Somewhere between news and memes: what is Reddit?

There are plenty of people out there who have heard of Reddit, but might not know what it actually is. According to SimilarWeb projections, Reddit is in 12th place in the list of the most popular social media apps in the U.S. However, the 28.46 million visits are pale in comparison to Facebook’s 164.58 million, which is still by far the most popular social media network.

Reddit is primarily popular in the USA, where it has a significant loyal readership – about 42% of Reddit users are American. However, the website is growing in popularity abroad, although it may take some time before they start seeing comparable numbers.

The increasingly negative media attention on Facebook and the subsequent mass Facebook user exodus is perhaps an opportunity for social networks like Reddit to gain more traction. But what exactly is Reddit?

Definition

Reddit is a social news aggregator, i.e. a mixture of discussion platform and link distributor. It is divided into forums called “subreddits.” Users (the editors) are content creators as well as consumers and curators. Using a points system of upvotes and downvotes, the community determines which content and discussions are important and subsequently displayed at the top of the feed. The platform is largely self-managed, with moderators acting as forum guardians.

What is Reddit? The basic concept and development

Reddit describes itself as “The front page of the internet.” This term conveys their claim to a unique position. On the front page of a print newspaper, readers will find the daily topics and headlines that editors consider to be the most important. Reddit is claiming to be the first point of contact to the World Wide Web by calling themselves its “homepage.” When talking about the US market, these claims are quite believable – after all, the number of subreddits grew from almost 11,000 (2008) to about 1.18 million (November 2017) subreddits in just 10 years.

Reddit gathers social news in an almost unmanageable number of “subreddits.”These are founded by users and filled with content. The idea of the forum, based back in Roman antiquity, can be seen as the basis for the self-conception of the website. The Forum Romanum, for example, was not only a central place where people visited temples and public trials, but also a place of spiritual exchange. 

Modern internet forums developed from the bulletin boards of the 1980s. A forum usually deals with a main topic and divides it into sub-topics. Therefore there are directoriessubforums – that Reddit refers to as subreddits. Users can use a subreddit to create new posts on a specific topic. These can be questions and requests for help, but also informative news articles, pictures, and videos. Humorous and creative contributions and controversial discussion topics are not uncommon.

Fact

Forums on the Reddit platform are called subreddits. Reddit regulates the forum name like this: “r/ForenName” (for example: “r/AskReddit”). The user determines the content on the user profile as moderator, like in a subreddit. However, username spellings differ: “u/Redditor.”

Reddit: a brief history

Reddit was founded by Alexis Ohanion and Steve Huffman, who met at the University of Virginia. Shortly after graduation, they wanted to develop a site called “MyMobileMenu” with the help of startup investors YCombinator. The idea was ultimately blocked, but they had set their foot in the door. Just a short time later, they received startup capital from the same company for their new project “Reddit: the front page of the internet.” Psychiatrist Christopher Slowe and the now deceased internet activist Aaron Swartz, along with his company Infogami, joined the development team.

Despite personal setbacks, the young founders continued to work on the project. Condé Nast publications bought the company and kicked Swartz off the project shortly afterwards. The other founders also went their separate ways once their contracts were over.

While the developers initially used dummy accounts to boost activity on the site, Reddit already had 10,926 subreddits in 2008. In 2011, the number climbed to 60,191 and Reddit climbed out of Condé Nast’s shadow, and became independent under their parent company Advance Publications. A year earlier, the platform introduced the Reddit Gold subscription model. Gold editors get access to the “Lounge,” a restricted subreddit, and a larger range of functions for about $4 per month.

Reddit became one of the first major websites to accept payment in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin for their paid subscription Reddit Gold, gifts, and Redditmade (subreddit fan articles that are for sale).

The company and its founders attracted a great deal of attention when they protested against the US draft law against online piracy (SOPA) in 2012, and, together with well-known websites like Wikipedia, took their entire domain offline in a “blackout.

The site administrators are still committed to protecting freedom of speech and their users’ anonymity. This is expressed both in the page guidelines and in the Reddiquette (etiquette for Reddit). Transparency is provided by the transparency reports.

Steven Huffman returned as CEO in 2015. At that time, Reddit employed about 100 people, climbing to 230 in 2017. During these years, the platform has consisted mainly of American users. However, foreign language communities are starting to pop up, and the Reddit interface is available in over 90 languages – including “Pirate Slang” (“Arrrrrrrrrrrrrr”).

