Am I the Asshole?
Why Reddit's favorite question is more popular than ever
Whosedogisitanyway is struggling with an ethical dilemma.
He’s adopted a stray dog that he’s grown to love (“She’s the light of my life”). He posts a picture on Facebook and, shortly afterward, receives a message from a woman claiming to be the dog’s owner. She tells him that her house caught fire and she lost everything. She's been searching for her dog ever since.
He concedes that “it was unmistakably the same dog” but refuses to give her back, offering to send pictures instead. He blocks the woman on social media. “I know she loves my dog and wants her back,” he tells the crowd. “But I can’t picture a life without her. Not one where I’m happy anyway.”
“Am I the asshole for refusing to return a lost dog that was clearly well-loved?” asks Whosedogisitanyway on Reddit’s popular Am I The Asshole (AITA) community.
“I would rather have a root canal than post on AITA.”
The post received more than 2,500 comments, and the verdict was decisive: You’re the Asshole. With almost 34,000 upvotes (Reddit’s equivalent of likes), the top comment states simply: “Give the dog back.”
His question — essentially, “Am I the asshole?” — was posed on the subreddit in January 2021 and received more than 45,000 comments. This subreddit was prominent before the pandemic, but now it is enormous. It is the ninth-most active of all 2.8 million subreddits on the website.
“Am I the Asshole?” The answer reveals how the internet and a year in isolation have affected our collective mental wellbeing.
“A catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher in all of us”
US-based photographer Marc Beaulac created the subreddit in 2013 to settle a dispute about the air conditioning temperature in his office. He tells Inverse that AITA offers “a catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher in all of us and a place to finally find out if you were wrong in an argument that’s been bothering you.”
The premise is simple: Users explain the conflict, and the crowd judges either You’re the Asshole (YTA) or Not the Asshole (NTA). The final verdict is determined by upvotes, prioritizing well-reasoned responses.
“We’re a small claims court,” says Beaulac, who describes AITA as “crowdsourcing morality.” His big hope is that the subreddit can open people up to differences of opinion.
“One of the biggest problems we have in culture today, especially with social media, is this idea of solipsism,” he says. “The concept that we’re trying to force here is that people open themselves up to the random other crowd and let some different ideas in. I really hope that is a success.”
In February 2020, AITA had 1.7 million users. With around 75,000 people joining Reddit per month, they have now almost doubled. “There were a lot more hours to while away and stare at your screen and type things,” Beaulac says.
AITA has offered an escapist haven “where you could think about something else than everybody getting sick.” (Beaulac actively banned posts discussing Covid, not wanting to fuel misinformation online.)
But there’s more to it: Proximity indoors to others cranked up the tension in many households. For everyday questions — like whether to ask a partner to cook with butter instead of oil or the fairest way to split the costs of an Airbnb — we turned to the internet.
“We’re a small claims court.”
The pandemic has been divisive, forcing us to scrutinize and compare our judgments with other people. Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Danny Isaacs tells Inverse that Covid-19 brought out some of our worst psychological instincts.
“The circumstances we’ve had in the last 18 months are primed to make people more paranoid about what others are doing and what they’re doing, and whether it’s right or wrong,” he says.
“It’s inevitable, and it definitely predates Covid,” Isaacs says. “It’s become more enhanced in a time of such worry, trauma, and distress, which is psychologically what you’d expect.”
“It’s a pebble that was thrown into the water, and the ripples are going throughout culture.”
AITA is a platform for dramatic, reality TV-worthy problems, as well as the searingly mundane.
It provides human stories in abundance — a substitute, during the pandemic, for hearing them first-hand. It’s a kind of virtual curtain-twitching.
“We do inherently have a fascination with watching what other people do,” says Isaacs. We look to locate ourselves in others’ stories. Reading them helps us recognize what we stand for and what we don’t.
“It can be a way to get rid of parts of yourself that you don’t really like that much.”
For AITA user SmolOracle, who has commented over 100 times on the subreddit, and whose contributions are frequently upvoted (they have a whopping “Comment Karma” score of 12,729, in Reddit terms), this introspection is a big part of the appeal.
“I figure if life is all about learning from our own and others’ mistakes, people can learn from mine. and I can learn how to handle my own crap thanks to theirs,” they tell Inverse. “It’s nicely reciprocal.”
“I would love to see the royalty checks someday.”
Despite AITA’s reach, Beaulac remains largely invisible, hidden behind his username, Flignir. He and his team of moderators (who he quickly acknowledges: “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stealing all the credit”) are all volunteers, but others have seen commercial potential in his product.
“It’s a pebble that was thrown into the water, and the ripples are going throughout culture,” he says.
There are AITA spin-offs on every corner of the internet, from YouTube channels reading posts to Mumsnet’s Am I Being Unreasonable? AITA even has a section of its FAQs addressing tributes, and Beaulac is regularly contacted for permission to make foreign language versions (the answer is always yes). AITA has become a genre of its own.
Beaulac laughs: “I would love to see the royalty checks someday.”
“We live in this very polarized good versus evil world.”
AITA’s problem-solving format, of course, is not new.
“It’s an advice column with a little spin,” says Danny Vega. “A repackaging of a timeless thing.”
A former ethics student, Vega is one half of Am I the A-hole Podcast (AITApod), launched with co-host Sara Levine in December 2019. AITApod attracts 20,000 listeners per month and has a growing community of paid subscribers on the membership platform Patreon.
