Facilitating Musical Discussions on Reddit: An Interdisciplinary Conversation - Nathaniel Mitchell, Sarah A. Gilbert, Timothy Byron, and Justice Srisuk
Episode 910th March 2022 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:56:17

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In this week’s episode, Nathaniel Mitchell (u/nmitchell076), Sarah A. Gilbert (u/SarahAGilbert), Timothy Byron (u/hillsonghoods), and Justice Srisuk (u/JustinJSrisuk) have an interdisciplinary conversation about facilitating musical discussion on Reddit.

This episode was produced by Jennifer Beavers and David Thurmaier.

SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. "Night Thoughts" by Aaron Copland was performed by Han Chen. Interludes this week featured original compositions by Michael Hudson Casinova, Reverend Feedback, David Jason Snow, and AJ Harbison. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season01/.

Transcripts

SMT:

[SMT-Pod theme playing]

William:

Welcome to SMT-Pod, the premiere audio publication for the Society for Music Theory. In this week’s episode, Nathaniel Mitchell, Sarah A. Gilbert, Timothy Byron, and Justice Srisuk have an interdisciplinary conversation about facilitating musical discussion on Reddit

Nathaniel:

Hello and welcome to another episode of SMT-Pod. My name is Nate Mitchell, a moderator of the r/musictheory community on Reddit.com and the coauthor of a chapter on this community recently published in the Oxford Handbook of Public Music Theory. I’m joined today by three moderators of other Reddit communities. And together, we’re going to have a chat about what makes and breaks musical conversations on this platform. We are going to talk about what our communities are like, the kinds of productive conversations that can happen on them, as well as the moderation policies that are needed to keep them productive. So why don’t we all introduce ourselves? Tell us who you are. What Reddit community you moderate, as well as your day job.

Timothy:

Hi, my name is Dr. Tim Byron, and I’m a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Wollongong and a moderator on r/AskHistorians, which is a community on Reddit which is focused on questions being asked of historians and historians answering them. On r/AskHistorians. I’m not only a moderator in terms of someone who gets the opportunity to remove posts and comments when they don’t fit our rules, but I’m also a what’s called a “flair” on the subreddit, and I answer questions about pop music in the 20th century. In my research as an academic, I’m a music psychologist, so I study music cognition in particular: the way that sort of the mind pulls apart and puts back information when we listen to music. And in particular, I’m very interested in how music cognition interacts with pop music, and so I look at things like hooks and earworms.

Sarah:

and I’m Sarah Gilbert. I am also a moderator of r/AskHistorians. My day job: I am a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University, where I study online community moderation. So I look into things like what moderators do and why, how the platform affects moderation work and how we might develop better tools to support moderation labor.

Justice:

My name is Justice. I am currently an undergraduate student at Maricopa Community College. I’m also an entrepreneur and I’m a moderator for r/popheads, a music subreddit with over 800,000 users that discusses pop music and popular culture.

Nathaniel:

So this episode is conceived as a companion to the Handbook chapter on the r/musictheory subreddit, which I wrote along with fellow r/musictheory moderator Megan Lavengood. And our goal today is just to have an interdisciplinary discussion about the various ways that musical conversations unfold on Reddit. We will make some prepared interview style questions with more free form conversation with the aim of communicating both the exciting conversations that are possible on Reddit, as well as some of its limitations and dangers. And start us off: Sarah, you’ve written extensively on Reddit in your research, as you said before. So could you explain briefly what Reddit is and what makes it unique as a platform?

Sarah:

Yeah, absolutely, Nate, thanks! So Reddit is a content sharing platform that describes itself as “the front page of the internet.” It’s a popular site typically ranked in the top ten websites in the United States. Unlike other social media platforms where you follow or friend people, Reddit was organized around interest based communities known as “subreddits.” Subreddits are created and run by users known as moderators, and content like photos, or videos, or text is submitted to subreddits by any user with an account. The bread and butter of Reddit is its voting system. If you have an account, you can upvote content and comments that you like and downvote things that you don’t like. Content that a lot of people upvote rises to the top of people’s home pages and the main page of Reddit (which is colloquially known as r/all), while content that a lot of people downvote is obfuscated view. So users are very much in control of what gets submitted and what gets seen on Reddit. And so while participation is pseudonymous in that people choose their own usernames, which is very rarely their real name, active participation on Reddit is typically, although not always, from users who tend to be young, white, male and American. This means that they tend to submit and vote on things that generally appeal to people who are young, white, male and American. And one last little bit about Reddit: like many internet communities, Reddit was founded on this kind of ideal of freedom of speech, at least in the sense of freedom of speech means speech without consequences, including downvotes. This means that for many years, even though moderators have created and do create communities and develop rules for those communities, there’s this unspoken expectation that moderators shouldn’t actually really be removing content. Rather, the users through their upvoting should be the ones that decide what gets promoted and what gets hidden on the site.

