This is how it starts. You’re on Reddit late at night when you see an interesting post. It went up only four hours ago, but it already has almost 5,000 upvotes. Apparently a couple wants to name their daughter after the Star Wars character Captain Phasma, and they decided to ask the world whether it was OK. The internet seems to think that it isn’t, but you have a different read. Then there’s this kid with a stuffed tiger named Tig who asked his dad to suggest the tiger’s last name. “I couldn’t help myself and just instantly replied ‘Bitties,’” the dad wrote. Now the tiger is named Tig Bitties and the poster’s wife is mad at him. Should he have held his tongue?
At first, commenting on these posts feels like watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians, only if it were broadcast live and you could anonymously text any of the characters when you thought they were right or had done something appalling. It’s dramatic. It’s addictive. Soon, it’s like you’ve become fluent in a foreign language, abbreviating “Am I the Asshole” to AITA and wondering WIBTA (“Would I Be the Asshole”) if you told a friend that you hated his girlfriend or asked your roommate’s boyfriend to start paying rent because he’s been over so much lately. You start reading AITA posts before bed instead of doomscrolling the news because here, at least, it feels like your opinion matters.
With everything else going on in the world (please see: a pandemic, massive unemployment, the upcoming U.S. election, Karens, police brutality, protests, riots, climate change, and balancing working from home with sending your kids to school), the Reddit forum known as Am I the Asshole? has started to feel like a safe space. It’s a place where accountability actually exists, even if only in the form of branding someone right or wrong in one absurd situation. It’s also a place for growth: Sometimes posters return to talk about how their lives changed—almost always for the better—because of the advice they got from thousands of anonymous strangers.
Eventually you stop reading just for the drama, and instead comment because you honestly want to help. You feel like, if not a good person, then at least a better one for it. And maybe you are.
You’re the Asshole
“The ability to define what is wrong and ‘what people are doing that should change’ should be number two on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” says Marc Beaulac, founder of Am I the Asshole? (henceforth referred to as AITA). Beaulac, a photographer and dog rescuer in his early 40s, began AITA in 2013 as a way to figure out whether he was wrong in a debate with female coworkers about the temperature in their office. “This was before people used the term ‘mansplaining,’ but I was essentially asking the question, ‘Am I mansplaining?’” Beaulac says. (This, too, seems like it could be a very popular subreddit.) He knew how he felt about the issue, but acknowledged that he didn’t know anything about what it felt like to be a woman in an office in the United States. Even in 2013, before people threw around terms like “cancel culture,” he worried about backlash to having the wrong opinion. But, Beaulac says, “that’s one thing that’s great about the anonymous crowd.” On AITA, the worst repercussions for bad behavior are people in the comments telling you you’re wrong and branding “Asshole” at the top of your post.
But that all came later. In 2013, Beaulac says the only response he got to his question was, “You’re kinda right, I guess.” Afterward, Beaulac debated whether or not to keep the subreddit alive, whether other people might have questions like his own. “When I decided not to delete it after getting my own answer, I felt like I was doing a public service of some kind,” he says. He thought it might be fun to pick through interpersonal conflicts with “a couple thousand people who liked chatting about moral philosophy without having a degree in it.”
For the first four years of its existence, AITA was a relatively small community in the tens of thousands. But around Thanksgiving of 2018—for reasons unknown to Beaulac—it took off. Beaulac soon added 10 moderators to his team, all volunteers who said they wanted to add something to the forum, and by July 2019, the subreddit had 1 million subscribers. It took less than a year to get to 2 million. Posts regularly get picked up on other parts of Reddit, various online publications report on the ones that go viral, and a popular Twitter account (which has 420,000 followers and counting) reposts a curated selection of them. But AITA isn’t just a forum of absurd humans with absurd conundrums. Today, AITA might be the largest public forum for conflict resolution on the planet.
