Facebook, Twitter and Instagram get all the headlines, but there’s another social media site that’s just as important and widely used: Reddit, which bills itself as the “front page of the internet,” boasts more than 330 million users. Unlike other sites, Reddit allows its users, known as redditors, to curate news for others in the social network, but it also has its share of cute animal photos. In her new book, journalist Christine Lagorio-Chafkin looks at how the site grew from its humble beginnings to its current format, and how the company has dealt with some of the same technology, privacy and business issues plaguing other social media sites. Lagorio-Chafkin, senior writer at Inc. magazine, joined the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to discuss the book, We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: What drew your attention to Reddit?
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin: Back around 2011, I was a young reporter, and Reddit was evolving and growing at the time as this site that looked similar to Digg or Delicious or these kinds of bookmarking and aggregation sites. I noticed a strange phenomenon was happening that had a very funny name attached to it in the media world. It was called “the Reddit hug of death,” because when a link from The New York Times or Inc. magazine would reach the front page of Reddit and be uploaded by redditors and reach this crazy popularity and virality, that link would drive so much traffic to our stories that it would literally cripple media servers and take down the website.
Knowledge at Wharton: How did Reddit get started in the first place? Why did co-founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman want to have this type of social media site?
Lagorio-Chafkin: The idea was not their own. They were two recent graduates from the University of Virginia who had a far-too-early idea for a startup that would do mobile food ordering. But this was before the app ecosystem existed. Their mentor, Paul Graham, told them, “Oh, that’s a terrible idea. What you should do instead is create a site similar to Delicious,” which at the time was a list of bookmarked links by users, “but make it only the most popular stuff for the day.” Create a mirror of the internet, everything that is the best thing of its genre online so that you don’t have to navigate to The New York Times and Washington Post and Chicago Tribune every morning to get your news. You can just go to the front page of Reddit. Along the way, a visitor would also see a lot of the funniest stuff and maybe some programming news or maybe some science journal links that they might be interested in. So, that’s exactly what these guys set out to do.
In order to create it as a virality engine or place where the most popular stuff would actually bubble up to the top and not require editors to do the sort of curating you might see at a mainstream news site, they created the algorithm that Steve Huffman hand-coded that valued both time and popularity. Popularity would decrease over time if users did not continue to raise it up in value. That’s called “upvoting” in Reddit speak. You can also conversely “downvote” something. That was a neat thing because the upvote wasn’t a “like” button. It wasn’t a user having to say, “I endorse this. I think this is important and other people should read it.”
“I’ve come to think of it as the least known and most influential site on the internet.”
It was in stark contrast to other parts of the internet that had comments at the time, even whatever newspaper you would view. Those comments were largely spam and just off-topic nonsense and rants. On Reddit, the downvoting function allowed those things to get buried and allowed the best stuff to surface. It was a very early, sophisticated spam control.
Knowledge at Wharton: Where is Reddit right now in the hierarchy of social media sites?
Lagorio-Chafkin: I’ve come to think of it as the least known and most influential site on the internet. It’s remarkable that it’s the fifth most popular site in the United States with 330 million monthly users who type more than 50,000 words into it every minute. It is the last textual engine of the internet. You know, everyone knows the names Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. Has anyone heard of Steve Huffman? It’s incredible. He’s a fascinating character, and it made writing this book such a pleasure.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why haven’t the co-founders gotten as much attention as some of the other social media/tech leaders who have had to go before Congress lately?
Lagorio-Chafkin: As a reporter, I called up Sen. Mark Warner’s [D-Virginia] office about this. The senator is interested in starting to investigate the disinformation spreading online during the election. His staff told me, “Well, we’re interested in Reddit. I believe there are problems on Reddit,” but I don’t think they actually reached out to Reddit. I later heard that Reddit itself had to raise its hand and reach out to Warner’s office and say, “Hi, we’re Reddit. Would you like to know about us?”
It’s a site that’s just largely misunderstood and “disunderstood.” It’s a little bit of an intimidating place to outsiders. While there are literally 100,000 communities about anything under the sun, any passion you have, any political interest you have, it has a very steep learning curve. It is not a place where there are shiny, air-brushed influencers or pictures. It is an edgier, scrappier site. Therefore, there are a lot of things like conspiracy theories and pornography on the site. I think users are a little scared to go full into Reddit sometimes. For years, there was roughly one major scandal that shook both Reddit the community and Reddit the company, per year. I think that also is a little intimidating to users.