Nathaniel:

Thank you, Sarah. So now, Tim and Justice: could you maybe tell us a bit about the separate as you moderate? And maybe you could, in the process, also tell us one way that your subreddit is unique when it comes to musical or music-theoretical discussions.

Timothy:

So r/AskHistorians aims to provide serious academic level answers to questions about history. So right now on r/AskHistorians, the most upvoted question is “Coffee was first cultivated in Ethiopia, first brewed as a drink in Yemen, and was first introduced to Europe by the Turks. How then did ‘Java’, an Indonesian island, become the source of a popular name for the drink while no other place had that happen?” And so this kind of gives a sense of in a way, what r/AskHistorians is about: it’s people asking questions of historians and hopefully getting answers that are grounded in the academic study of history. And in terms of music, one of the things that happened in history was music, and that music is something that people are very curious about over the course of history. And we get, you know, regular questions on various parts of music, including questions on pop music, which I sometimes answer. As a subreddit, we currently have quite a lot of subscribers. The number at the moment is very close to 1.4 million readers. And so these are people who press the button to say, subscribe, I want to see this in my feed on Reddit, you know, when I next look at my home page on Reddit. Basically, for that 1.4 million subscribers, we’ve got about 40 mods who moderated the subreddit and make sure to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Justice:

So r/popheads is a music subreddit focused on popular music and culture. We currently have over half a million subscribers and boast a highly vibrant and diverse viewer base, all of which are united by a passion for music. r/popheads this community predominantly centered around music discussion, and while the word “pop” is in the sub’s name, we prefer to go for a definition of pop music that is as varied as our user base. Disparate genres ranging from bubblegum pop, R&B, hip hop, alternative rock and indie pop, electronic music, to global music subcultures such as K-pop, J-pop, K-pop, Spanish-language music, and more are melded together under the banner of r/popheads. Beside music discussion, the sub has also developed impressive multimedia managed by dedicated social media team that creates “Ask Me Anything” threads with chart topping artists, podcasts, charity events, games, and other activities that brings the community together.

Nathaniel:

As for the r/musictheory subreddit, it’s a community of roughly 400,000 members that serves both as a hub for enthusiasts to discuss music theory and music analysis, as well as a place for people to come and learn theory in a question and answer format: so asking questions, practicing their knowledge by answering those questions, soliciting feedback on analyses, etc. It’s sort of a Quora or Yahoo Answers but specifically for music theory and in our chapter on the subreddit, Megan and I focus a lot on the advantages of music theoretical learning in this space. What makes the subreddit unique is mostly that it is low stakes: like it’s pseudonymous, it’s free from academic pressure, it’s relatively democratic and it’s strictly moderated to suppress trolls. So we aren’t so much an alternative to textbooks, video, or classroom lectures and so on. But we are a place where people generally feel pretty comfortable exposing what they don’t understand. It’s a place for gaps in knowledge can be filled in.

Nathaniel:

So here we are, four moderators of three different communities, each of which has its own niche, aims, user base and relationship with music and music theory. And I think that’s going to be a theme we come back to a lot—these aren’t just neutral platforms, but they’re real communities with norms, interpersonal bonds, and values. These communities can serve an educational need, but they can also be places where people find a home, where they find support and friendship. And of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but I do think that a lot of good and education can come out of these communities, provided that some of the thornier impulses of Reddit are kept in check.

Music:

[bumper music by AJ Harbison]

Sarah:

Thanks for that great introduction, Nate. I think it be really interesting to share a bit more detail what the moderation policies are that shaped each of our communities. So for example, what are the goals that each of us have in forming these communities?

Nathaniel:

So as I mentioned, I think r/musictheory is a really kind of a learned by doing sort of subreddit, where the goal is to encourage people to feel comfortable exposing gaps in their knowledge and to feel comfortable trying to answer things, right? Even if they’re just throwing ideas out there. So really, I think our two basic policies that sort of define that niche are, one, that only text posts are allowed and, two, that we don’t allow memes in the subreddit. And that defines our subreddit as a place for earnest Q&A discussion and learning about the materials of music. But our other rules are really basically there to ensure that our discussion is productive. But I’d say that those are really the essential ones defining this as an educational and discussion-based community.

Timothy:

So r/AskHistorians as a subreddit is, like r/musictheory, it’s a subreddit based around question and answers. We have a quite a detailed set of rules about what kind of questions can get asked and what kind of answers that we would accept on the subreddit and not remove. And so with the questions that get asked, we want questions that are focused on a time and place that could be answered within a reasonably short amount of words. And we hope to get answers that are, within that reasonably short space and time, still in-depth and comprehensive, and which is based on the most recent historiographical knowledge. The other thing about r/AskHistorians that we put a lot of emphasis on is what we call civility. And so it says in our rules that “All users are expected to behave with courtesy and politeness at all times. We will not tolerate racism, sexism, or any other forms of bigotry. This includes Holocaust denialism. Nor will we accept personal insults of any kind, and do not allow minor nitpicking of grammar or spelling.”

