The forward slash: Amid the reinvention of X, could this be Reddit’s moment?

ByK Narayanan
Sep 22, 2023 06:39 PM IST

It is a rare space on the internet where a simple question can find a simple, true answer. Can Reddit retain its identity while adapting to a changing market?

In June 2005, when Reddit was launched, Yahoo was the internet’s most-visited website (Google was fourth). AOL was alive and well. Wikipedia had been around for four years, but was still the go-to resource for reference. Facebook was about a year old and ranked 236 in popularity, far behind MySpace.

 (HT Imaging: Puneet Kumar) PREMIUM
(HT Imaging: Puneet Kumar)

In fact, Time Magazine’s pick of “best social networking site” for that year was (a simple precursor to NextDoor, of which there is no hint left on the internet).

If the garage was the birthplace of a previous generation of tech companies in the 1970s and ’80s, the college dorm room was its 2000s-equivalent. Reddit co-founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman were roommates at the University of Virginia, who bonded over their love of videogames. Ohanian had already built his first website, a geocities page dedicated to the videogame Quake. Huffman was reportedly less than thrilled when they met, because he had assumed Ohanian was a woman.

But the two did hit it off, and in 2005, attended a lecture by Paul Graham, founder of the startup accelerator Y Combinator. After the lecture, they pitched him an idea for a food-delivery SMS service. Graham wasn’t interested, but invited them back for a discussion, and the idea of creating a website that was “the front page of the internet” was born.

Reddit co-founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. (Getty Images)
Reddit co-founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. (Getty Images)

The site depended on user-created content, but had no users in the beginning, so Ohanian and Huffman would create fake accounts and submit interesting links to create an illusion of activity. “We submitted links (there were no comments back then) for the first month or so while we bugged friends into helping. The day about a month and a half in when we didn’t have to do anything, submit a link, or even vote, was awesome, because we’d set a tone and apparently people didn’t hate... Remember, there was no ‘social media’ to speak of back in 2005, so all I had to spread the word was begging small bloggers to do writeups about a company they’d never heard of with a misspelled name and silly mascot,” Ohanian would recall, in a Reddit thread in 2012.

He and Huffman originally wanted to call the site “Snew”. According to Ohanian, “so people would ask ‘What’s Snew?’ and we could reply ‘Exactly! It’s the place to find what’s new and interesting online.’” The name was dropped, but lives on in Reddit’s logo and mascot, an alien named Snoo.

From 2005 to 2021, Reddit used the tagline “The Front Page of the Internet” (the tagline is now “Dive Into Anything”). The site was the originator of memes, a rallying point for internet activism, a place for the funny, quirky and bizarre. Other websites lived off its content, writing catchy headlines and spinning out whole articles based on posts and comments that originated there.

It wasn’t just clickbait. What happened on Reddit was often genuinely newsworthy. During his 2012 campaign for re-election, Barack Obama made an appearance to answer questions in the popular AMA or Ask Me Anything subreddit (launched in 2009). Others who’ve held AMAs over the years include Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Bill Gates (who is a regular), musician Steve Vai, actor Keanu Reeves, biologist and natural historian David Attenborough, astronaut Chris Hadfield. Even a man with two penises.

There were other events, such as the RedditGifts Secret Santa programme, which ran from 2009 to 2021 and was the world’s largest gift exchange. Here, you could get a cat drawing by actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or an Xbox and a horse blanket from Gates.

Over time, Reddit users began to show up at the forefront of a range of activist campaigns — against mass surveillance, for net neutrality, to name whales. Like the content on the platform, the causes ranged from the significant to the frivolous.

Reddit’s role in the opposition to the US government’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in 2012, which would have given law-enforcement greater control over online speech, led to the US government shelving the controversial legislations.

Redditors were also responsible for the short squeeze on US retailer GameStop’s shares in January 2021, when the subreddit r/WallStreetBets coordinated the entry of thousands of investors into GameStop just as shortsellers had sold the stock – pushing up the price from $17 to more than $400 in days.

