Memes about computers and finance. Advice on housing options at different bases. Links to the latest news in Ukraine. Rants about leadership. Posts from Airmen and Guardians struggling from confusion, burnout, even depression.
Welcome to the unfiltered, fast-growing, increasingly influential world of unofficial Air Force social media.
The official Air Force social media outlets boast more than 2.9 million followers on Facebook, 2.2 million on Instagram, and 1.4 million on Twitter. The Space Force, just over two years of age and still building, has 519,000 followers on Twitter and 330,000 followers on Facebook.
Airmen and Guardians live online now. We’ve got to go there with them. We’ve got to be there with them.Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force
But for insiders of various stripes, unofficial social media pages such as Reddit’s r/AirForce and r/SpaceForce, or Facebook’s amn/nco/snco or Quarantine University, are rich sources of news, insight and, of course, gossip. Many Airmen and Guardians, especially younger service members, see these pages as crucial to navigating their lives and careers in uniform. And leadership is paying attention.
“We grew up being taught to go to the DFAC [dining facilities], to go to the dormitories because that’s where young people lived, that’s where they lived, and you need to go there, and you need to see it and you need to be with them,” said Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force Roger A. Towberman in a panel discussion at the AFA Warfare Symposium in March. “Well, they live in social media now. And we’ve got to go there. We’ve got to see it. We’ve got to be there with them.”
Doing so is still a work in progress. Leaders, page administrators, and community moderators are all reckoning with how to mesh military hierarchy with the usually anonymous, often irreverent nature of social media.
Reddit.com is a collection of online communities (called “subreddits”) where users share notes about everything from nuclear weapons to cat memes to the Air Force and Space Force. It is among the most highly trafficked websites on the internet. The unofficial r/AirForce and r/SpaceForce subreddits are not sanctioned by the services, but governed by anonymous moderators such as “SilentD,” a user who helps run r/AirForce, r/SpaceForce, r/AFROTC, and r/AirForceRecruits.
SilentD, who asked to remain anonymous, is a prior-enlisted officer whose career started in the Air Force and now continues in the Space Force. SilentD began using Reddit in 2011 as “just a community member … interested in finding like-minded other Air Force members and stuff,” but after a year or two of regular posts and interactions, was invited by other moderators to become a moderator. When r/SpaceForce was launched in 2017, a similar process unfolded.
These pages started small—it took r/AirForce a year to compile 1,000 members—but the audience has grown steadily, fueled by a generation of “digital natives” now joining the Air Force and Space Force.
“Shooting the crap and venting to each other and supporting each other, you’ll see people asking about ‘How do I do my basic preference?’ [or] ‘My supervisor said this, is that true? Can you back it up with an AFI reference?’” SilentD said.
That’s really no different than “the mentorship that happens in on-base organizations with the junior enlisted club or the NCO club or whatever. All of those things happen in-person on bases. But with an online community, you can reach an NCO on the other side of the world that has the information that you need,” he said.
On any given day, r/AirForce features questions about permanent change of station moves; rules about taking leave; how best to raise issues with unit leaders; or what the separation process is really like.
There are also jokes—plenty of jokes—many mocking the Air Force’s outdated IT systems, everyday bureaucracy, or uniform policies like the one restricting beards.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass enjoys the humor. “I love the memes,” she said at the AFA Warfare Symposium. “The memes are funny. There’s a couple funny meme people out there. As long as you’re not mean about it, right? Like, I think the IT memes are hilarious. Actually, I sent some of the memes to [Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.], and I’m like, ‘Sir, we’ve become a meme.’”
Yes, the services’ top leaders monitor Reddit, and no wonder: r/AirForce now has 179,000 members, equivalent to more than half the Active-duty force; r/SpaceForce has more than 20,000 members, more than twice as many as Guardians in the Space Force.
Some leaders aren’t just monitoring. They’re wading right into the discussion.
“I remember as a new command chief, Air Force command chief in 2013 being told to stay off, just don’t go there,” Towberman said of social media. “And I can’t even imagine that today. I can’t imagine ignoring this incredibly powerful tool.”
