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How Reddit went from a second-tier aggregator to the Web’s unstoppable force (slate.com)
187 points by robg on Jan 21, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

"In many ways, Reddit is a more accessible, less vulgar version of 4Chan, the meme-spewing online redoubt of the Web’s most vicious trolls."

This sort of sums up Reddit for me. 4chan is an example of what some Usenet groups were years ago, a community of like minded individuals debating their world views which are fundamentally similar and who share a common background/mindset. I suspect there is a relationship between the commonality of the participants and the vibrancy of the community.

It has been my experience that when you take a set of self selected folks and give them a wide ranging area to discuss, their discussions about most topics are energetic and self-reenforcing. This makes for a very strong community experience.

I first noticed it hanging out with 'air force' kids (which is to say early in my life everyone I hung out with, their parents, like mine, were serving in the air force). That shared experience, moving from base to base, base housing which was always nearly the same, stores with the same goods, etc, we (the kids) seemed to have remarkably similar views about things. I noticed it again when I went to college, the bulk of the folks who entered engineering were all there for similar reasons and that created a community with a common set of interests and values. For many folks college was the first place they had experienced the 'community effect' that arises when there is a 'kind of people' selection criteria affecting the overall group.

I am glad for the successes of Reddit. Staying vibrant and alive will be a challenge, it is for any community, but they have a good start.

I actually left Reddit for this exact reason. It's obviously a success but to me the size of the community became too much to be a functioning community. Every submission had thousands of comments. The "smartass" comments are always at the top, the mindlful ones get lost in the middle, mine ends up at the end. What's the point in chiming in with meaningful discussion when there's 2,000 "chit chat" comments like "That's what your mom told me last night" followed by "That's I told your mom last night", followed by "That's what she told me to tell your mom last night", followed by another regurgitation of the previous comment in a different order.

=== Why I left Reddit ===

I remember Reddit back when it had tech news and startup advice. Back when it was like Hacker news basically. At that time Reddit's comments were of the highest quality. It was the most intelligent & sometimes hilarious discussion I had ever seen in an online community. So I fell in love with Reddit. But as it grew (especially from Digg refugees and popularity) Redditors started to "participate" on an astronomical scale. Because of the shear amount of participation, the first members to comment on a story (despite having mediocre comments) had a better chance of getting upvoted, those who waited a few hours to submit their comment got their voice lost among thousands of comments and no one would ever see it.

The problem with upvotes is this: They don't scale up very well. Whoever comments first competes with LESS comments and so has a HIGHER chance of getting their comment upvoted. Remember, just because your comment was one of the first to be seen and voted on doesn't mean it contributes the most to the conversation, the best comments come from people hours, sometimes days, after a submission gets popular. So by the time high quality comments came in, the community of Redditors had already received and upvoted the most mediocre, smart ass comments with tired memes, old jokes, & complete non seriousness. Even if they spotted your high quality comment that revealed something incredibly profound and rare, you never stood a chance at catching up to the comments at the top.

Also, as Reddit's popularity grew, the worst of humanity came out. Off-topicness, mob-rule, endless memes all became the norm. You had to flee to a subreddit and even then, the massive amount of comments (most of them one liners and chit chat) was just too much to wade through. I became frustrated at trying to have a serious conversation in a room full of jokers, I was just fed up with trying to speak in a room full of thousands of people yelling. So I just left.

My last few days I was a Redditor, I remember every submission had comments like these at the top:

Comment#1 "Smartass answer that doesn't contribute to the conversation",

Comment#2 "Smartass conversation that doesn't contribute to the answer",

Comment#3 "Contribution that doesn't converse the smartass answer"

Comment#4 "Smartass answer that doesn't converse the contribution"

Comment#5 "I see what you did there"

Comment #2,476 The most intelligently posted comment that will never get upvoted because no one can see it

I just left, and not on a good note. I miss Reddit because it helped me overcome my Christian Extremism and move towards Athiesm but it is nothing like it used to be, and for that I am angry. The Reddit I remember is dead.