Reddit’s technical basis

The website was originally written by Common Lisp, but before its release, the development team switched to Python. The web.py web framework, built by Swartz for Reddit and now available as open source software, has also been replaced with the successor Pylons. From 2008 to September 2017, Reddit’s source code was officially available as open source on GitHub. According to their own statements, however, the company had moved so far from their slapdash beginnings that lengthy public code developments were now hindering new product launches. Nevertheless, Reddit continues to use open source tools, which is in line with the company’s policy.

In 2009, Reddit migrated to the Amazon Web Services cloud, and since 2012, Amazon CloudSearch has been taking care of the internal search. The free NoSQL database management system Apache Cassandra is increasingly used for the cloud database.

Note

NoSQL stands for “Not Only SQL” and is used for databases that do not store data relationally and are horizontally scalable.

The open source software RabbitMQ is a message-oriented middleware and supports Reddit’s offline processes.

The official Reddit app is available for Android and iOS. Since they are not particularly popular in the community, some competitors have established themselves, including Boost, Relay, BaconReader, and Sync. For tablets running on Android, there is Reddita. There is even an (unofficial) cross-platform app for desktop PCs: Redditr.

How does Reddit work?

Forums live on user-created content. Community members create subreddits on specific topics and set up forum rules. Other users act as moderators who enforce these rules in the subreddit. Reddit itself already has a netiquette (called “Reddiquette”) and page guidelines. Each subreddit also determines its own rules that determine which contributions are allowed. Moderators delete comments that violate forum rules and can exclude repeat offenders from the group.

What is Reddiquette?

The word “Reddiquette” is derived from the suitcase word “netiquette.” It originated from the terms internet and etiquette and describes basic rules of conduct on the internet. Their basic tenant is that all users should feel welcome. On the one hand, it encourages participation in the internet and for that participation to be as polite as possible. On the other hand, netiquette recommends adhering to technical (security) standards and ensuring good legibility. Users should also comply with applicable law.

Don’t forget that a person is sitting on the other end” is the foremost rule of netiquette and Reddiquette. This is because anonymous commentators tend to behave in a way that they never would in real life.

Reddit also attaches particular importance to freedom of expression, constructive discussion, and anonymity. In the past, this highlighted some subreddits that were controversial. Legal but morally questionable subreddits are allowed, like the pro-Trump thread “r/The_Donald,” which is one of the most subscribed subreddits. Other forums that violate the rules are deleted by Reddit.

However, editors also support social projects – for example, with fundraising marathons or educational campaigns. Reddit users are often politically active, especially in the USA. The March for Science arose from a Reddit commentary and has since developed into an international movement.

Below is a summary of some points of the Redicate:

  • The rules of conduct and laws of real life also apply on the internet
  • Moderators should rate posts based on their quality, not on whether they reflect their opinion
  • You should always try to link to the original source
  • Fair voting (upvotes/downvotes) improves content and discussion for all
  • If you promote your own posts, you will be warned
  • Doxxing (the publication of other people’s personal data) leads to exclusion
  • Comments should always contribute to the discussion
  • Instead of worrying about spelling or crossposting (when a post appears in several subreddits), you should “vote and move on”

Creating an account

Reddit users usually attach great importance to their privacy. VPNs and privacy discussions are often the order of the day. This is also important to the site runners. In a 2014 interview, the head of communication Victoria Taylor explained how Reddit informs its users as transparently as possible about geotargeting in banner advertising. Privacy and freedom of expression are Reddit’s core values. For example, those who engage in doxxing are banished from the site. Registration can be completed in a matter of seconds:

  1. Go to reddit.com
  2. Select “Register” at the top right
  3. A window will appear asking for your e-mail address (this information is not required for registration, it is only used if you happen to forget your password)
  4. Click on Next – even without giving your e-mail, you can continue without any problems
  5. Enter a username under “Username” (on the right side Reddit gives suggestions) and under “Password”, enter a secure password
  6. Click on the captcha to confirm that you are not a bot
  7. Receive a welcome message from Reddit
  8. If you have entered your e-mail address, you will receive an e-mail with a link to verify it

First steps

Subscribe to subreddits

There is a feed of the top posts on the Reddit main page. With the new design, you can choose between a tile view, the classic forum view, and a compact version. The feed can be filtered through the tabs “Best,” “Popular,” “New,” “Ascending,” etc. Here you will be able to find potentially interesting subreddits by browsing visible posts. You can also enter a term in the search bar, and the results list will show you subreddits with thematic overlaps, as well as posts within the Reddit cosmos that use the term.