Knowledge at Wharton: But those are some of the same issues that Facebook and Twitter have had to address and make changes in their policies. Why hasn’t Reddit followed the same path?
Lagorio-Chafkin: Reddit’s different in a sense. It has not traded in people’s data at all in its history. Users on Reddit are anonymous or pseudonymous, which is a funny way of saying that you can have as much of your own identity as you want or be as anonymous as you want. They’re not asking for your phone number or your friend circle. People are coming together over shared passions and shared interests.
Reddit knows very little about its users, so that has also been a challenge for them in terms of keeping up the business side of the site and making money through advertising if you don’t know precisely whom you’re advertising to. For years, this was a huge challenge for them as a business. It’s shaping up to not be as big of a challenge now that the communities on the site are so large and so passionate. And they’ve cleaned up a lot of the darker corners of this site along the way. I think that there are many lessons that the likes of Twitter and Facebook could learn from Reddit and its policy changes over the past two years.
Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian sold the company in 2006 to Condé Nast and stepped away in 2009. But after the site had evolved into this massive operation with very few employees, but a very massive community, the community sort of mutinied in 2015 against certain policies that were made — and one single staff firing. Reddit started to black out moderators who controlled their various corners of Reddit and took their sites dark. Steve Huffman, who had been away from Reddit, away from this site he had hand-coded for years, was watching the thing he’d created just black out. And he thought, “Reddit’s going to die.”
He was offered the chance to come back as CEO, and this had been whispered for years in his ear: “You need to come back. You need to come back.” Finally, seeing his creation look like it was going to snuff itself out, he did. In the summer of 2015, he stepped back in as CEO. Now Ellen Pao, the previous chief executive, had begun to start to clean up this site. She had tasked her community manager with finding five subreddits, which are what those communities are called, that were harmful to individuals and harassed individuals and that Reddit should no longer support. They decided to ban five subreddits, including one called Fat People Hate. This is just an example of the terrible stuff that would happen on Reddit at that time.
“I think that there are many lessons that the likes of Twitter and Facebook could learn from Reddit and its policy changes over the past two years.”
When Steve came back in, everyone thought, “OK, the original creator who had this free speech, anarchist worldview is coming back in, and it’s going to be chaos.” Instead, Steve continued Pao’s policies and cracked down immediately on hate speech, on violence against humans and animals, on gun sales, on just huge ecosystems of terrible stuff that had been happening. I think that, because he had that authority as the ultimate creator of Reddit, the community couldn’t say, “Wait, wait. This is the belief of the site,” because he was the belief of the site. It turns out Huffman really never had those anarchist, free-speech-trumps-all beliefs that this site had become known for over the years. Back in their little student sublet … he’d been banning anything he didn’t like on the site back in the day. Also, it’s easy to say that things don’t need censoring when there’s nothing to censor.
Knowledge at Wharton: We know Mark Zukerberg has said that when he was developing Facebook, he could not have foreseen a lot of the issues the platform has had to deal with in recent years. Would the co-founders of Reddit say the same thing or that they had to rethink it along the way?
Lagorio-Chafkin: I don’t know. I want to say that I don’t think they were rethinking it as much as just evolving and growing up and seeing the new challenges that their community foisted on them. I do think that Steve’s time away from Reddit allowed him to gain some healthy perspective, while the employees during that time maybe didn’t have that same sort of perspective and were upholding dangerous beliefs. He was able to see it as something different and able to think ahead and think more broadly about the challenges that could come.
Even before and during the election in 2016, they were starting to see the Russian meddling. Steve hinted to me that there was something going on in the more conservative corners of Reddit. I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but now we well know that they found 944 suspicious accounts on the site that were spreading disinformation and intending to sow discord among Americans.
Knowledge at Wharton: I brought up the site as we’re talking here, and one of the top things I see is a video of a duck with a pile of cats. So, there’s a little bit of sarcasm to the site. There’s a little bit of higher thought at times, which is different than what you get on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Lagorio-Chafkin: One of the things that redditors love about Reddit, and I’ve come to love about Reddit, is it’s a little rough around the edges. I’ve come to see it as the antithesis of the airbrushed and Photoshopped kind of Pintrests and Instagrams of our social media. It is not that. It is people just typing in their thoughts and their funny memes and the fascinating things that happened to them that day. There’s a very vibrant community called r/Personal Finance, where folks ask really basic questions to one another. People who are not financial professionals can answer them, and they actually give very, very good advice on how to avoid debt collection schemes, for example.
“It’s easy to say that things don’t need censoring when there’s nothing to censor.”