Nathaniel:

Thank you, Tim, for that overview. I think I would just like to highlight here that r/AskHistorians is sort of infamous in some ways for having some of the most strict moderation policies on Reddit, which comes from, as you say, these high standards for answers. Which distinguishes it from r/musictheory, where we want our users to throw out possible answers as a way to practice their learning. Whereas you have to deal with things like Holocaust denialism and that shapes really your moderation policies, wouldn’t you say?

Timothy:

Yeah, absolutely, with something like Holocaust denialism, we don’t want people to be posting if they’re if they’re still shaking that learning, because when they get things wrong, they can get things very wrong. And it can be quite embarrassing to the level of possibly being illegal in some countries. But yeah, we are very famous on the rest of Reddit for basically having lots of threads where everything is deleted because, you know, from our perspective, nothing came up to standard. And our standards that high in the context of academic stuff, but we want more than a couple of sentences, which is most of what the removed comments actually are.

Justice:

So the main governing principle of r/popheads is the idea of a safe space. Unlike much of the rest Reddit, our community is predominantly young, female, queer, or people of color. So we would like to promote a safe space for people to be able to express themselves and not fear, retaliation, judgment, bigotry of any kind. So, like with r/AskHistorians, on r/popheads, civility is a paramount rule.

Sarah:

So this is really interesting, it sounds like there are a lot of similarities, particularly when it comes to rules around civility on each of our subreddits. We all want to make users feel welcome, we want them to be comfortable, we want to keep them free from exposure to bigoted or offensive content. But there’s also some key differences in terms of how we how we are sharing the content, the kinds of content that can be shared and the goals and how and how each of us are going about that. And I guess I’m just wondering now how did that sort of come to be, what sort of the origin story of each of our individual subreddits?

Justice:

So r/popheads began in 2015 when a user of the independent music sub r/indieheads by the name of u/kappyko had attempted to post a thread on the then recently released, but critical and cult hit album E•MO•TION by pop artist Carly Rae Jepsen. The post was immediately removed by the r/indieheads mods who felt that the album was too pop for r/indieheads. So said user took the initiative to establish r/popheads as a community for r/indiehead users with a taste for pop music. r/popheads would be a sub that was much more open to different genres than its predecessor sub r/indieheads, a sub that itself broke off from r/HipHopHeads. That this schism between r/popheads and r/indieheads occurred in 2015 and revolved around Carly Rae Jepsen’s album E•MO•TION is interesting, as both 2015 and E•MO•TION were flash points in the concept of poptimism, a movement that began in the early 2010s, in which there was an attempt by music critics and commentators to give pop music the same level of consideration, care and in-depth analysis as the genres that had long dominated music criticism; say, rock, alternative, jazz, and classical. This critical reappraisal of pop music made more people pay attention to pop music outside of the genre’s traditional foundations, namely women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. But what I find interesting, though, is that the original user who established r/popheads was very young. They were, I believe, in their early teens, and their point of view allowed r/popheads to have a very distinct feel, a very distinct environment to grow because, as such, our user base tended to be considerably younger and more diverse than other subs.

Sarah:

So r/AskHistorians was founded in 2011 by a user by the name of u/Artrw. One of the community’s first moderators, u/agentdcf, wrote about the history of the subreddit on the subreddit, highlighting that when it first started, r/AskHistorians was run quite a bit differently than it is now. In its early days, it was really more about open kinds of discussion. The questions and the answers were supposed to be sort of in depth, but there weren’t really any rules defining what depth was or what even really constituted an historian. And then so over time, what ended up happening is this phenomenon that happens on the internet, which is known as Eternal September. And so that comes out of the old days in Usenet, which was primarily used by university students. And so every September, there would be this new wave of students coming into the community onto the platform, and they didn’t really understand the norms of operation or how or how things worked on the platform. And so there was a sense of disruption every September on Usenet. And so something similar happened on r/AskHistorians. Those in-depth conversations that people were having naturally ended up attracting lots of people from all across Reddit, and they weren’t really abiding by those norms. And so a couple of mods of the early days u/eternalkerri and u/agentdcf were really integral in making the subreddit sort of what it is now. The very first rule that they put in place was that rule on civility. And then they started building up more rules to ensure that the discussions that were happening on r/AskHistorians were really framed by these academic processes. And so that’s how that’s how we kind of came to be who we are today.