Reddit is an interesting lesson for everyone with vague interest in society and human (tribal?) behavior. One of less pleasant experiences I had was on Atheism subreddit. Atheists like me like to think they're a bit special, they're more civilized, and don't exhibit the behaviors attributed to religious folks (intolerance, agression, mob mentality). Except that Atheism subreddit is eerily similar to how religious folks behave at times. My conclusion is that it's not so much atheism that makes certain folks more restrained, but isolation. Online, on a site like Reddit where atheists can group together, they're just another tribe. Only a bit (if at all) better than others.

Oh, and the top voted link at the moment was a sex tape of some woman who declared she's having sex with a stranger just to spite her husband who joined a sect which made him sell their furniture. And she was going to making him watch the video.

Atheism doesn't change human nature in any fundamental way. Reddit is not at fault here.

In fact, I see human nature as ritualistic as ever. As I see the world, most things in religion are more human-in-a-society based (a ritual for adulthood, a ritual for marriage, and some more rituals) than belief based.

We atheists/agnostics/non-religious should separate the wheat from the chaff and stop assuming something is bad just because religion does it.

You should try Metafilter and maybe Something Awful.

It's surprising to hear anyone really praise Reddit, even at the start it wasn't that great. 'Downvoting' comments that you disagree with regardless of the quality of the points made is daft.

Reddit's discussion has always been far behind Metafilter. The $5 entrance fee keeps out people who don't want to make some contribution at least. The active mods there do a great job.

I find reddit discussions for more entertaining and informative because it is common to find an expert who can verify and expand in an article or provide evidence against it.

That was actually a reason why it took me a long time to adopt Reddit. I used to stumble upon it for years, browse around for several minutes, get overwhelmed by sheer number of comments, and leave.

This happened again recently, only this time, I discovered hundreds of smaller subreddits and started participating in a few of them because they offered that smaller community atmosphere. It feels a little like a cozy lounge with glass doors at a super busy airport.

This is probably an Indication of one thing. Some people go in the search of elusive perfection. Which never seems to be achievable. No pure perfection exists.

So please don't deny the good for the perfect.

Reddit, has been ridiculed enough for being bad for X reasons. But hey, that's the only thing existing out there. And it works well for vast majority of the people. People who are out there just for chat or a serious discussion on a sub reddit.

I have seen that this thing works in many cases. If you have some good idea that can solve problems. Work on it and get an implementation out. Even if for the moment the working quality of that thing or the implementation quality of that thing isn't upto the mark.

This can be seen manifest in things like programming languages too! People criticize Php/Perl for all sort of reasons. But hey, remember they are so much useful and practical in the real world the elusive perfect that is supposed to replace never comes into existence. Because the elusive perfect is always in never ending path of ideation and implementation, in form of some abstract concept.

People call bash scripts and solutions hacked together using sed/bash/Unix text processing utilities crud, non readable, not elegant or whatever. But remember they often serve as the fastest way to solve some very difficult problems in seconds/minutes. While an equivalent verbose elegant language would take hours of effort writing and testing the program.

Sometimes an existing ugly solution survives in the real world, it wins and persists and nothing really replaces it. For many reasons, it was first to arrive. It convinces people that it can be useful to them. It is practical, it can survive and maintain the niche for a long time.

Meanwhile the elusive perfection, never arrives.

Reddit works and wins on the same principles.

The killer feature that reddit has is subreddits.

I disagree with the article; there is no one reddit culture. One can go to r/politics, r/gardening, r/fitness, or r/askscience for example, and they all feature their own cultures and own biases. For example r/fitness has a culture focusing on weight lifting for fitness. But for people who are into fitness through running, there is r/running. The same thing goes for politics: r/politics tends to be left leaning, but you can find right leaning people in order subreddits.

There are thousands of vibrant community subreddits were people with similar interests (and sometimes opinions) participate. All with their own cultures and moderation rules for what are acceptable posts.

Subreddits combined with voting and good moderation make reddit way better than usenet, Digg in its heyday, or 4chan.