Towberman has been at the forefront. In 2015, as the Command Chief Master Sergeant for 25th Air Force, he hosted an “Ask Me Anything” session on r/AirForce, tackling questions ranging from whether he’d rather fight a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses to detailed queries about intelligence careers.
“I had two senior Airmen that were there as social media advisers,” he recalled in an interview. “I had a PA person, I had a lawyer in the room. I had all these people. Everyone was nervous. I was nervous. And one of the first questions was, ‘Oh, I bet you’re there with a whole roomful of people.’ And I had to make a decision, right? And I said, ‘Yeah, I am, because I’m scared.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I got this person here and this person and this person because I want to get this right. And I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m 48 years old,’ or whatever I was at the time.”
He did it, he said, because “it’s kind of naturally me to try new things,” and “I felt like that was a place where we needed to do a better job than we were doing at the time.”
Around that same time, then-CMSAF James A. Cody hosted an “Ask Me Anything,” as well. SilentD recalls mixed results.
“I think he answered 11 questions and only had an hour to do it,” SilentD said. “So it was kind of negative in one way because he didn’t answer many questions, and they weren’t great answers. They were kind of political and politically correct answers that [the audience] didn’t want to hear.”
But there was no going back. Cody’s successor as CMSAF, Kaleth O. Wright, hosted a session in 2018, then followed the next year with a joint session with then-Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein.
Helping to facilitate these sessions has given SilentD a unique role helping to “educate” senior leaders about how to communicate effectively on Reddit.
It’s not always easy, Towberman acknowledged.
“[Leaders] have to continue to stretch themselves, but they need to be themselves,” Towberman said. “We’re in a transition period. We’re moving through some generational changes. And it was my wife last week that told me, she said, ‘If everything that you believe about young people is true, and everything you believe about the future is true, you don’t have to worry about these few people that haven’t caught up yet. They’ll be out of the way soon enough.’”
Rethinking the Chain of Command
What makes Reddit worth embracing right now, advocates say, is how it can allow for service members with vastly different experiences or backgrounds to connect, discuss, and debate—anonymously.
“A specialist or an E-2 is not going to feel comfortable questioning a colonel or general or something with their name attached to it,” SilentD said. “And that’s also going to come with some bias, like, if you see an E-2 questioning something, you’re going to be like, ‘Well, you’re brand-new, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Shut up specialist, go do your work.’ Whereas [on] Reddit, you’re only judged on your ideas. There’s no rank attached. You could be a general or an E-1, it doesn’t matter—as long as you can communicate well and write well and form coherent thoughts.”
That dynamic flies in the face of conventional thinking about the chain of command, but that’s exactly the point, said Chief Master Sgt. Ian Eishen, a regular Reddit user.
“I’ve always thought structure and chain of command is a very good place when it comes to things like execution of money and discipline and time-sensitive situations—critical loss of life or anything where the risk of doing it wrong” could be life altering, Eishen said. “But when we get into brainstorming and collaboration, there really is no chain of command, there’s no reason for it. And if we focus on a chain of command, and we filter that information as it goes up the chain, it’s bound to get tweaked, or biases put into it unintentionally.”
Prior to the internet, the chain of command was considered the most efficient way to spread information to the force—changes were communicated down the line until they reached the junior enlisted ranks. But that approach is “really outdated,” SilentD said.
Senior leaders “have to utilize these platforms to get the information out to everyone instantly at the same time,” SilentD added. “Because otherwise, the first person that gets it is going to post it on social media. And then someone else might contradict that and now you have rumors spreading and confusion, and no one knows what’s going on.”
Such situations happen all the time, from the release of new temporary BAH [basic allowance for housing] increases to body measurement tests to medal designs have all leaked on social media in recent months.
The chain of command, Towberman said, is “not a chain of communication, not a chain of care.”
“I don’t need to pass along, ‘Hey, we got a new PT test. Tell a general that tells a colonel that tells a lieutenant colonel that tells a major that tells …,’ I don’t have to do that. That’s ridiculous,” Towberman said. “And so to me, that’s really the difference: We communicate very flatly, we communicate in all directions at all times. Commands are given by commanders. So to me, that’s how, in our profession, that’s how you kind of navigate that: There is a lot of free flow in social media, and that’s OK. When it’s communication, it’s OK.”