The format of the posts has largely remained the same since the beginning. Someone asks a question about an interpersonal conflict, and readers weigh in about whether the poster was in the right or in the wrong and why. But the moderation team has come up with ways to make the subreddit better (or sometimes just more fun).
One of those ways is by adding rules. A subreddit is allowed to have up to 15 rules; since the team added a “No COVID posts” edict earlier this year, AITA now has 14. The most important of those rules is “Be Civil”—without it, AITA might feel like the rest of the internet instead of being a respite from it. The moderators explain that being civil means to “attack ideas, not people” and to “treat others with respect while helping them grow through outside perspectives.” It’s not often that social media and personal growth go together in the same sentence.
Then, a year ago, the AITA team created a bot that would calculate a consensus 24 hours after posting and label the post in one of four ways: You’re the Asshole, Not the Asshole, Everyone Sucks Here, or No Assholes Here. Users in the mood for judging others can read posts only by people deemed “asshole”; those who want something nicer can read only “not the asshole” posts. It’s a nod to the fact that while thousands of people do come to the subreddit to weigh in and help, voyeurism is the appeal for many others.
We often think of the kinds of dilemmas on AITA as something for an advice columnist or therapist to weigh in on, but the question of who is right and who is wrong—even when it comes to something like “AITA for switching to regular milk to prove my lactose intolerant roommate keeps stealing from me?”—is something moral philosophers, religions, and individuals have been trying to answer since the beginning of human society.
Sometime after humans gained adequate food stores and physical security, we began to reflect on the right way to live. We established that there are “good” ways to be, and “bad” ways to be, and a whole lot of confusion in the middle. The first laws, which date back to Ur-Nammu around 2100 BCE, were essentially punishment for breaking the minimum moral values of society. Philosophers built on that scaffolding, spending one lifetime after another trying to answer questions like, “What does it mean to be good?” Even the things we think we know are bad—don’t kill other people—become thorny in situations like war or self-defense. Human life is too complex for a one-size-fits-all rule.
In the TV show The Good Place, a sitcom about a motley crew of bad people in the afterlife, the main character, Eleanor Shellstrop, often talks about how there shouldn’t just be a Bad Place and a Good Place, but something in between. “I wasn’t freaking Gandhi, but I was OK. I was a medium person. I should get to spend eternity in a medium place!” At the end of the day, most of us won’t commit acts of violence or intentionally harm other people. But we won’t win Nobel Peace Prizes or save 2.4 million babies with our plasma, either. We all have the opportunity to become good on a small scale, in our interactions with the world and—perhaps most importantly—with each other. Socrates argued that people always seek to do what they think is good. But sometimes we’re wrong about what that is or just don’t know the answers. That’s where AITA comes in.
A month ago, a mom posted saying that her 16-year-old daughter, Amy, had been refusing to interact with “Aunt Helen.” Helen complained that she wanted to see her niece; the mom tried to force Amy to spend time with Helen; Amy burst out yelling and crying about “how horrible Aunt Helen is to her and how she always makes Amy feel like crap.” The mom didn’t believe it and took away Amy’s phone and electronics as punishment. “I think that I’m in the right,” the mom wrote, “but I want to see what you all think.” The forum quickly branded her an asshole, and over the course of a few updates, an interesting thing happened. The mother changed her mind and admitted she had been in the wrong. It started with listening to her daughter—properly, this time—and by the fourth update, the mother wrote that while some of the comments she’d gotten “were devastating,” they weren’t as bad as “realizing what I did to Amy. I fully accept that I am the asshole and there are no excuses to my actions.”
“People are almost never willing to admit they might be a villain in a situation,” says Kurt Gray, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Our self-concept is tied up with being moral people. Even people who we would call truly evil generally tend to think of themselves as good people.”
