THE STATE OF REDDIT
The week of November 2, 2014
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The war over Reddit’s front page

By Fernando Alfonso III

Fast-food brands. Celebrities. Media organizations. Nowadays, if you’ve got a brand to sell, you’re going to put it on Reddit.

The front page of the Internet commands more than 174 million dedicated readers every month. It’s a marketing powerhouse for every newsroom and agency from midtown Manhattan to Hollywood. A single front-page post on Reddit can turn just about any story or video “viral,” flooding the source with hundreds of thousands of views. It’s among the most coveted real estate on the Web.

You should know how Reddit’s front page works—how its 49 distinct communities were curated, the controversies they’ve created, and what’s lurking behind the site’s surface. To really understand how crucial default subreddits are to the fabric of Reddit today, we’ve got to go back to the beginning.

•••

When Alexis Ohanian (known as kn0thing on Reddit) and Steve Huffman (spez) launched the site in June 2005, all that existed on Reddit was its front page. Reddit’s concept was simple: create an account and submit links to fun and interesting content you had found around the Web. If your post collected enough votes, it would rise up toward the top of the page, which was also confusingly known as r/reddit.com.

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Eight months after launching the site, Reddit’s small team of programmers realized the front page’s catch-all submission process wasn’t going to work with a growing userbase. In the spring of 2006, the first subreddits were created.

The idea with the first 12 forums was to give Reddit’s small userbase specific forums to submit content to. Reddit’s founders meant to create a hierarchy that would limit the amount of content displayed from any given topic. The subreddits would be populated automatically by having each new user subscribed to these forums upon signing up. Once logged in, a redditor could then decide to unsubscribe from a subreddit, hiding its content from their front page. These defaults would also be the first thing non-logged-in users would see on Reddit.

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“We’ve been watching the subreddit request and feature suggest reddits and have a good idea of how we’re going to approach the other subreddits,” Huffman wrote on Reddit’s official blog on Feb. 22, 2006. “The key thing to know is that we’ll try to avoid creating subreddits for a specific topic per se, but rather we’ll create them for a specific group of people. For example, a developer reddit for people interested in programming and the likes.”

That list of 12 defaults would not change for the next five years. In that time, Reddit administrators kept themselves busy, though.

In January 2008, admins gave users the ability to create their own subreddits. Upon creation, redditors would become moderators of said subreddits. A moderator could remove posts and ban users from subreddits for violations of the site’s rules, or rules instituted by the subreddit. One of Reddit’s first moderators tasked with policing default subreddits like r/worldnews and r/pics was qgyh2, who Ohanian called in August 2008 the “most prolific redditor to date.” Qgyh2 was a power moderator, someone who presided over large subreddits and whose position of seniority gave him veto powers over newer mods.

While a handful of people raised concerns over this combination of default subreddits and veteran redditors, their voices were too quiet to rise above the noise of Reddit’s thunderclap.

The site hired four new staffers, including Erik Martin, a.k.a. hueypriest, as community manager. Its advertising business was up and running. And its users were gaining a reputation as some of the kindest and most charitable people on the Internet. By early 2011, Reddit had hit its stride. Between December 2010 and January 2011, the site grew from 829 million pageviews to more than 1 billion.

You should know how Reddit’s front page works—how its 49 distinct communities were curated, the controversies they’ve created, and what’s lurking behind the site’s surface.

“There are only about 100 sites on the entire Internet that get a billion pageviews in a single month, and now reddit can put on its smoking jacket and join that exclusive club,” admin Mike Schiraldi wrote on Reddit’s blog. “The New York Times isn’t on the membership list, nor is Expedia, Weather.com, about.com, or Fox News. In your face, meteorologists!”

It was time, as early Reddit administrator Erik Martin stated, for Reddit to grow up.

On Oct. 18, 2011, the site closed r/reddit.com, and in its place, they expanded the list of default subreddits to 20. The newest topics included forums dedicated to atheism, science, technology, disturbing images, memes, cute animals, music, and film.

The addition of 10 new default subreddits irked the Reddit community. Perhaps the two most surprising additions to the default stable was r/adviceanimals and r/atheism. Each subreddit existed on either end of Reddit’s spectrum. R/adviceanimals was a place to kick back and share lowbrow images of Scumbag Steve and Socially Awkward Penguin. R/atheism was a hotbed of religious discussion and drama.

News of the new defaults was announced by Martin on r/blog. Redditors were not happy. Yet amidst all the hand-wringing, redditor CrasyMike had one piece of advice.

“HAVING a default set is a bad idea, imo [in my opinion], CrasyMike commented. “But I think the admins know that. And there isn’t a whole lot you can do about that for new users.”

•••

While Reddit was making traffic history in January 2011, a redditor named slaterhearst was becoming a karma king. With successful posts on defaults like r/politics, r/technology, and r/worldnews, slaterhearst’s karma points—Reddit’s internal mechanism for rewarding content—went from nothing to more than 176,000 in about a year.

This success was thanks to more three dozen of slaterhearst’s submissions reaching Reddit’s front page, resulting in an avalanche of traffic to the websites he linked to. The Atlantic was one of them—and it wasn’t a coincidence.