“It’s gone better than I dreamed,” Vega says. “I would love to make a living from [the podcast].”
On their podcast, Vega and Levine guess the verdict of AITA posts before dissecting meatier offerings. Vega, by his admission, acts as a proxy for his audience.
“Controversy is where it’s interesting,” he says, mentioning that he selects top-listed posts to spark discussion. “I think the appeal is that people like to have the situations read to them and to think about them with friends.”
He adds: “People have reported consistently that we’ve got them to switch sides, which I think is really cool.”
“Perfect mini-stories that also function as puzzles.”
Vega describes being kept awake by situations on AITA, knotty problems that, years later, he still can’t get out of his head.
What makes AITA so interesting? He’s quick to respond:
“We live in this very polarized good versus evil world,” Vega says. “One of the reasons I like going through these situations is because a lot of people are unwilling to accept that you can be on the wrong side, but still make a lot of good points. Rarely is it 100:0. It’s usually 70:30.”
A new form of storytelling
For AITA’s users, the stories themselves are the main draw. Cup-and-handle, another respected contributor to the subreddit, puts it simply: “It’s something different to read. They’re great stories.”
Often written in the heat of the moment, AITA’s stories can be raw, unpolished, and brimming with emotion. They have the power to elicit strong reactions, hence the intensity of responses. Inherently theatrical, they unfold in real-time, full of palpable dramatic irony (it’s always satisfying to see something that the poster cannot).
Novelist Valerie Valdes, author of the award-nominated Chilling Effect, even suggests that creative writers take notes from AITA.
“AITA posts are nonetheless stories, and that’s part of the draw,” she says. “Reading someone’s story, however terrible, and wanting to know how it turns out.”
“We seldom have enough time to master the game of life.”
Even so, multiple users described AITA as a guilty pleasure. Steph (aka, Stephowl) is an avid reader. She says: “It’s like the occasional slice of cake in my otherwise balanced reading diet.”
Steph may be quick to deride AITA, but she highlights its appeal as a participatory form of storytelling.
“AITA is a way to access a series of perfect mini-stories that also function as puzzles,” she says. “What makes this more engaging than solving a traditional riddle is that the answer is open-sourced to the community, to reach by consensus.”
AITA, as Steph points out, allows — and encourages — its readers to take an active role in shaping the narrative. And in this respect, argues Gavin Davies, Board Games Project Officer at the University of Manchester, AITA is “much like a game.”
It bears all the hallmarks: a reward system (badges and upvotes), its own language (terms like YTA and NTA), and a lengthy set of rules.
AITA is a space where users can playfully engage with big ideas – and the pandemic has thrown a lot of those our way. We are, after all, living in “a global climate of uncertainty,” as researchers at Newcastle University put it, with increased rules and restrictions.
Google Trends shows that the pandemic fueled introspection. Searches beginning with “Am I” spiked at the same time as infection rates. In offering a space where the consequences of decisions are contained, Davies argues that games are “a good way of thinking, of giving you some sense of control or agency in a world that seems to be acting irrespective of your involvement.” He adds, “They’re like little dramatizations of life.”
Life is becoming increasingly gamified, says Davies. Dating apps like Bumble are “conspicuously designed like a card game,” while competition for likes and followers on social media is “literally playing with an algorithm.”
Even budgeting and investment apps are set up to look like games with rewards and points.
“I don’t think it’s coincidental that it’s designed the way it is,” observes Davies.
“We’re at a point now, because of Covid and social networking and everything in between, where we’re seeing the world like Shakespeare said, as a stage.
“We’re all on it, and we’re all trying to get something from it and get people engaging with what we’re doing. And there’s a formative element to that, a certain kind of play”.
“There’s nothing more uncertain than trying to make a success of oneself, which is why you reduce it to a game with a set of rules that you hope you could perhaps master with time,” he adds.
Whose dog was it anyway?
To Danny Isaacs, the psychotherapist, there is certainly something performative about the post that starts this story. Whosedogisitanyway is trying to manipulate the crowd’s verdict by emphasizing his emotional dependence on the dog.
“This man must know that it’s not his dog,” Isaacs says. “What that person might really need help to think about is why they’ve taken somebody’s dog to make themselves feel better.
“To be honest, that’s more of a discussion for therapy, not a thread on social media.”
Whosedogisitanyway was not happy with the vote’s outcome. He published an update, justifying his need to keep the dog. A moderator deleted it and left this epitaph at the top of the page, is unambiguous: “He’s the Asshole.”
Ultimately, as Isaacs puts it, “the majority of people want to see themselves as a good person. In reality, we’ve all got the potential to be good – whatever that means — and bad.”
No one wants to be voted the Asshole. Most users wouldn’t dream of posting themselves, even though 62 percent are voted NTA. As Steph puts it, “I would rather have a root canal than post on AITA.”
But the subreddit’s founder, Beaulac, insists that plenty of users are genuinely curious about their choices, and some desperately need an external perspective:
“There are people who are being successfully gaslit, who are in abusive relationships, and they just can’t see it from an outside perspective,” he says. “That’s exactly the person we’re trying to help.”
The most striking finding from moderating AITA, adds Beaulac, is that “there is an enormous difference of opinion, and there’s very little realization that it exists on any individual part.” As Whosedogisitanyway discovered, this recognition can at times be frightening.
“Perhaps it is a useful place to test out these things,” concludes Isaacs. “As long as people can have a space in their mind for the grey area in between, there isn’t this solid sense of what’s right or wrong.”