By Garrett Hornsby and Megan Hanagan
Thirty years ago, the idea of communication between large populations using computers was young and restricted to a small few who showed interest. Bulletin board systems (BBS), online meeting places where those who were connected could communicate and share files, were few and far between. In the early 1990’s, the world witnessed a shift in the BBS user base. America Online, a pay-based online service, granted thousands of people access to the Internet flooding the bulletin board system with new users who were unfamiliar the rules and norms of bulletin board systems. This event, deemed “eternal September,” will forever go down in history as the beginning of the Internet society knows today. Bulletin board systems are now referred to as forums and there are millions of Internet users that have created or are a part of forums. Forums range in topic; some are highly specialized, discussing only topics of hip-hop music or politics, while others are just a place where users can meet and discuss life.
However, the Internet does not end with forums, there are many other types of applications, databases, and websites that bring Internet users together. For example, Reddit, a user generated web 2.0 website, unites millions of users from all across the world. Reddit was “founded in 2005 by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian… [and] has climbed its way from zero to hero with over 1.6 billion page views each month” (Macale, 2011). According to an interview TIME magazine had with the co-founder of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, there were six major events in the history of Reddit that lead to what it is today, including a surprise appearance by President Obama and an unfortunate fiasco regarding the Boston Marathon Bombing (Nicks, 2013). On August 29, 2012 President Obama showed up unexpectedly on Reddit for a question and answer session. Ohanian knew that the President was going to make an appearance, but was under strict orders to not tell anyone.. His silence, however, created a major issue for the website; because Ohanian was unable to tell the engineers to increase the server load for the increased traffic, the servers crashed and caused the site to become very slow. In some extreme cases, users were unable to reach the page to view the event. At any one point in time, there were 200,000 viewers marking August 29, 2012 as Reddit’s largest day ever (Jeffries, 2012). While the unexpected appearance by Obama was one of the highlights of Reddit’s life, the Boston Marathon Bombing fiasco was one of the lowlights. As the news broke of the marathon bombings and pictures and information of the suspects began circulating, a few Reddit users began doing their own investigation and believed they had found the identity of one of the bombers, a Brown University student Sunil Tripathi. The disclosure of Sunil’s identity lead to many individuals finding his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as his families and harassing them. Eventually the true identity of the bombers was released, but the damage had already been done and Reddit’s name had been plastered all over the Internet as the website who lead the attacks on an innocent individual.
Reddit’s features allow for users to share content and receive feedback from other users. Reddit users, called redditors, submit content to subreddits, specialized communities where users can talk about related things, in the form of “self-posts,” which are text entries or links leading to other sites. After submitting, your post is “up-voted” or “down-voted” based on what others think. For example, if you have what you think is an interesting article you’d like to share in the politics subreddit, simply post the article and if others find it as interesting as you do, they can up-vote the post, or if they dislike the article they can down-vote it. Up-voting a post allows a positive rating and can potentially lead to more views. Down-voting a post shows a negative rating and can be eventually hidden. Down-voting is usually for posts that are off-topic, have already been posted, or are in bad taste. Reddit also allows users to comment on posts, creating discussion on specified posts. The same system of up-votes and down-votes are used on comments as well. A user can accumulate a lot of “karma” by submitting posts and comments that are well-received. Karma reflects the quality of posts and comments the user has submitted; one with a large amount of karma can be regarded as involved and a good contributor to Reddit.
Reddit does a lot of things well, but the feature of bringing users together is one of the website’s best. Reddit does a great job in allowing users to connect with people from all around the world. For example, one of Reddit’s many features is the ability for users to ‘friend’ one another. All one has to do is click on the person’s username and it sends them to their page where you are given the option to ‘friend’ them. While the page isn’t very customizable, it shows the users karma, their post history. Once a user generates a number of friends they can click on their friend list and see what their friends have been posting about. This allows users to stay connected to who they choose to stay connected to. Some subreddits also host events where they will invite those who are subscribed to the subreddit to a hangout at a specified location. This allows those with similar interests to come together to discuss things, hang out, and breakdown the anonymity of the username. At these hangouts friendships and even romantic relationships can develop and really impact peoples’ lives.
An interesting hypothesis to apply to the benefits of Reddit is the time displacement hypothesis, which assumes that face-to-face communication is the key to health and well-being. If the people who are a part of the subreddits and those who friend one another on Reddit are healthy individuals psychologically and socially, does it make this hypothesis false? According to the hypothesis’ creator Robert Kraut, the more time redditors spend online, the worse their psychosocial health is. But what if the internet use is allowing the user to be more friendly than they would be elsewhere? We believe that the Reddit hangouts and the ability to friend one another on Reddit disprove this hypothesis. If the subreddit community makes the user feel open enough to join the hangout, then we would argue that it is in fact helping his psychosocial health.