Nathaniel:

Yeah, I think r/musictheory follows a very similar pathway in a lot of respects. Our community is, in fact, I think of the three, the oldest. Ours was started in the year 2009 by a user who has sense deleted their account, but their name was u/fadec, but who, as far as we can tell, is not connected in any way to the musical academy, though we don’t know what their age was. And it was run by a largely nonacademic mod crew until the year 2012. And sort of like r/AskHistorians, at that point in time, we had this rapid expansion from, I believe, about 7000 subscribers to roughly 20,000. And there were a lot of growing pains, right? There was an increasing divide between a sort of crop of academic users who really wanted to use the subreddit as a hub for in-depth discussion—say, about the new things they were learning in grad school or in advanced undergrad classrooms—and then there was this also this nonacademic user base that was just looking for, you know, what scales do I play over these chords, right? And there was this growing divide between those communities. And so at this time, the nonacademic mods brought on three then-graduate students, including my coauthor Megan, to develop subreddit resources like the FAQ and other things to really help solve this how do we encourage in-depth discussion to happen? And since that time, academic theorists have largely been in total control to separate it. I came on in my first year of graduate study around 2013, and subsequent mods that we invited on were also largely grad students. And that’s a process that we’ve been trying to disengage in recent years as we realize that since we serve a kind of public community, that it’s not the best idea to just have academic moderators in charge of things. But also, even though academic minds have been in charge of things and so in some ways sort of won the battle between academic and public users in that sense, in other senses, it’s largely not been a place that’s really encouraged this kind of in-depth sort of graduate level discussion of music theory. It’s sort of remained a place that’s been wholly devoted to this kind of learning the basics. That’s where I think our community really excels and it’s really struggled to kind of houses more in-depth discussions.

Sarah:

So we’ve been talking a lot about the role of the rules that we have developed and also how moderators kind of enforce those rules. I’m also wondering perhaps if there are any norms that have evolved in each of our communities. So what kinds of things tend to get upvoted more or downvoted more? Or how do people kind of tend to respond to different topics? What makes somebody sort of an insider or an outsider on the community?

Timothy:

So in terms of r/AskHistorians as moderators you can control, you can shape the community in certain ways. But one thing you certainly can’t shape is what other people upvote. With 1.4 million users from across Reddit, mostly who are, according to the census that we took, American, white, male and heterosexual , etc. And so the things that get uploaded do often come from that kind of perspective. In terms of the music questions that are asked about pop music history, I think I’ve answered more questions, I think I’ve seen more questions about the Beatles on the subreddit than I’ve seen about women. Just full stop. I think that there’s just been more questions about one particular band—you know, admittedly a very popular and and seen as widely influential on pop music—but there’s been more questions about that one band than there has been about women. And so, yeah, those kind of things do play a role in what ends up being seen on the subreddit, what ends up being upvoted, what ends up being then answered as well. Because the more the people actually see something, the more likelihood that the right person will see it who can answer just that one question because they read this book and they read this other book, and they’ve got just enough of a background to be able to make a really nice answer to something.

Nathaniel:

So in our subreddit description, we take a very explicitly open approach to defining what music theory is. To quote the subreddit description directly, we define the subreddit as “A subreddit for people who care about composition, cognition, harmony, scales, counterpoint, melody, logic, math, structure, notation, and also the overall history and appreciation of music.” So intentionally, moderators have had a very open idea of what counts as music theory: history counts as music theory, production counts as music theory, etc. We do not remove any posts about that from the subreddit. And yet our user base very much does not consider those to be within the purview of music theory, and they often downvote those questions. They enter into them and comment and say, no, this would be better for with the question about music sociology, about r/LetsTalkMusic or if it’s a question about music production, they would say this belongs on r/WeAreTheMusicMakers or something. So our user base does police the boundaries of music theory with their voting patterns and comments. And this is really interesting to me because in many ways it’s recreating the disciplinary divisions that are rampant in the academy, that many in the academy are trying to get rid of, right? They’re trying to collapse this boundary between theory and culture and production, right? But outside of the academy, this is something that the public, in their conception of music theory, is creating sort of on their own. So I think it’s a really interesting problem here of how does one not just combat the divisions that are present in the academy, but that are also created outside of it as well?

Justice:

When it comes to what is upvoted or not upvoted on r/popheads, it’s really quite interesting because it almost is a bizarro world reflection of popular music in mainstream culture. Generally, the orders that are uploaded on potheads are generally female, of color, or queer. So let’s say an artist like Rina Sawayama, an underground electronic music artist from the United Kingdom of Japanese origin, will get several thousand upvotes, whereas someone like Ed Sheeran, who is massively popular in mainstream pop music, will only scarcely get two or three hundred. As our user base is so young, and so female, and so queer, the concept of social relationships plays a very heavy role in how the average r/popheads user interacts with the music that they enjoy. Unlike, say, the users of r/indieheads or r/HipHopHeads, the average userbase of r/popheads will often take on their fandom as part of their identity. So an Ariana Grande fan is not just a pop music fan: they are an Ariana Grande fan or “stan.” A stan is a term that’s very popular in online pop music discourse. It’s taken from an Eminem song in the early 2000s. It’s basically a fan that is obsessive to the point of extremity. So because identity plays such a big role in how r/popheads users or the average pop fan relates to the music they enjoy, things get very personal. So let’s say if someone says something about an album that another user really enjoys, it can descend into chaos or trolling quite quickly.

