Few organisations have an official presence on Reddit. But for one that’s all about offering people advice, it makes a lot of sense.
Say you’ve split up with your partner and are moving out of a shared rental property. The landlord says you’ve left it in need of cleaning, and isn’t giving back your bond – but the mess was made by your ex. What do you do?
Well, you might go to Reddit. You wouldn’t be alone: thousands of people ask the topic-separated social forum for help every day. Some of the situations are morally ambiguous: on Am I The Asshole, users invite feedback on whether they have acted badly. Others are relatively innocuous: most geography-based subreddits are filled with requests from people moving to the area about where good schools are, or whether anyone has a boardgames group they can join. Sometimes the replies are helpful, detailed and informative. Other times, they’re derailed by digressions, half-finished sentences, or snarky and unconstructive responses.
On some of the most popular New Zealand subreddits, including r/NewZealand, r/Auckland, r/PersonalFinanceNZ and r/LegalAdviceNZ, these patterns are as obvious as they are on behemoth subreddits from overseas. Among the responses is a shining light: the Citizens Advice Bureau. In clear, reasoned replies, the verified CAB account offers links to resources about what to do when someone dies, for example, or explain options for when your landlord says you can’t have guests over, or provide ideas for how to respond to a sibling being bullied at school.
While Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn are populated with official company and organisation accounts, Reddit is largely avoided – perhaps because it’s more text-based and users are nearly universally anonymous, it’s difficult to monetise. CAB is a rare exception, one of the few New Zealand organisations with a significant, verified presence on the app.
Helping people with problems, confidentially and for free, is a vital service available at CABs throughout Aotearoa. But not all of the people who need help with issues that CAB covers will necessarily know to reach out. “We should be where people are asking those questions,” says Andrew Hubbard, deputy chief executive of the CAB and long-time Reddit user.
He started the official account after years of reading through Reddit replies, frustrated with what he calls the variability in responses. “Some are really helpful and thoughtful, others are less so – it’s Reddit!” He tries to monitor the site throughout the day, especially the r/NewZealand subreddit, to see if people are posting queries that are relevant to areas where the CAB can provide resources. Users are getting the hang of it – since the CAB made an account in February, they’ve started to tag the account under posts.
Some recurring themes have emerged. “There’s a high proportion of tenancy inquiries,” Hubbard says. He tends to respond to posts when the CAB has resources to help with those areas. Questions about who is responsible for cleaning a flat, or grey areas about what charges are reasonable to take off a bond are common. Hubbard finds what information is already out there, prioritising reliable sources.
The medium of Reddit does have some limitations. While users are anonymous, they’re asking for help publicly, and “you don’t get that context of who someone is – in some situations there is a lot of nuance”. Hubbard says he asks follow up questions where needed, and tries to do what he can with the information provided. But there’s an advantage to that, too – if there are other users searching the forum for help with similar situations, the resources will be there waiting.
What CAB is doing on Reddit is very similar to what the organisation does in person and over the phone, Hubbard notes – it’s just a different medium. One of the reasons people use Reddit, to find local and specific information written by real humans, is also why people might get in touch with the CAB, to find relevant, confidential, personalised advice from someone who isn’t involved in a situation themselves.
The future of Citizens Advice Bureaus has been under threat recently. Run almost entirely by a nationwide network of volunteers, with limited funding, the community service they offer could be eliminated in the country’s biggest city, with the 2023-4 Auckland Council budget proposing to remove funding that keeps the service afloat. While digital services and Reddit help the group to reach more people, they’re not a replacement for in-person advice.
Being on Reddit, in addition to using Facebook largely to promote advocacy, is also a good way to learn what information people want, Hubbard says. Sometimes, if he can’t find resources to direct people to, it indicates that it’s a topic that the CAB should look into further. “Part of our role is understanding what people are dealing with – people give us examples which might indicate we should be doing something wider.”
The way the CAB is using Reddit is also a reminder of how the internet works – and how it fails. “What’s clear is that a lot of people still need help understanding how information they’ve read online applies to their particular circumstance.” SEO-targeted copywriting – now helped by AI writing tools – has made Google much less useful. When I Google “What should I do if my landlord keeps showing up unexpectedly”, results from Investopedia and news.com.au show up beside posts from Aratohu and Tenancy Services – not necessarily accurate or useful to a query in New Zealand. “People get cynical about how commercialised [Google] is,” Hubbard says. “On Reddit, people are trying to interact in a way that isn’t like that.”
A widely-used internet hack is to suffix “reddit” onto a query, so the search will be “untainted by SEO,” as one headline put it. Even if a search engine does tell you what you want to hear, not all information is reliable. While CAB has an extensive online library of information, being on Reddit is a way for people to receive that knowledge in a context they trust, extending the reach of the organisation.
“We’ve just had all these floods around the country,” Hubbard says. The CAB has been inundated with people wanting advice on rent discounts, insurance, mortgages and liabilities. Both online and in-person, it’s a reminder that the work matters. “Our strength is working with someone’s individual circumstance – [Reddit] is a way to provide personalised advice in the digital space.”