Reddit Rapture: How r/atheism Suddenly Lost 10,000 Users

The atheist subreddit's journey from default sub to mass clean-up echoes Reddit's own evolution.

"It's the purge!"

Late last week a post surfaced on reddit's /r/OutOfTheLoop, a subreddit designed to help subscribers catch up on news they missed. Unlike most of the posts on its front page, where comments averaged between 10 and 50, this one had attracted over a thousand. It asked, "Why has r/atheism lost 10k subscribers in a couple of days?"

/r/atheism has always been controversial. It has spawned parody subreddits like /r/AdviceAtheists and /r/aaaaaatheismmmmmmmmmm, along with the infamous Faces of Atheism and "In this moment I am euphoric" memes. The term "reddit atheist" has evolved as a shorthand in recent years for a negative internet cliché, that of the rabid Richard Dawkins supporter, the mansplainer, the hat-wearer fond of paradoxically holier-than-thou circlejerks.

But /r/atheism is active, and one of the best-known subreddits. How did it lose so many users? Were the atheist redditors raptured? Did they all suddenly find God?

The answer is less metaphysical in nature. The cull came from within Reddit itself, a spring cleaning process designed to do away with dormant "ghost accounts." Speaking to /r/atheism admins in a message, they confirmed:

"This is from the reddit admins:

As you probably already know, on December 15 we started running all old deleted accounts through a cleanup process that (among some other things) removed the deleted accounts from subscriber lists. This cleanup process finished running on January 6…"

Reddit Metrics, which tracks user behaviour on the site, verifies a dramatic decline in numbers with the largest drop of 10,160 subscribers on December 20, 2015. /r/atheism is now ranked 56th on the list of most popular subreddits, with 1,995,348 subscribers at the time of writing, whereas from 2012 to 2014 it ranked consistently in the top 20.

A graph showing subscriber growth in r/atheism. Image: Reddit Metrics

Others have lost far more in the cleanup process: /r/pics lost 384,873 subscribers, and /r/bestof lost about 220,000. But it was /r/atheism which prompted a degree of soul-searching.

It's worth noting how the subreddit gained such a high number of subscribers to begin with: Initially, /r/atheism was included on the list of default subreddits users subscribed to automatically when they joined the site. Based originally on the 20 most popular subreddits, defaults are now selected by staff in a process they explain, sort of, in this blog post. Current defaults include favourites like /r/askscience, /r/aww, /r/explainlikeimfive and /r/creepy. /r/atheism is not included.

The default list says a lot about how Reddit defines itself, even against the will of its own users. Conspicuously controversial subreddits are absent, while efforts are made at inclusion. One commenter on the Out Of the Loop thread asks, amusingly, "Why is /r/TwoXChromosomes a default?", garnering 201 upvotes and implying that it's pointless for Reddit to target female readers.

"The default front page sort of reminds me of a liberal arts college," says one user.

In fact, the entire thread below the original comment about /r/atheism is telling. Replies mourn the halcyon days when "libertarian computer science freaks" roamed the open internet (a time within memory of users who pride themselves of having joined in 2012), and complain about the influx of Digg users, who apparently make far too many "and my axe" jokes. They also want their rage comics back, and no more jokes about "an arrow to the knee."

"The default front page sort of reminds me of a liberal arts college," says one user. Another says, "reddit was more progressive/relevant/modern/edgy back in the day."

Last year, headlines asked "Can anyone clean up the mess behind the 'front page of the internet'?" This latest cull poses something of an answer. /r/atheism's removal from the default subreddits is discussed in its wiki, which also lays out ground rules for the subreddit itself. A lengthy document, which at times reads as antagonistic to its own readers, it nonetheless reflects sincere intentions. The authors address questions like "Why are you all so mean?" and "Should I come out to my parents as being an atheist?" (they recommend not to). They discourage "brigading" and disingenuous "honest questions."

Reading this list, it becomes apparent that /r/atheism never intended to turn loose upon the world the unfortunate stereotype of the "reddit atheist." It wanted something purer, and more functional.

Reddit itself is evolving: after significant growing pains, it's making concerted efforts to cement a mainstream following. In the words of one commenter, "Reddit is growing up."

With its numbers down, and no longer artificially enhanced, perhaps /r/atheism can now return to its original purpose. Perhaps this latest "rapture" can help.