Wait. Don't answer that.
As an Internet idealist, I still maintain that the era of 'user generated content' and 'social networks' was a net positive for humanity. Unfortunately, the content could often be problematic and the networks could get pretty antisocial.
The rose-colored glasses of the early 21st century have long been shattered, and popular and powerful platforms ranging from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to TikTok clearly have negative impacts on real people in the real world.
But hidden within each are countless genuine communities that manage to hold together despite the tumult, improbably united around a specific cause or interest. And while the topic 'Hawaii' is broad and multifaceted, it has a natural ability to foster conversations and connections.
Only one out of my three kids have any familiarity with Reddit, so I'll take that as a sign that it is no longer the giant in the social web space that it once was.
To me, Reddit perfectly bridged the early days of web forums and message boards and the bright and shiny era of Web 2.0. While MySpace and Facebook built out full-featured social networks, other sites found strength in specialization.
Flickr was the place to share photos. (Poor Flickr missed a hundred chances to become Instagram.) Tumblr and Twitter were where you shared quick thoughts and memes (a.k.a. microblogs). And Reddit and its short-lived rival Digg were "social news aggregation" sites, where users shared links, images, and other items, upvoted or downvoted them, and discussed and debated them.
Reddit was called "the front page of the internet."
One of the major differentiating elements of Reddit today remains the central role of a downvote feature. Almost every other platform allows you to "like" something, but not "dislike" it. And Reddit not only lets you vote up or down topics, but also individual comments.
When the system works perfectly, it's incredible. The best of the best rises to the top, as well as the wittiest, funniest, or most helpful comments. Garbage gets voted into oblivion.
There are a lot of subreddits (topical message boards) devoted to funny, surprising, mostly harmless things. These are a ton of fun.
Sadly, these are not the neighborhoods in Reddit that make the news. There's the Donald Trump stuff, the AMC stock pumping stuff, the "incel" stuff. From that cross section alone, you wouldn't be wrong to think of Reddit as the cesspool of the Internet.
Reddit perseveres, however, seeing strong growth during the pandemic. It now houses 100,000 subreddits, with over 366 million posts last year alone.
So if you can ignore the ugly stuff — and not everyone can — there are lots of diamonds in the rough. And that includes r/Hawaii, "a community for discussing local kine things."
"Nobody was really paying attention, or whoever was in charge of it wasn't," said Jason Skjonsby, who had moved to Hawaii in 2007. "So I messaged the admins and then I basically just took it over."
Skjonsby, who remembers Reddit from the days before there were topical subreddits, then diligently worked to raise awareness of r/Hawaii by finding other Reddit users posting from the islands.
"Anytime there was a news story or political story or any sort of thing that was somewhat related to Hawaii, I would post a cross link and started convincing people to join the subreddit," he said. "When I took it over there were about 300 members, in that first year we got to almost 3,000, and then the next year we were up to 10,000."
Skjonsby said he was spending 10 to 15 hours per week moderating the r/Hawaii subreddit, and eventually brought on other volunteers.
"Once it got slightly popular, a lot of people were trying to promote their blog or sell people stuff, so it took a lot of moderating to clear up the extra B.S.," he recalled. "And there definitely was a big group of people that were signing up to get advice on visiting Hawaii, and we were definitely pushing things to be more local based because people got tired over time of all the tourist questions."
Not surprisingly, food is one of the most common topics of conversation.
"A big thing that was popular were the threads of, 'Where's the best place to get Mexican food? What's the best place to get Hawaiian food?' And that really drivel drove a lot of traffic."
Breaking news also plays a big role in the subreddit, and when Hawaii news makes global headlines, things in r/Hawaii get very busy.
"I think the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami was the biggest exposure we've gotten, with members talking to news reporters," Skjonsby recalled. "That day we went from having normally about 6,000 views to almost 35,000."
And Skjonsby and his fellow moderators do feel a sense of responsibility to provide a trustworthy source of information.
"There've been other tsunami warnings, and when there have been close calls with hurricanes with rainstorms, we've posted a front page link," he said. "Right now we're maintaining a COVID thing."
Two weeks ago, r/Hawaii surpassed 100,000 subscribers. Its broad mix of discussions now draws over a million pageviews a month.
"Hawaii was definitely behind most of the mainland states in getting on Reddit, so 100,000 is really important to acknowledge and go, 'Hey, people are interested in what we have to say,'" Skjonsby said. "But there are some people that sign up and then completely forget about it, so the real truth is that out of that 100,000, there's probably only five or ten thousand regularly active people.
"Those are the people we really are trying to do the site for, anyway," he added. "The people that care, the people that start the discussions and want to be a part of it."
Skjonsby left Hawaii for Portland, but continues to be a part of the r/Hawaii moderation team. And since his dad and grandmother were born in Hawaii, he loves retaining his connection to the islands through Reddit.
"I like the news stories, hearing what's happening people's lives," he said. "We had one thread where somebody was looking for a lost uncle from years ago and was learning their own personal history, and I like it when people like me are seeking out their roots."
Fellow moderator Patrick Karjala saw r/Hawaii grow from 5,000 members, when he joined in August 2010.
"Jason was the OG mod, then brought us on to help out," he said.
"I was mostly interested in the discussion with local folks and helping out people who had questions about Hawaii," he recalled. "I also made the shaka Snoo avatar that's featured at the top of /r/Hawaii."
Karjala noted that the community is much larger today, which makes it harder to maintain the kind of relationships you can find in smaller groups.
"We used to have a core group of regulars, many who had met in person during one of the numerous Reddit Global Meetup days, who have since gone their separate ways," he said. "These days we have a huge variety of voices and people."
"Given the topic-driven nature of Reddit, I got to see and understand what people in the state cared about and what they thought about it, and I also appreciated the culture of respectful debate on the sub in particular," he said. "It was a way to continue my acculturation in Hawaii."
Steve Smith (not his real name) also credits r/Hawaii with a deeper understanding of his island home.
"I love the interactions with the broad spectrum of Hawaii residents and off island folks that have affection for Hawaii," he tells me. "I have learned so much and have had my perspective broadened by these interactions."
And while moderators catch a fair amount of flak from people who disagree with their policies, they take it all in stride.
"I’m glad that the mod team managed to keep the space centered around the local community all these years, and I hope to help keep it as a venue for quality discussion and insight about the state," White said.
"There is a cooperative effort with the other mods that is very healthy and lacking of toxic ego," Smith added. "Being a mod for r/hawaii is a rare privilege and I appreciate it...