Eunice Chan, August 16, 2019
In his seminal book, Mythologies, Roland Barthes explores the concept of modern myths— that is, socially constructed ideas that are taken as fact within a community. He wrote, “everything, in everyday life, is dependent on the representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world” (139). He examines the second-order semiological systems of words, and how they contribute to myth-making.
Barthes revealed the many ways which communities create and reinforce myths. Focusing on these ideas, I will examine the subreddit r/AmItheAsshole. I will look at how the subreddit uses institution and words to fabricate and reinforce the myths of oppositions between concepts. In particular, I will look at the opposition between right and asshole, and the opposition between situational and personal.
r/AmItheAsshole is a community on Reddit that is self-described as “place to finally find out if […] you’re right, or you’re the asshole” (see figure 1).
To that end, the subreddit has structures in place that the community follow to come to a decision about the situation. First, OP (original poster) writes up the situation, giving, “both sides of the story” (see figure 1). Then, OP posts it with a title asking AITA (Am I The Asshole) or, if the situation has yet to happen, but OP is contemplating taking a certain action, the title will ask WIBTA (Will I Be The Asshole) (see figure 1). In response, for eighteen hours, the community of the subreddit will respond to the post with one of five judgements: YTA (You’re The Asshole), NTA (Not The Asshole), ESH (Everyone Sucks Here), NAH (No Assholes Here), or INFO (Not Enough Info).
Figure 1. The description of the subreddit r/AmItheAsshole as of August 14, 2019. Text highlighted for emphasis.
Then, they upvote any comment that gives, according to the voting rules of the subreddit, “the correct judgement of the situation.” When the eighteen hours are up, a flair, a sort of tag, will be assigned to the post based on the judgement of the top comment on the post at the time of assignment. The top comment is the comment with the greatest number of upvotes, which means that the judgement is derived from a representative democracy, as users’ judgements are represented by the comments in the forums, and they must upvote whatever answer matches their judgement.
The Dichotomy of Right Versus Asshole
Already, the structure of the subreddit itself creates various mythologies of artificial dichotomies. It creates a dichotomy between “right” and “asshole,” equating being NTA with being “right” and YTA with being “wrong.” The words the subreddit chooses to use reinforce the binary such as“both sides of the story,” “right,” and “wrong” implies that there are only two sides, the wrong, asshole side, and its negation. This is reflected by the range of official judgements considered. They are essentially limited to (A) there is an asshole in the situation versus (B) there are no assholes in the situation.
The subreddit leaves no room for nuance, and assigns only one flair to the post. This reinforces the mythology that the only judgements to be made are the four variations of the asshole versus not-asshole judgements (hereafter referred to as TA (The Asshole) and NTA binary). The structure of the subreddit also creates a myth that there exists a correct moral answer, which is then tied to the answer arrived through a representative democracy.
Through the institutions in place, the subreddit creates a myth that there exists an objective, correct decision at which OP could arrive. By creating various rules reinforced in all the posts on the subreddit, the subreddits creates a way to judge situations that is standardized and repeatable, echoing the principles of the scientific method. However, morality is not binary, and the fact we have so many moral philosophers reflect the notion that there is not just one true, “natural” moral code, as the subreddit suggests. By examining the dichotomy of TA and NTA constructed in the subreddit, and how this duality influences the language used, the relationship among the myths of this community will be made apparent.
Interpretations of the Dichotomy
The subreddit reinforces two binaries: the binary of right and wrong, and the binary of TA and NTA. By conflating the two, the subreddit brings about two ways to view the concept of “the asshole” which is reflected in the language used by OPs and commenters.
Being right is situational. One can be right about one thing, but wrong about something else. On the other hand, “asshole” is a description of a person, and is presented as a personal trait. By setting up the two as opposites, the subreddit gives rise to two interpretations of TA which are: (1) in this situation, the actions taken are considered TA and (2) this situation reflects innate characteristics that determine whether OP is TA or not.