I don't really agree. There is definitely a general reddit culture (a bland white male young american type of culture) and it seeps into all subreddits to various degrees. It's pretty awful for the "default" subreddits but it affects the entire site. If you want to have intelligent discussion outside of the biases of the above demographic, god help you if your subreddit gets popular or someone does a search that finds it.

You could compare it to 4chan having a culture despite there being dozens of different boards.

I fully agree with you. I moderate a religious subreddit and I am convinced that at least 2/3 of the regular readers are trolls and antagonists. There is a pervasive common culture on reddit.

The site self-selects; you are not going to get many grannies coming on board when the front page is filled with f-bombs, sexual questions or interviews (AskReddit/IAmA), non-sensical pictures and jokes, and news about IPv6 or other techie stuff. That's just the long and short of it.

Even if you give a specific link to an individual subreddit, anyone who participates to a meaningful degree will venture outside into the broader world of reddit and be very sorry they did so, often swearing off the site entirely.

I haven't even mentioned the intentional harassment offered by the kind reddit denziens who find what you are trying to talk about "moronic", "abusive", or "mind-numbing".

This effect was so pervasive that I recognized I could not get meaningful participation from relevant segments of the population if I hosted the community on reddit. I coded a clone and started an independent site. I think this is required for anyone whose primary audience doesn't overlap with the 20-something nerd crowd.

I hope you realize that reddit is a very large community of different subreddits where your experience is very different from others. What is so bad about being a young white male? You don't say how this adversely affects the site nor do you provide any evidence that it is the case. It's like if you were to complain about people being like minded on Facebook, well they are your friends.

Maybe we just visit different sub-reddits. I tend to stay away from the front page ones because they remind me to much of the culture Digg used to have when it was popular. But there are plenty of smaller yet highly active subreddits that don't.

I will admit that for the ones I use, the proportion of Americans are at least 90%.

Your exactly right. Once you unsubscribe from the default subreddits and start subscribing to subreddits that have more moderation (against memes, etc) reddit becomes a much better place. You end of with subreddit's like AskScience where you can have though provoking conversations without memes.

That's what makes reddit great, if your not into the memes, you can easily "turn them off".

I agree that strong moderation is key, but reddit's moderation system doesn't encourage strong moderation and is pretty borked in general. Strong moderation is a rare exception, especially when you consider the more popular subreddits have thousands to hundreds of thousands of users per moderator.

For one thing, the site admins won't get involved with what they term "moderation fights" so one bad actor as a mod can cause a hostile takeover/coup of a subreddit that nothing can be done about.

I have absolutely nothing in common with anyone who subscribes to r/wtf or r/all, and several other sub-reddits. I am on reddit specifically because I can avoid a ONE culture.

Reddit did two brilliant things:

  1. They didn't screw up their site. 
  2. They scaled. Not without struggles tho. 
Pretty good demo of letting competitors destroy themselves.

Your first point is nearly impossible to do in conjunction with second point but reddit did it splendidly. The admins do a fantastic job of being unbiased and pro-users (instead of pro-owners). They have learned that taking a short-term loss for long-term gain is the right thing to do. They haven't tried to change the site design or rules after people have gotten used to it. They are still acting like reddit is a small community of the first 5000 users and not 20 million visitors.

You may disagree with the content that adorns the front-page but you can trust that it was driven by users and not sponsors.

The bigger "miracle" to me is how they fostered a 4chan-like creative atmosphere without going overboard. This is a very tricky balance but they managed to do it really well.

Yeah, they really did community management well, and continue to do it well. Digg pulled all sorts of sketchy admin stuff, but Reddit maintained an integrity that won it loyalty from users.

I alway believed that reddit needs a redesign, but now that I'm thinking it, Digg had 4 redesigns and maybe that is a part for why it failed. People don't like change.

It was arguably only the dreaded "version 4" redesign that caused the failure of Digg. And it wasn't necessarily the look that everyone hated, it was the fact that every single aspect of functionality was completely changed in a way that made it a different type of website. It took the voting-power out of the users' hands and gave it to the "publishers" of the content.

