How Reddit's Coronavirus Community Became A Global Lifeline

Download Audio
Reddit's coronavirus community
Reddit's coronavirus community

TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen)

Redditors share how they're coping with the coronavirus pandemic. We also take an in-depth look at r/coronavirus, which has fast become one of the most comprehensive, up-to-date, and reliable sources of information for this constantly developing global story.

-Endless Thread's open call for participation
-The Duke choir brightens everyone's day

Contact Us:

We want to hear from you! Tell us about your experience dealing with the pandemic: How are you coping? What challenges do you face? What are your moments of joy? What advice do you have for others? There are a few ways to reach us:

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Amory.

Amory Sivertson: Ben.

Ben: It has been a strange week.

Amory: It has been a strange month.

Ben: I know. And each week kinda feels like a month, and each month feels like a year, and each day feels like a week. How are you doing?

Amory: You know, I can’t complain. I have a job for now. I have food. And I have a really good partner to be hunkered down with. But I just feel like, and I’m sure a lot of people feel this way, I just have not found my rhythm. I don’t know when I am supposed to be exercising, eating, going for a walk, or mediating, which is a new thing I do now. But I’ll find it. What about you?

Ben: I'm doing mostly just eating while meditating. So that’s how I get it done. No I’m in the same boat. I mean, things are a little challenging. I don’t have childcare and I have two children. But I’m finding myself incredibly thankful for the things I do have, starting with my health. I’ve been playing dungeons and dragons via video chat, which has been good. So yeah, I’m thankful right now and I’m worried about people in the world but I’m thankful for my own life at the moment.

Amory: So just to get people caught back up on the Endless Thread world. We were on a break and working very hard on a special series that we were gonna bring you at the beginning of our new season of Endless Thread.

Ben: It was going great.

Amory: It will be great. But then a global pandemic happened.

Ben: And we thought maybe we should talk about that because we are journalists and thats the biggest story since forever.

Amory: Yes. We definitely should.

Ben: Also, we really wanted to hear from listeners to see how you all were doing. And we heard from a lot of you. Like Jess.

Jess: Hey, Endless Thread. Alkalined13 here. My real name is Jess and I live in Michigan. So I have a 5 year old and he has been off of school for a week now. I own an Etsy shop and I usually do gig delivery driving while he's at school and I am no longer doing any gig jobs because he's at home with me.

Amory: Jess says she and her son get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and do some home schooling, read some books. Then? Entertainment.

Jess: And our game yesterday was that I filled up our living room and hallway area with all of our Tupperware dishes and then we tossed a bunch of ping pong balls into the air and whoever got the highest score was whoever could hit the most Tupperware dishes.

Ben: Jess says, as a gig economy worker who drives grocery deliveries for a ride hailing service with an Etsy store on the side and a kid who is now at home all day, the economic impact on her life and her family has been real and immediate.

Jess: So my Etsy shop sales have been pretty much next to nothing for the last three or four weeks. My husband works at a grocery store. And so he's gone until 6 or 7 every day. I could work for a couple hours at night after he gets home. But it's just stressful, you know. But it's like I have to have money to pay my bills and working a gig job, it's not like you can take time off and still get paid. So, you do what you have to do. But for now, we are at home and we're about to probably play some Monopoly here and read some books. So that's what it looks like in Michigan.

Ben: OK, let’s go from Michigan, to the south of France.

Randy Lofficier: Hi, my Reddit name is Possum Girl, my real name is Randy Lofficier. I live in a small village in the south of France called Chalabre. It's in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. We've been on lockdown here since Tuesday and mostly it's going quite well.

Amory: It’s going quite well, but the lockdown where Randy is, is definitely on a different level than it is in most places in the US right now.

Randy: We need to have a form that we fill out with why we're going out when we go out. We can go out to buy vital food products, obviously. We can go out to buy medicine. We can walk our dogs. We could do exercise as long as we stay within two kilometers of our home. We can go out to aid either a family member or a vulnerable person like an elderly neighbor, which we do fairly frequently. And you have to have a paper for each person that goes out. So if you're living as a couple and you both go out to walk the dog, you need to each have a paper signed explaining why you're going out. 