In other words, there’s a split in how being TA is viewed: either as a result of the situation, or as a result of the person. These two different interpretations of TA are made apparent in the posts and their comments.
Edits and the Situational Asshole
OPs tend to take on the view of assholery being situational which is reflected by the kinds of edits they make. When exploring the metadata, I noticed a difference between the patterns of edits in the two groups. Moderation from the subreddit moderators is roughly the same for TA and NTA posts: 0.154% of TA posts are removed by moderators while 0.119% of NTA posts are removed by moderators. A greater difference is shown in the self-moderation with 28.270% of TA posts being edited and 1.178% being deleted by the user while 21.114% of NTA posts being edited and 0.386% being deleted by the user. I attribute the difference in the amount of edits done by the two groups to TA’s desire to not be seen as TA. Under this assumption, by examining the kind of edits that are made to posts, I will glean some insight into what TA thinks is relevant information that would help guide them towards a better public opinion.
When OPs edit or follow up on their post, they tend to do it for one of two reasons: (1) to provide updates on the situation, which is common enough that a rule was created on the subreddit stating that posts providing updating to another post must be approved by a moderator, and (2) to provide clarification or additional context. Through distant reading, we can discern the prevalence of edits for reason (2). Among the top trigrams of the edited posts after the signal “EDIT:” the common phrases that pop up are “forgot to mention,” and phrases along the lines of “I didn’t (want/know/think/mean/etc.)” (Yang). “Forgot to mention” signifies the provision of additional situational context to the post, and “I didn’t (want/know/think/mean/etc.)” is a phrase that tends to be followed by additional emotional or personal context as it relates to the situation. Both of these phrases focus on the situation, and provide context for that single event.
These edits or follow-ups reflect a situation-focused “end justifies the means” mentality in which the “end” is the reactions of the related parties. By providing updates to a situation, they show that they consider the way the situation develops to be relevant to the morality of the words or actions that set it off. Similarly, when providing additional information about the situation to supplement the description of the situation originally in the post, it reflects the OPs perspective that it is the situation that matters, and the judgement is made solely in the context of the situation.
These edits done by the OP, as well as calls for edits via votes for INFO, reinforces the subreddit’s mythology of an objective judgement. By asking for more information about the situation, the commenters suggest that the information is valuable and essential to forming a conclusion. This implies that they are making the judgements based on the data provided, which reinforces the sense that the judgement is objective.
On the other hand, morality is not an objective concept with a single correct answer. Of all the edited posts, 22.98% of them include subjective words such as “being,” “feeling,” “want,” “think,” “wish” (Yang). The amount of edits on the subjective, introspective posts is significantly more than more outward-focused posts because it amplifies the difficulties in grappling with and coming to a “correct” judgement with something so nebulous and difficult to grasp as morality.
Paranoid Reading and the Innate Asshole
Despite the ideal of an objective examination of the facts, the commenters maintain a suspicious attitude towards OPs because they are aware that they only understand the situation through the lens that OP provides. Because of this, commenters adopt a paranoid approach to the post and look for the latent meaning. Because of this search for a greater meaning extrapolated from the manifest text, the commenters view TA not as the opposite of “right,” as the OPs had, but as an innate trait.
Figure 2. A set of charts visualizing the distribution of TA posts (posts marked with the flair YTA or ESH) and NTA posts (posts marked with the flair NTA or NAH) in the subreddit as well as their distributions among subsets of the subreddit which include certain terms.
The commenters look not at whether OP was in the right or not in the situation, but whether OP is a good person (NTA) or not (TA) overall. The approach the commenters take towards the text is to read deeper into the actions. Rather than focusing on the actions for themselves, they view the actions as symbols representing personal traits, and base their judgements around what the actions signify.
As a result of the paranoid reading of the commenters, the post is not only examined for its contents, but for problematic phrasing or word choice. I decided to look at this by comparing the distribution of TA/NTA judgements filtered by terms used in the post. One comparison I made was between the TA/NTA distributions of posts with the term “tranny” versus posts with the term “trans” (see figure 2). I chose those terms because “tranny” and “trans” both refer to the same thing without any other common alternate meanings. The major difference between the two words is that the former is more offensive than the latter.
