Robin – Reddit’s Second Annual Large-Scale Social Experiment
Many early adopters of the Internet will remember the chat rooms of the ‘90s, small group messaging “rooms”, almost like group texts on modern smartphones. But these group messaging sites paired you with complete strangers, where people from across the world could discuss whatever they like. Chat rooms on websites like AOL rose to their peak prominence in the 1990s, but then gradually faded in popularity until their eventual demise a decade later.
Some have tried to resurrect the chat room on the modern Internet without much success; the Facebook-bought app Rooms attempted such a resurrection in 2014, but ended up being removed from the App Store a year later in October of 2015 due to a lack of popularity. Chat rooms seem to have fallen out of fashion, other platforms for Internet-wide communication rising to the top such as YouTube, Snapchat and Reddit. And yet, in an interesting moment of irony, Reddit, one of the websites that helped kill off chat rooms, brought them back for a short 8-day social experiment. Called Robin, as in round robin, the experiment was Reddit’s second attempt at leveraging their site’s large user base to learn more about people’s behavior on the Internet, the power of community, and simply how people would react to an interesting chat room mechanism.
For the uninitiated, Reddit can be fairly intimidating, a place where anyone with access to the Internet can interact and discuss any topic they please. While that may not sound all too enticing to you, the way Reddit is organized makes it much more palatable for the average person. Let’s say you’re interested in astronomy and would love to find a community of other astronomy enthusiasts. Just head over to /r/astronomy, the “subreddit” dedicated to everything to do with astronomy and astronomy news. On the astronomy subreddit, or a subreddit on any other topic, Reddit users can post links on that topic and hope they get upvoted to the front page. Every subreddit is a popular meritocracy, comprising primarily of a home page constantly updated with the newest, most popular links and/or discussions posted on that subreddit.
Robin isn’t a subreddit, or a feature on subreddits; actually, it started as just a button (not THE button, last year’s social experiment). When you clicked the button, depicting the outline of a Robin, you are brought to a page with one more button, this time saying “participate”. Upon clicking that button, you were brought into a chat room with you and one other random Reddit user. You and that Reddit user could chat for 1 minute about whatever you would like, and then you would have to vote on one of three options in the top right-hand corner of the page: stay, grow, or abandon.
Think of Robin as creating a village. If the majority of you and your randomly-assigned village-mates vote grow, then your “village” is merged with one of the same size. If the majority chooses stay, you build a wall around your village and plan to stay there for “life,” meaning you get a private subreddit made for that group that only the group members can join. And finally, if the majority votes abandon, the village is immediately closed and you can start again from the beginning, and if a couple of individuals vote to abandon then they alone are kicked out of the village. (in case you didn’t catch on, village means chat room in this analogy)
This would seem like a pointless voting mechanism if not for the fact that Robin in based on a chat room, a place where anyone can talk to anyone else in the world. Every time your group grows, the time you get to talk to your fellow “village-mates”, from 1 minute with 2 people, 3 with 4 people, 7 with 8 people, 15 with 16 people, and 30 with any higher number of participants. This means that, despite what you may think of people on the Internet, you can actually have interesting conversations. In my experience, as I spent a fair amount of time playing Robin when it was still running from April 1st to April 8th, the conversations you have change topic very fast and yet are still very entertaining and fun.
On top of that, the very mechanism of growing, staying, or abandoning sparks conversation, users campaigning for different votes. In one of my chats, I was part of an “ABANDON2016” campaign, as an overwhelming number of memes had flooded our chat. We were successful, to the dismay of the meme makers. In fact, for the people who vote stay, it’s not actually because they want a private subreddit with a bunch of random people who share most likely no interests; it gets boring after a day.
The conversations you have getting people to stay is the fun part, the part that makes it all worth it. The reason Robin was more than just a chat room was because it gave every single member of the chat a sense of attachment, to the people in the chat, and to the chat itself. Because it takes 30 minutes to get to the voting point of a 16 person chat, you have spent quite a while on any certain chat. Also, because of the way the chats merge, everyone feels like they had a part in starting what would later become a forum for global communication. In only a couple chats, I talked to people, usually men in their 20s, from places such as Turkey, the Netherlands, England, Israel, and more. This is the reception I got when I announced I had to leave a chat room, after participating in the election for 15-20 minutes prior:
(my username is aaron21morgan, and the bottom half of the running chat is mostly my fellow chat-mates’ response to my parting announcement)
In the end, after about a week up and running, Robin shut down just as The Button did a year ago. The largest chat ended up having 5,000+ people, and was apparently so big that the Reddit servers were having trouble just keeping it afloat. Now that the fun is over, we can look back on Robin as an interesting experiment and an entertaining game. We don’t often think about the fact that the Internet really does connect everyone in the world, and just the act of talking to a handful of them in a chat room can make that connection feel all the more real. Robin may have been a stupid Internet chat room to outsiders, but to those participated it helped humanize the average Internet commenter we encounter on an everyday basis. It may just be me, but having a simple conversation with someone thousands of miles away, even just for a couple of minutes, brings back the sense of wonder about the capabilities of the Information Age from back when the Internet was first being brought into mainstream culture.