Letter of Recommendation: The random button on Reddit
There's a button at the top of the Reddit homepage called "Random." When pressed, the algorithm will serve you up one of the 138,000 subreddits bobbing around the website's depths. We've all found our own languid methods to pass the time during the mounting months of quarantine, and this has been mine. Days and nights, passively logged on, pressing that button over and over again, greeting a new subcommittee of brilliant obsessives and weirdos. Reddit, by its nature, is home to both vast ultra-generalized superboards, (like the self-explanatory r/WorldNews or r/Politics,) and the microscopic strongholds of some of the most obscure niches littering the internet bedrock. (There's a subreddit, specifically, for signal-boosting discounted Lego kits.) The random function lets you see it all; a shimmering panorama of human interest, individually absorbed by their own insulated canon of dictums and controversies, and as a whole, representative of the binding power of being into stuff.
This is a balm for my brain. Most of the industrious goals I set out for myself back in March have deteriorated to memory. I doubt I'm alone in that. I think it's been lethally easy for all of us to regress to our most sedentary activity cycles. The day the NBA was suspended, and most Americans finally came to terms with the unfortunate timeline they were living in, I told myself I was going to read a book a week. I said I would finally finish Mad Men. And The Sopranos, for that matter. Maybe I was going to reload that dormant The Witcher III save that still weighs on my Playstation 4's hard drive. The plan was to consume my life with a banquet of fresh new fascinations in order to make the impending, unprecedented terror on the horizon more bearable. None of those ambitions were particularly productive — in non-pandemic times, people binge Netflix to avoid the more active elements of living — but there was an underlying hope that beyond the daily onslaught of chaos and grief that we feel in our bodies like wet sand, maybe 2020 wouldn't also be a tremendous waste of time. If this is how we must live for a while, could we at least be changed for the better? You hear that spirit echoing in the prosaic listicles from the First Days, which already read like dead languages from a distant past. "100 things to do while trapped inside," wrote the USA Today on March 16. The suggestions include, "Teach yourself a foreign language," and, "Attempt a self-portrait with pencil and paper." We were all so young.
Seven months in, most evenings in the Winkie/Jennings household end the same way. Her, stretched out on the couch, Switch in hand, continuing her marathon examination of the 90 Day Fiancé back catalogue. Me, a few feet away on my computer, staring at an empty-handed Chrome browser, slowly circling the drain back towards Reddit. That's been one of my most surprising discoveries of quarantine; it takes so much effort to do anything novel, when all there is to do is waste time. Like the rest of us, I enjoyed that fugacious burst of survivor mania at the beginning; when we had family reunion calls every weekend, and Zoom cocktail workshops during work hours, and a global detonation of pent-up Chicago Bulls nostalgia on Sunday nights. But those diversions burnt off quickly — as much as I marvel at society's abilities to digitally replicate its beat battles, comedy showcases, and reality TV reunions, I honestly feel physically ill whenever I see a Zoom interface now. Maybe it's cabin fever, maybe we've been in self-preservation mode for too long, or maybe fixating on exactly one eldritch storyline over the course of a year has a way of confusing the contours of reality. What I do know is that it's been exceptionally hard to disengage from the existential fatigue long enough to be sucked in by anything else.
After pressing the random button on Reddit, click on "Top," and sort by "All Time." There, you will see the most popular posts ever submitted to a particular board. (So, on r/WorldNews, it's the announcement of Donald Trump's impeachment, which earned 202,000 upvotes.) But this feature is most rewarding when you find yourself in the true Reddit outback; the communities for fringe cable dramas, minor league hockey teams, and alleged hobbies, like bottle cap collecting, that I've never seen actually manifest in real life. The All Time category for those forums reveal a precious doctrine guarded closely by an impossibly small subsect of the human experience. It’s a blessing to find a wealth of like-minded others, willing to celebrate all your tics and infatuations. On r/Lavalamps, a man slowly opens the trunk of his Jeep, revealing dozens of newly purchased lanterns in every imaginable shape and color, stretching all the way to the passenger's seat. "So I made a life choice today," reads the caption. It has 73 total upvotes. On r/Volumeeating, (I don't know what that is,) someone posts a sheet pan full of pallid, crusty, Dune-style rolls. "I made cauliflower buns! They look and taste disgusting!" After some additional research, I determined that "volume eating" referred to the art of binge eating low-calorie foods, to satiate gluttonous instincts while still losing weight. That explained the second most upvoted post on the subreddit; a nutritional comparison between a McDonald's Big Mac and two metric tons of Lowe's topsoil.
By far, my favorite thing that surfaces in my random Reddit runs are the outrageously esoteric memes that always bubble to the top. Posting culture can be so annoyingly obsessed with the currency of relatability, so it's genuinely heartwarming to watch people use these ubiquitous tools, (Galaxy Brains, Jealous Girlfriends, that anime butterfly guy,) to entertain the nine other superfans capable of getting the joke. Sometimes, as an outsider, you can grasp the vaguest shape of the humor, which makes it all the more tantalizing. I do not know much about Vikings, the History Channel television show about the Norse conquest of Britannia in the 9th century, but from the shitposting on the subreddit I can glean that whoever Athelstan is, he is probably an asshole. What about Ford Mustangs? There are few things on this earth I am less informed about than muscle cars, but after sorting by All Time, I can say with confidence that whatever the Mach E is, it is definitely not a true Mustang. Sporting Kansas City? The Missouri-based Major League Soccer team? Their performance in extra time is akin to an emasculated Spongebob Squarepants. If I am ever to meet one of their fans, we will have at least one thing to talk about.
You can let the Random button cut through the institutional lethargy of the Covid era. In these long, grey days, where it can be difficult to feel passionate about any of our usual distractions, I lean on the church of nicheness. This pandemic has made us all a little more fragile — giving way to a desperate willingness to see the beauty in ordinary things — and my ability to be sentimental about the memes on the Dominion subreddit probably says more about the current gloom than the content itself. But right now, as the world remains compressed in this cycle of anguish, nothing is more reassuring than to witness how many different lives people lead; breaking bread with contemporaries, losing track of time in anything other than the grief.