Gray finds it fascinating that those who post on AITA are, at least in theory, willing to admit that they might be in the wrong. But, of course, not everyone takes their judgments to heart (or comes back to update Reddit about it), and there are plenty of people who post just looking for validation. “Morality, as I think of it, is our attempt to share the world with other people who are just as real and just as important as we are,” says Pamela Hieronymi, a philosophy professor at UCLA and a former “consulting philosopher” for The Good Place. AITA can be a path to moral improvement for everyone, Hieronymi says, “in so far as people are wanting to openly and thoughtfully engage with the problems of other people.”
Everyone Sucks Here
It doesn’t seem to be an accident that AITA’s astronomical rise in popularity and the creation of a show like The Good Place would happen around the same time. Over the past few years, America has been pummeled with moral dilemmas at a blinding rate: What to do with monuments to the Confederacy; what we owe to immigrants and refugees who want to become citizens; whether it matters that you pay or cheat on your taxes. In Michelle Obama’s viral 2016 speech about that year’s upcoming election, she said that the question of who to vote for wasn’t about politics: “It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong.”
Looking at everything as a question of right and wrong has seemingly become only more prevalent since the pandemic began in the U.S. in March. Gray says that COVID-19 and all the questions around it have put us in a mindset to be more interested in moral dilemmas. While much of the media focus surrounding the disease has been about its spread and the creation of a vaccine, a not insignificant portion has been devoted to questions about our behavior—when it’s OK to be around other people, and when we should stay home.
Early on during the pandemic, AITA added a rule banning posts about COVID-19. “Every answer was, ‘Don’t risk it,’ even if the question had nothing to do with risk,” says Beaulac. His team also didn’t want to risk spreading or amplifying bad epidemiological information. “We thought maybe we’d be a place where you can bury your head in the sand and have an escape.”
It didn’t last long. In late April, AITA relaxed its restrictions, writing, “We’ve largely moved out of concerns over traveling, shopping, panic behaviors, etc. Lots of folks are now facing very tangible interpersonal conflicts as a result of being shut inside with others.” Posts about changing household dynamics or fighting more often now that everyone was stuck at home together? AITA is happy to have it. Wondering whether your roommate’s significant other should be allowed to spend the night because of possible transmission? Absolutely not, because the latter is merely a question of safety and risk.
Another central rule of AITA is that there must be an interpersonal conflict involved, and the poster has to make it clear why they might be “the asshole” in the situation. “It’s sad when someone asks if they’re the asshole for putting in their two weeks,” says Brittani MacDonald, 31, who has been an AITA moderator for a year. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Can I have a conflict with capitalism?’ You’re not an asshole for quitting a job.”
The scope of the problems on AITA, even when the judgment is a difficult one to make, is human, and therefore more manageable. They’re medium questions asked and answered by medium people who just want to be a little bit better.
Not the Asshole
Weddings are a common topic on AITA, since they’re high-stakes events that involve close friendships, relationships, and family. When “Dianna” (who asked to use a pseudonym) took stock of the potential family drama that might play out at her wedding—divorced and remarried parents who cause chaos when they’re in the same room—and the restrictions on gatherings because of the pandemic, she and her fiancé made the decision to elope. “My parents are upset because I’m depriving them of the wonderful experience of wedding stuff, like the dress visits and cake eating,” she wrote on AITA in August. Was she wrong for wanting to avoid the expense and the drama?
It’s not the first time Dianna has posted on AITA, and she’s a longtime reader of the page as well. She quit asking her friends for advice about her family because it seemed like the problems were endless, and her friends’ patience was wearing thin. Dianna’s best friend started telling her, “I expect you to figure this out on your own.” (Reader: Are they the asshole?) Every time Dianna has posted, she’s felt like she was in the right but had people in her life telling her she was an awful person or that “family is family.” She couldn’t help but doubt herself. “I may be an awful person, but I don’t know,” Dianna recalled feeling. “If I’m an awful person, I want to know so I can improve.”
Because we care what other people think of us, Hieronymi says, we want to know what behavior is expected of us: “One way to understand the rules of the game is to talk with other people about it.”
