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The story of the web can be told by the highs and lows of Reddit

10 February 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

The largest social network you did not know about has a remarkable story

Reddit has been in the news thanks to Wall Street bets, but as one of the top 20 websites in the world its history makes for a fascinating timeline of the web.

It is valued at $3 billion and includes TenCent as part of its investors

It has faced some of the biggest online scandals and picked a messy path to try to solve them and be a key part to solving the challenges with false information and moderation.

Early days

Steve Huffman, Alexis Ohanian were students when they had the idea to create a service that allows you to call a restaurant to order food before you got there. They planned to pitch their idea at a startup session hosted by a venture capital firm. The idea might seem obvious now, but in early 2005 it seemed like a tech nightmare and the idea was rejected. The two were sent home but offered a chance to pitch something else if they had a better idea. Huffman suggested creating a front page for the internet and so began some great collaboration and innovation that was replicated by many of the social networks that came after it.

A third founder Aaron Swartz joined them as they set about creating a service that allowed users to share links, or pictures or make comments about a variety of subjects. Other users would then upvote or downvote the posts earning the post more or less visibility and the poster more karma.

Mashable published an excellent piece on Reddit’s history for its 15th anniversary in 2020

The upvote

This is a key element for how the social network manages to find the great content. Upvotes don’t equate with something you like, but rather something that is good or important, of course you would upvote things you like too. Downvotes are indicators of less relevance, value or nastiness.

Having lots of Karma allows for your posts to be seen more often and by more people, to grow your karma you need to be active on the site and engage with comments that themselves get karma based on upvotes.

Perhaps because they were young or perhaps because they were one of the early big start-ups, the founders sold the platform to Conde Nast in 2006. They continued to work on the platform till 2009 before they left to do other things in part because an established publisher was not likely to get what a social media start-up was all about.

The site also favoured allowing most content to be shared. Like most of the early web that was created by people that were young, optimistic and typically privileged, the concern about a time with broad access reflecting the real world bias and prejudice and that those that were comfortable to bully and discriminate would be even more willing to do so online.

Even the positive projects that can be undertaken with crowdsourcing is not that different from what a digital vigilante group looks like. After the Boston bombings in 2013, redditors, as they are know on the platform went looking for those responsible. They identified the wrong person which set off a terrible time for the innocent person accused online of the crime.

The hard years

From 2010 and arguably up till now, Reddit has had equal parts fun and joy as well as scandal and hate.

When a platform looks to reflect society it should not be surprising that it ends up reflecting society.

The site also had to contend with what it should do as a platform that does not choose the content but step in when the content is harmful. One such situation was with removing revenge porn. It may seem obvious to do so, but it had to make the decision to do so before it was law. Technology companies often create or expose situations that have not had to be addressed by lawmakers as they had not existed before. Laws take time to be passed and platforms like Reddit needed to make the decision before the laws were ready. It was not a difficult decision to make but it does make less clear decisions more difficult.

Facebook took some time to determine whether pictures of breastfeeding are allowed when pictures of female nipples are not. It is allowed.

Even more difficult are decisions about how to regulate political speech as views may be opposites while still not right or wrong.

There are limits though and two former CEO’s Yishan Wong and Ellen Pao both made tough but important decisions to block some subreddits which resulted in them being targeted by those that disagreed with them which ultimately saw both leave rather than continue to deal with the trolls.

Steve Huffman returned in 2015 and is still trying to find the best path to get the best content onto the front page of the internet while keeping it a robust but safe space.

They have attracted more investors and shown some good business growth with the site offering a paid version that makes rewarding good posts with credits that can themselves be used to reward others.

The latest issue with Wall Street Bets and the risky nature of the content being shared that does result in people making investments that don’t work is yet another challenge to negotiate. Not only are there issues with the nature of the content but some of the posts use language that would be considered hurtful and insensitive to those with mental illness.

Investigations to determine if some users may have tried to manipulate the subscribers may find that some did try to unduly influence inexperienced investors to do something they may regret, but the same applies to people that may have any other social media or web presence to try to do the same.

In the end the challenges will point to better regulations that can be applied on Reddit and perhaps all sites and while the issues tend to be focused on the US, other countries will see the same issues affect their countries too and hopefully a balanced and effective solution would have been found.

The unusual business of Reddit

There is a very useful effect that Reddit creates - business opportunities.

For Subreddits like AskReddit which allows anyone to ask anything, you may find smart businesses track which problems come up often or affect many people and then look to provide a product or service to solve it.

With all the conversation on Wall Street Bets that has resulted in major stock changes has seen investment firms analyse the sentiment and use it to make investment decisions. One ETF has even gone so far to create a fund that tracks the most popular stocks discussed on social media.

For companies that wish to introduce their product or service to a receptive audience it may be worthwhile to join and contribute to communities that you can serve.

So many subreddits

There are over two million subreddits with over 100 000 being very active and the most popular having over 30 million subscribers. To make it easier to find a sub for you try the subreddit stats

10 February 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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