It’s 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, five weeks into your first semester in college. Your paper is due for your Academic Writing and Literature class on some poet no one dead or alive ever cared about in six-and-a-half hours. You’re on your computer, but it’s late enough that your Twitter feed is updating at a snail’s pace and your Facebook chat bar is void of little green dots. Are you going to peel your eyes away from your browser and start filling that blindingly white, painfully empty digital page in Word? No. You’re going on Reddit because Emily Dickinson can shove it.
You’re bombarded by new information. Pages on pages of blue links and illegible thumbnails tempt your cursor. You’re finding out what others have just recently discovered, and smile smugly when someone’s “Today I Learned” has been in your repertoire for years. You browse through thousands of replies to a thread asking for fan theories. Your tired lips hint at a smile when you find out about the new Daft Punk album, and you laugh — but not loud enough to wake up your sleeping, responsible roommate — at a pun-prone raccoon.
A community built on versatility
Founded in June 2005 by University of Virginia graduates Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, Reddit has exploded in recent years in terms of popularity and content diversity. Initially dubbed a “news aggregator,” whose intent was to allow less tech-savvy individuals the same kind of social bookmarking experience as del.icio.us and Digg offer, Reddit puts any given submitted link’s fate in the userbase’s hands.
Users submit all of the content posted to Reddit, with the exception of blog posts and announcements provided by Reddit’s staff. The community, consisting of Redditors, can then promote (“upvote”) or demote (“downvote”) user-submitted content based on individual preferences, determining what gets the highest visibility.
It’s one of the only places on the Internet where you can find professional gaming coverage, metaphysical discussion, intelligent (and not-so-intelligent) discourse on world politics and business and, of course, hundreds of thousands of pictures of cats. One of the Internet’s most infamous time-wasters and a beaming monument to what Internet communities can accomplish, Reddit is (under the mountains of memes) an awesome example of what can happen when millions of like-minded people come together.
With 30-million submitted links and posts in 2012 alone, Reddit owes part of its success to a network of separate boards — subreddits — dedicated to specific topics. This system allows users to pick and choose what they want to see and when. Individuals can view their own “front page,” an amalgamation of subreddits they are subscribed to, or see individual subreddits individually.
“No matter what you like to do, there’s a community out there full of like-minded people that will give you their experiences or new ideas or feedback on your existing stuff,” said Kevin Davis, moderator of /r/AnnArbor — the Ann Arbor subreddit. Its mass appeal is in equal parts due to its diverse content and its users.
These run the gamut of interests. Several are devoted almost entirely to image macros (AdviceAnimals being the most popular, with upwards of 1.9-million subscribers) and amusing images (“funny” and “pics” both boast over 3-million subscribers), while others promote discussion and discovery of current events (“worldnews,” “science,” “politics,” and “technology” have over 2.4-million subscribers). The former group is what people will associate Reddit with, while avid Redditors know that there’s more to be discovered under the crust of Facebook feed pictures and passive-aggressive notes.
Straying from the multi-million subscriber subreddits, users will find a wealth of subreddits such as those that showcase high-quality photography, nearly every possible trading card game, TV show, book series, video game and discussion/story-based boards. “shittyaskscience” is a satirical take on “AskScience,” one of many discussion-centric boards where users interested in everything from history (“AskHistorians”) to programming (“Python,” “learnprogramming”). Most cities have one as well as universities, sports teams (/r/MichiganWolverines), states, celebrities, languages and hobbies. What sets the site apart from others, though, is its userbase.
“Reddit isn’t just the front-page content or an image board or a link aggregator — it’s got so many different parts and has become a platform and tool for a community, as well as a community itself,” Erik Martin, general manager of Reddit, said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
Virtual to physical
The 260 million comments and 400 million unique visitors in 2012 attest to that. As do massive community-driven initiatives such as the Random Acts of Pizza and Assistance subreddits, which offer food, advice and aid to members going through rough times.
Other Reddit-based initiatives anchored offline include location-specific, real-life meetups and Guinness World Record-setting Secret Santa gift exchange, which included more than 58,000 participants in 126 countries in 2012.
Reddit has been open-source since 2008, and many developments have come from contributions from the community. Third-party sites like metareddit and stattit aggregate data about traffic and content.
“We’ve worked really hard this past year on (improving) open-source and developer resources,” said Martin. “They’ll enable the community and third-party developers and students doing cool research projects to make some really cool stuff on and with Reddit.”
