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How do you know that? Someone on Reddit told me

  • Blog
  • 9th Jul 2024

Forums are one of the oldest forms of online communication, where people can freely ask questions – from the weird and wonderful to practical advice from strangers. 

Far from dying out, forums are thriving. Between 2016 and 2023, Reddit usage increased fivefold to now over one billion monthly active users. Reddit is the 8th most visited website in the world, above LinkedIn, Netflix and OpenAI (host of ChatGPT). In 2019, 76% of all internet users reported using Reddit.

What’s the appeal of Reddit?

The most popular category of subreddit is “advice”, though it’s very broad-ranging. Users are asking for advice on anything from “What country is underrated for travelling?” to “What’s the best way to lose weight?” and even “which job is a LOT less fun than most people expect?”.  

This reflects a growing trend in social media use: while Baby Boomers and Gen X prefer to take financial advice from financial experts, nearly half (46%) of Gen Z were most likely to use social media, such as Reddit. 

The appeal of Reddit may also be reflective of a growing sense from users that traditional search engines such as Google are getting worse.

Should we be worried about advice from Reddit?

Just as we might not ask our neighbour for health advice, not all information on Reddit is reliable. One analysis of erectile dysfunction advice found that less than half the suggestions followed American Urological Association guidelines. This example is particularly worrying – since it’s not the type of advice you’d be likely to discuss with others.

But there is a lot to be said for the wisdom of a crowd. It’s long been observed in studies that average predictions of large groups are often (much) better than the predictions of a single expert, even when nobody in the group makes an individually good prediction. Asking Reddit isn’t the same as asking your neighbour, it’s like asking your whole neighbourhood, and that might be pretty good.

Of course the wisdom of crowds only works for certain types of advice – for instance it might be beneficial to understand from a large number of people “how to get a promotion”, but for a complex medical diagnosis, you’d be better off sticking to an expert.

Our sample matters too. The wisdom of the crowds assumes we’re all making random errors, and average out at something sensible. But when the crowd has a shared view (a homoeopathy forum, for example) then the average answer is likely to be biassed too. 

So it looks like online forums are here to stay – and we should value the wisdom of crowds to arrive at better answers that are less susceptible to noise. But instead of saying ‘someone on Reddit told me’ we should be saying ‘hundreds of people on Reddit told me’. 

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BIT is a global research consultancy which combines a deep understanding of human behaviour with evidence-led problem solving to improve people’s lives. This blog is part of a series digging into how society’s changing, spotting the big trends hidden in the things we do every day. We’re going to be on the lookout for clues in the data that show us how culture, attitudes and behaviour are shifting around us. 

Find out more about our services and how to work with us: https://www.bi.team/home/our-services/

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