Mining through the 10-year history of /r/McGill

Over 10 years ago, a user stumbled into /r/McGill and wrote the first post.

“Is this working yet?” they wrote on Feb. 6, 2010.

“Most of us hang out in /r/Montreal,” /u/iorgfeflkd replied. A decade later, more than 4,500 users have made over 26,000 posts about topics ranging from which classes have lecture recordings to how to deal with stalkers on campus. To get an idea of how McGill’s students—and sometimes, staff —interact with Reddit, The McGill Tribune decided to download and analyse every single text post since 2010.

Founded in 2005 by two students from the University of Virginia, Reddit incorporates elements of both a news aggregator and a discussion forum. Users can ‘upvote’ or ‘downvote posts, which determines how prominently they are displayed on the site. Reddit is organised into smaller communities, called subreddits. These smaller communities generally have a niche focus, such as sharing cute photos or exchanging memes. Many subreddits are also dedicated to physical communities, including university campuses. A unique feature of Reddit, as opposed to Twitter or Facebook, is that it is pseudonymous, meaning that users are encouraged to post without divulging their real name. Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs) Christopher Buddle, who used Reddit extensively during his time as the Dean of Students, believes that the platform allows for students to discuss subjects amongst themselves without judgement.

“Reddit, like all social media platforms, has its benefits and drawbacks, but I have noticed over the years that there is often an effort among the subreddit community to ensure responses to student questions and topics are accurate and balanced,” Buddle said. “There are sometimes important topics covered and it can be a [...] space to fully explore the complexity and nuance of these topics. Fundamentally, it can be a source of very useful information to many in our community, but notably to our students.”

/r/McGill has earned a reputation for its seemingly frequent posts from students feeling socially isolated. We used k-means clustering, a statistical method that groups observations based on how similar they are to each other, and found that we could place posts into nine different categories. The clustering algorithm analyzed posts’ term frequency–inverse document frequency (TF–IDF) scores. TF-IDF considers the words posts use—and how common those words are in other posts—to determine which are most important to a given text’s meaning.

One of our clusters focussed on student life. Reddit’s anonymity lets users vent their frustrations more frankly, even the ones about the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). . Both Sam Haward, SSMU Vice-President Finance and Reddit user since 2016, and Bryan Buraga, SSMU President and Reddit user since 2015, said that the issues raised in negative posts frequently make their way into conversations among SSMU staff.

“There's a saying in politics: ‘If you see one letter, that generally represents, like, 10 or 100 [...] people's sentiments,’” Buraga said. “So, I really take [anti-SSMU] posts seriously. [I’ll go to] the appropriate executive, take it on myself, or [tell] somebody in one of our departments [who] can try to resolve the issue.”

However, complaints about SSMU can sometimes devolve into personal attacks, such as the anti-Indigenous comments levied at the Indigenous Affairs Commissioner Tomas Jirousek. Haward believes that the anonymity the site allows can provide certain users with an inflated sense of security.

“The pros [of anonymity are that] people are willing to make complaints a lot more readily about stuff [that SSMU] needs to hear sometimes,” Haward said. “But also, you can say some pretty nasty stuff with no repercussions. And people have done it, and people will continue to do it. It's a double-edged sword [....] Complaining about policies and procedures is one thing. Complaining about people is another. And when someone who is [...] a public figure [...] is then being discussed by people who are anonymous, [then] that can create a really toxic environment [....] That's something that [users are] just going to have to contend with, unfortunately. I don't know if there is a quick or easy fix for it.”

Buraga reiterated how anonymity on Reddit can become problematic.

“[Jirousek] had very toxic [interactions] in a way that [could] damage [someone’s] mental health,” Buraga said. “When it gets to a point where rhetoric is used that specifically targets a person's identity or relies on specific tropes that have been used to stereotype marginalized individuals or communities, that's when [anonymous users can] become a problem.”

However, both Buraga and Haward mentioned how almost all of their interactions on the subreddit have been positive.

“People on […] the McGill subreddit are generally very nice,” Haward said. “You can joke around a bit with people on the subreddit. People have a sense of humour.”

Despite the subreddit’s acquired reputation, fewer than 100 posts in our dataset contained the words ‘lonely,’ ‘loneliness,’ or ‘no friends.’ Though few in number, these posts received higher engagement, receiving more upvotes than average. According to Buraga, McGill Redditors are often quick to support their fellow users.

“There [are] multiple threads [where] a student feels lonely or is not doing well mentally, and they're just trying to reach out [so they] reach out to the subreddit,” Buraga said. “And something that really makes me proud of our community is seeing other people saying ‘Hey, you're not alone, I went through this experience as well. Here [are] some resources.’”

The McGill subreddit is managed by a team of five moderators. /u/The12thDoc, a U3 geography student who joined the mod team in Nov. 2019, finds that striking the right balance in enforcing more subjective rules is the hardest part of the job.