Dianna and others seem less interested in the overall judgment of whether or not they’re the asshole than the reasons behind it. After posting, Dianna looks for comments by people who have gone through something similar. It doesn’t make it easier to tell her family there won’t be a wedding, but, armed with the opinions of strangers, Dianna doesn’t feel like a bad person for making that choice.
That said, it’s not all moral improvement and helpful advice on AITA. Vicious comments have to be removed regularly, and users get suspended or banned every day for breaking rules. Posters often report that they get harassed in private messages, enduring everything from name-calling to death threats. (AITA “doesn’t own Reddit,” Beaulac says, so while it’s something he and the moderators worry about, they also don’t have control over anything that goes on outside the forum.) The moderators added an automated message everyone sees before posting, which includes a warning that AITA is a very public forum with millions of readers, that the story could get reported on by the media, and that—despite their efforts—some people don’t follow the “Be Civil” rule. Posters get doxxed regularly; the subreddit is just too big for people to be guaranteed that what happens in AITA stays in AITA. The best the moderators feel they can do is warn posters what to expect when telling their stories.
One way AITA posters have unwittingly expanded their audience is through Twitter, where the account @AITA_reddit regularly posts a curated selection of stories from the forum. (@AITA_reddit spoke on condition of anonymity because of worries about online abuse.) The person behind the account says their favorite posts are “the sillier, more train wreck stuff.” One of those, which falls into the popular category of “I did something weird to my food and a roommate ate it without permission,” involves a man putting his penis into a jar of peanut butter that had his name on it and a roommate eating it later on. “It’s the ‘what the fuck?’ but also an interesting question,” they say. “It’s human nature to want to participate and make a judgment and feel superior to the person that is being an asshole.”
Unlike on the subreddit itself, where the point of commenting is that the poster will see it, most people commenting on Twitter assume that their judgments and quips will be read only by other people on Twitter. @AITA_reddit says that it’s satisfying to see when someone changes for the better, but also satisfying to discuss just how bad and wrong some behavior is. “There’s a desire, sometimes, to want to punish some of these people,” @AITA_reddit says. “I see a lot of comments like, ‘I hope your girlfriend sees this and realizes what an asshole you are.’”
Some of this impulse might come from the fact that most of us like to believe we live in a Just World: “That good things come to good people and bad things come to bad people,” Gray says. “It allows us to go through our day.” In the case of AITA, telling someone how terrible they are is the only way we can feel like we’ve helped punish someone who has broken the rules.
Hieronymi puts it another way: If one way to feel like we’re good people is by trying to be better people, “a cheaper way of doing that is by thinking other people are bad.”
“In the beginning, people were kind to each other. Now people are there for popcorn,” says moderator MacDonald. She doesn’t judge this impulse; it’s what brought her to AITA in the first place. Some people want to see someone be a colossal asshole, MacDonald says. “They want drama. They’re there for the opportunity to rip into people.” Seeing people face consequences for their actions, even virtually, MacDonald says wistfully, “is a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
Perhaps base instincts to judge and shame and feel superior are what bring many people to AITA, but that’s not always what keeps them coming back. MacDonald says she started reading because she got the same sense of judgment and voyeurism that makes people look at car crashes or watch reality TV. Now she’s there because she wants to help people work out problems they can’t solve on their own. She thinks others can change, too.
No Assholes Here
“Being a better person does involve thinking that your previous self wasn’t as good,” says the philosopher T.M. Scanlon, author of What We Owe to Each Other (a text referenced in The Good Place). In theory, anyone who posts on AITA is open to change. “As for what makes it possible for some people to change and more difficult or less likely for others is a question for your psychologist rather than your philosopher,” Scanlon says.
It’s always surprising when posting on the internet changes someone for the better, yet the most interesting thing about AITA isn’t that it makes (some) posters better people—it’s that perhaps the readers are becoming better, too. Beaulac isn’t surprised by this. “As much time as you want to spend considering the thoughts of others when they express them in a clear way is time well spent,” he says. “It’s a healthy thing to concentrate on.”