Slaterhearst was actually the Atlantic’s associate and social media editor, Jared Keller. Keller posted up to three or four Atlantic links to Reddit per day, bucking up against the site’s unofficial rules regarding spam. In March 2012, slaterhearst was banned from Reddit by administrators.

“I tried to adhere to those standards, but as language like ‘thin ice’ suggests, there’s a lot of leeway in how one might interpret them,” Keller told the Daily Dot at the time. “Reddit recently contacted the Atlantic and told us that, based on the frequency of my Atlantic submissions, they would be deactivating my personal account. I never had any bad intentions, but I understand and accept Reddit’s position and remain a loyal member of the Reddit community.”

Keller’s right. The site’s rules are vague, almost maddeningly so. What his story illustrates is an overarching problem with default subreddits: The amount of attention subreddits receive on the front page, combined with the influence of a Reddit power user wields, makes for a powerful combination, one that could be easily manipulated for personal gain, especially considering how dependent Reddit is on its volunteer moderators.

Case in point: the Quickmeme saga. An investigation into the r/adviceanimals found that the alleged owner of the image macro site had infiltrated the subreddit’s moderator ranks, and the user appeared to upvote Quickmeme links while deleting those posted by its competitors.  That may not seem like a big deal, but Quickmeme was reportedly generating 70 million unique visitors in 2012, most of it from Reddit, and that traffic could net as much as $1.6 million a month in ad revenue, according to independent analytics site Worth Of Web.

In July 2013, following months of controversial rule changes at r/atheism and intense moderator quabbles over at r/politics, both forums were removed from the default list. The traffic faucet had been shut off.

“We didn’t make the frontpage changes for any revenue-related or mainstreaming reason,” wrote Reddit CEO Yishan Wong. “We made them because (as has actually been discussed in this very subreddit quite often) the default subreddits all evolve in different ways and the community itself begins to find one or more of those subreddits more or less valuable/desirable.”

In their place, administrators knighted r/books, r/earthporn (completely safe for work), r/explainlikeimfive (a Reddit phenomenon where complicated topics are explained the way one would for a child), r/television, and r/GIFs as its newest defaults.

Administrators knew they had a growing problem on their hands. The default subreddits that were supposed to be a discovery tool for new users was being used to manipulate the community and build profits. The answer to this problem, according to administrators, was to rein in the moderators.

In December, administrators instituted a new rule limiting the number of default subreddits a user could moderator to three. The rule resulted in r/WTF voluntarily removing itself from the default list. There were two reasons for this, according to r/WTF moderator kylde. The first: fear that the exodus of influential r/WTF mods over the new rule would result in a dramatic increase in lousy content. The second: “A lot of wtf mods feel our content is not a good example of Reddit as a whole for newcomers to see,” kylde wrote. This foresight was lost on r/technology, a default subreddit that included Ohanian as a moderator.

The drama on r/technology had been building for months. Under a small group of lackadaisical moderators, the subreddit had begun implementing temporary bans on certain words or phrases commonly used in submission titles.

One controversial ban occurred in March. The word was “Tesla,” the name of one of the most innovative car manufacturers of the past century and a r/technology sweetheart. What moderators had been doing was simple. Using a bot, posts including the word Tesla were temporarily prohibited from showing up as a spam-fighting measure. Two weeks after this revelation, the other shoe dropped hard for the r/technology moderators in the form of a list that was never intended to see the light of day. On it was 50 different terms and phrases like “NSA,” “Bitcoin,” and “net neutrality.” Each term had been automatically banned from r/technology. The bans were implemented using the very same bot in March. The reason for the list, according to one r/technology moderator, was simple: They didn’t have enough manpower.

“I tried to adhere to those standards, but as language like ‘thin ice’ suggests, there’s a lot of leeway in how one might interpret them.” —Jared Keller

“We don’t have enough active mods and posts that break our rules can make it to the front page in less than an hour,” moderator agentlame added. “So we’re stuck using a bot.”

One person in particular prohibited r/technology from adding more moderators—longtime poweruser maxwellhill. While shrugging his responsibilities as a moderator, maxwellhill used his influence to push through his own post on r/technology featuring one of the very words he had banned. It was only after the ban list was made public did he start adding new moderators.

The first casualty of the leaked list was Ohanian, who had quietly removed himself from the r/technology moderator list, claiming he hadn’t been “on *any* subreddits in years.” The next blow came from Reddit administrators.

On April 17, the subreddit was removed from Reddit’s default list. The following is a screengrab of the excuse administrator Alex Angel (cupcake1713) gave:

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As was the case with the Quickmeme saga, administrators needed to make a sweeping change. Only instead of heeding CrazyMike’s advice, they did the exact opposite.

Just 27 days after r/technology was removed as a default, administrators added 26 more to the list. Administrators also removed r/adviceanimals and r/bestof as defaults.

Since these changes were made on May 7, there hasn’t been a major upheaval among the new default subreddits. One new default r/twoxchromosomes, which is the only forum to directly address women’s issues, has contended with swarms of misogynist bullies. Yet it, as well as every other new and old default subreddit, has experienced exponential subscriber growth ripe for analysis.

