U is for Unidan

By Jeremy Wilson

The social news site reddit generates billions of page views and has hundreds of millions of unique users. The website has become its own universe, sucking in good sized chunk of the anglosphere’s youth and keeps them glued to its message boards.

There’s plenty of popular users on reddit, but there’s only one with a fanbase who sends him pictures of their asses to be signed. Meet Ben Eisenkop, in real life he is a nitrogen biogeochemist, on the internet he is reddit user “unidan” and he is a megastar.

Little did Eisenkop know when he created his username unidan in 2009 that he would become a household name in one of the internet’s biggest communities. But how could an ecosystems ecologist win the hearts and minds of so many people?

To understand unidan’s popularity you first have to understand the things that turn reddit users on. Young, American and geeky, the majority of reddit’s users sated their teenage rebellion against the adult world by turning to people who thought differently from their parents: science popularisers. TV scientist such as Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye captured their young audiences with their enthusiasm for taking a rational approach to the world around them.

Unidan’s enthusiasm for all things science has led to him accidentally stepping into the role that the TV popularisers once played. He’s become a sort of Steve Irwin of the online world.

One of the things that endears unidan to reddit users is the uncontrived nature of his posts on the site. He starts off cheerfully with “biologist here!” then goes on to passionately attempt to enlighten on whatever biological question happens to have arisen. Of course, you need more than passion to make this work, you need an incredible amount of relevant knowledge – something that unidan is able to prove over and over again. From identifying hackberry trees to enlightening users about multiple kangaroo vaginas and carnivorous pineapples, unidan knows his stuff.

These qualities made him popular, but it didn’t make him a rock star. For that to happen a small new feature needed to be added: reddit gold. Once people started gifting Unidan the new reddit gold, he could receive notifications every time his name was mentioned – inevitably people started summoning him to impart knowledge. By responding to these never ending requests with cheery disposition he’s found himself become the most popular user on the site.

In a world where gaining attention online means whoring out your hollow personality for YouTube hits or painstaking crafting witticisms to build a following on twitter, it’s refreshing to find someone in the limelight simply for liking trees and being nice.