The difference between the two is astounding. 74% of the posts with the term “trans” are judged NTA, which is slightly higher than the 71% of the subreddit distribution of NTA posts. Meanwhile, when OP uses the disrespectful term “tranny” the distribution is 50-50. This reflects the strong connection between language and the interpretation of the post. Even without looking at the situation described in the post, by examining the terminology used, one can already see that some words are more asshole-like than others.
Another interesting result I found were the terms “stupid” versus “retarded.” They both are offensive terms used to refer to people with intellectual disabilities as well as used as an informal insult. However, “retarded” is more offensive than “stupid,” and this is reflected in the TA/NTA distribution. Both the terms have a higher TA proportion than the overall subreddit’s proportion, but “retarded,” the more offensive term, has a higher proportion of TA than “stupid,” the offensive, but not as offensive term.
I looked at words with strong associations with certain groups, such as “cuck,” “beta,” “social justice warrior,” and the like, and found out that they all have higher proportion of TA judgements than the subreddit overall (see figure 3). Certain words have certain connotations that imply certain intentions. In a way, the proportion of TA judgements filtered by term reflects the values of the subreddit community and reveals the cohesion of the morality of the group as a whole.
Figure 3. A set of charts visualizing the distribution of TA posts (posts marked with the flair YTA or ESH) and NTA posts (posts marked with the flair NTA or NAH) in the subreddit as well as their distributions among subsets of the subreddit which include certain terms.
Case Studies: “Trolling” versus “Reconnect”
I decided to look at the words characteristic of the two groups to help form my interpretation of the commenters’ mental model of TA. To do so, I counted the raw counts of each word (excluding punctuation), then subtracted the counts to see which words are more commonly used in one group than the other. I then removed all the words that only appeared in one group rather than the other. I did this because the NTA group contains more posts than the other, so it was likely that the words unique to a group were due mostly to the fact there were more posts which covered a greater variety of topics rather than because those words characterize the NTA group well.
Then, I looked at the extreme terms the two groups shared. The most extreme terms that were shared between the two groups were “trolling” and “reconnect,” which I found significant because they both relate to intentionality and have a human component.
There were not very many trolling posts: only nine TA posts versus a single NTA post, and many of them could not be found on the subreddit through the search function anymore. From a close reading of the available posts and the comments, I noticed that among TA posts, the OP’s “trolling” tends to be motivated by boredom. The NTA trolling post, titled, “WIBTA For trolling a bookclub?” never explicitly stated boredom as a motivation, and included additional information about the target chosen that made them appear TA (BrikChicken). This reflects the importance of intentionality in the decision of TA/NTA. This post in particular additionally reflects the effects of mythologies on the decision-making processes of the commenters.
WIBTA for trolling a bookclub?
Most commenters responded that OP was NTA, saying the other party was in the wrong. Of the comments that didn’t vote NTA, ESH was the judgement given. However, in the comments of the post, username GlumExternal, stated, “YTA. But do it anyway, sometimes being an asshole is good.” In response to GlumExternal, username King_Darkside stated, “So many times in this sub, this would be the best answer. You can agree with a course of actions and think they make a person an asshole at the same time.”
This interaction reveals the effects of the mythology of right versus asshole. Being right and being an asshole is constructed as being in opposition. The commenters all agree that the bookclub was TA. However, they ended up disagreeing about what to categorize OP as. They agreed with the OP’s course of action, which makes OP right in their eyes, but the course of action taken was asshole-ish. Because asshole is portrayed as the opposite of right, and the commenters thought OP was in the right, many people responded with NTA. Most of the people who judged OP as TA disapproved of the OP’s desired course of action, which meant they viewed both parties as TA and wrong. Only a very small minority was able to acknowledge that one could be TA as well as right.
AITA: Is this a harmless prank or am I trolling harmfully IRL?