The hyperpersonal model is a very interesting concept when applied to redditors. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram where you have a profile picture and you can share some personal information, Reddit is strict when it comes to the sharing of oneself or others personal information. The Internet is a dangerous place and the founders of Reddit acknowledge this ugly truth. Once something is put on the Internet, it is impossible to take off. Redditors have to rely on sounding intelligent, coming off as friendly, or other means of showing who they are through posts and comments without disclosing personal information. However, the lack of information can lead to false perceptions of who we are or who other users think we are. For example, if you post a few articles that put President Obama in a positive light, other redditors may label you as a democrat when really you are a republican. In another example, if you have an opinion that goes against the hive mind, aka popular opinion, of a subreddit, you can get down-voted and you could lose credibility in the eyes of other redditors. These are issues that can prevent some redditors from submitting content, creating relationships, or signing up to Reddit altogether.
In class we raised the question “what constitutes a website as being a social networking site?” We discussed three criteria that a social networking site has to have in order to be a social networking site. The criteria consisted of the ability for a user to construct a profile, have a list of users with whom they have a connection, and view their list of connections. By evaluating these criteria and applying them to Reddit we see that Reddit is indeed a social networking site, but with limitations. Redditors profiles have little to no information about the user other than their post history, username, and amount of karma they’ve accumulated. The user can only access their own friends list, but through that they can look at other users profiles. Reddit may technically be considered a social networking site, it is one that is very limited in the information it allows.
While Reddit is a great site and a great tool for finding and sharing information, all things have room for improvement. There are a two specific areas in which we think Reddit can really improve and strengthen on. We believe that Reddit should somehow limit the number of “lurkers” and promote more Reddit hangouts. Lurkers are Internet users that browse Reddit without making an account. An article by JD Rucker (2013) showed Reddit as having 400 million unique visitors; an incredible amount of visitors to the website. However, in a different article by Seth Fiegerman (2012), he presents the factoid that Reddit “…has 43 million monthly active users.” The Fiegerman article was only written two months before the Rucker article, so the statistics should be relatively the same. That’s a huge difference in the amount of visitors and the amount of users. Given the fact that Reddit is a user generated website, the more users would equal more content, therefore Reddit should give some incentive to sign up so that more people will contribute to their website. The second thing that Reddit can improve on is the promotion of Reddit hangouts. Caplan’s problematic Internet use concept applies here in that many redditors are socially awkward which forces them to stay online for long periods of time which in turn leads them toward negative outcomes. We believe that Reddit should give incentives for subreddits to throw hangouts and incentives for redditors to go out and attend. Reddit would not only be spreading their brand, but they are also helping out their user base. As of right now, there are only a few small subreddits that host these hangouts, but if Reddit was able to spread positive incentive throughout its database to larger subreddits then hangouts would be encouraged more and redditors would have the opportunity for more face-to-face communication, leading to increased social skills.
There are two recommendations that we would make to Reddit that are both technology and socially driven. First, there is an extension for all browsers that is compatible with Reddit called the Reddit Enhancement Suit (RES). RES allows for easier browsing of Reddit, the ability to tag individual users, and to bookmark links or comments. Making this as a stock feature of Reddit would definitely increase the friendliness of Reddit’s user interface. Also, this would allow friendships to be created more easily. With RES, you can tag individuals by clicking on their name and creating a tag of them. The tag could be anything from their actual name, a keyword that relates to a post they made, or anything you can think of. Then, whenever you see their username, beside it will be the tag you created for them. This improvement is an example of a technological tool making it easier to use a website and to interact with users. The second improvement would be promoting Reddit to the female audience. As of right now, a heavy majority of the Reddit user base is male. Marketing toward females and trying to branch out toward the female audience would not only bring new content, but would allow a variety of opinions and could really jumpstart the interpersonal aspect of Reddit. This would socially change the way redditors use Reddit and the content that they see.
Reddit has come a long way since 2005 to become a very powerful tool used by many all around the world. While it does a lot of great things for a lot of people, it still has room for improvements.We’ve seen it with the impact of Obama’s AMA and with the Boston Marathon Bombing, the outcome Reddit has on society is solely on how we use it and the choices we make. The users of Reddit can choose to make Reddit’s impact a positive one and help people all around the world, or misuse its power and lead to its downfall.
Fiegerman, S. (2012). Is Reddit Worth $240 Million? Mashable. Retrieved from mashable.com/2012/10/31/reddit-valuation/
Jeffries, A. (2012). Reddit has its biggest day ever thanks to President Obama’s AMA. The Verge. Retrieved From www.theverge.com/2012/8/29/3277766/president-obamas-ama-most-popular-post-on-reddit-ever
Macale, S. (2011). A rundown of Reddit’s history and community [Infographic]. The Next Web. Retrieved from thenextweb.com/socialmedia/2011/10/14/a-rundown-of-reddits-history-and-community-infographic/
Nicks, D. (2013). The Six Most Important Moments in Reddit History. Time Tech. Retrieved from techland.time.com/2013/10/01/the-six-most-important-moments-in-reddit-history/
Rucker, JD. (2013). Is Reddit Too Big? Soshable. Retrieved from soshable.com/is-reddit-too-big/#more-8018