The Great and Powerful Reddit

How the site went from a second-tier aggregator to the Web’s unstoppable force.

Of all the sites that went dark on Wednesday to protest Congress’ misguided anti-piracy legislation, Reddit was the one I missed most. Sure, there were a couple times when Wikipedia would have provided the perfect answer for my mindless Web searches (who invented the bidet?), and I never like a day without BoingBoing, but Reddit occupies a unique position in my online diet.

Though I visit the rollicking link aggregator a few times a day to find cool stuff on the Web, Reddit isn’t any better than the aggregators BuzzFeed, Hacker News, Techmeme, and Memeorandum in that respect. What’s different about Reddit is that it’s a real, vibrant community, one of the few big websites where the users have constructed an unmistakable moral and political philosophy. Redditors are lefties who have a soft spot for Ron Paul, they’re taken with atheism and the legalization of marijuana, they hate political interference with the Internet, they love Stephen Colbert, and they’re gaga for animated GIFs. I’m a lurker at Reddit, not a participant in the community, and some of the site’s conventions strike me as bizarre. The site’s acronymic bits of insider jargon also represent a barrier to entry for newcomers. But nevertheless, Reddit has become the most exciting place on the Web in the last few months, the center of an earnest yet jokey brand of cultural and political activism.

Reddit’s recent ascendancy seems surprising. The site isn’t new—it was founded in 2005—and for many years, it toiled in the shadow of Digg, a more popular aggregator that shared many of the same features. Both sites find the best links on the Web through crowdsourcing—people submit interesting stuff, and then the hordes vote up what they like best. There was a time when Digg-like aggregators looked like the next huge Web moneymaker. Google was once reportedly in talks to buy Digg for $200 million, and the magazine giant Conde Nast purchased Reddit in 2006.

But then aggregators began to slump. In 2010, after years of mismanagement and an unpopular redesign, Digg’s traffic plummeted. Meanwhile, Reddit proved to be a lousy investment; a year and a half ago, the site’s administrators pleaded with users to begin subscribing to a new “gold” plan to help pay the bills. The two sites’ troubles seemed to mark the end of crowd-powered aggregators, which looked doomed by competition from Facebook, Twitter, and the rise of social-network link sharing. If I can get the best links from my friends, why should I bother with a site full of strangers?

But while Digg is all but dead today, Reddit not only survived the social media shift but has thrived in the age of tweets. Reddit’s traffic has exploded over the last few years—in 2011, visits doubled, and in December the site recorded 2 billion pageviews. It did so by turning inward, and by becoming more than just a place that amasses links to outside sites. On most days, the most popular posts on Reddit consist of stuff that Redditors themselves created or captured to share with other Redditors: image macros, animated gifs, pictures of cats, extremely geeky cartoons, weird Photoshop memes, and Facebook found art. There’s a lot more substantive stuff, too, including two discussion forums that I find consistently fascinating. The first is Ask Reddit, in which people pose deep and less-than-deep questions of others on the site (What is the coolest way you have ever been asked out?, What short phrases should be on candy hearts but aren’t?, What’s the worst way you “ruined the moment” while things were heating up with someone?, What insanely obvious thing did you not realize for much of your life?). The other is IAmA, in which famous and not-famous people with interesting backgrounds take questions from the audience (a former prostitute, an openly gay member of an aristocratic family, a hobo, a former Chuck E. Cheese employee, Louis C.K., a four-year-old).

In many ways, Reddit is a more accessible, less vulgar version of 4Chan, the meme-spewing online redoubt of the Web’s most vicious trolls. The two sites differ, though, in that Redditors aren’t just in it for the lulz. While 4Chan is for nihilists, Reddit users get wrapped up in the political fights of the day. In 2008, the site became the Web’s most pro-Obama destination that wasn’t funded by the campaign itself. But Redditors’ political awareness has peaked in the last couple of months with Occupy Wall Street and the Stop Online Piracy Act.

That the Occupy movement and SOPA got Redditors riled up isn’t surprising. OWS’ simple, us-vs.-them message jibed with Redditors’ underdog sympathies, while the piracy bills confirmed the site’s suspicion that nobody in government nobody in government understands the Internet. During OWS, Reddit became the source of the movement’s enduring memes, including the Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop. It was an online counterpart to Zuccotti Park—a place where people who had no real-life connection to the movement could add their virtual support.

When the piracy bills sparked outrage, Redditors joined together to lash out at everyone on the other side of the issue. They sponsored fundraisers for political opponents of SOPA and PIPA, they led a boycott against GoDaddy (the domain name company that was forced to drop its support of the legislation), and they pushed for the world’s largest sites to go dark this week. Today Redditors are reveling in their victory: The site is overrun by news that scores of lawmakers who supported the piracy laws have backed away, and the site’s denizens are now contemplating ways to push legislation that will guarantee their online freedoms. I don’t know if their new push will go anywhere, but I like that they’re trying. And we should all be thankful that Reddit helped save the Internet from some of the worst tech-related pieces of legislation that Congress has ever considered.

A few weeks ago Gawker’s Adrian Chen—the Web’s closest follower of Reddit, and its most punishing critic—argued that “Reddit has gone mad with power,” and that its chaotic hive mentality can’t sustain long-term political action. “The thinking of the Internet hive mind is shallow and frantic, scrambling from one outrage to the next,” he argued.

It’s true, as Chen points out, that the Reddit hive isn’t always a force for good. For example, the site has long been plagued by an awful section called “Jailbait,” which collects pictures of scantily clad young girls; when administrators shut it down last fall, users quickly resurrected it. Last year, one Redditor got it into his head that a woman who was raising money for kids with cancer was actually a scammer; the hive made her life hell for a few days, even though she was telling the truth.

Still, I suspect Chen misses the point about Reddit-born activism. Reddit isn’t meant to inspire sustained political participation; the hive mind is frenetic, and I’m sure it will soon tire of SOPA and move on to something else. Reddit’s powers can sometimes be terribly misused, and sometimes it’s a force for good. Question its might at your peril.