At the same time, frustrations and even anger sometimes colors the debate. When that happens, leaders need to reach out to Airmen and Guardians directly—and help set guidelines for professional behavior.
“What I’ve learned in the past several years,” Bass said, “is typically [your] online behavior reflects your offline character. … So to that end, we have to understand this information domain. … We have to hold ourselves accountable. Our Airmen are pretty good at understanding right and left boundaries and understanding respect, in uniform, out of uniform, on duty, off duty.”
On the other hand, monitoring what’s posted on r/Air Force is like listening into the conversation around the proverbial watercooler. It’s an insight into what’s on Airmen’s minds, Eishen said.
“If you read everything on our Air Force subreddit—and I read almost everything on there—I get a pretty good idea of some of the things that exist in the Air Force,” Eishen said. “That doesn’t mean that out of [USAF’s] 330,000 Airmen all 330,000 believe this, but if there’s enough confusion about a certain policy or an idea or enough distrust of something, then you can add everybody who says those words, multiply them by 10 or 20, and there’s a good chunk of people.”
Facebook Groups and Pages
Facebook isn’t anonymous, but it has also spawned a large and vociferous community where Airmen voice their frustrations, seek help, and even find mentors.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first began to spread in 2020, Eishen and several friends wanted a way to stay connected with their Airmen and to foster professional development. That’s how AF Quarantine University (QU) was born.
“In Professional Military Education, there’s a saying: ‘You can talk about anything you want to talk about.’ It’s very much a judgment-free zone, where we’re learning together and so you’re allowed to say very ignorant things, and we all talk about it,” Eishen noted. “And so we kept Quarantine University in the exact same way. And through COVID, and through Black Lives Matter, and through the Capitol Riots, and all these different things that happened, it kind of became a place that people could talk … especially with people that were home and people that wanted to talk across spaces or across units.”
While the group looked to PME for inspiration, though, it wasn’t organized by leadership, Eishen said. Indeed, the founders didn’t even tell leadership what they were doing. The pandemic was underway. People were stuck at home. They took their own initiative.
“If we would have asked permission, it would have taken forever,” Eishen stated.
The group grew quickly—it now has more than 29,000 members—so Air Force leveraged the community rather than ignoring it. When the group hosted the AF 2020 Impact Symposium in October 2020, Bass, Towberman, and then-Lt. Gen. Anthony J. Cotton all participated.
“And then a few months after that … Air Education and Training Command and Air Force Headquarters, they were doing meetings on ‘Hey, what is the future of education in the Air Force?’” said Eishen. “And QU actually got a seat at that table!” Not bad for a group that started with “a couple of people sitting in the chow hall, making something up, and then jumping online and trying it out.”
It turned out not to be as great a leap as they would have guessed, he said, to be “able to start influencing what’s happening in Air Force education.”
One of the most notable Facebook pages for Airmen is “amn/nco/snco.” Started in 2013 by a retired enlisted Airman, the page quickly established itself by not only posting all the latest news articles about the Air Force, but also submissions from readers, often including documents, pictures, and videos that had not previously been shared publicly.
Because some of the posts have highlighted accusations about toxic leadership, problems at particular bases, or frustrating stories of bureaucracy, the page has not always been beloved by leadership, its administrator, who asked to remain anonymous, told Air Force Magazine. But it has led to changes.
“All these outlets, they give a voice to Airmen … who don’t have a voice. They’re not being heard. And what’s happened with social media is people realize it’s not just them. It’s not just their shop, their base. Some of this stuff is systemic,” the admin said. “Where before the advent of social media, they’re like, well, you know, I’m just gonna suck it up, maybe this is just my unit. They’re realizing cross-talking amongst everybody in the services all over the world. Like … for instance, there’s mold in Lackland [Air Force Base, Texas]. Oh, guess what, my Army barracks has mold too. And oh, at Al Udeid, at this deployment over in Qatar, we’ve got mold too. And guess what? You start finding ways to benchmark solutions.”