•••

For the following analysis, the list of default subreddits was broken down into four different categories: Defaults added on Oct. 18, 2011, July 17, 2013,  May 7, 2014, and those removed from the list over the past 16 months.

Starting with those added on Oct. 18, 2011, every single default that has retained that status has grown its subscriber list exponentially, despite the upheaval in sister defaults like r/technology and r/politics. Two subreddits that have exhibited this trend are r/music and r/science.

In 2013, both subreddits acquired between 4,500 to 6,500 new subscribers a day, according to data gleaned from redditmetrics.com. This year, that number has increased from 6,500 to 9,000. One of the reasons this daily number has fluctuated on r/science, in particular, is thanks to publicity garnered outside Reddit for AMA’s (“ask me anything”) involving the likes of SETI’s Seth Shostak and NASA’s Kepler Mission team.

The new subreddits added to the default list on July 17, 2013, have also experienced a steady upward subscriber-acquisition trajectory. One forum in particular has outpaced the rest: r/television.

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On July 17, 2013, r/television had a paltry 59,000 subscribers. Today, that number is more than 3 million, representing a 4,900 percent increase. By the end of October, the subreddit is on pace to net more than 6.5 million pageviews and 2.3 million unique visitors.

Manwithoutmodem, one of the Reddit sleuths who helped bring down Quickmeme, is a moderator at the helm of r/television. The success of the subreddit, he explained, is “100 percent due to becoming a default subreddit.”

“I think that since the admins added another 26 defaults in the spring (which forced me to leave r/askscience and r/nottheonion which I helped create) it has spread the traffic between the original defaults really well,” manwithoutmodem told me in a Reddit message. “[It has] made some awesome subreddits go from nothing, to representing the front page of their website (remember that about 50 percent of Reddit’s traffic comes from users not logged in and seeing the default front page).”

As was the case with r/television getting the default blessing, r/upliftingnews’s addition in May set it apart from the rest of its entering class.

In May, r/upliftingnews, which dubs itself a place to “escape from the controversial, fear-mongering, depressing news that is riddled with sensationalism,” had around 88,000 subscribers. Today, it boasts more than 1.2 million, a 1,263 percent increase. While the growth has been a pleasant surprise, the initial feelings over getting the default nod were not positive, moderator razorsheldon said.

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“Whenever we would have a post go viral and hit the front page of r/All, the comments section would tend to be littered with a lot of negativity and overly cynical comments, which basically defeated the purpose of the subreddit,” razorsheldon wrote in an email. “Over time though, I realized that the benefits of spreading uplifting news stories to a wider audience far outweighed these minor drawbacks.”

R/Upliftingnews has actually made something positive from all of that traffic, raising nearly $20,000 to fund life-changing healthcare for 158 patients in 14 countries through watsi.org, razorsheldon added.

In stark contrast to the three batches of default subreddits, the ones that have been voluntarily and involuntarily removed from its ranks—r/WTF, r/bestof, r/technology, r/politics, r/atheism, and r/adviceanimals—have faced one of two things: stagnant subscriber growth or net loss.

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The only two de-defaulted subreddits to gain users were r/technology and r/WTF, which have collected 48,420 and 156,947, respectively. R/technology’s monthly traffic fell from 11.3 million pageviews in April to 8 million this month.

Each of the other subreddits have experienced a loss of subscribers. Here’s a breakdown:

  • r/politics: -92,373
  • r/atheism: -60,977
  • r/adviceanimals: -47,718
  • r/bestof: – 16,463

The loss of subscribers does not tell the full story of how detrimental a default subreddit has been to r/adviceanimals. In April, one month before being booted from Reddit’s front page, r/adviceanimals collected 83.7 pageviews and 8.3 million uniques. Today, those numbers are drastically lower, 29.8 and 3.5, respectively.

Manwithoutmodem, who also moderated r/adviceanimals for some time, believes that all of this upheaval and new default blood may have been exactly what Reddit needed to fight against moderator corruption and link spamming. Only time will tell.

“Since there are 50 defaults, becoming a ‘default moderator’ isn’t as much of a ‘trophy’ as it used to be in the past years, which is a great thing,” he added.

While the numbers all indicate that default subreddits, save for a tragedy of r/Technology proportions, will continue to succeed, Reddit’s added emphasis on business has given some users pause.

In 2014, Reddit, which is headquartered in San Francisco, collected more than $50 million in investments from Silicon Valley and celebrities like Snoop Dogg. It has also inked a deal to acquire the popular Reddit iPhone app Alien Blue. and launched a crowdfunding site called Redditmade.

Perhaps what might be the most interesting business development is surrounding Reddit’s personnel.

Since April, the company has hired 36 news employees to fill positions in sales, programming, and management. Only two of those people hired are community managers, staffers tasked with engaging with redditors and fostering relationships. One of the longstanding managers, Martin, quit on Oct. 13.

With more default subreddits populating the front page and a small number of community managers to monitor them, the relative peace the site has experienced may be temporary.

 

Main photos and via Will Thomas (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

Illustrations and infographics by Jason Reed | Data obtained from Redditmetrics.com