Reddit: ‘The Front Page of the Internet’

Reddit logo

With an attitude reflecting its titular play on the phrase “read it,” Reddit remains an anomaly in an age where websites are flooded with eye-catching animations. Going against the sentiment that a picture speaks a thousand words, Reddit is a deconstruction of what popular culture finds noteworthy. Though visitors can find pictures, videos, GIFs, or any visual media on the site, its appeal lies elsewhere. Greeting its visitors with only unappealing bright blue text, Reddit evokes the rudimentary simplicity of the early days of the internet, yet, it’s actually hyper-modern.

Despite being the 10th most trafficked website in the United States (ahead of Netflix, Pinterest, and the New York Times), Reddit is mostly shielded from the aggressive marketing campaigns and pop-up ads that haunt much of today’s internet. This virtue, free from industrial constraints, perhaps is not as surprising as it might seem. Developed by two college dorm-mates in 2005, Reddit has predominantly been unaffected by exterior conditions. Expanding on their own even after being purchased by parent company Condé, Reddit was developed by cofounders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. Together, the duo devised a platform that gave users the ability to own the site. To understand this dynamic, here are some important terms that are representative of Reddit’s structure as defined by Reddit’s own glossary:

                   Mod – Moderator of a subReddit. They have the power to remove comments and posts, among other                                            things.

                   Reddiquette – Refers to the rules of Reddit, the rules of a specific subReddit, or less commonly to                                                                 unwritten guidelines of conduct followed by typical Redditors.

                   Sub – An individual subReddit. Note: all of Reddit’s content is posted to individual subReddits that are                                    meticulously monitored. Comments/posts reach Reddit’s front page when they garner a                                                    significant amount of up-votes from other users.

Perhaps more dependent on their users than most businesses, Reddit’s content is generated by the people, for the people. Ideally, it is representative of contemporary interests at any moment of the day. Combining its global reach with the rawest form of democracy (the ability to up-vote or down-vote any post), Reddit is unrestricted, brutally honest, and often crude. To this extent, Reddit is one of the internet’s most candid representations of humanity. People, as Reddit’s cofounders note, are not perfect. “Out of 170 million people [on Reddit], we’re probably talking about fewer than 10,000 bad people.” As an avenue for human expression that is illustrative of a startling a 170 million monthly users, Reddit is an apex of human interaction. Maintaining this identity, here are five things you need to know about Reddit’s important role in the internet world:

  • Reddit is hard to monetize and market.
  • Reddit’s credo of free speech drives its conceptual framework.
  • Reddit serves as a source for much of the internet’s published content.
  • Reddit would not exist without its moderators.
  • Reddit’s users have developed a culture of authenticity.

 

  1. Reddit is hard to monetize and market.

reddit demographics

Though the website is accessed by a variety of users, most of them are males between 13 and 35. This relatively homogeneous consumer base that predominantly frequents gaming, sports, and other typically masculine pages makes Reddit a tough sell for companies whose products apply more broadly. Further complicating Reddit’s pitch to potential advertisers, users only spend an average of 15 minutes and 40 seconds on the site and 90% of the site’s guests do not make a Reddit account. Because of the brevity of most of Reddit’s visits, generating traffic with predictable users is not easy. This poses a real concern to companies seeking to advertise on Reddit’s site.

Cofounder Steve Huffman has noted that Reddit is a ten-year-old company conducting itself like a newborn. Though he predicts that his return to the company (following a brief hiatus) will yield commercial improvements, progress will be difficult. As he admits, his primary initiative is to rebuild Reddit’s corporate team following years of Reddit-related scandal and subpar management. When asked how Reddit will achieve commercial relevance, Huffman announced that financial concerns will have to come after Reddit corrects its corporate infrastructure, not before it.

Despite Huffman’s aspirations, Reddit faces a long road to sustained profitability that may not be traversable. According to Seth Fiegerman’s spotlight on Reddit, the site has not been able to convert user traffic into profit despite garnering hundreds of millions of users worldwide. In fact, several studies on Reddit’s commercial value have noted that it only generated $8.6 million in ads in 2014. In comparison to another top-trafficked site, Amazon reportedly registered over $600 million in ad revenue in 2012. Both sites having similar numbers of visitors, it is seemingly odd that Reddit would fall hundreds of millions of dollars behind in ad revenue. However, this disparity isn’t at all surprising to market experts.

As an ex-employee stated, Reddit has fundamental convictions on how they believe sensitive user details should be protected. Because of this concern, Reddit asks for no personal information to sign up; all that is required is an original username and password. As a result, an architecture predicated on anonymity is hard to sell. While Reddit understands that advertisers want explicit information in order to create targeted ads, it has pioneered alternative methods to generate revenues. Explored in a report by Bloomberg Businessweek, Reddit has enacted a unique ad module and offers companies the ability to purchase ad space on a flat fee. In doing so, advertisers can target Reddit users from particular cities or countries. Additionally, instead of selling general real-estate on the homepage or sidebars, Reddit has considered allowing companies to advertise products on specific subReddits. For example, the subReddit r/baseball might present ads from Nike Baseball. Similarly, r/swimming would display concentrated Speedo promotions. Although this concept is being refined, it provides the specific user data that advertisers have sought from Reddit since its rapid ascent. Still, Reddit is a long way away from market relevance. Until the company is able to juggle its fierce protection of privacy with the need to monetize, Reddit will remain an afterthought in a giant, saturated market.

