — “but then, the longer they hang out there, and the more coherent the community is that they find there, the more likely they are to stay [and] feel like they’re part of a community.” 

That seems to be the case on r/UofT. Some users clearly rely on the platform as an emotional outlet or use it to establish community ties. Interspersed between questions about practical topics, you can find posts from lonely students desperately looking for friends, or others seeking a school-wide discussion on the latest administration blunders. Of the survey respondents, 17 per cent said they mostly use the subreddit for purposes like “connecting with people online,” “social advice,” or “venting/talking about problems with the school.”

The very same socialization that has been yanked away by lockdowns and hindered by our school’s stringent academic culture is rampant in this chat room. Maybe we should re-examine U of T’s reputation as being made up of lonely students when the first thing many do when returning to their dorm rooms is crack open their laptops to join a lively online chat.

From open-ended discussion starters about online classes in January — “Why do students have to put up with this?” — to calls to arms — “They would rather screw us over than have grade inflation” — the sheer volume and variety of the posts that tens of thousands of students bond and debate over is staggering. They are usually met with dozens, sometimes hundreds, or even thousands of replies. 

The pandemic has increased the number of students using r/UofT to grasp at any semblance of community. According to Jane, since March 2020, “there definitely has been an uptick [in] these sorts of requests like, ‘I’m lonely,’ ‘I want friends’ or ‘is anyone here looking for friends.’ ”

However, there is a downside when an online community like this serves as an outlet for student emotions. Just as student emotions may turn negative, so too can the tone of the chat board’s discussions. The disproportionately struggling students attracted to venting on the platform — and the depressing, sometimes angry, vitriol they tend to post — can make for a miserable environment. 

To read through posts from unhappy students is to read about a U of T from a hellish alternative universe. A post by the user u/somuchregret, solemnly titled “To high school students and guidance counsellors,” says, “Do not enrol in this university. Do not let your students enrol in this university… I’m writing this out of some sense of duty.” Last November, the user u/FatOrangutan007 posted, “I don’t understand anything in class anymore. Idk what to do.” Another, by u/CogitoErgoProduct, is titled, “Why the hell am I here?”

This negativity is perhaps the biggest deterrent to other students partaking in what should be a positive space. Cody Stipelman, a first-year humanities student, told The Varsity, “90 per cent of what I see on the U of T subreddit is people who seem like they’re always suffering and just miserable. 

People who are thriving post about their successes on Instagram or LinkedIn. Those who are struggling to survive vent about it in desperate 3:00 am rants on r/UofT. The proliferation of negative content on this forum delivers a loud and clear message that many students are managing horribly with the pandemic, online school, and university in general. 

Why is the subreddit so popular? 

There are many possible reasons as to why r/UofT has become the online home for our school’s sprawling community and also the platform of choice for hordes of miserable students to voice their grievances.

Perhaps we’re seeing evidence of a preference for truly student-run online spaces, as opposed to school-run outlets. When the average student’s day is spent following along in tightly run Zoom classes, or biting their tongues to avoid conflicts in hierarchical relationships with professors, it is easy to understand the yearning for a space where they feel free. According to McEwan, spaces like these enable students to “recapture some aspects of community that are important for feeling like you’re not socially isolated — for feeling like you’re integrated [into] the university.” 

While conducting research for this article, I started a subreddit thread asking users why they were drawn to the site. A user, u/RookieScientist, replied, “students want a ‘private’ community… the minute professors and staff get on here it changes the environment imo.” Survey data confirms just how student-heavy the platform is. In another poll I created, the most populous group of users was students, who amounted to 86 per cent of the 724 respondents. The smallest group was professors lurking on the subreddit, who made up 3.5 per cent of respondents. 

As a whole, Reddit is structured to minimize people’s importance as individuals and emphasize that they are only small pieces of a larger group. Brett Caraway, a professor at the Faculty of Information, told The Varsity that platforms like Facebook and Instagram are structured to highlight individuals, as demonstrated by all the biographical detail that goes into setting up profiles on those sites. On the other hand, bulletin board systems like Reddit are community-driven. Since comments are threaded in response to a post, “you feel like you’re walking into a room where there’s a conversation already transpiring, and you can participate.” 