“When in doubt, we’ll often discuss as a team,” /u/The12thDoc wrote in a message to the Tribune. “[If] there isn't a consensus for removal, we'll err on the side of letting a post stay and allowing users [to] decide how they feel about it with their upvotes or downvotes.”

Being a moderator mostly consists of being an active member of the community; in /r/McGill’s case, one that’s rapidly growing. /u/Thermidorien, a PhD student and moderator of /r/McGill for seven years, spoke to the userbase’s growing diversity.

“Until recently, the community was more tight-knit and dominated by discussion among upper-year students who were already Reddit users,” /u/Thermidorien wrote in a message to the Tribune. “In just the past year though, our subscriber count has doubled, so there [are] now many new students who joined Reddit only to ask questions on [/r/McGill].”

The connections made on /r/McGill are not limited to the online world. Numerous casual meetups have been held over the subreddit’s 10-year history, and they can be arranged as spontaneously as with a message to the subreddit’s official group chat on Discord, a free VoIP service originally designed for gaming. Buraga has attended a few of these meet-ups.

“A lot of the people that are generally active on [r/McGill], I've actually met in real life,” Buraga said. “There's like a separate discord that's associated with the Reddit [...] that people [...] go to just chat and talk. And there's meetups and that's how I meet people through there.”

Buraga also spoke to the diversity of McGill’s Reddit users.

“There's a stereotype that on Reddit you assume that [all users are] male, white, and American,” Buraga said. “But [at these meetups, r/McGill users] are about as diverse as the university is.”

Posts from club executives and other student group leaders advertising events made up a substantial portion of another cluster. Haward estimates that nearly five per cent of McGill undergraduates are club executives; along with the usual McGill Facebook groups, /r/McGill offers a way for club execs to quickly reach a large number of students.

Posts were also scored using VADER, a sentiment analysis tool developed by C.J. Hutto and Eric Gilbert at Georgia Tech, to measure their emotional tone. While algorithms that try to determine the overall positivity or negativity of a text have been in use for at least 15 years, VADER is specifically tuned for social media posts. It classifies texts on a scale from discontent to contentment, assigning them a score from negative one to one. Since VADER’s release in 2014, it has been used to research topics such as students’ evaluations of their professors and bitcoin price fluctuations.

The average tone of submissions on /r/McGill was positive, with a mean of about 0.5 out of 1. However, scores fluctuate over the course of an academic year, with posts becoming noticeably more negative in November and December as midterm exams ramp up and the days become shorter. Buraga notices a similar pattern in student posts during those times as well.

“Fortunately, [sad posts] don't happen as often [in] certain times of the year,” Buraga said. “Generally, I find a lot of [people whom] I assume to be first-years [making these posts] in the middle of midterm periods. So hopefully they find their stride and find a group of people that support them.”

Haward noted that the common grievances McGill students face have a way of bringing members together.

“On /r/McGill, a lot of people have the same problems,” Haward said. “Be it a gripe with SSMU, which is quite frequent, [...] be it struggling in classes, be it just trying to navigate the confusing environment that is a really large university [….] That shared experience isn't common across Reddit. I think that probably is the biggest contribution to why /r/McGill is, in general, a less toxic environment than the rest of Reddit. Again, though, it's not perfect.”

Both Haward, Buraga, and the mods of /r/McGill have admitted that there have been situations where individual users have acted maliciously, such as Jirousek’s experiences with the site last semester. Therefore, the mods exercise caution in making sure their platform remains as healthy as possible. However, they are proud of the community that users have fostered, and how students generally behave themselves. Ten years after the community opened, /u/The12thDoc believes that /r/McGill is, in fact, working.

“I like that people are almost always supportive of one another despite how easy it is to be a jerk on an anonymous platform,” /u/The12thDoc wrote. “Even if they're giving a bit of tough love, our users come from a place of wanting to give each other a boost because, hey, we're all trying to graduate at the end of the day.”

And a few old posts for your enjoyment...

"The Orgy Trilogy"

> Sex Week Orgy | Let's be sex positive and actually sexually active. I propose an actual orgy. We'll get a hotel room near campus, some champagne, condoms, lube and make a night of it. PM me if interested. Let me know you sex so we can keep a balance of males and females. Safe sex only. No means no. Let's celebrate sex by having some!
> Orgy Update | Mostly guys have responded. We need at least one other girl, preferably more, and the female who has responded would like at least one bi-curious female and is not willing (rightly so) to be the only female. If no responses by Friday morning 10AM, we'll likely call it off. If there's enough interest maybe we could make it a monthly event. EDIT: If guys can bring a girl, they will get priority in the RSVP category.
> Orgy Reschedule | Death in the family and I'm leaving in the morning. Will reschedule for next month. Apologies.

