There are few places on the internet like “Am I The A******?”
The Reddit forum, often referred to by its more PG-rated abbreviation, AITA, is a rarity among social media sites. It’s a community where over 3.2 million people — plus countless more anonymous “lurkers” — come together to deliberate on a simple, basic question.
In the vast world of internet debates, consensus is hard to come by. But on AITA, nothing matters more. Redditors use the page to share their deepest, most intimate personal dilemmas — anything from “AITA for refusing to stop wearing my favorite pair of pants?” to “AITA for not attending my sister’s wedding after telling her I’d go?” Then, commenters weigh in to decide whether or not the poster is, in fact, the a******.
Can we preserve the Earth while maintaining the thrill of being human?
AITA is, in many ways, a sort of online public trial — one where the rule of law is overridden by something else, some sense of thoughtful, empathetic morality.
“Trials have always been a source of entertainment for the public,” Reddit user Moggehh told In The Know. “It’s just a fact of life. In the old days, maybe it was because entertainment was hard to find.”
Moggehh is a moderator, or “mod,” for AITA. They’ve been working with the page since January 2020, helping to enforce rules and flag offensive comments. During that time, AITA’s popularity has gone supernova. The page’s posts are frequently covered by mainstream news outlets (including In The Know), and there are now full-on think pieces about its success — not to mention a hugely popular Twitter account dedicated to its wildest threads.
— Am I the Asshole? (@AITA_online) August 17, 2021
That rise comes as no surprise to Moggehh, who compared the forum to daytime TV court shows, like Judge Judy.
“Nowadays, AITA offers less bloat than television and is more accessible than reading a local or supreme court’s newsletter,” Moggehh said in an email. “You can even discuss it (civilly) with the community. And the conflicts? Many of them are relatable. Even if you haven’t personally gone through one of the conflicts, chances are you know someone who has gone through something similar.”
If AITA is a courtroom, then mods like Moggehh are the bailiffs. They keep arguments in line, dispel fraudulent posts and comb threads looking for hurtful language. It’s an important job on a forum like AITA, where debates can go from zero to NFSW in seconds.
It’s also, crucially, a job that pays nothing. Mods monitor the forum for free in their spare time — often dedicating several hours each week. As Moggehh puts it, AITA has a “much stricter ruleset” than most subreddits (the official term for Reddit’s individually divided forums), and thus it takes a gargantuan effort to make sure those rules get enforced.
“[Enforcing rules] takes a lot of work in a subreddit of this size,” bubblegumgills, another AITA mod, told In The Know.
Like most subreddits, AITA clearly states its rules on the homepage — everything from “Accept Your Judgement” to “No Revenge Stories” and “No COVID Posts.” The forum’s FAQ section is exhaustingly thorough, full of forbidden words and pre-planned justifications for bans and warnings.
But those rules are ignored pretty often, either willingly or unwillingly. Several of the mods who spoke with In The Know cited stubbornness as a major pain point.
“There are some you just know aren’t going to accept the answer, even when presented with the rules and rationale for their removal,” Farvas-Cola, another moderator, said.
It’s not necessarily surprising. The format of AITA feeds into defensive mindsets — many posts often draw more than 10,000 comments — because users are quite literally being asked to present their argument for an opinion. It doesn’t help that many posts cover sensitive issues like infidelity, pregnancy, debt and neglectful parents.
“People that willfully misinterpret our rules are pretty annoying,” Moggehh added. “For example, we say, ‘No personal attacks.’ They say that they want a list. We point them to our FAQ, which includes a list of example insults and specifies that the list is non-exhaustive and the rule still covers all personal attacks. Then a week later, they get banned for calling someone [a ban-worthy insult] and come to us like we somehow neglected our jobs in teaching them.”
And then, there are the trolls. Redditors on AITA often post from anonymous accounts that do not tie back to their everyday usernames. As a result, the stories are difficult to verify and therefore easy to fake.
“A small group of loud people in our community use the existence of what they believe to be fake posts to insult, demean and criticize both the users who ‘fall for it’ and the mods for ‘allowing it to happen,'” Moggehh explained.
However, many mods also told In The Know that these trolls are less frequent than you might imagine. As Moggehh explained through one particularly jarring anecdote, mods are “regularly proven wrong” when they make assumptions about a story’s validity.
“On Christmas Day last year … there was a post that was just unbelievable,” they said. “An older sister takes in a younger sister — both lost their parents two months before. The little sister acted out, so the sister replaced the gifts she had under the tree (hoverboard, drone, laptop) with actual coal. It was straight out of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Within a few minutes of being banned, the user sent us a photo of the wrapped gifts, her username and the coal. The mods online were shocked.”
There are all kinds of surprises on AITA. One of the most satisfying, according to Farvas-Cola, is when Redditors take a mod’s advice seriously. For the mods, it’s about approaching arguments with the right mindset.
“Yes, we remove a lot of posts and comments that violate the rules, but the education comes into play when users message to ask about a removal,” Farvas-Cola said. “A good number of them, while perhaps frustrated over a removal or warning, take the reply in stride and seem to leave knowing a bit more about the rules.”
Bubblegumgills said moments like those are a “great feeling.” Those are the good days — when potentially harmful arguments dissolve and turn into learning moments.
But there are plenty of bad days, too. Between trolls, tragic stories, negative comments and argumentative users, mods risk plenty of trauma any time they open up the computer. Sometimes, it all gets to be too much.
“I’ve had to take breaks from modding before when my personal life got in the way, and I just couldn’t handle the mental labor of helping others,” Moggehh said. “Even now, I don’t mod as much as my first few months. I find it can really burn you out.”
Farvas-Cola and bubblegumgills both told In The Know that they have to emotionally “disconnect” from the content on AITA in order to do their jobs. Ultimately, bubblegumgills added, it’s not worth it to take anything personally.
“They are just insults and words honestly, and again, most people will actually take a warning in stride and change their behavior,” they said. “I try to have that positive mindset, where I look to educate rather than chastise.”
With that distance, it’s possible to focus on the good in AITA instead of the bad. And there is plenty of good — otherwise, the mods wouldn’t do this for free.
“It’s really not as negative as it’s sometimes made out to be,” bubblegumgills said. “If you follow the [unaffiliated] AITA Twitter account, they post a lot of the super dramatic posts. But really, the whole subreddit is much more than that. We’re here to help people see whether they’ve been an asshole in a given conflict, not to call everyone an a******. There’s a subtle difference there.”
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