Alternatively, choose one of the subreddits created by Reddit themselves. You will find them in their own tab in the narrow grey menu at the top of the window. First you’ll see the “My Subreddits” tab and then you will find search filter options like “Popular,” “All,” and “Random,” as well as the usual user search bar. A bit further down, Reddit lists your subscribed subreddits, if you have any added. Then the officially created subreddits appear:

  • Announcements
  • Ask Reddit
  • World News
  • Videos
  • Funny
  • Today I Learned
  • Pics
  • Gaming etc.

Another way to customize your subscriptions is to use the “Change” button at the far right of the grey subreddit menu (the arrow in the image indicates this). One click takes you to your subscription settings. The Reddit mascot “Snoo” poses the question “What are you interested in?” Here, you can enter a topic of interest in the search bar. Below, Reddit will suggest suitable subreddits with the label “Try it:” A second search field lets you search directly for user IDs.

If you can’t decipher the small font in the grey subreddit menu, you will find another list of the most popular subreddits under the search bar. Clicking on the green “subscribe” button will add the subreddit to your feed. You can filter through new posts, be one of the first people to rate a post, and potentially contribute to it being one of the most popular posts of the day.

Posts and points

Members can publish posts within a subreddit. If there is no subreddit on a topic you are interested in, you can create a subreddit yourself. Posts consist either of a link or of their own writing.

This is how you proceed if you want to write your own post:

  1. A) On the Reddit homepage, you will see a sidebar on the right side of the window. Subreddits contain forum files and further important links. On the start page, there are two arrow-shaped buttons. If you want to share content from the internet, click on “submit a link.” If you have come up with your own topic or have a question, click on “Submit content.
    B) Click on your user ID to access your profile. There you will be able to see your avatar (which you can change in “Settings”), your username (in the form u/userID), and below the button “New Post” which you click for a new post.
     
  2. The page that you see at the bottom of the screen pops up. Depending on whether you share a link (articles, pictures, or videos) or write your own text, choose between the tabs link and text. Check if there is already a post on this topic before you share your own. Unique posts have a better chance of being shared by many editors.

    A) In the tab “left” enter an external source that you want to share. This can be a URL, or a file in your hard drive.. You can choose to publish on your own profile or on one or more subreddits.
    B) In the text tab, the title and publication target are also mandatory. The “text” field, on the other hand, can remain empty.
     
  3. Before you publish a post, check again whether is corresponds with the Reddiquette. If you post in a particular subreddit, you should be sure to observe their conventions. For example, some subreddits will only accept posts that contain an image, others have certain formatting rules for headlines to keep track of the forum. If you violate forum rules, your post can be deleted by moderators. In the worst case, your account will be blocked from the forum or even the entire Reddit website.
     
  4. Confirm that you are not a bot and then click “Submit.” You will find your post in the corresponding subreddit and on your profile in the “Posts” tab. If the setting which sends all comments to your inbox is selected, you can find reactions by clicking on the envelope icon next to your user ID.

If other users write comments under your post, it will then develop into a thread. Traditionally, forums arrange the resulting conversations into a tree structure. Users can see at a glance which answer belongs to which comment. The first post is called the “Original Post” and its author is called the “Original Poster” (often abbreviated to OP in comments).

In the image above, you see a post with picture content. To the left of the (disguised) profile picture a counter shows the posts’ karma points. Use the arrows to upvote or downvote the post. Imgur, an image sharing platform, hosts the image. The now independent hosting site was a gift from developer Alan Schaaf to the Reddit community.

A special feature of how Reddit works is that users rate posts and comments with karma points. Posts with many points are further up on the start page and in subreddits. Points are not just a sign of popularity, but also of quality. This means that the best posts should be at the top of the feed so that every member can see them.

