The recent uprising and subsequent meltdown of Reddit can be attributed to the age-old problem of letting customers run your business for you. The dream of Reddit is that each individual reader will respond to every story and comment by voting for it to be promoted or demoted, resulting in the best possible content for the largest collection of readers being at the top of page. It is a sort of a communist ideal, where each person gives to the best of their ability for the good of the society at large.
No One Works For Free
The sad truth is that people do not work for free, even on the Internet. As a result, Reddit is not a sum of the opinions of all or even most of its readers. Rather, it is the highly amplified opinion of a small number of extremely active promoters and volunteer moderators who are working for Reddit, not to advance Reddit’s vision, but their own.
Reddit has long been the bastion of extremists, whether pro-Mac, pro-Male or pro-White, and has surpassed the legendary 4chan as the Internet’s open mic, a huge stage where anyone dedicated can get their views amplified to a mass audience. Most of the time this fact is masked by the sheer volume of the site, ensuring that the front page remains a least common denominator of tech gossip and cat videos, held in place by unpaid moderators. When those moderators fall behind – or in the present case, turn against the site – the true face of Reddit is revealed.
Conventional wisdom is that if Reddit really wants to fulfill its mission statement of being “The Front Page of the Internet”, it needs to grow up and do what every other publication has done. Ditch the volunteers and hire an army of professional editors. BuzzFeed and other sites have adopted this approach, focusing their site on providing a single unified editorial voice. The custom view for individual users happens on Facebook and YouTube, where views of the editorial content outnumber views on the main site 20:1. The fringe voices are still there – Buzzfeed, for example, still has a large community of content creators – but the power of the amplification engine for that content lies firmly in the hands of the editorial staff.
The Passionate Few
However, there is another approach, which may be even more effective. Reddit could move away from the primitive idea that one size fits all and start generating different views of their site for different users. Instead of interpreting an upvote as “everyone should see this”, it could simply mean “this is interesting to people like me”. Then users could be combined into broad cohorts that are responding to content in a similar way. The same piece of content could have different appeal to different cohorts, based on its merit instead of the insistence of a passionate few. Those looking for lightweight humor or actor interviews could get them, while those with varying degrees of interests would be talking to themselves. Instead of one composite voice, there would be a hundred.
Removing the direct connection between the speaker and the audience eliminates the incentives for a large amount of bad behavior. Bashing Justin Bieber is only fun if I can do it to a huge number of Justin Bieber fans. If that putdown only goes to other people who like to put down Bieber, I have no incentive and will take my antisocial behavior elsewhere.
The great promise of the Internet is exactly that it is a place where everyone on Earth can connect and be heard. By removing the need to have friends and followers, Reddit is already ahead of the Facebooks and Twitters of the world in making this happen. Now they need to move to the next step by removing the megaphone from bullies and allowing content to compete based on merit.