Ben: Randy and her husband are both writers and they work from home, so they’re lucky to be able to keep working despite the lockdown. And the biggest challenge at the moment is getting groceries and remembering your paperwork when you go out, so you don’t get fined.

Ben: A lot of our listeners told us that now that they’re home and relegated to using the internet a lot, well their Reddit use has exploded.

Redditor: I spend a lot of time on Reddit during normal circumstances, and I’d say it’s doubled.

Redditor 2: Uhhh my Reddit usage has skyrocketed.

Amory: And a strong piece of evidence for that is the Coronavirus subreddit, in less than two months, has gone from a thousand subscribers, to fast-approaching two million.

Ben: Handling the deluge of activity requires a lot of moderators. 64 of them, though given the group’s trajectory, there will probably be more by the time you’re listening to this.

Rick Barber: We have some that are PhD candidates. We've got a few that are professors, programmers, nurses, we've got a few medical doctors committed to keeping the sub a really high quality destination for information.

Amory: We wanted to learn more about the rise of the coronavirus subreddit, and the impact it’s having on a global event that will change the course of history. So we called up three of those 64 so-called mods. To talk about their so-called sub.

Rick: I am Rick Barber. I'm normally a second-year PhD student doing research in computer science on the conflicts that arise between platforms and their users. And I'm in Champagne, Illinois.

Emerson Ailidh Boggs: My name's Emerson Ailidh Boggs. I'm a PhD student in infectious disease and I do HIV capsid biology.

Patrick Doherty: My name is Patrick Doherty. I just finished my Masters degree from the University of Notre Dame after leaving my PhD program. And while getting my p.h.d. I was studying HIV and tuberculosis co-infections.

Amory: Can you give us a tour of the subreddit? What kinds of resources can people find there? What are the types of conversations and posts that that go up in there?

Rick: So the subreddit usually will have one to two things stickied at the top, sticky post just means that it's at the top for everyone who directly visits the subreddit. You know, “should I cancel a travel plan?” used to be a big one, but now it's more like, you know, “What kind of you know, what kind of fun activities can I do while I'm sheltering in place?” Our second spot is often an AMA, an Ask Me Anything, with any number of interesting guests that we've been lucky enough to have. Last week we had Bill Gates. Today, we had a critical care physician in the UK. Sometimes we also put other things in that second slot. Like, for instance, here we've got an initiative for opening up some of the science around COVID-19 and researching it from the scientific journal publishers. You know, this is something that we have tried to amplify a little bit from the start.

Ben: It's interesting that you mentioned the piece of bringing down the paywall for a lot of academic research. I wonder if the subreddit and its growth has been a factor in making that happen. Do you believe it has?

Emerson: We definitely think it made the difference. This little action wound up getting 35,000 papers released. And so what we have stickied right now is a collection of those papers, but this user originally posted on r/coronavirus just to get support for that effort. So I and this user both believe that r/coronavirus was instrumental in getting those papers released.

Ben: Wow. I mean, you can imagine that Aaron Swartz probably would be smiling down on that. That's really cool.

Emerson: Yes, we definitely think we did him proud.

Amory: What kinds of posts are not allowed on the coronavirus subreddit?

Patrick: We don't allow sensationalized headlines or misinformation. The whole goal of the subreddit is to allow a place where people can go and get factual, accurate information on the outbreak across the world and not be influenced by things that aren't necessarily true.

Ben: What makes the subreddit such a good resource for people, do you think?

Rick: I mean, I think that, you know, especially in our daily discussion thread, there are a lot of people in that thread having conversations about the anxieties that they have and sharing those anxieties with one another, or frustrations that they have about a relative who isn't taking it seriously. And they're sharing tricks with each other about, hey, here's how I convinced my grandma to stay home or, you know, here's a piece of information I showed someone to convince them to stay home. And then, you know, like I said, they're also comforting one another to an extent.

