Reddit Study Reveals How to Ask For Favours Online — and Get Them

By Jamie Condliffe on at

If you manage to look beyond irate commenters and festering trolls, the internet can be a friendly place full of people keen to help out. Now, a study of Reddit reveals how people ask for favours online—and the best way to make them successful, too.

It's an interesting phenomenon for sure, perhaps best exemplified by Reddit's Random Acts of Pizza section, set up to "have fun, eat pizza and help each other out. Together, we aim to restore faith in humanity, one slice at a time." In other words, it's a sub-Reddit born to help people out with pizza if their needs seem to warrant it—assessed by redditors on a case-by-case basis, and judged on how compelling a user's story is.

Well, Tim Althoff at Stanford University was so intrigued by Random Acts of Pizza that he decided to investigate the dynamics of how it worked—and work out which approaches were most successful. That meant downloading and analysing the entire history of the sub-Reddit, totalling more than 21,000 posts.

From there, he filtered out requests where it was unclear if pizza requests had been fulfilled and identified 379 cases where people had successfully garnered pizza. Then, he set about working out how they achieved it. Using machine learning to analyse those posts, he used indicators like politeness, sentiment and length to work out what contributed to success—developing an algorithm that can predict with 70 per cent certainty if a user will get the pizza they'd so dearly appreciate. So what are the key factors? Well:

Narrative is fundamental: stories communicating need are the strongest pull, especially if they're about jobs, family and money.

Reciprocation will sway the balance: mentioning an intention to pay back the favour scores big with Redditors.

Status is important: Redditors with higher status overall (higher karma) or higher status within the subcommunity (previous posts) are more likely to get pizza.

Politeness doesn't matter: Redditors don't care much for manners in these posts before they give pizza—but they do appreciate people saying thanks after the event

It's interesting work, especially when you start thinking about how it could be extrapolated. Sure, this study is limited to Random Acts of Pizza—that in itself made it easier to find a concrete positive outcome—but it's likely that similar trends are evident in other communities and forums online, too.

It'll be interesting to see how psychologists use these findings to understand altruistic behaviour online. But until then, at least you know how to maximise your chances of getting a free pizza. [arXiv Technology Reviewvia Technology Review]

Image by FutUndBeidl under Creative Commons license.