It’s not a place where influencers are valued. It is also a place where it’s tough to be a brand or a self-promoter. That’s been an interesting struggle for Reddit and its business model, trying to get brands who are used to doing straightforward advertising to actually engage with the community on a genuine level and simply be a redditor who may have something they want to say or offer or advertise.
Knowledge at Wharton: How much of a development was the advertising part of it? I think pretty much everybody in social media realizes that having a monetary component through advertising is a nice function to have.
Lagorio-Chafkin: Absolutely, and it’s Reddit’s entire business model. Reddit’s risk business structure with that setup is kind of fascinating since it had been acquired by Condé Nast. Since then, it has been spun out as this independent subsidiary of Advance Publications, which is the parent company of Condé. Then it was allowed to act like a Silicon Valley firm and raise venture capital. Over the years, it has raised two rounds of venture capital. It’s now valued at more than $1.8 billion, and it is not making the kind of money that other Silicon Valley companies that actually sell something are making. It has been an interesting challenge for Reddit to try to sustain itself, to try to act as a fast-growth company.
The big challenges internally have been in hiring over the past couple of years because after Huffman came back to the company, only about 20 of those original employees stayed around. Between then and today, in which Reddit has more than 400 employees, they’ve been doubling in size every year. That’s been a crazy growth challenge. He just told me, in fact, that the sales operation is their second-largest team, which is remarkable and a huge change from the past. I think they are making major deals. You can see auto advertisements on Reddit. There’s more to come in that round.
Knowledge at Wharton: Will Reddit become as big as Facebook and Twitter?
Lagorio-Chafkin: I think it should be already. It was, at one point in the past year, the third most popular website in the United States. It’s got far more traffic than Twitter. It is a place which deals with the same challenges these sites deal with. It deals with harassment of users in public and over direct messages. It deals with all sorts of content and political speech that sometimes border on hate speech or sometimes are hate speech that they have to regulate or make difficult decisions on. I think listening to the evolution of Steve Huffman’s thoughts on all these matters is fascinating. I think that Congress could learn a great deal about how the other sites work if he would be called to testify because he has some very smart ways of thinking about this.
Knowledge at Wharton: Social media gives people connection and community. With Reddit, you have so many options to be able to dip your toe in the water with a particular community. But it can be daunting for newcomers, right?
Lagorio-Chafkin: Even the infrastructure of Reddit has been difficult for people to manage in the past. There are subreddits for everything under the sun. there’s a learning curve, and there’s a sense of humor innate to this site. It has always looked like internet kind of 1.0, 2.0. It looked like it was 2005 on your browser until just about a year ago. Bloomberg Businessweek referred to the look of Reddit as “having all the aesthetic seduction of a phone book.” They’ve been redesigning the website over the past year, and now it actually looks a lot more like a Facebook or a Twitter. It’s got light blue and blocks of texts, lots of images. It’s got a very sleek, fast-growing mobile app that more than 60% of redditors are on. It has moved into the modern era visually. It also has a way for newcomers to be guided through this site. When you’re brand new, it will ask you, “Hey, do you like photography? Do you like movies? Do you want to subscribe to these communities?” It will walk you through a curated slate of interests and get you into it. So, it’s trying.
“It’s not a place where influencers are valued. It is also a place where it’s tough to be a brand or a self-promoter.”
Knowledge at Wharton: How would you characterize the concern about regulating social media right now?
Lagorio-Chafkin: I think we’ve hit a little bit of a lull on it right now in terms of the congressional investigations into fake news, the spread of disinformation and the spread of user information or leaks of user identities. Facebook will continue to be scrutinized over [these things]. It’s a tough area to regulate. I don’t think that most of the senators understand Reddit or the way many of the other social sites works, which makes it difficult.
I think it’s easy when you’re a lawmaker to understand the flow of money online. That is something that is easy to regulate. Any time a bank is connected to a user account, that is easy to regulate. But when it’s human-to-human conversation online, that’s basically regulated like a phone company or a common carrier. Silicon Valley uses that. Many companies other than Reddit use it. It’s called the neutral platform defense, and this lets them claim that they’re not media companies, so they’re not responsible for the content that their users put on their site — all the copyright infringement, violent images or even terrorism spread on a site. If they’re regulated just as a common carrier, those things are going to continue to be there and are going to continue to be the responsibility strictly of the sites themselves.
I don’t know the answer. There are a lot of new and difficult questions that the executives of these sites are answering and that I think our government should be more interested in. I think everyone in America should be interested in it. And if you have a strong opinion, call your lawmaker.