"redesign" isn't really an appropriate term for what Digg did- they changed a lot of core functionality at the same time as changing design.

When when the dreaded "V4" came, it wasn't the design that was the problem, it was the change to prioritising major media companies.

It would be possible for Reddit to change their design without changing functionality. But I suspect that no-one would be happy with the result.

Aside: There is a lot of very cool stuff on Reddit at this point and it would be a shame to lose it through some random act of nature/massive admin error/other non predictable event...

Has Reddit considered providing a public backup functionality ala Wikipedia? Anyone have thoughts on this?

Not only that, but with Reddit being a political force to be reckoned with, it may become a target of the US government.

> it may become a target of the US government.

The FBI might target them, but most likely for their laissez-faire moderation where deleting a subsection literally dedicated to child pornography caused a major uproar.

I think calling r/jailbait pornography could be debatable. Technically speaking there wasn't anything illegal with the sub-reddit, which is why it upset a lot of people - even those who wouldn't go close to r/jailbait (such as myself).

Possession of it was grounds for conviction in US vs Knox.

I take issue with your description of /r/jailbait. None of the images in that subreddit qualified as child pornography under the definition of child pornography on the Wikipedia page.

Then perhaps you shouldn't get legal counsel from Wikipedia ;)

Even in light of US vs Knox, which I had not know about, the material on r/jailbait was not child pornography. The courts opinion list some criteria for something to be considered child pornography. The material on r/jailbait does not fit these criteria.

1) whether the focal point of the visual depiction is on the child's genitalia or pubic area;

2) whether the setting of the visual depiction is sexually suggestive, i.e., in a place or pose generally associated with sexual activity;

3) whether the child is depicted in an unnatural pose, or in inappropriate attire, considering the age of the child;

4) whether the child is fully or partially clothed, or nude;

5) whether the visual depiction suggests sexual coyness or a willingness to engage in sexual activity;

6) whether the visual depiction is intended or designed to elicit a sexual response in the viewer.

Opinion: http://www.mit.edu/activities/safe/cases/knox/94a0734p.htm

Apropos reddit, here’s how Alexis Ohanian deflects the blame from redditors onto the victims of their creepy facebook-stalking and harassment: “Your kids need to know that any time they take an image and put it in a digital format… they should assume that it is now public content… That’s the useful thing I think CNN could have reported on, instead of making up a bunch of jibber-jabber about reddit.”


That is really interesting to me considering reddits reaction to a service I created a while ago that allowed you to retrieve deleted or edited comments.


Apparently digital reddit comments are exempt from this notion.

Ah, I remember you. Would you mind going over how unedditreddit saved comments? Do you think you'd be able to make the same service now where threads reach 5,000+ comments daily?

Sure, reddit has (or had at one point) a json api to get all new comments as they stream in. Unedditreddit simply saved those comments. Later when the user indicates they are interested in a certain comment id, I can simply serve it up out of my database.

Whether the same approach would work today depends on how well the reddit new comment api is holding up. Even a year ago, when unedditreddit was working, new comments was a decent sized firehose and the approach seemed to work well.

Thanks for your answer! I forgot about the /comments page for each subreddit (including r/all). How often did you poll the API for comments? It seems like there are so many comments that you'd have to do it every couple of seconds.

Alexis is using similar tactics to John Stewart; "reddit is just a collection of links". Which isnt true; it also has comments where it's community shapes an opinion about the subject of the link. And that probably terrifies mainstream media about reddit the most; losing their monopoly on shaping public opinion.

I like that Reddit's voting system is a lot more democratic than Digg's system where there were "power users". I think this also helped create the strong and, at the same time, large community.

Offtopic but, I'd love to see a site where any downvote MUST have a comment associated with it, that way one has to validate their downvotes. A downvote can be agreed with (increasing the downvote) without comment though, like saying "Yes I agree with what this person says is wrong with this".

That would make things worse. The biggest problem with Reddit right now is that not enough people downvote weak content. Making downvotes harder will only increase the rate at which the 4chan refugees meme the place up.