There’s also a deterrent effect, the admin argued.
“There’s kind of a running joke: Some people tell their people, ‘Hey, you better not end up on that page.’ And things will be posted and other leaders will say, ‘Hey, can you go check to make sure we’re not doing that?’ And that doesn’t really get seen very often. I hear about them behind the scenes,” he said.
Like Quarantine University, amn/nco/snco has been a resource where Airmen answer questions for other Airmen.
In many cases, the admin said, the people asking the questions didn’t receive the help they need from their commands and look to social media to fill in the gap.
“Basically what you have is a lot of people who have questions and they’re afraid to ask or they’ve asked and they’ve been told, ‘Hey you need to get that information yourself,’ ” the admin said. “Or … ‘Why don’t you know that information?’ Then they have to worry about their performance report coming up … and they’re worried that ‘Woah, if I’m known to constantly ask questions, that’s not a good thing.’ ”
The Facebook page has some rough edges—the admin acknowledged “mistakes” posting things in the past, including one that drew the attention of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which wanted to know its source. Asked about the incident, the admin’s lawyer told Air Force Magazine that they declined to participate in the investigation. OSI did not respond to a query about the incident.
In March 2021 the page was briefly shut down for unknown reasons. The disruption cost the page many of its followers, which declined from 350,000 at the time to about 65,000 today. Facebook’s parent company, Meta, did not respond to a query about the matter before press time.
“The bottom line is all of these social media and regular media, it improves the lives of Airmen,” the admin said, sounding every bit like a newspaper publisher defending its First Amendment rights. “That’s the bottom line. And if one Airman’s life is improved and one family’s improved, that’s what it’s about.”
Airmen and Guardians on social media frequently rally in response to members who post about personal struggles, from financial difficulties to depression to thoughts about suicide.
“Even on Reddit, you’ll see trolls and you’ll see arguing,” Eishen said. “But when somebody really needs help, 90 percent of the people come out and are immediately helpful.”
Eishen recalled an incident one Christmas where an Airmen and his wife had PCSed but had no cash and couldn’t get in touch with his first sergeant on base. Desperate, the Airman appealed for help on Reddit.
“Within about 30 minutes, I was able to get a hold of him directly, start talking to him, call the base, get him in a room on base and work through, ‘Hey, we’ll get his first sergeant in the next day or two to pay for it,” Eishen said. “Then we shot him some money over Apple Pay so he can buy dinner for him and his wife and make sure that they had a Christmas meal, and all that was good to go.”
In other cases, service members can be in crisis, sometimes unable to get the mental health help they require, and turn to Reddit or Facebook as a last resort.
“You have people who have to reach out, basically only because they’re anonymous, to get help,” the amn/nco/snco admin said. “I can’t even count, probably over 10 people I’ve helped with suicide—setting up a wellness call, talking them down from committing suicide.”
SilentD echoed the sentiment. “I have intervened with dozens of suicidal members on Air Force and Space Force subreddits,” SilentD said. “So we’ve had everything from someone posting that they’re just sad, they just broke up with their significant other and they’re depressed about it, to posting their actual suicide note on Reddit or posting a picture of their pills that they’re about to swallow to try to kill themselves. And I’ve tried to intervene on dozens of those. … And others in the community do the same thing. So if they see something like that, then you’ll immediately see usually dozens of posts, like ‘Hey, man, give me a call. Here’s my number. I’m going to private message you. Reach out. Don’t do this, you know, talk to me. I’ll listen to you.’”
Often it’s the anonymity social media provides that enables intervention.
“Anonymity gives people courage,” Towberman said. “I wish that wasn’t required to talk about your struggles. But when they do, and then to see the community kind of rally around them, we know that we have saved lives with social media. And so just to see that happen is amazing.”
This is where the importance of unofficial, slightly uncouth, tightly knit support communities shines most.
“Yeah, we post stupid memes,” SilentD said. “And maybe sometimes we’re too critical of senior leaders or something like that. But there’s so much value in that community and looking out for each other that I personally think makes up for all of that.”