Reddit: A bastion of free speech

“The front page of the internet” has to strike the balance between promoting free speech and running a for-profit platform that upholds certain moral standards

Business Model

Reddit was started in 2005 outside of Boston, and is now headquartered in San Francisco. Its cofounders, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, built the platform within three weeks – they envisioned it as the “front page of the internet.” Less than two years after founding Reddit, they sold it to Conde Nast for an estimated $10-20M. Reddit is now majority-owned by Conde Nast’s parent company, Advance Publication, and was recently valued at $500M.

The crowdsourced platform essentially works like an online bulletin board. Registered users post comments and direct links on any imaginable topic, which are organized into subreddit (including world news, gaming, and ‘aww’), which Reddit refers to as “a platform for creating communities”, promising that “almost every subreddit is user-run, with practically no involvement from Reddit employees.”

With only 70 paid employees, it’s baffling to think about all the content that is created, but this is exactly where Reddit found its sweet spot. Its content (the bread and butter of their business) almost entirely relies on a volunteer user base of people who submit the most random comments I’ve ever come across (here’s an example: 5 ways to celebrate national cat day). But collecting sleuths of random people’s tangential comments is not enough to truly create value; Reddit takes crowdsourcing one step further by allowing registered users to up or down vote submissions, in essence curating vast amounts of information and allowing the most valued content to bubble to the top, without spending any money on it.

Incentivizing Participation

Reddit has 36M user accounts and over 200M monthly unique visitors to the platform. According to a 2013 survey, “6% of all American internet users had visited Reddit, [and] 15% of all men aged 18 to 29 used it.” To incentivize its users to participate in the crowdsourcing process, Reddit uses a point system of “karma” points that users can collect by submitting comments and links. It was difficult to find clear instructions of how this works online, so I took to Reddit as a newly minted redditor (for the purpose of research of course) and leveraged the community to find the answer. According to fellow redditor ‘lazydictionary’, the point system is “nothing except an ego booster. It has next to no use or purpose. Except having a low or negative karma rating in specific subreddits limits how often you can post there.”

Managing Crowds

Reddit also takes an innovative approach to managing the crowds on the 800K+ subreddits that have been created since its founding (note about 9,300 of these communities are currently active). It relies on its unpaid users to manage subreddits as moderators. Each subreddit apparently has its own set of rules and can have its own look and feel, depending on how sophisticated the moderators are in using CSS.

Example of a subreddit's rules
Example of a subreddit’s rules

But Reddit also puts its paid labor to use in managing the crowds. Site administrators ensure that Reddit’s universal laws are adhered to across all subreddit communities, by “disallowing things like excessive self-promotion, posting personal information, and deliberate disruption or manipulation of other Reddit communities.” This is one of the platform’s great contradictions: it promotes free speech based on user generated content but at the same time it has to find ways to filter out the dark side of the internet that would make its shareholder cringe.






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Student comments on Reddit: A bastion of free speech

  1. I think the most interesting part is how reddit became mainstream. The topics and content had to do a lot with why people returned to the site and also why people shared the site with others. I am curious whether reddit steered content in the direction of what was more interesting to people or if it was more organic. Also, something similar has been created in China – it’s called the Human Flesh Search Engine (literal translation) and it is one of the most interesting cases of crowd sourcing. May be worth looking into if you’re interested in this topic.

  2. “While we didn’t create Reddit to be a bastion of free speech, the concept is important to us. /r/creepshots forced us to confront these issues in a way we hadn’t done before. Although I wasn’t at Reddit at the time, I agree with their decision to ban those communities.”-Reddit CEO Steve Huffman

    Reddit has found itself tangled in the crowdsourcing challenge that is managing the crowds and content. While users view reddit as a place to speak and read what people really think, reddit has banned content promoting racist views and exposing minors. Basically reddit has made the decision to exclude the dark side of the internet from its scope. I agree with your assertion that this had to be done to keep shareholders happy. Community members should recognize that reddit is not a “bastion of free speech.” Reddit is owned by Conde Nast and should be considered more of a bastion of profits. Conde Nast can thank the crowds for their hard work.

