What Can TIME Teach Us About Denialism?

Paintings by Mark Vesper

An article was written for TIME recently regarding an online community I help moderate. I agreed to be interviewed for the article, but the result was so far off the mark I felt the need to offer my own perspectives. The TIME article serves as context for what follows, so I’d recommend reading it first.

or the past two years, I’ve helped moderate the collapse subreddit. I was offered the role after sharing a proof of what now serves as the community wiki. I was eager and excited for the opportunity to join the team; I’d been suffering in a mental vacuum for some time trying to study collapse alone. I was thankful for the chance to help maintain the forum alongside like-minds. In those two years I’ve seen the subreddit triple in size, learned my way around the backends of Reddit, the limitations of the platform, and many nuances involved with moderating difficult topics.

A journalist from TIME Magazine reached out to a few of us moderators recently, looking to write a story on the subreddit. The details of the article were nebulous at first, but I agreed to be interviewed and offer my perspectives on the community, moderation, and nature of Reddit while they wrote it. Unfortunately, the resulting piece was far from ideal. I realized it would be best to lay out my own perspectives here to try and compensate for the nuances they largely left out.

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Reddit is not like other platforms.

Reddit is distinct from popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Anyone can create a subreddit around any subject and chose to moderate it however they see fit as long as it adheres to Reddit’s guidelines. Reddit also has a downvote button for every post and comment, whereas other platforms have no means for users to collectively ‘push down’ content or comments which do not contribute to discussion. The only typical means of removing content on other platforms is unsubscribing or blocking someone and you have far less control over how your feed is presented to you.

Reddit shapes user attention and funnels it towards ads the same as other platforms, but the variability in content, moderation, and ability to control your feed are often overlooked. Most people are unaware of these differences, much less how to leverage them or the added tools which allow more control of the information they’re exposed to. How best to do this could be the subject for an entirely separate article, but the takeaway being Reddit should be perceived as distinct when critiqued or compared to the popular alternatives.

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Doomscrolling is the symptom, not the problem.

r/collapse is a data-driven subreddit. We’re attempting, as best we can, to increase our understanding of complex systems, systemic issues, and what implications arise from those regarding the future of civilization. 

From BBC’s Are we on the road to civilisation collapse? (Credit: Nigel Hawtin)

The problem is the world is on fire. Living systems are in decline at a global scale. Global economic growth rates peaked decades ago and world population and energy demands are still increasing. Best-case energy transition scenarios will still result in severe climate changeProduction is becoming less profitable and consumption is growing less affordable. Inequality is becoming less tolerable and it’s becoming harder to make sense of it all.

These are just a handful of the pressures we see facing us and discuss regularly. Unfortunately, they’re the types of challenges which are almost the perfect fit for bouncing off the human brain. They’re complex, abstract, in the future, and extremely scary. We also lack the current ability to collectively agree on how to solve them.

There are more than enough pictures of the fire to pass around and the notion we should be concerned we might become addicted to looking at them (i.e. doomscrolling) is a real one. Although, if we equate r/collapse to r/photosofthefire we miss the point and fundamental goal of attempting to understand the true nature of the situation we find ourselves in to begin with. This fire is so large and pervasive we can’t effectively turn away without engaging in denialism. It’s not an easy thing, and we need to leverage our collective intelligence to create a new set of strategies to confront it and the versions of our future it allows.

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r/Collapse isn’t about swapping photos of the fire.

We have a specific rule on the subreddit against making posts which are essentially just photos of symptoms of collapse and lack deeper context. This is the most commonly contested and misunderstood rule by users, but we’re aiming to elevate discussions and content which can address the widest contexts or systemic natures of the various pressures. Otherwise, we risk drowning in flat, limited reflections of the flames surrounding us. 

Adapted from KC Green’s “On Fire” for a Thrive Global article.

As moderators, we’re also well aware of the trend for low-effort content to float to the top as any subreddit gets larger. The TIME article fails to mention we limit posts which break this rule, memes, or humorous posts to a single day of the week in an effort to contain them, but still allow some levity and freedom of expression some of the time.

We are continually discussing strategies to try and elevate in-depth content. Even though the subreddit is growing (67% in the past year), thousands of other subreddits are going much faster while Reddit itself continues to grow as whole (30% last year). We’re not unique in this particular realm or the pressures of scale.

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Doom must come before Post-Doom

Many of these issues and pressures are large enough to have become predicaments we must accept, versus obstacles we can overcome. At certain scales they require a complete reframing of our expectations of our notions of progress. If we can’t push through towards higher levels of understanding, we risk spinning our wheels around ancillary issues or waiting for the right measure, at the right time, on the right ballot, hoping a single solution or fancy suit will eventually save us from ourselves.

Reframing requires what we refer to as climbing the ladder of awareness, which leads to a higher understanding of the interconnections between systemic issues and relevance of solutions. There is no single thing which can be done. The solution-space requires such a radical departure from dominant culture and our default world we must be capable of staring long and hard into the fundamental reality of the present moment, our collective mortality, and limitations of how we can actually respond.

The barriers to greater understanding are numerous and pervasive. We’re also susceptible to becoming engrossed in talking about collapse as its own coping mechanism or an alternative to other forms of agency. We’ve been working to extend the wiki and resources to better address these barriers and catalyze understanding, but this space is uncharted and we need more help building them.

Some of the most common barriers to understanding collapse. From the subreddit wiki.

Regardless of what the future holds, we will still need a forum for discourse to reach these higher levels in the first place. The collapse subreddit serves as the linkage between communities for support (r/collapsesupport & Collapse Discord) and a multitude of other resources and materials where deeper relationships and discourse occur. No one should be under the illusion this has to stop or be contained to the subreddit alone. It also shouldn’t be dismissed as simply a den for doomscrollers.