Every year is a breakthrough year for Reddit. And not in the sense that the site has some kind of transcendent, singular moment that pierces the national social consciousness. You’d have to look under a dial-up modem in some forgotten corner rural America to find someone who hasn’t at least heard of the “front page of the Internet.”
No, Reddit has become so big, and its platform so powerful, that it exerts its cultural influence over thousands of phenomena both big and small, both inane and criminally serious. Last year, redditors played detective in the biggest terrorist manhunt in years, scouring through photos and videos of the Boston bombing in an ultimately futile—and harmful—attempt to identify the perpetrator. This year, fans of the wildly popular Serial podcast assembled on Reddit to follow the breadcrumbs in a 15-year-old murder case, some even taking ghoulish “tours” of the key locations in the murder.
And in 2014, Reddit once again found itself the center of controversy over sexual harassment online. The site had come under intense pressure in previous years to ban so-called “creepshot” photos, pressure the company ultimately gave into—albeit half-heartedly. When hackers broke into the private accounts of multiple female celebrities this summer, it was no surprise that Reddit became the primary dumping ground for hundreds of the women’s stolen nudes.
When that community inevitably came under harsh criticism, forum moderators launched a fundraiser for prostate cancer—a perverted expression of one of Reddit’s enduring good sides: the charity of strangers.
Set to reach close to 200 million unique visitors by the end of this month, Reddit is no longer an influential Internet underground. It is the Internet, for most intents and purposes. And now, more than ever, it’s being held accountable for what happens in its comment threads. The story of Reddit’s 2014 is the story of Reddit growing up—not into adulthood, but uncomfortable adolescence.
Here are the stories that made Reddit great and terrible in 2014.
The worst of the worst
The massive collection of stolen photographs rocked Hollywood and the Internet to their core. Dubbed “Celebgate” and “the Fappening,” the dump featured hundreds of nude and sexually suggestive photographs of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Kirsten Dunst. Almost immediately after the photos began appearing on the anonymous imageboards Anon-IB and 4chan, redditors catalogued the images on their own central hub: r/thefappening.
The subreddit would end up crushing the entire site under an avalanche of traffic. It was the fastest growing subreddit in the Reddit’s decade-long history, collecting more than 100,000 subscribers in a day before it was ultimately shut down a week later because of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown requests.
Reddit has become so big, and its platform so powerful, that it exerts its cultural influence over thousands of phenomena both both inane and criminally serious.
The timing of the r/thefappening shutdown raised many concerns among redditors—namely, why did it take administrators a week to do so? One of the top moderators of r/thefappening called this a grand hypocrisy.
“They gave us this week of traffic, 250 million pageviews…” a former r/thefappening mod told the Daily Dot. “I feel like the site was unfair to us in that they banned us when their lawyers decided it was a good idea and not that we did anything wrong.”
Serial is easily one of the best things on the Internet. The podcast phenomenon has given people around the world an unparalleled insight into the journalistic process by showing that anything, even an obscure, 15-year-old murder, can be endlessly fascinating if you stare it at hard enough. It’s a deeply human look into the criminal justice system that will undoubtedly inspire a generation of muckrakers.
Yet, at the same time, the Internet’s one-size-fits-all scale has effectively turned a personal tragedy into a national obsession with nary a thought to the moral calculus involved in the transition. It’s as if, when American television audiences were asking “Who killed Laura Palmer?” they were also digging through the trash of everyone who lived where Twin Peaks was filmed.
How Reddit has dealt with Serial is a perfect example of this dichotomy. On one hand, the r/Serial subreddit is a hive for rampant speculation about the murder that’s brought in an litany of outside information. Inside Reddit’s r/Serial community, the site’s hivemind combs through the podcast’s clues just like r/TrueDetective scanned the corner of every premium cable frame for clues about the Yellow King. Viewed with a bit of distance, the whole endeavor is creepy and makes even listening to the podcast itself feel akin to touristic voyeurism at real people’s expense.
The fall of r/technology
It was one of Reddit’s crown jewels—one of the first default subreddits, helmed in part by Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian (kn0thing). The community was a Web traffic powerhouse and beloved by tech news junkies. But that huge influence would ultimately contribute to r/technology’s downfall.
In March, sharp-eyed redditors discovered that r/technology had been automatically banning all posts featuring the word “Tesla,” the name of the innovative motor vehicle company specializing in electric cars. The ban, according to one moderator, was because “battery cars aren’t ‘technology’ any more than than normal cars are. Brand favoritism isn’t a good reason to allow something that doesn’t belong.” The ban was ultimately lifted after blowback from the r/technology community.
Reddit’s response to the letter? Silence.