  3. Interesting post, thanks for sharing! I’ve never used Reddit but have been directed to Reddit links via Facebook on a number of occasions. Every time I visit the site, I wonder what the appeal is. The user interface, in particular, isn’t particularly appealing and it’s not clear to a newcomer how the site works (this aspect of it reminds of me of Craigslist in many ways). The large and active Reddit user base is impressive, and I believe that’s a huge part of what keeps contributors coming back. However, I wonder how the platform managed to get so many engaged users in the first place? I am curious to know what Reddit did differently at the outset to be so successful with this crowd sourced model, which seems to lend itself to more niche topics that wouldn’t be widely applicable to most.

  4. Reddit certainly is not a bastion of free speech, but that’s probably a good thing. 4chan and its famous /b/ forum are true bastions of free speech, but 4chan is also the internet’s armpit (I wanted to say something else), having done great things for us like hacking Trayvon Martin’s email, hoaxing Steve Jobs’ death, and facilitating numerous school shooting threats

    One of the big issues with crowdsourcing is the reliance on random strangers creating your content. When given anonymity, people have a tendency to lose all decency and self-restraint. I think it’s good that Reddit is heavily moderated because otherwise it’d descend into a nihilistic pit like 4chan. A lot of people nowadays (boy I sound old) do their growing up on the Internet and on sites like Reddit. While I don’t use it myself, I’d much rather peruse a site that’s civil than one where the next comment I read could make me question whether there is any good left in the world. That being said, I just went to Reddit to see what I could find for this response and saw numerous “(USER WAS BANNED FOR THIS POST)” messages; although I was on the very meta “What’s the worst thing you’ve seen on /b/?” thread. ¯\_(ツ)_ /¯

    If you want to learn more about why these forums should be moderated, check out Parmy Olson’s book:
    We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency
    which gives a great overview of what happens when these forums get out of control.

  5. Reddit’s problems with free speech (either too much or too little, depending on which side of the debate you are on or how honest you think they are) are legendary. But I would argue that, free speech drama aside, Reddit is going through a very Internet 1.0 problem right now: making money. To quote the CEO:

    “We are thinking of posting a public graph with no numbers but updated regularly with the relative amounts of revenue vs expenses on a quarterly/monthly basis (depending on how precisely we can get our accounting) so that people can see how far/close we are from being profitable. There is a common misconception that we are “part of a billion-dollar conglomerate” and/or “already very profitable, so why keep giving them money” that is kind of frustrating for us: reddit was given its freedom when we were spun out, so the price of freedom is paying our own way and no one else is paying the bills – a graph like that might help make things more clear.”

    Reddit has been having problems with this for a while. the Gold donations help, but clearly aren’t enough. A lot of the Redditors are traditional computer geeks who run adblock everywhere and there are fears that too many ads could drive people away. An experiment on ads that can be voted on had difficulties once the advertizers complained about getting downvotes.

    Meanwhile, Reddit has found itself in a series of difficulties because its open system allows its users to do whatever they want and it is unclear if the owners want or can find questionable subreddits before Anderson Cooper publicly outs them for having subreddits dedicated to “creepshots” or another bunch of subreddits become havens for stolen pictures of naked celebrities. Finding these problems before they can fester into bad news that drives people away takes time and money.

    So what’s the solution? Part of the reason the IAMA subreddit blew up recently was because a well-known employee was fired without telling the moderators first. This discourages people from taking Reddit too seriously; if Reddit won’t keep one of its most famous subreddit’s moderators (and potentially profitable) in the loop, then that discourages people from taking part because they know the owners will do little for them. That can blunt the incentive to crowdsource and the potential to create powerful indirect network effects such as the IAMA subreddit in the first place. It could cut its costs, but that could lead to other problems that could into giving people the money and time to innovate on the platform and keep it marketable.

    This is going to take some work. I know most start-ups take years to be profitable, but it has been ten years. This is one of the best known forums right now and, questionable areas (and simply illegal, racist, and/or terrible ones) aside, it seems to be doing a good job keeping people invested in the platform. Now it either needs to cut its costs (which is perhaps part of the reason that employee was fired in the first place) or build its revenue.

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