The biggest problem with Reddit right now is that not enough people downvote weak content

IMO the biggest problem with Reddit is that too many people downvote well-supported arguments because it goes against their belief system which really stymies the conversation. I'd like to see downvotes haves some 'cost' associated with them so they are used sparingly and on content that really deserves to be downvoted.

The problem with this is that even the best communities have types of arguments that get plenty of upvotes. That would make it easy for someone who knows how to win upvotes to get all the downvote points they need, while making it hard on people who play fairly.

This was essentially Slashdot's approach to voting. Make mod points a sparse currency, forcing users to be far more cautious in their use of them.

I don't agree with their policy that those who vote in a thread may not comment in that thread but I think a lot can still be learned from Slashdot's model.

It doesn't have to be "downvote points", perhaps it's a limit on downvotes per day, perhaps it's a hit on karma (every downvote means a costs x number of karma points, and below a certain karma you can no longer downvote), etc.

There's always going to be a way for determined users to get around the limits, but if it can reduce the number of reflexive downvotes from most users it could still be a net win.

One tweak to this can be to segregate karma points by category (or sub-reddit). That way, any downvote points that you need will need to be "earned" in the same topic.

Arguably the bigger problem is that interesting content is determined by popular consensus, which rewards ingroup signifiers and pandering to the majority.

> The biggest problem with Reddit right now is that not enough people downvote weak content

No the biggest problem is that for the majority of reddit users that 'weak content' is actually what they come to reddit for. It's a systemic problem with the community. The comment system works fine.

While not directly comparable, this is almost what StackOverflow does. They don't force you to comment, but if you downvote they ask you to comment and the community does not approve of random downvotes. Additionally, downvoting costs a bit of rep.

In all, this means downvotes are uncommon; usually, people try to fix the problem (editing or asking the writer to edit). However, if something is downvoted, it is extremely likely that that post is irrelevant or actively wrong.

Slashdot (the pioneer in this sort of moderation) has always had a 'reason code' for up and down votes (and meta-moderation to check that the reason codes are good).

This allows you to do things like filter results to only high scores, excluding 'funny'.

Even just separate buttons for "funny" and "informative/insightful" would be pretty nice on reddit or HN.

Slashdot's comment moderation system always seemed to work pretty well to me. The general editorial quality is what made me give up on them. (When I checked back recently, most submissions were incredibly blatant flamebait.)

i actually gave up on slashdot because the comment system had a very clunky feel to it, to the extent that it made the site offputting to use. i likewise do not participate on the making light boards, for the same reason, even though in both cases the actual quality of the discussion is excellent. reddit has nailed that aspect.

The actual slashdot interface is pretty bad, but I don't think the mechanics of the voting system are to blame.

yeah, that's what i meant. the voting system is fine; it's the commenting interface that's broken.

We thought about doing that a long time ago, but then figured all you would see is a bunch of comments that were just "." or something similarly useless.

There would be no reasonable way to force people to make a useful comment.

Or maybe you could have an "Agree/disagree with parent" on your comment and the top comment got one upvote/downvote for each one of your upvotes, respectively. There are lots of things you can do, who knows if they have any effect, though...

I have often wondered what HN would look like if comments had only "upvote" and "flag" options.

The "flag" option would have to include a reason ("offensive", "off-topic", "spam")

Earlier on, PG experimented with an upvote only scheme and later discarded it. I don't recall if any public reason was given for why the experiment failed, but downvotes were found to be of sufficient value to be worth retaining.

That sounds like Slashdot's moderation system.

Except on slashdot you also have to state a reason for upvoting.

The main problem with downvoting for me is that often people vote down out of disagreement, resulting in groupthink. In my opinion, downvotes should hide comments and punish commenters that don't contribute to the discussion. By making downvoting slightly harder, you could focus on the proper subset of comments that should be punished, like spam and insults.

(and by the way fix the UI problem of two arrows that are much too close to each other)

Also, there's very little incentive for gaming the system by ordinary users. Karma points give you no advantage whatsoever, and it's more of a running joke than anything substantial.