A few weeks after the Tesla drama, two Reddit sleuths uncovered a list of 50 words and phrases that r/technology moderators had banned. This included words like “NSA,” “Comcast,” and “Bitcoin.” The news of the ban was r/technology’s worst nightmare. Through a series of confessions on Reddit and interviews with the Daily Dot, fellow default subreddit moderators shared stories of corruption within the ranks of r/technology. At the center of the drama was power user maxwellhill, who had used his influence to raise his Reddit profile dictatorially. On April 17, r/technology was removed from Reddit’s default subreddit ranks. Maxwellhill removed himself as moderator shortly thereafter.
When pretty much any group of redditors drew criticism this year for their actions, the response was largely to throw money at the problem. Since redditors used a slew of donations to Stephen Colbert’s favorite charity, DonorsChoose.org, as a way get the TV host’s attention, organizing donation drives has become a Reddit tradition. Yet the technique has also been used as a way for groups engaging in bad behavior to cloak their motives in altruism. When r/TheFappening drew heat for trading stolen celebrity nude pics, the subreddit’s denizens tried donating money to prostate cancer “in honor of [leak victim] Jennifer Lawrence” as well as Matt Damon’s Water.org nonprofit, only to have their gifts rejected. Reddit’s hub for Gamergate, r/KotakuInAction, similarly saw its donations to a charity for disabled gamers sent back.
Feeding the trolls
What do r/Ferguson, r/EricGarner, and r/TrayvonMartin all have in common? They’re all subreddits run by white supremacists. Anyone who wants to can set up a subreddit, and it turns out Reddit’s racists are increasingly the quickest on the draw when it comes to registering ones named after the most politically charged topics in American race relations and filling them with hate.
Many of these are serious racists. Others are noxious trolls out to get a rise from people. All of them are harmful.
Earlier this year, the moderators of nearly 50 subreddits banded together to write an open letter asking the site’s administrators to deal with the endless torrent of harassment and personal threats awful jerks sent their way on a daily basis. On the r/rape subreddit for survivors of sexual assault, moderators had to delete one out of every five pieces of content because it was submitted by trolls. Women telling their assault experiences for the first time were dogged by anonymous harassers threatening to rape or murder them.
Reddit’s response to the letter? Silence.
The banning of Unidan
Unidan was one of Reddit’s best. He used his encyclopedic knowledge or animal science and biology to enlighten the Reddit community and become one of its most influential users. He was dubbed by Fox News as “Reddit’s go-to science guy.” What took Unidan—Ben Eisenkop—four years to build was destroyed in one month this year.
Reddit is no longer an influential Internet underground. It is the Internet, for most intents and purposes.
Eisenkop’s Reddit account was shadowbanned for using at least five alternative profiles “to downvote people he was arguing with, upvote his own submissions and comments, and downvote submissions made around the same time he posted his own so that he got even more of an artificial popularity boost,” according to community manager Alex Angel. This was a form of vote manipulation, which is strictly forbidden by Reddit’s official rules.
Celebrity redditors even chimed in on Eisenkop’s demise.
“What I think is super-sad is that his stuff was so cool and interesting, it would have been upvoted on its own,” actor Wil Wheaton told the Kernel. “He didn’t need to do what he did. I miss the contribution that he made.”
The best of the rest
Getting serious about self-promotion
The only thing redditors like more than making cool stuff is supporting other redditors who make cool stuff, which is why many of them have long bristled at rules stifling users from self-promoting on the site. When Reddit user and musician James Andrews was blocked from using Reddit to tell people about his newest project, he grew frustrated enough to record a YouTube video highlighting the fundamental contraction in Reddit’s rules against self-promotion. Andrews’ argument sparked important discussions among both Reddit’s users and its management. While some interesting proposals about changing the site’s rules have sprouted, nothing has actually been implemented. But the soul-searching triggered by Andrews’ video should hopefully make the site a better place.
Snoop Dogg, Reddit owner
Buried toward the bottom of the list of names of investors who kicked in for Reddit’s recent $50 million round of venture capital was one that may ring a bell for hip-hop heads: Calvin Broadus, Jr., better known as Snoop Dogg. Snoop’s interest in Reddit has been longstanding. He’s done multiple AMAs and serves as a moderator of the site’s r/trees community of marijuana enthusiasts. The rapper’s involvement at the ownership level makes Reddit just a little bit cooler.
The man with two penises
Yes, he really has two penises. Yes, they work. Yes, he was born with them. Yes, he did an AMA. Yes, it was fascinating. Yes, it was largely civil, respectful, and polite. Yes, there is a YouTube video of people doing a dramatic reading of the AMA.
In April, May Goldberg wandered off from her apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Goldberg had early onset Alzheimer’s, and her disappearance threw her family into a panic. Goldberg’s son contacted the police and the media, but the outlet that proved the most helpful was Reddit. He posted a picture of his mother in the r/NYC subreddit and, a few hours later, someone saw her on the street, notified the authorities, and sent her son a message. Family emergency averted. Thanks, Reddit.
Illustration by Max Fleishman