How The Atlantic successfully spammed Reddit
When redditor slaterhearst got banned from Reddit last month, it was easy to assume he was just an ordinary Reddit spammer, selling out his services to the highest bidder.
The Daily Dot has confirmed that slaterhearst was Jared Keller, the associate editor and social media editor at magazine giant The Atlantic.
The revelation proves that media companies aren’t just trying to game Reddit for pageviews by paying off influential redditors. In The Atlantic’s case, they’re taking up residence on the site itself under high-profile, pseudonymous identities and bringing in potentially millions of new visitors.
Tying the account to Keller was simple. The first result in a Google search for “slaterhearst” was an OK Cupid profile page for someone named “SlaterHearst.” The face in the profile image is unmistakably Keller’s. On Tuesday, Keller confirmed to the Daily Dot that he was the same person as slaterhearst.
Keller created the slaterhearst account in January, 2011, well after he began working at The Atlantic in 2010, according to his LinkedIn profile.
In his year on the site, Keller became a fairly influential redditor, collecting more than 176,000 link karma and, at one time, ranking in the top 30 among all users on a site that sees 35 million unique visitors a month.
Keller relentlessly shared content from The Atlantic, frequently posting three or four articles in a single day, which, all told, added up to hundreds and probably thousands of links—so many, in fact, that clicking through 10 pages and 250 submissions worth of content takes you just three months deep into his submission history.
And those submissions are just for The Atlantic. We’re not even counting all the times Keller submitted content from The Atlantic Wire, The Atlantic Cities, or National Journal—three other sites owned by the same company, Atlantic Media. Keller’s links to those sites also added up to about three or four a day. (Here is the full list of stories Keller submitted to Reddit. Judge for yourself if it amounted to spam.)
Reddit’s biggest sections see hundreds of thousands of unique visitors every day. Considering how much link karma Keller accumulated and the exposure that his posts collected, it’s safe to say his links funneled millions of visitors to The Atlantic. In fact, senior Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal recently claimed that a “single big Reddit hit can drive six-figure traffic to a story.”
Reddit’s voting system is designed to democratize content. Site moderators believe that when redditors have a vested interest in a submission’s success, it undermines the system and encourages other forms of cheating, such as voting rings. That’s why spammers are typically met with an immediate ban.
We know this all too well. Our own community manager, Logan Youree, got booted from Reddit in January for submitting Daily Dot links to the site. That’s despite the fact he limited his posts to three per week (a majority of which he posted to the Daily Dot’s own small forum on Reddit) and never hid his identity as a Daily Dot employee.
Self-promotion is serious business on Reddit, but it’s also a tricky game. The site doesn’t explicitly forbid posting your own content, but it does warn that doing so puts you on “thin ice.” A generally accepted rule says that only 10 percent of the content you post should be your own. You can’t blame media companies for trying to get their stories noticed on Reddit. Pageviews drive the digital news economy.
Here’s what Keller told us about his ban:
“I've been a redditor for years and have always submitted links to stories I liked and thought the community would like (namely from Mother Jones, Technology Review, Slate, and other sites I read).
“These also included Atlantic stories. As you know, one of the community rules says that self-promotion isn’t forbidden but may put you on ‘thin ice.’ 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. 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.”
Once a Reddit account is deleted, the user’s commenting record disappears. So we’re not entirely sure if Keller ever revealed his real identity on Reddit. We doubt it, however. Considering the high volume of his posts, Reddit staff likely would have banned him sooner if they had known his identity. And ordinary redditors clearly didn’t know who was behind the slaterhearst account when they reported him in January.
In fact, most redditors believed the account belonged to Ian Miles Cheong, a top Reddit moderator who was banned for spamming last month. Their suspicion seemed confirmed when Reddit banned both Cheong’s main account and slaterhearst on the same day.
And that’s where things get peculiar in this identity story.
The user slaterhearst, some astute redditors observed, often linked to the exact same sites as Cheong, including GlobalPost (which, as the Daily Dot reported on Tuesday, hired Cheong for his services), Gameranx, where Cheong worked as editor, and of course, The Atlantic. Gameranx is hardly a well-known site, but Keller frequently linked to it.
Why would two people on opposite ends of the world—Cheong formerly in Singapore—with no obvious connections have such similar submission histories? Oddly enough, they apparently know one another’s real identities. They follow each other on Twitter and Google+, and more than once Keller has given Cheong hat tip credit for stories he has written on The Atlantic.
However, both Keller and Cheong strongly denied the existence of a contracted relationship between them. “Ian and I know each other casually via Twitter and that’s the extent of it,” Keller told me in an email.
The Atlantic dominates on Reddit. The site’s reputation precedes it, and the quality of the articles themselves usually ensures success. If you know where to post the right Atlantic story at the right time, the upvotes come in a tidal wave. I know. I’ve posted them myself because I like The Atlantic.
Back in February, I gave The Atlantic a shout out on Twitter.
“Another day, another story from @TheAtlantic getting a lot of attention from @reddit,” I wrote, linking to a piece at reddit’s r/science forum. At the time, I had no idea that slaterhearst, the redditor who submitted that article, and Keller were the same person.
Keller replied to that compliment with a joke, a reference to the famous hypnotic amphibian in the animated series Futurama: “All upvotes to the Hypnotoad!”
An intriguing way to describe himself, to say the least.
Photo via OK Cupid