 

  1. Reddit’s credo of free speech drives its conceptual framework.

In the site’s own words, “Reddit bridges communities and individuals with ideas, the latest digital trends, and breaking news (…okay, and maybe cats). Our mission is to help people discover places where they can be their true selves, and empower our community to flourish.” This “trueness of self” is integral to Reddit’s framework; however, it is one of its most notable flaws. While subReddits such as r/cats, r/dogs, and r/math innocently exist, the subReddits r/SexyAbortions, r/ChokeABitch, and r/HurtingAnimals operate without much restraint as well. Because users are nearly entirely anonymous, many feel empowered to frequent these channels without any consequences. Although Reddit acknowledges the existence of hateful pages, they maintain that Reddit does not exist to ban ideas. Instead, choosing to merely monitor conduct, Reddit only reprimands users if they spread offensive content outside of their isolated circles. In short, until user conduct directly affects Redditors from unrelated subReddits, Reddit’s most controversial pages are allowed to exist.

To thwart these pages, Reddit has created “Quarantine Zones” where only users with email verified Reddit accounts can access pages flagged for provocative material. However, most efforts to purge Reddit of offensive groups has been deemed an infringement on free speech and is met with opposition even from those who do not engage with them. Though most Redditors agree that r/HurtingAnimals is distasteful, they insist that the protection of all speech is paramount. Sacrificing Reddit’s integrity is out of the question. Recognizing this point, users are often aware of the effect they can have on Reddit. In truth, Redditors run Reddit. Consequently, combining complete free speech with the internet has yielded glaring negatives; however, positive initiatives have surfaced from Reddit’s communities too.

Noted in a study in the Journal of Intelligent Information Systems, Reddit has over 668 million comments, 255,671 authors, and more than 70 million submissions. Although posts vary from hateful rhetoric to kitten pictures, Reddit regularly fosters dialogue that affects the real world. With so many voices projected from millions of angles, the world’s pressing issues are often deliberated. Unlike the dark side of Reddit, these discussions often have impressively virtuous aims. Examples include a successful 2014 campaign to find one user’s father who, while battling illness and confusion, had disappeared. Others include the funding of a toy shopping spree for a young girl battling cancer, and an annual Secret Santa that recently broke the Guinness world record for largest gift exchange.

In addition to these charitable efforts, Reddit is increasingly used as an information hub for the sciences. Because internet platforms like Reddit are readily consumed by millions, one journal on emerging technologies indicates they are ideal settings to promote STEM fields. The article, noting the words of Van Riper, writes that “popular culture probably does more than formal science education to shape most people’s understanding of science and scientists. It is more pervasive, more eye-catching, and (with rare exceptions) more memorable.” In this vein Reddit seeks to provide intriguing information from all fields and to be a forum for global topics. With any user able to engage in discussion, whether ethical or not, Reddit promotes extensive user discourse.

 

  1. Reddit serves as a source for much of the internet’s published content.

subreddits

As the “front page of the internet,” Reddit often is responsible for dictating what is popular. Although other mediums influence what news sources choose to publish, none offer material that is as globally extensive and concisely listed according to popularity as Reddit. A complicated position to be in, Reddit’s relationship with the rest of the media world has left its leader, cofounder Alexis Ohanian, as the widely embraced “Mayor of the Internet.” Ohanian, starting Reddit with Steve Huffman after a $12,000 investment from Y Combinator, has cultivated a culture where it is not only easy to discover popular content, but to encounter novel content as well.

Emphasizing concision, Reddit has perfected the art of displaying a lot of information in not a lot of room. Since Reddit serves as an indicator for what is “hot” at any moment, news outlets often poach their content from the “Reddit-sphere.” As reported by The New Statesman, Reddit has a trickle-down effect on internet reporting. Frequently, articles found on sites like Buzzfeed or Vice directly originate from Reddit’s reservoirs. While this dynamic takes shape in the form of recycled stories, it includes the reposting (emphasis on “re”) of memes (pictures with typically witty and effective captions) as well.

