AITA? How a Reddit forum posed the defining question of our age

Elle Hunt
·10-min read

First of all, you need to picture the sandwich.

This was a 6ft-long party sub from a local deli, with loaves of bread braided together to make one super-sandwich – nearly twice the standard width, and loaded with fillings. It would have comfortably fed 20 to 25 people, and there were far fewer coming over to watch the fight.

But the host had not accounted for Alan. While the group was distracted by the TV, he ate more than half the sandwich by himself. “What I thought would be a total non-issue has ballooned into a huge problem,” Alan began his online post the following morning.

His host’s girlfriend had exploded at him, calling him an “incredible pig” for eating 3-4ft of a 6ft sandwich. Alan’s protest that he had brought homemade chicken wings to share (“sort of my specialty”) fell on deaf ears, as did his offer to order pizzas for the group.

The next day Alan awoke to angry texts telling him that he had embarrassed himself. “I figured I could post here to see if what I did was really that bad,” Alan wrote on the online forum Reddit. “Was I the asshole for eating that much of the sandwich?”

It is a question that all but the most oblivious of us sometimes ask: am I the bad one in this situation? Am I in the wrong for wanting to bring my dog to social events? For having a destination wedding? For telling my boyfriend he can’t order KFC because I can’t eat it? For telling my six-year-old stepsister she isn’t my real sister?

In an age of uncertainty, Reddit’s Am I the Asshole? forum exists to tell it to us straight. It is where some 2.4 million people gather to review accounts of real-life wrongdoing, before delivering their verdict: YTA (“You’re the asshole”) or NTA (“Not the asshole”).

Of course, if you’re looking for help to live a better life, AITA is just one of many options. Advice columnists, for example, have mushroomed in popularity in the past 10 years – along with the range of problems they tackle. “In the old days, people would write to Dear Abby or Ann Landers about problems with a pesky neighbour or an intrusive mother-in-law,” Heather Havrilesky, the author of New York magazine’s “existential advice” column Ask Polly, explained in 2014. “Those wise women would offer brief, concrete guidance, like: ‘Tell her to butt out!’ and: ‘Run, don’t walk, to your nearest mental health counsellor!’ These days, I think people are more interested in asking specific questions that sort of branch out into the big picture of their lives.”

The author Cheryl Strayed is credited with pioneering this more ambitious incarnation of the agony aunt. As Dear Sugar at the Rumpus website, she wrote long, lyrical answers to readers’ dilemmas such as: “How do I not be defined by my student debt?” and: “How do I believe in God when my six-month-old daughter has a tumour?”

As the internet has made space for us to express our deepest anxieties, however, it has also taught us to expect definitive answers. “Am I a bad person?” ranks high as an autocomplete search on Google, as though a moral code might be as easy to come by as a recipe. And this is where AITA, by delivering what it calls “catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher”, really comes into its own.

We may think modern society is uninterested in morality but it is striking how much of contemporary popular culture is concerned with the question of how to be good. In her documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift admitted that the need to be perceived as virtuous amounted to her “entire moral code”. The critic Lauren Oyler identified the same self-conscious anxiety in the novels of Sally Rooney, Karl Ove Knausgård, Ben Lerner, Jenny Offill and Sheila Heti. It is the entire premise of the popular sitcom The Good Place, in which the moral accounting to get into heaven is thrown out by the complexity of modern life. Simply by buying a tomato, explains Ted Danson’s demon, “you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming”.

Although the internet has made us aware of this quagmire, it is also an often unforgiving environment in which to navigate it. On social media, users jostle for superiority over the big questions of the age – and the small ones, such as whether you wash your legs when you shower. As the author Dolly Alderton once said, opinions about “Brexit, skincare, gluten, feminism” are presented as “written in stone, for you to follow as dogma”. We live in fear that one misstep might prompt #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty to trend, or calls for “cancellation”.

As William Davies, the author of Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, recently wrote, the infrastructure of the internet has created a “society of perpetual referendums”, reducing every issue to a yes-or-no poll in which everyone gets a vote. This “tyranny of binary opinion”, said Davies, is in part a response to navigating information overload online, with “clicking a button marked ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ … about as much critical activity as we are permitted”.

We even extend this to people, with Airbnb, Uber and eBay in effect reducing character to a rating (though Peeple, an app that set out in 2015 to do just that by soliciting one- to five-star character reviews for everyone you know, was roundly rejected as a bridge too far).

On Reddit, AITA reaches its verdict based on which response receives the most votes: YTA or NTA. Alan’s was delivered in more than 3,200 comments: YTA.

