What’s the deal with Reddit?

This blog appeared first, last week, in my newsletter Future Proof. Thanks to the kind supporters of that newsletter, I can reproduce it here. Do join them as a subscriber, if you can.

Are you a high functioning adult?

Chances are, if you’re smart enough to be subscribed to this excellent newsletter, the answer is “Yes!”. Lucky you. And if the answer is in the affirmative then it stands to reason that you may not really know what Reddit is. In fact, your knowledge of Reddit might be contained to fringe, slightly scary, stories about, at best, a gang of web investors disrupting the short selling of Game Stop, or, at worst, the sort of extreme right-wing discourse that led to the Capitol insurrection in 2021.

The reality is that neither of those incidents paints a particularly useful portrait of a website as broad as Reddit. Reddit is almost unique in the way it functions as publisher, aggregator and social media (Facebook does the same thing, I suppose, but with a focus on smaller groups, rather than public dissemination). But what Reddit has, that Facebook conspicuously lacks, is an anarchic sense of the users being in control. The inmates running the asylum.

Forgive the history lesson: Reddit was founded in 2005 by Steve Huffman, Aaron Swartz and Alexis Ohanian. Huffman, known as spez, is still around, working as the site’s CEO and doing battle with their endless content moderation issues. Ohanian is now perhaps better known as Serena Williams’ other half, and left day-to-day work as a Reddit board member in 2020. Swartz took his own life in 2013 following federal charges for pirating the online academic journal JSTOR (a tragic story told in Brian Knappenberger’s documentary The Internet’s Own Boy, which is well worth watching).

Structurally, Reddit owes a lot to the early days of internet forums, which were the default social media when I was growing up, for people who wanted to engage in specialised chat with strangers. And that’s the key thing to understand about Reddit. Facebook (originally at least) sought to replicate Real World social interactions in an online space — literally, a digital face book (we’ve all seen The Social Network). Reddit is, to some extent, the opposite. It is about facilitating the conversations that the Real World lacks. If I’m obsessed with perfumes or the movies of James Cameron or famous women’s feet, it would be a challenge for me to find kinship amongst my regular social interactions. But there’s a space for everyone on the internet.

And so Reddit is divided into sub-Reddits, covering all sorts of topics. The biggest ones have millions of users (/r/announcements leads the way with 150m+, but /r/funny is perhaps the highest ranking non-default option with 41m) and the smallest have nobody but the creator. The content posted varies from sub to sub, sometimes just images or videos or links, at other times lengthy text posts. Engagement comes in the form of upvoting and downvoting, which dictates how prominently placed the content is on the subreddit’s page (and whether it might make the coveted Homepage slot), and comments, which often go thousands deep. It is more culturally obsessive than any other social media site (except, perhaps, Twitter). To be a serious Redditor is a lifestyle choice in a way at users of Facebook or Instagram or TikTok would not understand.

Anyway, this little newsletter edition about Reddit is not really designed to tell you how you can use Reddit to build your digital media enterprise (though you undoubtedly can, and I don’t doubt that Reddit is currently massively under-utilised compared with the amount of investment in Twitter and Instagram). I decided to write this piece because I saw, by chance, a trending topic in /r/askreddit called “Who is surprisingly still alive?”.

The answers, in the form of comments range from Alice Cooper to Mikhail Gorbachev, by way of Dick Van Dyke and Gomez from the 1960s Addams Family. Whatever, it’s a way to pass a few minutes but not something that will hold my attention long term (like /r/unresolvedmysteries, which I could spend hours on each day). What struck me is how Reddit is used (both cynically and otherwise) as a way of crowdsourcing populist internet content.

Now, the person who posted the “Who is surprisingly still alive?” question is, I’m sure, not a journalist (other than this question, they have mostly posted haikus to /r/haikus). But the point is that they could be. But, equally, they don’t need to be, because there are plenty of lazy hacks (like myself) who spend several hours a day trawling through Reddit looking for time killing titbits or, even better, story leads. So if I worked at — oh, I don’t know, shall we say Buzzfeed? — and I saw the “Who is surprisingly still alive?” thread and I needed to come up with a listicle by the afternoon, why wouldn’t I simply synthesise that thread? All the information is right there; it would just require a moderately catty tone to make it Buzzfeed appropriate.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to write a piece called something like “The 20 Best Xbox Games” for the anniversary of the console’s release. It was a piece of writing that I had to give up on after about an hour, mainly because I’ve played no more than a dozen Xbox games and it was becoming exhausting trying to ascertain which were the good ones that I’d missed (also, bear in mind the fact that some of the games I had played, like The Sims: Bustin’ Out or Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup, were probably not the greatest games ever made). A lazier version of myself would either have written “What are the best games ever?” on /r/Xbox and synthesised that information, or sourced a version of the enquiry that already exists.

So Reddit, in addition to all its qualities as a broadcaster and disseminator of content, is also a content farm. I know plenty of journalists, particularly in the tech and human interest spaces, who heavily rely on the site for the sourcing of interesting stories. And even if this were a bit dodgy as a practice (which I don’t think it is) the fact that Reddit is siloed away in a less respectable corner of the internet means that most of your readers in Wired or The Sunday Times or Huffington Post would never realise that the content their reading originated in the wild musings of a collection of internet renegades.

Buzzfeed has, as the business has evolved (and many of their journalists been sacked), been more transparent about the extent to which their content is community sourced. Other publications are less scrupulous. If you want to produce bags of cheap content — or just come up with good ideas for tweets — there are worse places to hang out than Reddit. Reddit recently changed its slogan to “Dive into anything”, a move that probably reflects their desire to distance themselves from some of the less savoury content published there (a controversy that has flared since the Trump era and shows no signs of slackening). But before that, it was the self-described “front page of the Internet”. That’s it, in a nutshell.

If you’ve been blissfully ignorant about Reddit until now, it’s a site that it’s worth familiarising yourself with. In terms of the sheer number of different functions it has, there’s nowhere on the internet as interesting or, potentially, important to digital media entrepreneurs.

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Nick Hilton

Nick Hilton

Writer. Podcast entrepreneur. London. Interested in technology and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.