Scanlon says that the amount people change has to do with how much they engage with the material. “Philosophy of the kind that I practice starts from normally being puzzled about something,” Scanlon says. It’s not enough to say, “I believe this”; you have to go deeper into the why of your beliefs and where they come from. “As a person who has spent 50 years doing that as a profession,” Scanlon says, “I can tell you it’s not fun to discover your mistakes.”
“A large part of my experience as a human being has been one of walking around feeling kind of helpless and confused,” says Jennifer Martin, 40, who started reading and commenting on AITA regularly about a year ago. “I think most people are familiar with that feeling. … It’s a relief to offer a clearer perspective to someone stuck in that confusion.”
Debbie Schulz, 48, often comments on posts where someone is having a relationship problem. “Before I met my husband, I was in a really bad relationship for eight years—a lot of abuse and cheating,” she says. “I feel like I wasted all of my 20s trying to make a horrible person turn into a decent human being, and you can’t change people to be better unless they want to be better.” Schulz has been reading AITA more since lockdown started in March and is very aware that, for people stuck in bad domestic situations, there’s been little escape since the pandemic began. (Many organizations that work with domestic violence survivors believe that even though the number of DV reports has gone down over the past few months, incidents are on the rise for women and children worldwide.) “They literally have nowhere to go except for the internet,” Schulz says. If she can take her years in a bad relationship and use them to help someone, she says, “I’m going to feel a little bit better about my experience and having gone through that.”
Martin has concerns about some of the views expressed on AITA, and she’s seen it at its worst as an ungenerous and hard-hearted place. “It begrudges doing small acts of kindness because apparently no one owes anyone anything,” she says. “It loves revenge so much that I’ve seen two posts that involved gloating over the deaths of teenagers because they had been bullies.” (Though the posts were eventually removed, she says, they were left up for some time and received thousands of comments.) Ultimately, she believes AITA is a tool that has no intrinsic moral value, either good or bad. “That all depends on the person using it.” Like any hobby or way people spend their time, “it can offer an opportunity for growth if you make that your aim.”
But that doesn’t mean Martin doesn’t enjoy spending time on AITA or think it’s all bad. “When that [forum] is at its best, you’re dealing with bigger questions: What do we owe each other? What does a good society look like? Which moral standards are relative and which are absolute?” she says. “Considering those questions necessarily leads to a lot of self-examination.” While she’s not sure her values have changed through participating in AITA, she believes it’s been a way to “refine and strengthen my values by allowing me to test them against problems I will never encounter in my own very quiet and unremarkable life,” says Martin.
In that way, reading AITA and engaging with the questions deeply isn’t so different from the kind of storytelling that humans have been doing around a fire, in literature, or on television for generations. Shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men are at their core examinations of whether the main characters are good people whose actions are justified. The way we feel about fictional characters—and how those views might change over time—says more about us and our values than it does the people in the stories.
While interesting pieces of fiction describe people facing dilemmas and making difficult choices, Scanlon says, someone has the opportunity for growth when they’re presented with a conflict that puzzles them. While some posts on AITA are more entertaining than educational, actually engaging and muddling through what is right and wrong—and why—might be good for us. “Stories are a good way to practice morality,” Scanlon says. “I don’t know whether they’re the best way. It depends on the story.”
Ultimately, AITA is a deeply human place. It’s full of our worst and most embarrassing or challenging moments. It’s full of people shaming each other for bad behavior and people telling us it’s not too late to do better. It can be a place for change and accountability, a place that urges us to be more honest with each other. Some of us are lucky enough to have friends and family who can play that role. For the rest of us, though, there’s always the opportunity to ask millions of strangers a simple question online: Am I the asshole?
Tove K. Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Find her @TKDano or at her website.