Music:

[bumper music by David Jason Snow]

Nathaniel:

Yeah, so I think that that actually does make a kind of nice transition because that gets into these sort of hot button issues that set off our subreddits, which I would like to have a conversation about now. So in the academic world of music theory, as I’m sure many of our listeners know, there’s been a pretty worrying polemic brewing in the wake of a landmark anti-racist critique of the field levied by Philip Ewell in 2019. That critique diagnosed the white racial frame that shapes the values, aims, methods and repertoire of music theory. And unfortunately, to probably no one’s surprise, once this critique was digested through think pieces, YouTube videos, and blogs, there came this fury of trolly right-wing backlash clamoring about cancel culture, wokeness, and so on. My coauthor Megan and I talk a lot about how the r/musictheory subreddit has responded to this, so I’m going to defer to our chapter for anyone interested in hearing more about that. But for this conversation, I’d like us to take a wider view and think about analogous polemics in history and music fandom, how those polemics play out on your subreddits and what steps you take as moderators to clamp down on trolls and encourage good faith debate. So Sarah and Tim, maybe be best to start with you and how you deal with things like the New York Times’s “1619 Project”, Holocaust denialism, and so on.

Sarah:

So the main kind of approach to dealing with this type of content on r/AskHistorians is flat out to remove it. This is largely informed by our approach to things like genocide denial and particularly Holocaust denial, where bad actors will spread disinformation rooted in historical inaccuracies as an attempt to spread this kind of denialism. We call it, “JAQing off,” which is sort of slang, it’s an acronym for “just asking questions.” And so we remove questions like that and any kind of Holocaust denial, in part because it does end up amplifying it, but also because there is a sense that, and we know from from experience that Holocaust deniers or bad actors or that kind of thing, they’re not necessarily going to change their mind when they are faced with new information. Because it’s not about a lack of information, it’s really about the values that people have, the beliefs they hold, and what leads them to accept some information over others. And so a lot of the time, there’s not going to be much point in having this kind of information out there.

Timothy:

For questions where people are asking that kind of thing in that particular topic area, we have a prefabricated macro that, you know, that sort of deals with most of the key parts of Holocaust denialism and explains and provides links to further info about why that’s all very, very wrong, and we have similar macros for denial of indigenous genocide in America. With the 1619 project and the various kind of bits of critical race theory dialog that are going around the internet at the moment, which definitely right-wing misinformation is a big part of all of that. To be honest, we haven’t seen a heap of bad actors focused on that. We do get a bunch of questions about that, and there’s a bunch of misinformation that goes around. And so as we’ve dealt with it or not on our subreddit, we’re lucky to have another moderator who’s whose focus is the history of education. Since then, they’ve done great jobs in terms of putting together answers so they can, you know, sort of prefabrication when other people ask questions about it and so on.

Sarah:

Yeah, and sort of building on this and connecting it to these kind of like early internet foundations. Really when the internet first sort of got its start, there was a sense that everybody on the internet was going to get together, they were going to talk about stuff, they were going to learn from each other. It was going to be the sort of global village utopia where we were all going to come together and learn and discuss and be open. r/AskHistorians works a little bit differently than that, especially when it comes to dealing with things like mis- and disinformation, where instead of this, you know, the sense that the light will disinfect? Well, we know from experience that that’s not really the case. And so while we do have these markers in case people are sort of asking in good faith, they really are genuinely curious about it. In large part, we’ve learned that, you know, having this out there is not necessarily going to result in somebody who is a bad actor actually coming in and changing their mind, that’s just not how they get into disinformation in the first place. It’s not about simply of like an exposure to these ideas, at least not once. It’s sort of over and over and over again and sort of slowly coming to accept them. And so similarly, the process of kind of getting out of that viewpoint is really slow, too. And so there is this real balance that r/AskHistorians has to have between making sure that the information gets out there without inadvertently spreading and amplifying disinformation rooted in hate and bigotry.

Nathaniel:

So I’m wondering how you, Justice, in your response to certain hot button topics, navigate this issue. How do you pinpoint who is a bad faith actor and who might be operating from a standpoint of ignorance that might require rectification through education?

Justice:

Thankfully, the general discussion topics on r/popheads is not as fraught, but we do get our share of hot button issues. There’s been lots of flashpoint conflicts between different fan groups. Thankfully, though, r/popheads, because we have such a distinctive culture, it becomes very clear when someone is a bad actor because the way they speak is just so out of place. Generally, it’s slang vernacular that is very common in online spaces that traditionally originated in queer and black subculture. So terms like stan, bop, flop slap, all these words are words that are very common in pop music discourse that someone who isn’t as well versed in it would not use and would make them and stand out more.

Nathaniel:

It’s another way that these community norms kind of not only create a sense of belonging within the community, but also become the basis for your policing work as moderators, right? You learn to recognize certain markers of your community, and that helps you navigate how to deal with those and distinguish those bad actors.

Timothy:

I really remember when I first became a mod, which is about four years ago one situation where there was a question that seemed to me to be relatively reasonable. And I remember it seemed it seemed pretty reasonable, and I was like, “Oh, should we really ban them for that one? It doesn’t seem that bad.” And then I looked at the moderate mod mail we got afterwards from that user, which was just full of all this, all these slurs and all this garbage alt-right, neo-Nazi kind of stuff. And I was like, “oh, I was really naïve!”