Cluster 0

> Coffee appreciation club | Hey all, I want to start up a coffee appreciation-esque type club at McGill. Free barista training (depending on access to an espresso machine), roasting how-to, regular coffee cuppings and cafe outings, all that fun stuff that comes from having a caffeine habit. I need 10 people to start it up- anyone interested?
> Ask the Shag Shop Anything! | Hey, this is the Shag Shop, your on-campus safer sex & health boutique and your resource for sexual health information. We provide support and resources to help students achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Our office is located in the Student Health Services Clinic. Ask us anything about sexual health! Want to know how to have better sex? Safer sex? Or maybe you're interested in how to avoid UTIs, information on different types of lube, where to get tested for STIs or why condoms are made of latex? We'll be answering your questions throughout the next few weeks.

Cluster 1

> Does McGill offer any 'fun' courses? | Something that's not exactly linked to an undergrad degree and teaches skills rather than texts and theory, like blacksmith-ing or something. Do we have any of those?
> Is it possible to flunk out of McGill? | If so, can someone link/tell me the specifics?
> How does one start DJ at McGill? | Hello McGill! I am looking to start DJing at any McGill events. Does anyone where would be a good place to start? I am looking to DJ at events like BDA or Gerts for example.
> Can r/mcgill name any student celebrities? | I'm kind of curious about whether there are people that pick up notoriety at McGill that have seeped into reddit consciousness. Of course there are the campus icons like Sean Turner and McGill Memes, but were there other people whose names got heard a lot? I remember a huge kerfuffle about Zach Newburgh a while back, but there must be people other than him, no?
> Any occult groups at McGill? | Really bored and want to see if there's anything to it

Cluster 2

> I Missed An Exam, Am I totally fucked?
> Final Exam Invigilator here - Just some tips! | I am a new invigilator, but have had enough McGill exams over the past 6 years to know some useful tips for new students. [...] 7. DON'T CHEAT! I know its tempting, and I know some of you guys are the most innovative and creative people out there. But If you get caught, your career could take a huge hit. Why risk that for a couple of answers. We also know all the tricks, water bottle labels, calculator covers, writing stuff on your hands/body, cell phones, notes in the pencil cases, notes in pen caps, washroom notes, and many more. Dont risk it. ANd plus, why not just study instead of spending all that time finding ways to beat the system.

Cluster 3

> Not having any friends at McGill
> Things to do around McGill in summer, been feeling kind of lonely and bored.
> Hard to make friends?
> Lonely, returning student, with no friends and only acquaintances.
> Lonely and feel like I don't have any real friends and people take advantage of me a lot.
> Does anyone know how to access the pool at New Rez? | I know it's possible and I really want to do this before the end of the semester. Little help anyone? [_Editor's note: New Rez does not have a pool. The shopping centre across the street, however, does._]
> If you meet a shitty person, where were they most likely to have stayed in rez? | 1. Douglas 2. New rez

Cluster 4

> Question : What is "too many minors"? | I'm a future student, probably (hopefully) at McGill (I'm in cegep now). I have no clue how the hole distribution of classes and Majors/Minors throughout semesters works. I want to do a major in the Faculty of Arts, but I have 3 minors I want to do as well (still in the Faculty of Arts). I already had a hard time narrowing it down to 3. Is it still too much? I don't want to finish my bachelor in 7 years.. 4 would be alright though. Is it doable? I've heard there's a slightly different system with the credits at the Fac. of Arts. Anybody knowing how it works there care to explain the process to a newbie? [_The body isn't very interesting but the title is kinda funny_]
> AMA request: someone who has actually been caught cheating by the computer program that detects pairs of students with unusually similar answers. | I'm guessing no such program actually exists, or if it does, that it only works for scantrons. ​

Cluster 5

> Anyone interested in forming a McGill minecraft server? | I think it would be an interesting experience to minecraft with my fellow McGillians. However, we would need a means to host this server either on campus or privately (any ideas?).
> it's midterms: time to mainline caffeine. thoughts about best/cheapest coffee on campus? i need to stop buying starbucks
> Where is that party at tonight?!
> Looking to buy duct tape near McGill Ghetto
> how to not be a barbarian at the café
> Have you ever had sex on campus? | Share.
>What's the best way to date at McGill?
> Can we smoke herbs on campus without getting hassled?
> Sneaking into campus rooms at night... | So i'm just wondering where I can be clandestine at nighttime at McGill... I have a boner for Birks but its not open on weekends / it closes early... so where can I and a few of my buddies go for some uninterrupted tomfoolery? Merge with 0?

Cluster 6

> Bitcoins, does anyone have them? | I'm just curious. I have 0.1 bitcoins, which I bought last week. Anyone else in this thing?
> How do you guys deal with a tough breakup?

Cluster 7

> 1000 McGillians | Yay for us crossing the four digit barrier! **(posted 7 years ago)**
> How many square feet are in Cybertheque?
> Girl affectionately touched wall of "People's Church" on Union and Sherbrooke - why?