There are no real influencers on this platform, no chatter for chatter’s sake (unless one is looking specifically for randomness, in which case there are several threads to turn to). Conversations are targeted and heavily moderated (see the story alongside for more on the stats, threads and moderation). No one asks you to “hit that bell, like and subscribe”.

And the platform has grown steadily, in user base and revenue.

In 2022, revenues were estimated at $670 million, a 38% increase from 2021. Most of this revenue comes from online advertising (about $503 million in 2022, up 184% year-on-year). The rest of the revenue comes from its premium membership plan (which offers ad-free access and custom features, among other perks), and its awards system (Reddit Coins), which together generated an estimated $167 million in 2022.

But like the internet itself, Reddit has a dark side. The platform was heavily criticised for promoting misinformation during the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. A subreddit called TheFappening saw the release of nude photos from hacked celebrity phones. The role that Reddit played during the January 6 riot at the US Capitol in 2021 led to the closure of The_Donald, a radical subreddit set up in support of the former US President.

Even today, there are sections of the platform that are cesspools of hate. Chinese and Indian subreddits can be nasty in their hyper-nationalism. Racism, casteism and misogyny abound on some Indian subreddits, while others are much more progressive.

In India, the site also offers glimpses into the predilections and preoccupations of the young (users typically range from teenagers to people in their 30s). Loneliness, unemployment, domestic abuse, harassment, despair and depression are recurring themes on Indian subreddits. These tend to be politically polarised as well as tech-savvy. Questions about companies, work environments, interview questions, investments and legal advice are among the most popular.

Globally, Reddit remains one of the places where you can find useful information quickly, easily and reliably. Are you a carpenter looking for the right miter saw? Users on r/Carpentry will offer a list of options, complete with pros, cons, and price-quality tradeoffs. Want to understand the chemistry of cooking seafood with lime juice? There’s someone on r/Chemistry who can talk about pH values and denatured proteins. Want to try out a Paladin/Warlock build for Baldur’s Gate 3? You’ll get hundreds of answers on the gear, feats and abilities one would need at each level. And you can get this information without having to wade through reams of search-engine-optimised text.

But it is not all smooth sailing. Most recently, the Reddit community has been engaged in a pitched battle with Steve Huffman — who returned as CEO in 2015 (he and Ohanian sold Reddit to the media house Conde Nast in 2006) — over newly announced application programming interface or API charges for third-party apps that seek to access Reddit content. Some of those apps (Apollo, BaconReader, Sync) have shut since July when the pricing kicked in .

In June, Fidelity, the primary investor in Reddit’s latest funding round in 2021, reduced the estimated value of its ownership stake by 41% since its initial investment. The company intended to go public at a valuation around $15 billion, but that now seems unlikely.

“More than any other place on the internet, Reddit is a home for authentic conversation. There’s a lot of stuff on the site that you’d only ever say in therapy, or AA, or never at all. But we don’t need to give all of that value to some of the largest companies in the world for free,” Huffman said in a recent interview with The New York Times, defending the API charges.

In efforts to address criticism of its limited monetisation options, meanwhile, the platform has been exploring the potential of artificial intelligence (AI). Reddit is ultimately an archive of human conversations now spanning 18 years. This is a dataset that AI companies could utilise to enhance their models for tasks such as natural language processing, sentiment analysis, text generation and more. There is a series of legal, ethical, and technical hurdles associated with sharing this data with AI firms. And it is likely that Redditors, a vocal and privacy-conscious community, will be wary of such a shift.

But the platform will likely weather these storms. There isn’t an alternative to it today. Twitter has devolved into X. Old competitors such as Digg, StumbleUpon and Voat are internet history.

Reddit will likely remain what it always has been: the internet writ small, on a single site, a successor to the old usenet of groups filled with people who usually knew what they were talking about. An oasis of plain text in a world of search-engine-optimised gobbledygook.

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