Justice:

on r/popheads. The codewords that we look for are often quite innocuous seeming. So one of them is “pure pop.” Pure pop in this context usually is used by a certain subset of pop music fans to refer to exclusively white female pop music, and it was used as a counterpoint to say hip hop. So in a comment you might see: I am so tired of this song, this rap song that is number one in the country. I like to see pure pop instead. And that usually tells us that perhaps the user might have bigoted or racist views. In response to this, in fact, the r/popheads moderators have recently instituted a Black users committee in order to help the moderator team be more aware of potential microaggressions in order to root them out.

Timothy:

I was just thinking about what we what we just been talking about and one of the things I think that is useful about being a moderator or subreddit and dealing with bad actors and things like that, is that it’s an education in itself that these people are absolutely out there and they, you know, we have to deal with them at some level.

Sarah:

There’s also a really, really wonderful satisfaction when it comes to just like getting rid of the absolute like trash on the internet. Like, you know, making sure that there is no homophobia or anti-Semitism or racism, and then like banning people for that, it’s like, “No, you can’t be here. You can’t do that. Not in our space, not on our time.” Particularly like knowing all of the bad stuff that happens because of, you know, online interactions and gets spread through online communities. Even though we’re just playing this itty-bitty little role of it when you when you think about it in the grand scheme of things, I think that we’re doing a really, really important job, particularly right now, and I’m very happy to be a part of that.

Music:

[bumper music by Michael Hudson-Casanova]

Justice:

So something that as a moderator, I have to deal with quite frequently is cancelation. An artists will say or do something to make themselves persona non grata and we have to deal with the fallout of that very quickly. So an example of this has occurred recently with Nicki Minaj. Recently, Nicki Minaj made comments that included vaccine misinformation, and immediately after there was a quite a large calling from our user base saying that she we should restrict all mention of her from the sub. Now, as a moderator, we all feel it’s a slippery slope to ban an artist for statements or actions that they have made. So generally, while obviously we would remove vaccine misinformation on the sub. Generally, we would not remove all mention of, say, Nicki Minaj from the sub for her statements. How does cancelation affect some of your guys’ subs and anything like that?

Nathaniel:

I’ve got to say that I think r/musictheory at least positions itself so far away from the personalities, or it likes to think that it’s positioned far away from personalities, right? That cancelation… people are very, very skeptical of that very idea. I think there, if there’s a cancelation impulse, it comes through saturation of an idea that people are just sick of talking about. So if, say, Jacob Collier has said something new, that’s all anybody wants to talk about for months at a time, right? People want moderators to tamp down on on that, but it’s never for any sense of morally problematic thing. It’s just people don’t want to talk about an idea. But it’s one that r/musictheory moderators have never really heeded. We sort of actively refuse to ban people from being discussed just because their ideas are really commonly discussed. That doesn’t feel within our purview as moderators.

Sarah:

Yeah, and I think r/AskHistorians is similar to that in a lot of ways. So, you know, we’re not canceling people because, even if they are problematic, there’s lots of problematic people in history. You know, it’s not something that is outright banned from the sub. We have also had calls to similarly with r/musictheory bans certain kinds of questions that have almost gotten villified. So a lot of people like to ask questions from sort of the first person perspective: like, “I am a professor in 18th century England…” like what is my what is my day to day life or what are what are my students like or what are their assignments like or something along those lines, right? And so in asking about the past, people are kind of putting themselves in these various positions and asking, what would it be like for those kinds of people? And so this is something that, you know, there’s definitely a portion of the users don’t really like. But again, that’s one that we have decided not to ban, in essence, because it provides an opportunity for people to kind of empathize with people in the past which other questions, you know, don’t necessarily do.

Nathaniel:

You raised this idea of they’re projecting themselves into the past. And I wonder to what extent your overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male identities shapes the kinds of historical perspectives that they feel empathetic enough to project themselves into. And I guess the larger question is, how does your demographics and your identities of your user base shape the kinds of questions that get asked?

Timothy:

So on r/AskHistorians. And so we had a moderator once who went by the username u/Commustar, whose area was African history and who wanted to use being a moderator to try and change the way that African history was asked about. And eventually they quit being a moderator, basically because they were frustrated at the kind of questions they get asked about African history. And they were rightly frustrated about that, because the kind of questions that do get asked about African history are so often, “what did white people think about African history?” And that was that’s really noticeable in terms of the people who people think about when they want to have empathy with historical personages, the ones that are like them often.