In the picture above, you can see two comments from a thread in the IAMA subreddit (more about this later). The answer to the first comment is slightly indented to the right to indicate that this comment follows and refers to the first, like in the previously mentioned tree diagram. The arrows to the left of the comments are used by other users to rate them – with upvotes and downvotes. Each upvote is a plus point for karma, each downvote a minus point. According to Reddit rules, karma points should generally be distributed according to whether postings contribute constructively to the topic. They are not necessarily an indicator of how many people agree.

You can get downvotes, for example, if you make claims that are not backed up by verifiable sources, deviate from the topic (off-topic writes), or ignore respective subreddit norms. Upvotes are assigned to users when a post is particularly interesting, promotes discussion, or, for example, shows using high-quality sources that the user has made an effort to prove that their statements are accurate.

Upvotes and downvotes are combined in the system. Whoever gets more downvotes than upvotes gets negative karma points for their post. The system minimizes comments with a score below the limit so that just the author’s name is displayed. However, readers that are so inclined can see more by clicking on it.

The sum of karma points from posts and comments is collected by editors during their Reddit lifetime. Anyone who has collected a lot of points is regarded as a trustworthy member who often gets involved in discussions. In an anonymous forum like Reddit (users rarely use clear names), these points are also a quality indicator for selecting new moderators.

Tip

Reddit’s motto of anonymity and freedom of speech has many advantages, but it can also cause unpleasant feelings. If you feel harassed, offended, or threatened, you can report and/or block the user. Under an inbox message, click on “block” so that this users messages and posts are no longer visible to you. You can see the message option under each message and each link. This will report the link/comment to a moderator.

What are the most popular subreddits on Reddit? An overview

The first successful subreddits were the “NSFW” (not safe for work) and “Programming,” as well as “Science” and “Politics.”

The number of subreddits has grown significantly in recent years. Some of the early subreddits have practically become classics. Many users have been subscribed to these channels for years. They receive news updates from a closed community they trust. Animated discussions or snacks for entertainment are also included.

The undisputed number 1 is “r/AskReddit” with over 19 million subscribers. AskReddit’s first rule is that post titles must consist of a clearly identifiable question. This should generally lead to a discussion. Personal problems are reserved for other subreddits. The “r/TodayILearned” channel (usually abbreviated as TIL) pursues the opposite concept. Users post there when they have learned an interesting new fact. Titles must always start with “TIL” and summarize the knowledge bite in a concise statement – like in this example. If you click on the title, a link leads to a trustworthy source. The source domain is displayed next to the title.

The forums “r/Politics” and “r/WorldNews” as well as “r/news” each deal with news, the former being limited to American politics. Other subreddits are reserved for sports, like “r/NBA” for basketball, “r/soccer” for football, and “r/NFL” for American football. Even gaming is great on Reddit. The forums “r/LeagueOfLegends” and “r/gaming” are among the best.

Humor and shorts, which provoke quick laughs during your lunch break, are the most exciting part for many social networks. Of course, subreddits like “r/gifs,” “r/videos,” “r/mildlyinteresting,” and “r/funny” are in the top 20 and the names are self-explanatory.

The subreddit “r/IAmA” is another often-mentioned forum. The basic principle is easy to explain: people introduce themselves as persons with certain experiences and answer their users questions. The experience or expertise can be everyday but can have interesting facets that many people don’t know about, e.g. “IAmA Lifeguard – Ask Me Anything.” Others want to promote their product, e.g. with “IAmA Comedian and my new show is just out – Ask Me Anything.”

However, people who have been through something extraordinary – or apply for the highest office in the USA – are particularly popular. When Barack Obama gave an interview for thirty minutes during the 2012 election campaign called “I am Barack Obama, President of the United States”, the Reddit website crashed due to the amount of traffic. The questions and answers he gave also made it into the national news program.

How does Reddit work for foreign-language users?

As previously mentioned, you can also browse this primarily English-language platform with foreign language interfaces. Just click on the wrench icon next to your username.

In the tab “options,” you will find the drop-down menu for “interface language.” Select your language and then scroll to the bottom of the page to save the settings by clicking “save options.

However, it is worth remembering that Reddit is mainly used by Americans. International editors often write their content in English, since it is the easiest way for many people to communicate. Most subreddits implicitly assume English as their language. You will still likely find subreddits in your chosen language if you deviate from English, but they will be reduced in number.


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