The week of November 2, 2014

How Reddit ate the news media

By Gillian Branstetter

If you’re managing a website based on viral online content in the model of BuzzFeed, Upworthy, or even the Daily Dot, there are few resources better than Reddit. The social content aggregator is among the top measures for mass appeal; it’s a never-ending faucet of easy, palatable content. Digital editors often use Reddit as a genesis point for ideas, leading to blogs and even more serious news outlets to pull stories right from Reddit’s front page to theirs—often with little to no citation.

This actually endows Reddit and its users with incredible power. If Reddit truly is “the front page of the Internet,” its users are the editors, picking and choosing which stories you’ll likely end up seeing on your Facebook feed later.

Reddit is rarely the genesis point for content—it curates content, not creates it—but its more important role is as a de facto testing ground to see what sort of content will interest people elsewhere, for blogs and the mainstream media. If a post can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

While that might a boon to Reddit administrators and bored editors, it means our online culture is beholden to what basically amounts to a popularity contest for content. Instead of a specialized editor or even an algorithm, the content Reddit pushes into the mainstream is beholden to nothing more than mass appeal and conformity to established norms of comfort and digestibility.

Reddit is rather quietly becoming a behemoth, generating healthy funding rounds in the hundreds of millions of dollars from venture capitalists while also dipping its toes into the crowded public pool that is the mobile app market. In 2013, the site saw an astounding 731 million unique visitors, putting it steadily in the same league as Twitter and LinkedIn. That’s almost double the 400 million visitors Reddit pulled in 2012.

And while a site like Pinterest drives more traffic to other sites, Reddit manages to capture the imagination of editors and readers alike far more often, and it does so without relying on a familiar culture of following individuals. It’s simplistic upvote/downvote system—combined with the users’ penchant for anonymity—means links, photos, videos, advice, and the occasional testimonial are the unfiltered focus of the site. On Reddit, content is king.

That doctrine for an online culture, however, means users are rarely asked to challenge themselves. That would be absolutely fine if Reddit existed in a vacuum, but it doesn’t. Its influence on media narratives as a whole means what is actually harvested from Reddit’s front page is timid pocket lint. It may spur pageviews, but not elevated thought.

If a post can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

But far from a mere farm for clickbait, Reddit is often the draw itself. Social media blog Shareaholic took a deeper look into Reddit’s astounding growth and found most of the traffic Reddit drives is actually to other places on Reddit.

While that might be bad news for Reddit’s overall growth, it actually proves how influential Reddit can be. Since 2012, when Gawker outed Reddit’s creepshot king, the site’s internal conflicts have been a popular resource for media coverage. When Reddit user poshpink30, for example, tricked horny redditors into thinking her husband’s butt cheeks were actually a shapely pair of breasts, the story appeared all over mainstream news sites.

But Reddit can also send enormous traffic to the rest of the Web. Blogger Tyler Vigen saw this effect with his own website, Spurious Correlations. He linked a few of his posts on the popular subreddit r/DataIsBeautiful with great success, only to find enormous growth in referrals to his website, averaging nearly 60.1 million unique visitors per month.

A closer look at Vigen’s data shows Reddit’s influence on an even stronger level: He posted his site to Facebook before posting it to Reddit, yet Facebook referrals didn’t really take off until it had already spread across Reddit. The site was then featured on both Gawker affiliate io9 and even more serious news outlets like Business Insider, neither of which cited Reddit as the original source for the story (going against Reddit’s official “Pressiquette” standards for journalists), making it difficult to tell precisely how the link propagated.

You see this effect with more serious news stories as well. Several posts about the student protests in Hong Kong became massively popular on Reddit on Sept. 27, a full day before the movement began trending on Twitter or Facebook. In fact, the subreddit r/worldnews featured a backpage New York Times story about the referendum that would cause these protests three months before photos of the protests would reach the front page of the same paper.

To say Reddit made the so-called Umbrella Revolution a news story is absurd; the largest protests in China since Tiananmen Square are inherently newsworthy. We also wouldn’t want to negate the point made by Vigen’s website, which specializes in highlighting the scientific adage that “correlation is not causation.” The correlation between popularity on Reddit and mainstream coverage does not equal causation. But what is clear is Reddit is often the best measure for what content will drive traffic on either social media or blogs.

Reddit often becomes a precursor for what will develop into a popular story, making it the first draft of new media history.

