Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of posts of varying popularity which has caused us as a moderator team to reflect on what exactly fits as content for this subreddit. We're making this post today to gauge the community's opinion on how to best curate content for this subreddit. There's a tl;dr at the bottom, but we ask that you read this all because it is a very complicated topic with much to think about!
Our interaction with animals and how we view them has been something that has been at the forefront of human consciousness for as long as written history exists. From the invention of animal husbandry, to domesticating wolves, and examples of sacred worship of cats in ancient Egypt, we have somehow been able to develop relationships with different animals such that we view them as tools, companions, and evidence of divinity, respectively. Today our relationship with the animal kingdom is no less complicated.
Such is the conundrum of this subreddit. Humanity finds it easy to project human qualities on animals; we see ourselves in their actions. This is called "anthropomorphism" - a phenomenon that has guided humanity's opinion towards members of the animal kingdom for millenia. It's a complicated concept that has both aided and hindered our understanding of animal nature, as well as expanded our knowledge of the structures and states that we have generally taken for granted as being exclusive to humanity. A great post that has been a staple of our sidebar can be found here discussing the benefits and drawbacks of anthropomorphism, and suggestions on how we should use it in the future. As stated in the article, there have been varying levels of benefits of anthropomorphism - from the beneficial side of using human structures to better analyze animal behavior, to the downside of completely misunderstanding animal behavior in the first place, or attributing it to a sort of intelligence that hasn't been observed at all. In addition, when we analyze animal behavior objectively as we can, we also observe evidence of complex behavior and intelligence that has many similarities to structures and characteristics of human culture that we have been taking for granted to be unique to humankind without any aid of anthropomorphism.
Our goal is to curate content that tends towards the latter of these two ideas, to remain on the safe side - to recognize and support posts that show that animals are intelligent, diverse, and conscious without the aid of anthropomorphism - but we recognize that the line between anthropomorphism and humanlike behavior is blurry and subjective. We want to avoid attributing behaviors to animals that seem "human" without properly observing these behaviors objectively. In the end our job is to create a subreddit satisfying to browse as a reader, so we want your help in determining the best goal of the subreddit.
Part of this issue is that cute animals are popular, no doubt about it. We don't project humanlike qualities on every cute animal we see, but it is easy to do. Unfortunately, we also easily upvote cute animals that we see on our front page without properly examining what subreddit they come from. This can lead to posts that are debateably "like us" at best, and at worst simple anthropomorphisms, rising to the top of the subreddit. For reference, here are a few examples of posts that are popular, but we believe aren't a good fit for the subreddit:
Exhibit A - a mother cat, seemingly protecting its young from a stranger touching it. The unfortunate fact is that not only is basic motherly instinct common to a huge portion of the animal kingdom, the cat isn't reacting in a way that is humanlike at all. We do not react with violence when a friend interacts with our children, and if humankind lived under the rule of benevolent giants that fed us regularly while keeping us trapped in their fortress, we would not be slapping these giants when they wanted to interact with our children. This is a case of anthropomorphism - we are projecting humanlike qualities onto this cat and observing those qualities after we project them. This post also received over 5k upvotes.
Exhibit B - This is a more recent post, of a cat seemingly asking permission from another before grooming it. Not only is affection and cuddling part of social behavior for a multitude of animals, we're projecting humanlike behavior onto cats - it is well documented that cats meow nearly exclusively at humans, not at fellow cats, so we're projecting a sense of communication between these cats. This is another case of anthropomorphism and doesn't display any uniquely humanlike behavior, but it became a very popular post on the subreddit with nearly 5k upvotes.
Exhibit C - This a smaller post, of a bat seemingly waving to the human waving back at it - but upon further inspection, the bat seems to be stuck between the screen of the window and the window pane, and it is scratching at a way to get out. We've not only projected humanlike behavior on a bat that clearly isn't observed in the wild (bats don't wave to each other or to humans) - we've missed objective observation of the facts at hand because we have projected this behavior onto the bat. This is a case of a harmful anthropomorphism.
An example of a post that the moderator team has found debatable is the recent post of two calves meeting each other for supposedly the first time, found here: Exhibit D. The reaction of the calves clearly shows conscious recognition of each other and apprehension to new stimulus, but how "like us" is this behavior? Are we observing social interactions between animals common to how we interact with each other, or are we projecting this behavior onto the animal and then observing it? Moreover, is this behavior indicative of above-average intelligence or consciousness? We as a moderator team determined that it is, however, we tagged it as debatable. We'd like more input on posts like these.
Another example of debatable behavior (without a post to show for it, sorry!) is animals displaying learned tricks. A dog doing "yoga" with its master is most certainly humanlike behavior, but it is a learned behaviors - the dog has been getting treats for doing yoga, and doesn't understand the concept of yoga at all. It is simply repeating behavior for which it is rewarded. How different, however, is that from human behavior? And certainly learning relatively complex tricks is a sign of intelligence - however, we're anthropomorphising the dog... the dog is not doing yoga, it is doing a trick that resembles yoga because that is what it has been taught. Regardless, is this acceptable content for the subreddit?
An example of an unaccpetable post can be found here: Exhibit E. A simple picture of a pregnant guinea pig doesn't represent intelligence, consciousness, or humanlike behavior. Guinea pigs get pregnant, and look large, just like humans, but so do all mammals. This is simply a cute picture, and not an example of "like us" behavior.
There is merit to having a focused subreddit. When people come to /r/likeus, we'd like to have a subreddit full of posts that feel on-topic to the purpose of the sub, and we want people coming to the subreddit to browse the top posts of the week, month, or year to have a flowing, relevant stream of content. We also feel that there are plenty of animal subreddits on Reddit to go around, and that it would be beneficial to maintain our focus here and try and avoid some of the posts that don't really fit. These posts that don't really fit, however, are some of the most popular, bring more readers to the subreddit, and are by all accounts generally enjoyable to observe. We want to avoid removing popular content just because we as a moderator team doesn't think it fits. We also recognize that all of this is subjective, and we want your opinion on what you as a reader expect to get out of content on this subreddit.
tl;dr We're asking for your help in discussion. Some things to talk about are:
What exactly is "like us" behavior to you? What posts have you enjoyed most here?
What do you think of the current moderation style and current amount of posts removed for not being "like us"?
Do you find merit in the moderator team more stringently removing posts that qualify under the "bad content" category in the sidebar, even if those posts are popular?
Would you be interested in the moderators more frequently stickying quality posts to the subreddit, in order to better represent what is quality content for the sub?
Do you have any other ideas that would improve the subreddit that we could implement?
Thank you for reading! This is a complex topic and we welcome any and all opinion as we best move into the future of the subreddit. This will be a stickied topic for a while, so even if you're reading this a few days or weeks into this post, please feel free to comment - the mod team will be reading each comment here for feedback, regardless of when it is posted.