However, in 2015, Reddit’s role was fully appreciated. After a widely-beloved employee was terminated, Reddit’s moderators initiated a boycott. Refusing to post new threads and blocking off many of the site’s avenues, moderators successfully shut down three quarters of Reddit. The protest shocked the media. As Time‘s Matt Vella wrote in his piece on Reddit’s revival, Reddit sits as the source for “your mom’s Facebook post,” thus, with the disappearance of 75% of Reddit’s substance, the blogs, quirky articles, “morning television fodder,” and Twitter hashtags that influence “your mom’s” posts vanished. As an effect of the user demonstration, Buzzfeed, the Independent, and other trendy news sources went literally quiet for several days. This reaction symbolizes Reddit’s effect on the greater internet culture. Because it is the leading consolidation of what is deemed “worth reading,” internet media outlets depend on Reddit as a resource; without it, viral news sites would not able to routinely generate their content as simply as they do.

 

  1. Reddit would not exist without its moderators.

Moderators are a group of user volunteers that oversee specific subReddits. Though moderators have tenuous access to the Administrators at Reddit’s corporate offices who sometimes advise them on how to moderate, there exists a substantial disconnect between the two groups. Because moderator work is voluntary and without much guidance, its duties are often demanding. Reporting on the complications of the moderator-corporate relationship, Bloomberg Businessweek indicates that Reddit’s site is one of the least controllable domains in Internet history. Because there is no sponsored handbook or code for moderators to follow, their responsibilities are freestyled.

Reddit’s lack of structure for its unpaid workers makes it impossible for them to know what kind of policies to follow. As a result, moderators make their own rules that vary from page to page. For example, community rules on the popular r/gaming subReddit consists of regulations that prevent users from trading video game products in addition to warnings that racist, sexist, homophobic, or threatening content posted to the community will be removed. Other subReddits like r/Worldnews post rules disallowing articles from Twitter/Facebook, non-English stories, or editorials. While a general Reddiquite is sought to be maintained throughout all subReddits, moderators tediously govern on their own accord.

As Gideon Grudo notes in his article in Quill, moderating any subReddit requires substantial labor. Although some moderators assume the role out of devotion to Reddit’s culture, it seems they do more important work than can be reasonably expected of a volunteer. After all, they are the mainstay of Reddit’s longevity. In other corporate contexts, using free labor to propel a company’s business is considered corrupt. In Reddit’s case, they are fortunate that they have gotten so far without being asked to compensate the individuals that manage and create their product. Though moderators ideally do interact with paid admins at Reddit’s corporate office, communication is meager.

After years of asking for better conditions to run their communities, moderators’ patience is running thin. Grievances such as calls for better search and messaging tools to prevent spam have been met with inadequate responses from the admittedly small Reddit team. According to one moderator who oversees the r/walkingdead and r/engineering communities, Reddit “takes the users and moderators for granted, assuming they will continue doing what they’ve been doing for years.” This is a dangerous assumption for Reddit to make, as strenuous unpaid labor has a history of igniting revolution. Although an internet revolution perhaps is less significant than more historically important ones, the Reddit-Moderator relationship certainly has the fixings of a messy fall-out if improvements are not installed.

 

  1. Reddit’s users have developed a culture of authenticity.

reddit post

Besides their fierce defense of free speech, Reddit has operated as a domain where users feel comfortable being themselves. In one interview with Alexis Ohanian, he revealed that Reddit is where “real [identities]” come out. He asserts that “Reddit is going to continue growing because people are desperate for the authenticity that it allows.” As a result, Reddit has manufactured a space for sincere interaction. Because there are no limits to what can be discussed, all potential users are able to engage with uniquely cohesive communities. This dynamic is crucial to Reddit’s cultural significance. While the internet, especially in current social media age, are often mediums for individuality and materialism, Reddit has defiantly groomed contending values. Allowing users to express their personae intellectually rather than via a “like” or a “follow,” Reddit is dependent on a series of “anti-values” writes Jillian Goodman. Refusing to berate users with ads or promote a culture of consumerist tenors, Reddit exists as a safe space for those who seek to step away from the implications of a social media dominated society.

The result of these defiant “anti-values” has led to Reddit’s complicated corporate history. One event to note is Yishan Wong’s brief stint as Reddit’s CEO. After Reddit became an independent company in 2012, hundreds of qualified candidates were considered; however, none screamed “Reddit” as through-and-through as Wong. Wong, as described by Seth Fiegerman’s Mashable spotlight, had a conviction to ensure that nobody was going to dilute his beloved site. A Redditor since its earliest beginnings, Wong was a Reddit purist. Although he resigned as CEO after a couple years (due to personality flaws rather than an inability to run the company), his stretch as CEO represents the larger Reddit user culture. According to Fiegerman, Wong “didn’t need a big paycheck…and didn’t seek out fame or media attention.” Instead, Wong “worked at Reddit for Reddit.”

This notion of doing service “for Reddit” is the same logic that moderators employ to justify their lack of financial compensation. For Redditors, Reddit in itself is a gift. Reddit offers users a chance to unapologetically be themselves, and, because of this, the site is unapologetically human. Often ranging from virtuous to disgusting, Reddit provides a glimpse into the core of unadulterated humanity.

Ethan Mayer-Rich

2020 grad studying Sociology and Arabic.

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