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What is it With the Quality of Writing on Reddit?

Is it just me, or does the quality of writing in Reddit comments tend to be a bit dull?

These days it's not as bad as it was, but go back a few years – roughly 2008 - and it was oddly flat, almost like it was written by machine, or people were running their comments through a special boring filter.

I figured out how to make such a filter, once. It's a combination of an automated or semi-automated thesaurus and a table of word frequencies – just change all words to their most often-used versions, dropping the writing down the Fleisher-Kincaid levels.

It would be a good disguise if you didn't want to be identified by your writing style and choice of words (especially if a tool to analyse and match the surrounding comments' style was added to the filter) but it's very dull to read. Such a filter is probably also useful for taking out any accidental subtext – but it has the possible side-effect of sensitising regular readers to subtext when they see it again.

For a while I spent so much time reading that flat style of writing that it got stuck in my brain and even I started thinking and writing the same way. It wasn't a very nice experience.

How an entire website of supposedly different and unconnected people all came to write in the same style, I can only guess.

As I mentioned earlier, it's better now than it was, but it's still a bit odd. From time to time, I dip into Reddit and try to stir things up a bit in whatever way I can.

One such attempt was the brief novelty account, Translated-to-Sci-Fi (note: may not be suitable for children or viewing at work).* My method for this account was to get very drunk, and then pick whatever caught my eye on the front pages and weave some sort of fragment of fiction from it in the genre of Sci-Fi. It was quite fun, I might do it again some time.

Although it was fun, I'm under no illusions that it was particularly good writing – I just vomited up any old rubbish that popped into my head, inspired by whatever happened to be on or near the front pages. Therein lies my point: it still stands out from the Reddit average in some ways. With one frontal lobe tied behind my back with alcohol, and without even trying very hard, my writing still stands out. My writing's not that great, but the reddit average is strangely dull. Still, reddit's new terms of service now explicitly forbid vote manipulation, so maybe it's all about to change for the better. I doubt it, but I can but hope.

Last year I read two old Sci Fi novels – quite well known authors, and I believe the books are considered to be something like classics of the genre – and yet I found the quality of writing was a bit disappointing. I've seen one of my old work colleagues write better science fiction than that on a blog (and often with a remarkably similar style, I notice). In all fairness though it is surprisingly difficult to write science fiction without it ending up sounding like it's meant for children.

On the other hand, while science fiction tends to have a reputation for 2-dimensional characterisation and, perhaps, somewhat shallow subtext, I'm not convinced that going in the complete opposite direction is really a good idea.

For example, over time I've watched computer games become more and more arty and sophisticated in their story-telling, and the combination of realism, interactivity and sophisticated layers of meaning sometimes leaves me feeling slightly unsettled.




* Particularly observant readers might notice the brief homage to the writing of Douglas Adams, and a tilt in the direction of Stephen King. Those were deliberate, though perhaps including such a thing in a piece of writing that was a little tongue-in-cheek could be taken the wrong way. Still, I suppose being famous writers they get used to such things. And Adams is particularly unlikely to be bothered by it. If there are any other subtle nods to other writers, I'm almost certainly not aware of them. However, it does tend to be near-impossible to avoid regurgitating nuances and fragments of things previously read or heard, I notice. It appears to be an almost unavoidable side-effect of the way the human mind works and processes language, and is particularly noticeable if the mind in question doesn't experience a great deal of linguistic interaction, or only experiences it from a small variety of sources. I strongly suspect that in certain circumstances it's an effect that could be 'weaponised' or used as a sort of tracking device, though such a thing seems very unethical to me.

Edit 7/1/14: Footnote added.