Sarah:

And part of this has to do with the way that we can ask questions and how we ask questions, right? Like asking questions is actually kind of hard. You know, we don’t necessarily think about it because we think that we’re coming from the state of like a lack of knowledge. But in coming from that state of a lack of knowledge, we don’t really know where to start or how to formulate these kinds of questions, right? Well, there’s a theory in library and information science called ASK, or an Anomalous State of Knowledge, where it’s really challenging to think of a query that we’re putting into Google or ask a question when we don’t know anything really about the topic to begin with. And so we see this kind of reflected on r/AskHistorians too: when you have people that are predominantly American coming from an American education system that focuses on American and European history, they don’t really have a good starting point when it comes to asking questions about Africa. And then they also have particular assumptions that go along with what kinds of values are predominantly around questions like technology and development and progress and what that means. And so we’ll get questions, you know, like: What caused the Americas to be so much more primitive when they were discovered? “Why is Africa so poor and underdeveloped in comparison to the rest of the world?” “Is it true that civilization started in Africa and all people are believed to come from Africa? And if so, then how is it that Africa stays so poor and far behind the development?” So you can see here that like there are assumptions about what development means, like what it is and what it isn’t, and they are categorizing what Africa is as not developed, which is problematic when you think of development and technology as, you know, as good, as advanced, as important.

Nathaniel:

Right. That’s such an important perspective. Sarah, thanks for offering that. I think you get a very similar thing on music theory, where people are coming from a state of often beginner knowledge, and often at least our user base is mostly made up of people who are practical musicians who want to use theory for a very practical aim. And so those combinations of perspectives, combined with the fact that they are largely American white and male, often leads to some very unproductive ways of engaging with non-white or non male or nonbinary musicians. People are often fetishized this idea of sounding like another culture, and they often want a very quick and easy way to do it, which often reduces down to some pitch information, right? Like they want to know “what scale can I use to sound Arabic?” Right? And we ask them, “Well, what Arabic music are you listening to?” And inevitably, they give us some sort of orientalist stereotype that is, you know, about Arabian Nights, but it’s written by some white male. And so they’re coming from a place where their exposure to this culture is through caricature and they what they want to know about it is also extractive because they’re interested in music theory, not as a way into thinking critically about this culture, but as a practical way to make music. And so when they’re asking about this culture, they’re asking about it from this very reductive and extractive standpoint

Justice:

On r/popheads, because the relationship between the average pop music fan and the music that they enjoy becomes part of their identity. When disagreements do happen, things can get really combative very quickly. There are often stan wars where fans of one artist and another that are competing for the top place on the Billboard chart will start to troll one another. And in relation to music theory is quite interesting because people often want to use terminology that is common in music theory, but they don’t exactly know how to. So there’s lots of translations, so shall we say, of music theory in pop heads.

Nathaniel:

I wonder if maybe you could speak to some examples of that. How exactly is the language of music theory… what is it used to do and how?

Justice:

The language of music theory is used to shore up support of one artist over another. So it’s less about analyzing music fairly or judging it by its merits, but instead it’s used as ammunition in order to shore up the artists you support and to bring down an artist that you dislike or would like to put down. So it becomes an arrow in a sling, so to speak, a stone in a sling. So that’s certainly quite different from how things are on r/musictheory. But again, that speaks to how r/popheads, you know, the persona of an artist, and it all plays into a pop music fans identity. So people take it personally when someone says something with an artist that they love, so they will retaliate by saying, “Well, your artist can’t sing. They have terrible pitch, they have no musicality.” They’ll say stuff like that in order to try to one up the artist that they’re trying to one up.

Nathaniel:

Right? That’s interesting, because it kind of, it’s almost like it’s the facts of the case, right? It’s the evidence, right? Which in some ways is a very, very important philosophical attitude that shapes our subreddit too. There’s this conception that in speaking the language of music theory, you are talking about music fact, as it were. The things that can be codified and spoken about objectively is what our user base thinks music theory is, right? And so that limits music theory because that for them, that means you can only talk about pitch and rhythm, the things that can be most readily objectified. But it also, it’s used differently on r/popheads, but it is kind of there’s this link there, I think, in the idea that by speaking the language of music theory, you are wielding music facts for some purpose, right? And I think that there’s an interesting overlap there.

Timothy:

And I think on r/AskHistorians in terms of where music theory comes up, it comes up in the in the process of answering questions about history because once you talk about the history of music. Part of that history is the history of the ways that people think about music and the history of the ways that people analyze music, the history of the ways that people go about trying to make sense of the music they. Listen to and so in terms of how this relates, sometimes you do get these misunderstandings of what the music is that sometimes you need to explain a bit of music theory in order to in order to explain what the question is. And I think, Nate, because you answer questions about, you know, about 18th century music and 17th century music sometimes on the subreddit, that there’s going to be similar kinds of things that happen. People ask questions, thinking it’s a history question, but maybe it’s a little bit also that music theory questions as well. Do you find that as well as someone who answers there?

Nathaniel:

Yeah, I feel like as I look for questions I like to answer, it’s often questions that are precisely what you’re talking about. Where they sound historical, but really, what they are is, is they’re asking what kind of music theoretical question. So they might ask something about when did genres become a thing, right? And what they’re thinking about is when did, say, the record labels create genre divisions that are reified in, say, record stores and now through recommendation algorithms and whatnot. But I like to point out that genres have always existed, and I like to turn that into a discussion about, well, what is the concept of the genre? How is it categorized? How is it put to work? And that’s a really a more theoretical question, right? So those are the kinds of questions that on r/AskHistorians I gravitate towards because either they speak to my specialty as an eighteenth century music theorist or they are a historical question that can be, I think, enriched with the perspective of music theory and turned into this broader question about what even is this musical category that we are asking about in this question.