Amory: The mods get a front row seat to the usual conversations happening on the sub between regular users...and they also get to see people mobilizing to try and help out. And sometimes they’re a conduit for those efforts. Rick had a coder friend reach out and say "Hey, I can write code but I’m not sure how to help. What needs to be done?"

Rick: And that's why we started the COVID Projects subreddit. And I've seen there everything from people sharing sewing patterns and people, you know, people trying to sew masks at home for donation to people 3D printing, offering their 3D printing resources to programmers, trying to set up various websites that can help out with things. So what's been most inspiring to me is just seeing that spirit that I think we associate with something like World War II, where everyone is trying to figure out how they can help and pitch in and and using online community to actually facilitate that so that we can all do what we can from home.

Emerson: Richard mentioned 3D printing and, specifically, people have been releasing files to 3D-print ventilator valves. So the contribution from home is a material one that actually makes its way to clinical settings. And I think that's really interesting. But another one that we've been able to do a lot of good with is distributed computing. So there is a lab that does protein folding and it's a pretty computationally intense process. So what they've done is they've basically found a way to spread out the workload where you can use your computer's background processing. And we have gotten just thousands of people on that.

Amory: Quick note here. This kind of crowd-sourced computing project is becoming more common now. Basically the idea is a bunch of people all contribute the computing power of their personal computers to a really big effort to go through data.

Ben: Maybe you’ve heard of it for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence project, SETI, or a project to map the brain. Just this week, it was announced that IBM would be partnering with the White House to lend it’s supercomputer powers to help researchers work on finding an effective vaccine for the virus. Distributed computing is when citizens lend their personal computer processors to that kind of a cause.

Amory: And in this case, Redditors are lending their computing power to a lab that does protein folding.

Ben: Can you describe for the complete idiot like myself what protein folding is and why it matters?

Emerson: OK. This is my favorite. I love talking about this stuff. So the virus isn't a protein. The virus is entirely composed of proteins. A virus is literally a bag of proteins with some genetic material in there. So specifically, the ones that people are paying attention to with the coronavirus are called spike proteins. And they're the ones that are actually sticking out from the external surface.

Ben: Oh, yeah, we've all seen that image that looks sort of like the Death Star, but with red little red pins sticking out of it. Emerson: Yeah, exactly. So those are the proteins that are recognized by the host immune system. Because the spike protein is what elicits the immune response, it is of huge import in vaccine development.

Ben: Okay. So let me describe that back to you in the most idiotic way possible and you tell me if you think that it's maybe correct. The spiky ball image that we have all seen of the virus — folding proteins allows people to find the matching puzzle piece to that so that we can kill it with a vaccine.

Emerson: Yeah.

Amory: While the coronavirus subreddit is helping develop masks, ventilators, and helping labs develop a novel coronavirus vaccine, there’s also another way the group has made a major impact.

Ben: The pandemic has escalated so quickly that traditional methods of reporting have fallen by the wayside in some cases. Newsrooms — like our own here at WBUR — are doing their best to keep up. But sometimes even daily updates aren’t enough. And this is where Emerson says the subreddit comes into play.

Emerson: So one of the advantages we have is that we have users all over the globe, so we're able to get those updates in real time. This started off as kind of a dorky pet project for me and I kind of just wanted to see what it would be like. But it is something that other virologists are using now.

Amory: When we come back, Rick, Emerson, and Patrick talk about the impact the pandemic is having on their own lives.

[Sponsor Break]

Ben: We’re back with more of our conversation with Reddit moderators Patrick, Emerson, and Rick.

Amory: How is the pandemic impacting you personally?

Rick: I have a lung disease and no small amount of anxiety in the background. And so, as far as being a moderator itself, that has certainly drawn a lot of my productive attention. Other work has become a bit of a lower priority. On the family side, I have talked to my grandmother and my mom and dad on the phone more in the last month than I ever have in a given month. And yeah, spending a lot more quality time with loved ones.