Anonymity

Reddit also encourages community ties by striking the perfect balance with its level of anonymity. The goofy usernames that people use are tied to rigid and transparent identities on the website, but are still completely separate from the real person behind the screen. This allows users to recognize and make friends with other online identities, while still being able to express themselves openly without fear of reprisal in real life. 

William*, one of r/UofT’s moderators, has hopped on the subreddit almost every day for the four years he has been moderating it. He agrees that the ability to recognize other usernames can help form friendships: “just [from] posting regularly… I see the same people over and over.”

The comfort of anonymity may explain the reams of posts about seeking mental health support. One of many posts about mental health, from November 11 of last year, reads “I’m a second year at UTSG with no friends or social life and it’s been affecting my mental health as well as my academic standing. I fear that my mind might break down sooner or later. Does anyone have similar experiences to me or have tips on how to improve my situation?” It is hard to imagine that whoever wrote this would be as comfortable with providing this information to others in a classroom or at the family dinner table.

However, even as anonymity makes it easier for struggling students to express their feelings, it has a flip side: nasty online trolls also feel more free to make themselves heard. William has personally been targeted by cyberbullies on the subreddit. He told The Varsity that certain users keep engaging in harassment, and sometimes go after specific people. “[It] seems like a weird hobby, man.” 

Both the moderators interviewed for this article asked to be identified only by their first names because they had concerns about harassment and privacy.

Stepping up to the challenge 

Now that classes are online for all of January — and perhaps longer — figuring out how to improve the way we connect online has never been more vital. School-run platforms, like virtual orientation events, restrain students from being themselves. Individualistic social media platforms, like Instagram, fail to provide a meaningful sense of community. We need a virtual forum on which to connect, and r/UofT is our best shot at this. The question is, what can help the subreddit step up to the challenge?

Perhaps moderators, including the two that The Varsity spoke with, could take the initiative to steer it in a healthier, more positive direction. They are already upfront about how they block specific, egregiously harmful content. Jane said that most decisions to remove content are “very black and white, in the sense that ‘oh, this person used a racial slur.’ ” 

William added that subreddit users have criticized the moderator team for not removing certain posts. “The thing I try and tell people is that if there’s 100 bad posts that shouldn’t be on the subreddit… we remove 99 of those posts, but users will only see that one post [that isn’t removed].” 

It is tempting to consider top-down solutions to deal with this messy, unrestrained, free-for-all platform. But the base-level fact remains: isn’t free discussion what draws people to the subreddit in the first place? Any solution to steer it in a more positive direction should not hinder this fundamental feature. To William, telling people not to post as much negative content crosses a line. “Who am I to tell these people they aren’t allowed to have those feelings or voices?”

Instead, there is one solution that would be more in line with the ground-up manner the subreddit was built with: encourage more of the school community to take an active part, so it is more representative of the wider student body. Lorie Berberian, a first-year social sciences student, told The Varsity that she would be more open to using the space if there was a greater variety of people logging in — for example, she suggested that hearing professors’ perspectives could be helpful. 

William also believes that the subreddit does not represent the full university population: “it’s the people who feel very negatively who are going to be more vocal… the people who aren’t having problems, people doing well in most of their classes, aren’t rushing out to go talk about it.”

Vanessa Ho, a second-year student studying animal biology, called the subreddit’s atmosphere a “double-edged blade.” Ho added, “On one hand, students need to be able to express themselves and it’s easier to do it anonymously online. But on the other hand, when you’re on a web page that has nothing but [struggling] students talking about how suicidal, sad, and awful their lives are, that’s going to drag you down too.” Ho has taken a first step to fix this by making encouraging posts to balance out the current unhappy usership.

r/UofT is likely to be embedded into our school fabric for a long time to come. Maybe it will entrap a small number of users in a pit of negativity, or connect tens of thousands to a virtual community during future lockdowns; we can’t assume we know the voids it will fill and the purposes it will serve in the future. But, no matter what influence it has on the school, it is bound to be a growing one. Jane said it best: “the only trend that I can really honestly predict is that our user base will grow.”

*Names changed due to privacy and harassment concerns.

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