“Offline meetups have played a big part, especially at the local level,” Martin said about the influence of the Reddit community and the sense of community at the subreddit level. “In the big cities, people are meeting up offline … almost once a day.”
The transcendence of interaction from the virtual to the physical adds another layer of solidity to Reddit’s community.
There’s something for everyone on Reddit, and it’s for this reason that the site is so immensely popular. It’s not entirely without its drawbacks — Reddit’s 20-some-odd person team sometimes struggles to keep up with the size and variability of the site, and not all subreddits are the most enjoyable places on earth. But the team is aware of what they need to do for Reddit in the future and are taking steps to make it happen.
“Improvements we’ve made in the infrastructure will pay off in some interesting ways in the next year … (and) talking with the community as openly as we can about how to make money, I think will be interesting,” Martin said. “This site doesn’t run itself and we don’t have huge costs, but we need to somehow make money and we want to do that the right way, and having that whole conversation out in public with our community is the only way to do it … I think people will appreciate that.”
Following Digg’s v4 remodeling where it became heavily littered with advertising, Reddit experienced a surge in its userbase. The massive influx permanently shaped Reddit, eventually leading to the site it is today.
A one-sided conversation
One of the real and tangible drawbacks for discussion is Reddit’s somewhat liberally-biased and demographically-skewed community.
“There’s what they call the ‘Hivemind,’ which is (when) once a popular opinion has been established or upvoted enough, people don’t seem to think critically and independently anymore; they just say ‘yeah, that guy, what he said,’ ” Davis explained.
This can lead to some pretty one-sided conversations — especially when it comes to touchy subjects such as politics and religion. Engineering freshman Damian Rotarov has also noticed the groupthink mentality on the site.
“Because there are so many people, it can really open your eyes to some of the problems in the world,” Rotarov said. “It can kind of corrupt your viewpoints, though. I’ve noticed that I’ve started leaning towards what ‘they’ believe on Reddit, and I don’t know if it’s because it’s what I believe or because I spend so much time there.”
A loose moderating system is in place, with each subreddit having a number of moderators overlooking its content. Irrelevant, inflammatory and explicitly promotional content is removed, and many subreddits have restrictions on what can and cannot be posted. Each subreddit’s individual rules contribute to the flavor of each user’s experience.
Davis said beyond promoting the subreddit in real life, he likes to take a hands-off approach to the content of the discussions to focus on Internet trolls and spam links. The subreddit tends to focus around orienting newcomers, recommending locales, local news and organizing meetups. He also remarked that his job in IT outside of being a moderator has been made easier by using Reddit.
“I’ve had several threads where I’ve either posted something to a community asking for advice and gotten a lot of helpful comment and replies and there are a lot of great new ideas,” Davis said. “In my last position, I was the entire IT division, so it was really helpful to see what other professionals were installing and what their opinion was about them.”
The pub of the 21st century
For students in the United States, where our vote is only one among hundreds of millions, the miniature power trip resulting from pushing a struggling post upwards or shoving it downwards into the depths of the Internet is a gift in and of itself. Obviously an efficient and — if used responsibly — educational procrastinating tool, Reddit can be used as an escape from that awful philosophy lecture taken for distribution requirements.
LSA Sophomore Julia Chesbrough has found Reddit useful as an artist’s resource.
“I have used it to see what type of art people are working on and … for inspiration. You can get different perspectives on things,” Chesbrough said. “You can post some of your artwork and get a lot of feedback.”
It can also be used to supplement knowledge in a given field. Hobbyists of all kinds flock to Reddit with tips and tricks, and the newest technologies are always being linked to relevant boards. Looking for an app to improve productivity? A wealth of posts comparing different sites and software is a search away. Need some tips on working out? Reddit’s fitness community is as active as any other part of the site.
“It’s a way to kill time. … There are so many broad subjects; so many different things that you can get lost in different topics,” Rotarov said.
There are subreddits dedicated to making informed purchasing decisions on household appliances, video games and more. New music? Dozens of active boards link to the freshest tracks from known and unknown artists. Debating whether or not to see a movie? Barring some seriously hivemind-based conversation, you’re likely to find useful comments and reviews.
In an age where so much happens behind a screen — texting instead of calling, e-mail instead of snail mail — and where there’s so much pressure to find out what you want to do with your life, finding and fleshing out your own hobbies and interests can sometimes take a backseat to studying and a social life. Reddit provides a network of like-minded people a few clicks away.
In Davis’s words, “It’s the pub of the 21st century.”