Patrick: For me, it's helped me communicate to my family that I do know what I'm talking about. You know, my parents were down in Florida on vacation when this all went haywire and I was able to convince them to come home and kind of use my expertise that they see from the subreddit to trust my opinion better and take care of themselves, which is very helpful for me and my sanity. But yeah, it's been special for me because I feel like I'm making a difference in people's ability to understand and protect themselves from this outbreak.

Amory: Emerson, same question to you. How is this impacting you personally?

Emerson: I go to Pitt and they have moved to distance learning. So I actually used Zoom this morning to give a seminar and my neighborhood is empty. There is just absolutely no one here. There's parking on the street that's usually never available. It's quiet, whereas it's usually like a party college neighborhood. And beyond that, I'm getting my shelter in place orders later today because Pennsylvania is acting really severely and I very much support that. But right now, my girlfriend is rushing over here so we can quarantine together when they officially announce it tonight.

Amory: Very smart. It's good to have a buddy in all of this.

Emerson: She has a bunch of fiddler crabs and we're going to try to figure out where to put them in my one bedroom northeast apartment.

(music plays)

Ben: Rick, Emerson, Patrick, thank you very much for talking with us.

Emerson: Of course.

Rick: Yeah, thanks a lot for having us.

Patrick: Yeah. Thank you.

(music plays)

Ben: OK. So we have a question. A couple of questions, actually. First off, how are you doing? What is your experience during this global pandemic? What are your challenges? Your moments of joy? Are you, like me, baking and eating a dangerous amount of bread?

Amory: Or like me, going for long walks in the woods and thinking about never leaving so you don’t have to hear the news or look at a screen ever again?

Ben: Yeah, how do you escape from the news? Is that usually us and we are now ruining it for you? How much more coronavirus stuff do you want in your feed or from us?

Amory: Let us know your thoughts and your experiences as we all try to get through this alone...together. You can call and leave a voicemail, at ‪857-244-0338‬ or you can record a voice memo with your phone and email it to

Ben: By the way, all of the listeners you heard from today are also Redditors. We posted on Reddit asking for their input. So if you want to check out our subreddit, which we have now, an official subreddit. You can to Check it out.

(music plays)

Ben: And we’ll be back in your feed soon while we work on some bits and bobs and prepare our upcoming special series. In the meantime, please wash your hands, stay safe, practice self care and also caring for others by keeping your distance when you can. But first, we’ve got one last story for you. It’s a good one to go out on. Among the things that social distancing has made impossible is coming together to make music.

Amory: One Redditor posted a video that we could probably all use right now, and she sent us a voice memo telling us more about it.

Jia Jia Shen: Hi, my name is Jia Jia Shen. I'm from Huntsville, Alabama, and go to Duke University where I sing with the Duke Chorale.

(music from the Duke Chorale begins to play)

Jia Jia: Every spring break, the choir goes on tour. It's usually like this great big fun, concert every night kind of thing. But with coronavirus becoming a huge issue, it was pretty apparent that we would have to stop singing pretty soon together. And I think because of that, a lot of us wanted to make music anytime we could. And so one of the options was the bus because we were all stuck together in one place. This piece is The Silver Swan by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm. It's based on a legend, a Greek legend about how swans don't sing until they're until they're about to die. But what was really cool about it was that my peers on the bus allowed me to conduct the piece with them. And it was an amazing experience to like, be so close to the people I sing with and I mean, this is one of the first times you would sing the song on our tour. And also one of the last. And so it was just, so poignant and a thing to remember and thank god, Yi Chen, he got a video recording of it all. And the week after tour, after everybody had gone home and we were all alone again. I spent that time watching it over and over again. And it's a great memory. And I'm so happy to share it with all of you.

(The Duke Chorale sings "The Silver Swan" by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm)

Headshot of Josh Crane

Josh Crane Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Josh is a producer for podcasts and new programs at WBUR.


Headshot of Amory Sivertson

Amory Sivertson Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.



More from Endless Thread

Listen Live