Redditors' reputation is depends on their actions, not points, badges, friends or any other "scoring" system. This makes for a way more dynamic and sustainable meritocracy than sites who's system tends to create an incumbent elite of power users.

A problem I've noticed with every comment/article voting system, including HN, is that a single downvote shouldn't have any effect. Here on HN one downvote turns the comment dark which is to encourage "pile-on" voting. Any vote up or down should not be visible to other users until X votes have been cast.

I don't think HN works that way. Almost all of my votes are corrective votes.

I don't think it's a really big issue, but I agree with you wholeheartedly.

The color of the post should only change when it hits a negative score. A post downvoted by only one person is a reflection of that person rather than the post. Also, since they start at 1 point anyhow, it would be a very elegant system.

Reddit is a spiritual successor to Usenet, with all the good and bad that entails.

If only they had heirarchical reddits...

... and an archive like DejaNews or Google Groups (back when it used to actually work) to record everything for future reference.

'How' - Digg bloated and went belly up, Reddit welcomed the fallout.

More realistically, reddit continued to cultivate their community while digg struggled through redesign after redesign, usually putting users second or third (when they introduced RSS importing).

When Digg went belly up, reddit already had double the traffic Digg had at peak.

nah, reddit was thriving long before the digg implosion

I only ever visit the programming subreddit. I used to prefer Hacker News but for my taste it has declined quite a bit of late, to the point where r/programming threads have approximately the same content quality with slightly less groupthink and much less self-seriousness.

(No, this isn't a quality post either, but it at least expresses my sincere if underexamined feelings.)

Much like the rest of Reddit, /r/programming comes across as a bunch of 23 year olds. The "wisdom" I see bandied about in there is stunning.

One of things I like the least about link aggregator sites like reddit, hacker news and digg is the tendency to post hordes of links about the same major event. I understand these links differ in their point of view and show the event in different light, but come on ! There should be a way to group them and make them use only one line, like

"Breaking news: Elvis Presley remains dead (41 links)"

Have a look at this picture: http://wstaw.org/h/5e262d116e9/

it's about the community and how the site is structured to support that community (and cats.)

Started reading the article and got stuck reading the http://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/omdyt/what_is_the... thread for 30 minutes or so.

That's how.

You. are. evil.

You just reddit-bombed me and who knows how many HN'ers. 30 minutes gone and counting.

Won't work on me, I'm asexual.

OT: I wish journalists would stop capitalizing "web". The internet is an established medium, not a singular entity. I can't think of any good reasons to capitalize it—any suggestions?

I was thrown into the world of online journalism in the late 90s when it was dictated by most style guides to capitalize Web. I still retain this as a habit in professional writing, although appreciate and occasionally use the newer forms like "website" instead of "Web site." The AP style guide also recommended "Web" although I don't know if it does now as I don't pay as much attention to style as I did.

Put it this way, journalists who've been around a long time learnt "Web" and will often stick with it out of habit. "E-mail" seems to be a little further along the line here though with old school journalists seemingly more likely to use "email" than they did 10 years ago.

(This page - http://www.apstylebook.com/?do=ask_faq - indicates that AP recommends "Web" but also "website" and "email.")

Internet, on the other hand, is (and continues to be) capitalized in most cases and certainly in formal usage. The Internet is an internet, but an internet is not necessarily the Internet.. ;-)

Ah, I was aware of the AP's recent switch to "website", but I wasn't aware that it did not include a change to "web". Thanks for pointing that out!

You make a good point about "Internet", but I always feel somehow unclean when I write it that way. Perhaps it's just this generation's aversion to capitalization in general. Here's one interesting argument against that form: http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2004/08/64596. Food for thought. :-)

As an aside, anyone else sick of hearing success stories of sites/businesses we all have the potential to make? Reddit and DropBox.

But you didn't.

Like the classic response to criticism of contemporary art:

  I could've made that.
  Yeah, but you didn't.

Yup, that's my favorite response too. FYI, I wasn't criticizing. Just stating a natural response to articles like these. I'm busy working on my gig as well.

You would have fucked it up.

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