The AITA forum also has “middle areas where ‘everybody sucks’ or ‘nobody sucks’ – which are tragically underutilised in my opinion,” says Elizabeth, one of a global group of about 30 moderators. But in a cultural moment when being the asshole might seem not only permissible but rewarded, AITA is striking – and maybe even exhilarating – in its readiness to apportion blame. “I would love the opportunity to tell Jeff Bezos or Trump they are being the asshole,” says May, another moderator.

“If you didn’t want to hear people’s opinions, then you shouldn’t be here,” she adds. And the forum’s frenetic activity reflects the appetite for just that, averaging 30,000 posts a day, with some 800 scenarios for arbitration.

The more egregious or outlandish conundrums draw popcorn-popping spectators from far and wide. The author Emily Gould last month declared AITA posts the “dominant short fiction” of this decade. AITA itself collates its “best of” and “most controversial” posts for easy perusal (though obvious “creative writing exercises” are removed).

Eleanor Gordon-Smith, an ethicist at Princeton University who writes a philosophy column for the Guardian, says that when even the most extreme curiosity can be quickly sated online, the most captivating interest of all is in people’s mundane shame. “There’s something almost thrilling about peeking behind the curtain into other people’s lives, hearing their weird thoughts – what they think deep down of their partners, children, friends.”

Against a frenetic backdrop of posting and passing judgment, AITA stands somewhat apart for the rigour of the discussion and even the altruism of its aim – described, in the densely detailed FAQ, as to help people “see where they might have been in the wrong”.

Many online spaces today “are dedicated to not just finding the person in the wrong, but piling on,” says Steven, another moderator. “I do think we’re kind of unique in that we’re having these discussions about the morality of individuals, without tearing them down.”

“This is not supposed to be entertainment – that’s just a happy by-product,” says May. “We need to make sure that this is a functional place for people to get a real, outside perspective.”

Commenters are asked to bear in mind that “we are ALL ‘the asshole’ at one point”, while those who request a ruling are warned to accept the decision with grace.

Maintaining a respectful discussion is an “almost Sisyphean” feat of moderation, says Steven – but AITA’s functioning depends on people feeling free to be vulnerable, and the considered feedback they get in exchange.

“If people that you care about and respect are telling you that you are wrong, even though it seems so black-and-white obvious to you, then there’s probably a lesson to be learned there,” says Elizabeth. “Even if I think my reasons were correct, maybe my actions or the way I went about it was wrong.”

The mods say they often hear from past posters who say AITA’s input dramatically improved their lives. One woman judged YTA for refusing to take an interest in her teenage daughter’s hobby later returned to say their relationship had got better as a result.

David Ryan Polgar, founder of the All Tech Is Human organisation, which advocates for ethical technology use, says AITA harks back to an earlier, less polarised version of the internet – when it was primarily an information source that we navigated mostly anonymously.

Being able to express ourselves online, liberated from our name and offline identity, was part of the web’s “original promise” that has since been thrown out by social media, says Polgar. AITA’s popularity for dispensing unbiased opinions at scale reflects a desire for a less curated, identity-driven internet.

Many people want the ability to seek answers and advice not easily crowdsourced in person or under their own name on Facebook or Twitter, free from any “reputational risk”, says Polgar. “Friends are not telling you the unfiltered, unvarnished truth – if you want radical honesty, you need strangers.”

Verdict by verdict, AITA is in effect crowdsourcing a moral code – perhaps in the absence of any other. In the past, Gordon-Smith says, societies have looked to religion or science for an ethical framework; in a modern world in which both are challenged, our sense of right and wrong has become “untethered”.

“I think people have a pretty profound sense of unease about whether they’re right, and whether others share their justification,” says Gordon-Smith. “One way to get to the bottom of that is to take philosophy classes, and think very hard about the origins of morality – and the other way is to just ask people.”

The great limitation to AITA’S “moral arbitration” project, however, is obvious: it is opt-in. If it occurs to you to ask “AITA?” – let alone to seek another opinion – you’re probably NTA. Past analysis has found that people who post are overwhelmingly cleared of wrongdoing, with 56% deemed NTA versus 22% certified assholes.

“The people who come here obviously genuinely care about [the possibility that they’re in the wrong],” says May, “because otherwise they wouldn’t be here wondering if they were the asshole. We have to at least honour the fact that they are thinking about it.”

Of all the assholes declared by AITA, she says Alan’s story had stayed with her for its relative wholesomeness. “There’s no real malice there – just a complete inability to understand that eating four out of six feet of a party sub supposed to feed 30 people is maybe not the best move.”

Many commenters responding to Alan were sympathetic, sharing their own experiences of disordered eating and expressing hope that the incident would be a wake-up call: he was not only hurting himself by being “a big fat ass”, as he had claimed.

Steven remembers it differently. After Alan was handed his verdict, the thread had to be shut down; Alan’s account was later suspended. “He was arguing up and down the comments that whole time. He just couldn’t accept that he was the asshole.”