Illustration via Max Fleishman (CC-BY)
Reddit has long been the outcast child of the social media titans.
When compared to the giants of Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, the famous and infamous outlet for cute GIFs, scientific questions of importance, and rampant sexism is less popular and less valuable. But the atmosphere of Reddit is mostly what keeps it from mainstream appeal (as much as a site with 231 million unique monthly visitors can be said to lack appeal). Compared to the familial and officious aura of either of those sites—each populated by grandmas and brands—Reddit is unfenced cattle. Its users are mostly anonymous, its breadth too large to moderate, and yet users are so organized they can do some really great things (as well as some really bad ones).
Reddit the company has long struggled to rein in its unruly kingdom, but is clearly seeking a way to tame the site and its users to make it both easier and more appealing for the kinds of mass audience captured by Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Just this week, Reddit unveiled a new method for users to block other users in a bid to prevent trolling and spam. Likewise, the company unveiled its first official mobile app for Android and iOS. While numerous third-party apps have become commonplace for heavy Reddit users, the Reddit app is the first official attempt by the company to funnel the experience of the site through its own channels.
The Reddit app is the first official attempt by the company to funnel the experience of the site through its own channels.
Somewhat surprisingly to anyone that has followed the myriad controversies surrounding Reddit, the site has actually been ahead of most other social media outlets on a few major problems facing the Internet as a whole. Perhaps most famously, Reddit became the first major site to ban nude images without the subject of the image’s consent, better known as “revenge porn.” Likewise, the moves Reddit has taken to prevent trolls and spam would put it lightyears ahead of even Twitter, which constantly struggles to protect its users from spam and targeted campaigns of harassment.
What separates Reddit from Twitter, however, is more than format or success at limiting the behavior of its nastier elements. The Reddit user base is unique among social media hordes for its almost universal anonymity, resembling a Usenet group more than a traditional digital hangout to connect with friends. This works to the advantage of the community and the company, encouraging honesty among its user base and often exposing the depths of the human condition. One of the most popular threads on /r/AskReddit, for example, is an engrossing and detailed list of people revealing their most devastating secrets.
Such threads are collaborative and original works grown out of the madness that can be tens of millions of anonymous accounts. Harvesting such energy—while filtering out hate groups and other vile content—is apparently the main goal of Reddit’s administrators and executives. Last year the company unveiled Upvoted.com, a website resembling nothing less than a traditional media outlet which selects and highlights the most intriguing or enlightening conversations happening on Reddit, be it a subreddit celebrating bro culture or a group of Redditors looking to finalize the Hyperloop first floated by Elon Musk.
A more fruitful change, however, may end up on the cutting room floor. Reddit is famous for its April Fool’s Day celebrations, often odd psychological games meant to challenge and test its user base. One year the site randomly assigned teams to its users—initiating a miniature and good-spirited war—and last year the site created The Button, a test in temptation in endurance that spawned its own religions.
This past year, the site unveiled Robin, an old-fashioned chat room for its users to meet and talk in real time. Robin randomly assigned users a chatting partner, and each is given a time limit to vote on whether to stay with their partner, abandon the chat altogether, to “grow” their chat by merging it with another, The last option can create rooms with dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of members. After a certain amount of time, the users of a room are assigned their own private subreddit, creating a mini-community with which the users can do whatever they want.
Far more than a nostalgic return to Chatroulette, Robin embraces something that might seem impossible on a mostly anonymous site—it makes Reddit social. Not simply through chatting, but by then offering its users a chance to connect and make friends, sharing content that might only be interesting to one person or five or twenty. Subreddits already do this—the minutiae and focus of some communities can be astounding—but by trapping users with one another, like strangers on a broken down subway car, Robin encourages connections in a way that would be impossible on Twitter or Facebook.
In order to move the site into light of day and out of the nether regions of the Web, it needs to needs to be a great site for people.
The chatting app is defunct starting today, but if Reddit wants devoted users and to connect people in a completely unique way, making the option permanent is in its best interest. Reddit, for now, is a great place for stuff—for videos and GIFs and answers and debate. But in order to move the site into light of day and out of the nether regions of the Web, it needs to needs to be a great site for people.
Lassoing the environment of Reddit into a place that can be safe and enjoyable has ended badly before. A site-wide protest, begun after the site banned the fat-shaming subreddit /r/fatpeoplehate, turned into a full-scale revolt after the dismissal of a popular administrator for the site. Victoria Taylor, who promoted and managed the popular Ask Me Anything sessions that have also brought the site into legitimacy, was fired under mysterious circumstances, leading many of the sites volunteer moderators to blackout the largest and most popular sections of the site.
The fight ended in the exit of CEO Ellen Pao. But it also resulted in major changes to the sites content policy, freeing it of an idealistic attachment to free speech and favoring the banning of hate groups and sections of the site that failed to conform to standards of moderation and anti-bullying or anti-vote-rigging practices.
It was the first major step of a company that, like Twitter, has never turned a profit. Unlike Twitter, however, Reddit is still in a startup phase and mindset. Free of shareholders or the collective eye of the world, however, the site should feel free to experiment with options like Robin and seek out more ways to connect people and hold itself in the esteem an official social channel deserves. The app is a long-awaited start, and putting the tools to stop harassment into the hands of the users is another.
But by keeping what makes Reddit unique—the free-spirited environment almost completely devoid from the real social world—and using the energy of its users instead of fighting it, Reddit could finally be a club people are proud to be a member of.
Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.