Reddit often becomes a precursor for what will develop into a popular story—benign or serious—functionally making it the first draft of new media history, and that may be too big a weight to lay on Reddit’s shoulders. Redditors, whether they know it or not, have a collective preferred tone, a je ne sais quois that leans away from serious news stories and toward easily digestible (if interesting) fluff.

If we look at the top posts across Reddit’s default subreddits, for example, we see virtually none of the stories that have rightfully dominated mainstream news outlets. The first mention of ISIS was ranked 82nd on Reddit in the same month the U.S. began bombing ISIS. If you narrow down that search to the top posts in the last day or even the last week, however, more respectable news stories come closer to the front.

In 24 hours in early October, for example, the top 10 posts included the Hong Kong protests, the decriminalization of marijuana by cash-strapped Philadelphia, and the fallout from a Nobel laureate council that refused to allow Tibetan participants.

Such posts tend to be the exception that proves the rule—a Reddit post that can sustain popularity over a longer period of time will find its way into mainstream coverage, while posts that fail to achieve a top ranking for a month or even a year are passed on. We won’t be seeing much coverage of the Tibetan Nobel laureate scandal on BuzzFeed anytime soon.

What we do see are GoPro videos, cool science videos, and the rest of the kind of content that reaches a particularly gilded status on Reddit. This is perhaps unsurprising; Reddit is not a news outlet and redditors are not (inherently) journalists.

However, the hivemind reinforces the bias towards clickbait headlines and certain kinds of news stories reaching mainstream sites. While Reddit does not have the last word in what appears on other websites (see as an example the sparse discussion on the site about the widely covered scandal that brought down the chief of the Secret Service), the reliance upon Reddit for content creates an order of operations that gives immense influence to a group that, in the words of one redditor, “gives us the best average opinion.”

Of course, “Reddit” is not a single entity. Better defined as a community of communities, Reddit as a whole is very diverse in terms of what each subreddit chooses to cover. But it’s very rare for news aggregators and viral content collectors to pick up on stories popular within individual, more niche subreddits; more often than not, it’s the front page posts that drive the media narrative, meaning in this instance we can refer to Reddit as a single collective.

Reddit’s tendency towards the trivial is a lot like Drudge’s tendency towards tabloidism.

In this way, Reddit has comparable influence to another biased online news aggregator: Drudge Report. The right-leaning website managed solely by Matt Drudge is famous for its influence on cable news, despite Drudge’s unabashed habit of running race-baiting, fear-mongering, and delusionally biased content—what Mark Halperin once called “the most salacious aspects of American politics.” Despite this, Drudge actually drives more news traffic than Twitter or Facebook for 25 of the biggest news sites on the Internet, according to a recent Pew report.

Reddit’s tendency towards the trivial is a lot like Drudge’s tendency towards tabloidism. And despite the business model pioneered by BuzzFeed—banking on listicles so you can spend on real reporting—such content does directly compete with actual news for readers’ already overwrought attention spans, thereby distracting away from it.

This is not to blame Reddit or its users for the situation they find themselves in as arbiters of taste for the media. Any large scale system measuring the popularity of something will only arrive at the most average, agreeable content. You see it on Twitter, at middle school recitals, and in the halls of Congress. The fault lies in the level of trust news outlets are willing to bestow upon such systems.

The ad-supported nature of most news sites means the goal is to get your attention while also doing quality reporting. Running a listicle with a clickbait-heavy headline is the 21st-century equivalent of a scandalous New York Post cover page. Reddit excels at aiding this system because it is a shockingly accurate tool for discovering what can or what will be attention-grabbing. But it’s precisely this usefulness that runs contrary to what people expect when they read the news.

In their refreshingly level-headed book The Elements of Journalism, media scholars Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal argue that a journalist’s first loyalty is to their citizens. The news source “must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.” When deciding what’s “significant,” news sites often bank on popularity equaling importance, a weak rule to live by for gatekeepers of information.

This race toward the middle is a cultural milieu infecting all aspects of online media, exposing us to safe, fluffy content instead of what could challenge us. Editors exist as purposeful sentinels, making the final decision in what becomes front-page news. But if they continue to hedge their bets on popularity contests like Reddit, we’ll end up with a lot of what we want and very little of what we need.

Photo via A. Cheprunov/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) | Remix by Rob Price