On the other end, the interpretation of the innate asshole, reappears in the consideration of language use among posts marked TA. In response to “AITA: Is this a harmless prank or am I trolling harmfully IRL?” username robotronica commented: “[This situation] doesn’t make you an asshole. Trying to tell us this story in your own poorly chosen words kind of does.” which echos the connection discussed earlier between language used and the subreddit’s concept of assholery.
Although the commenter did not consider OP to be TA in the situation, the way OP phrased the situation reflected their assholery, which caused the negative judgement. This reflects the divide between OP & commenters’ interpretation of TA. OP posts about a specific situation to get feedback as to whether or not OP was TA in the situation. Meanwhile, the commenter judges by whether or not OP appeared to be TA as a person. This is made evident by the clarification that although OP did not seem to be TA in the situation, judging from the OP’s choice and connotation of the language OP used, OP appeared to be TA as a person.
Meanwhile, the other term, “reconnect,” illustrates the differences in the mental models of TA between OP and commenters. The divide between the “reconnect” post is very clear. All TA posts have OP being the one attempting to reconnect. All the NTA posts have OP in the opposite role. That is, someone is trying to reconnect with OP.
In the post “AITA for trying to reconnect with my mother after I was a brat to her in my teen years?” (judgement: YTA) OP treats the situation as a discrete event unrelated to himself as a person. OP’s language draws a clear and distinct line between his current self and his self “as a kid/teenager,” saying he “wasn’t the best person [he] could be.” However, he pointed out he had good intentions. Essentially, his argument was that his past self did things to sour his relationship with his mother, and now he wants to reconnect. However, his mother holds a grudge against him for his past self’s actions. He has the view that he is a situational asshole. It is the situation that makes him seem like TA even though he himself is not TA.
However, the comments hold onto the mental model of the innate asshole. Reading between the lines of his posts, the comments repeatedly pointed out the line “I also pointed out she could’ve fought harder for me” and said that it seemed very entitled. They did not draw the same distinctive line between OP’s child-self versus his current self and viewed them as the same person who fit the model of TA.
Through examining the institutions, word choice, and metadata of the r/AmItheAsshole subreddit, I was able to see what mythologies were actively fostered by the structures in place. Interestingly, the mythologies of the subreddit give rise to two interpretations of what it means to be TA: one which views being TA as a situation-reactive behavior while the other views that being TA is a personality-reactive behavior. These two views manifest and reinforce themselves in the behaviors of OPs and commenters alike. This reveals how the institutions and norms in place work to reinforce certain mythologies and value systems. I hope these findings can encourage people to think critically about the structures and norms in their societies and to be aware of the mythologies reinforced by them. From the exploration I’ve done here, I’ve noticed that the language seemed to be ranked by level of offensiveness by the distribution of TA/NTA flairs. If I were to examine this subreddit more, I would be interested in further exploring the collective values of the members of the community using the TA/NTA distribution per term as a metric to see how the institution affects and shapes the collective value system.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Hill and Wang, 2013.
BrikChicken. “WIBTA For Trolling a Bookclub.” Reddit, 1 August 2019, www.reddit.com/r/
King_Darkside.“WIBTA For Trolling a Bookclub.” Reddit, 1 August 2019, www.reddit.com/r/ AmItheAsshole/comments/ck6yvb/wibta_for_trolling_a_bookclub/.
“r/AmItheAsshole.” Reddit, www.reddit.com/r/AmItheAsshole/.
GlumExternal. “WIBTA For Trolling a Bookclub.” Reddit, 1 August 2019, www.reddit.com/r/
Robotronica. “AITA: Is This a Harmless Prank or am I Trolling Harmfully IRL?” Reddit, 2017, www.reddit.com/r/AmItheAsshole/comments/5ay39e/ aita_is_this_a_harmless_prank_or_am_i_trolling/.
Yang, Catherine. “Why and How Do People Edit: Self-Interactions in Post Edits of r/AmItheAsshole.” 16 Aug. 2019.