Reddit's rise: Can the social news service stay popular?

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

image captionThe Reddit alien is becoming ever more ubiquitous

Social news site Reddit bills itself as the front page of the internet, and there are days when it is hard to disagree with that description.

It proved especially difficult last week given the outrage, debate, comment and condemnation generated when it encouraged rapists to share the motivation for their sexual assaults.

Thousands of Redditors commented on the stories being told. Beyond Reddit some commentators said it was just a cheap attempt to generate notoriety, and others an attempt to excuse misogyny.

But some said it should not be "dismissed" because a real discussion was being had, albeit one whose honesty made it hard to read.

'Ridiculously photogenic'

No matter the reaction, it was one more example of the way Reddit influences online debate. It is by no means the first social news site to be held in such regard, Digg was one of the first though it has since been massively eclipsed by Reddit.

Increasingly what is first debated, dissected and depicted on the site, which enjoys more than 3.1 billion page views a month, is a hit on the wider internet, sparking reaction, debate and media attention.

Zeddie Little's life changed soon after he was dubbed "ridiculously photogenic guy" in a photo that won its widest fame on Reddit. Within days of him becoming known he appeared on the Good Morning America breakfast TV show. He became so famous that stories of him laying low to avoid attention became news.

"That happens in part is because of the way that Reddit is technologically designed," says Erik Martin, the site's general manager.

"That means things bubble up very quickly whether they are events that started on Reddit or just happened in the news."

The way Reddit is built means that everything posted to it is voted on by its members. What they like gets up-voted, what they do not, down-voted. The mechanic means that whatever the wider Reddit community likes bubbles up to the top.

Many of the causes taken up by the service, such as the protests over the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa), have done well because of the extra heft they got from the number of clicks and chatter Reddit lent them.


It has also proved hugely influential on the lives of some of its members or Redditors as they style themselves.

One of the most remarkable stories is of a Redditor whose confession on the site about how he was cheating his employer led to him being sacked, then re-hired as his firm's IT boss while the man who fired him was let go.

A pseudonymous convention that let Redditors pick the name they use on the site perhaps contributes to the confessional tone of some discussions, said Mr Martin.

"There are certain things that people are uncomfortable talking about on Facebook or Twitter for professional reasons or do not want to talk about in front of friends and family," he said.

Using a fake name on Reddit gave them the chance to air feelings, attitudes and stories that they would not otherwise share, he added.

"Facebook makes me hate the people I know and Reddit makes me like the people I don't know," he said.

Me and we

But is there something different going on with Reddit? Has it found a potent combination of anonymity, technology and community that has the power to change lives, influence politics and shape the media landscape?

image captionReddit has taken over from Digg as top social news site

No, said web veteran Tamara Littleton, who runs community management firm eModeration.

"Reddit reminds me of how the internet was back in 1994 and '95 when it was all so new," she tells the BBC.

"We would get communities that just wanted to help people and we were all nice to each other."

Sadly, she said, those early charitable impulses did not survive the transition to mass popularity.

Time and time again, she said, she has seen the same life-cycle play out in different online communities.

"There's a time when people get so excited about them that they want to give something back to it," she says, "and then there will be a time when... numbers mean it gets ruined."

Independent consultant Nancy White says she too had seen many of the dynamics being played out in Reddit in other places.

"Communities are groups of people that know they belong to each other and so they give up some of the 'me' for the 'we'," she says.

She says that helped explain why so many Redditors were helping out other members by giving advice, cash or sharing stories of how they had changed.

However, she added, this was not to dismiss the impact of the community on its members.

Ms White cites experiences with other groups, in particular one for parents who had a child that spent time in a neo-natal intensive care unit.

image captionCommon experiences bring people together online and bind communities

"The significance of that community is that your family may love you and the doctors may give you all the technical information but no-one understands you like those that have gone through the same experience," she says.

Similar forces were likely to be at work within Reddit, she said, as its structure allowed people to share stories that only others who have done the same things could relate to.

Reddit helps this impulse to find people who have undergone those experiences by being made up of more than 55,000 "sub-reddits", each one of which concentrates on a separate subject.

But people move on, and the ease with which people could hop from one community to another meant one site might not be able to stay relevant to all its members forever, said Ms White.

She added one "classic sign" of a site's evolution would be veterans complaining that it was better in the old days and everything now was just a re-hash of what had gone before.

But no matter which network people picked or the use they made of it, Ms Littleton added that there's one fact that should not be forgotten.

"I don't think online networks change people's lives," she says. "People change people's lives."

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