Timothy:

And a big thing in history in a lot of ways is the idea of historiography, the idea of history as being a narrative that someone has put together. You can’t just have facts in history and you’ve got a story that’s being told by someone. And once you do that, once you realize that there is a story being told by someone, you have to ask about what are the backgrounds of the way that this story is being told. And that’s where music theory kind of stuff does come in. Because once you start getting into those kind of questions about those backgrounds of the way the things are being told in questions related to music, you do start talking… once you get into the kind of the meta questions in this kind of way, one of the meta questions is music theory.

Nathaniel:

And reciprocally, the idea that… this ties back into this notion of facts and their place within our discourses, right? Because music theory being conceptualized as a music fact is similar to the way historical facts are often in a popular sort of Reddit consciousness are sort of privileged over the telling of the story, right? And similarly, on the music theory subreddit people aren’t even aware of the idea that even talking about things like scale degrees, or major and minor, that that’s framed from a certain cultural perspective that has concepts like major and minor, that has concepts like specific scale degrees tied to specific pitch classes, and that can be categorized according to numbers and things like that, and notions of rising and falling pitches. And all these have come from a background come from a perspective, right? And people forget that. And it’s a hard question to solve of how does one peer behind that facade of “factness” to gaze at the historical and cultural narratives that are behind those concepts?

Music:

[bumper music by Reverend Feedback]

Nathaniel:

So as we wrap up here, I would just like to ask everybody to maybe give our listeners one big takeaway from this conversation. What is one thing you’d like our listeners to take away about your community or about Reddit in general from our conversation today? For r/musictheory, I would hope that that takeaway is that there is this world of music theory that kind of comes from the ground up and is sort of unconnected and unbothered by the conversations about music theory that happened in the academy. So there’s lots of room for public engagement with music theory, and there’s also a lot for people who want to reform and rethink the boundaries of music theory. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done on the ground floor in spaces like the r/musictheory subreddit in diagnosing where do these attitudes come from and how do we shape them productively in the future.

Timothy:

Yeah, I think in terms of a takeaway for people in a music theory kind of realm, thinking about r/AskHistorians is that music theory is something that does come to interact with things like history and does come to interact with the online spaces that people are in. You know, people do music theory in places like, you know… they asked what they think historical questions, but often have a music theory, background or a music theory element to them. So you get a place like r/AskHistorians that has 1.4 million users, you know? And we probably have a 10th of that online every day. Which is a lot! That’s a lot of people who are learning things about history! And there are so many possibilities in that to be able to find ways to, you know, effectively say things that are relatively complex in an online space.

Justice:

So for r/popheads, a takeaway that I would like, you know, listeners to walk away with is that diversity really matters. The only reason why r/popheads was able to develop such a unique culture is because of the diversity of its user base at the beginning. So I believe that if all communities, spaces, subjects, fields can perhaps foster more diverse bodies, then they can get access to really interesting questions and really interesting dialog that come out of just having a user base that isn’t just a homogenous group of white males.

Sarah:

And so I think mine is really that, you know, I hope people take away from this a sense of optimism and promise about, you know, what kinds of conversations that we can have online and the role that different types and different models of moderation can have. That we can have these kinds of really fruitful discussions that we can, you know, increase diversity and bring in all of these different kinds of thoughts and voices and ideas. But only if the moderation is there and only if the moderation is right and only if the moderation works with the community. And so bringing in that kind of that context, that hope that optimism. I hope that that’s something that people take away from this, is just, you know, that there is the potential for this, this better internet and that we can see that happening sort of on the ground in each of our communities and in each of our spaces.

Music:

[outro theme by David Voss, “hnna”]

Nathaniel:

So I’d like to thank my collaborators for the interesting conversation. Thanks also to my coauthor and comoderator Megan Lavengood, the active team of r/musictheory moderators—u/Xenoceratops, u/Zarlinosuke, u/ferniecanto, u/Conalfisher, and u/powersurgeee—and to the moderation team at r/AskHistorians and r/popheads as well. Lastly, I’d like to thank the editorial team at SMT-Pod and our peer reviewer Miriam Piilonen for her generous comments and help improving this episode. For SMT-Pod, one more time, I’m Nate Mitchell.

All:

I’m Tim Byron. I’m Sara Gilbert. I’m Justice Srisuk Thanks for listening.

Music:

[outro music by David Voss]

William:

Visit our website for supplemental materials related to this episode at SMT-Pod.org. And join in on the conversation by tweeting us your questions and comments at @SMT_Pod. SMT-Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. Interludes this week featured original compositions by Michael Hudson Casinova, Reverend Feedback, David Jason Snow, and AJ Harbison. Thanks for listening!

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