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Reddit: the rancorous rise of a social-media phenomenon

Timo Hannay extols a history of the website’s evolution in our tumultuous era.
Timo Hannay is the founder of education technology company SchoolDash.com, based in London.
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Ohanian (l) and Huffman (r) smile up from under a pile of Reddit-logo-shaped soft toys

Alexis Ohanian (left) and Steve Huffman founded the social-media website Reddit in 2005.Credit: Reddit

We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory Christine Lagorio-Chafkin Hachette (2018)

According to Internet-analytics company Alexa.com, the websites with most traffic from the United States are Google, YouTube, Facebook and Amazon (which owns Alexa). The rest of the top ten is composed of other familiar names —Yahoo!, Twitter, Wikipedia, Instagram and LinkedIn. But one entry might surprise. Not only is it listed at an impressive number five, but it beats all the others hands down in terms of time spent by each user. Welcome to Reddit.

We Are the Nerds by journalist Christine Lagorio-Chafkin traces Reddit’s emergence in 2005, and its evolution as a website, company and social phenomenon. Ostensibly, it’s the story of co-founders Steve Huffman (the technical brains) and Alexis Ohanian (the showman). But it is really three tales in one.

The first story is that of a scrappy start-up destined for web domination. Superficially, this resembles the legend of Apple founder Steve Jobs: foundation, separation, return and redemption. Reddit’s sale to New York-based magazine publisher Condé Nast in 2006, just over a year after launch, bestowed wealth and credibility on its young founders, but it was a cultural mismatch. Huffman and Ohanian lost heart; by 2010, both had left, their friendship strained. Feted replacements such as investor Ellen Pao never quite embodied the Reddit spirit. Crises followed, from staff rebellions to a spate of revenge porn between users. Neatly for the narrative arc, a 2015 rapprochement led to Huffman and Ohanian’s surprise return — and the revitalization of their wayward creation.

The second story concerns the early-twenty-first-century technology industry. Here, Reddit is a node in a network of technologists, entrepreneurs and iconoclasts seeking to reshape the world. The reader feels like Forrest Gump, stumbling from one remarkable event or person to the next.

Science publishing makes an appearance, albeit a tragic one. Hired at the start of Reddit’s journey, programmer Aaron Swartz quickly became more taken with campaigning than coding. Incensed by publishers’ paywalls, he covertly downloaded millions of academic articles, and was caught. The ensuing legal battle ended in 2013, when this principled, sensitive young man killed himself, aged 26.

As this second narrative unfolds, readers might lose track of the vast array of walk-on parts. But for anyone familiar with the names, it’s a who’s who of nerd aristocracy, from Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator in Mountain View, California (the start-up incubator that begat Reddit) to Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of technology magazine Wired. It is also a reminder of how few people comprise the circles of influence in the parochial but powerful world of the web.

The third story traces the rise of social media from the perspective of one of its most important players. If Facebook lets users cultivate online personas and Twitter enables them to broadcast random thoughts to the world, Reddit was built to foster discussion. Whatever one thinks about the social costs and benefits of such services, they are no longer mere geeky distractions. They are central to the perceptions of billions, and have become cultural and political battlegrounds.

In August 2012, it all seemed positively wholesome. At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (where Huffman and Ohanian met), then-US president Barack Obama took part in an Ask Me Anything or AMA, a Reddit staple in which anyone from A-listers to the terminally obscure (I’ve done two) answers questions. Obama was a natural, typing his own answers and signing off with a Reddit catchphrase: “NOT BAD!”. The crowd went wild. Four years later, it was all very different.

Reddit, as We Are the Nerds shows, was always a venue for the edgy and degenerate, fostered in part by its anonymity. But by 2016, some of this was going mainstream. The forum (or ‘subreddit’) r/The_Donald had become an important cheerleader for a divisive US presidential campaign. The volunteer moderators kept just inside the rules. It became a prolific disseminator of misleading memes — with consequences that everyone now knows but no one yet fully comprehends. If Obama was the presidential incarnation of change-the-world techno-optimism, Trump now personified a revenge of the trolls.

In August 2017, white supremacists and opposition demonstrators went head-to-head in Charlottesville. Huffman was furious, and the incident triggered a clampdown on certain far-right groups across Reddit. This was a major milestone on the journey from the site’s freewheeling origins to a dawning realization that online communities, like societies, need rules. An obvious question is why unaccountable individuals such as Huffman (or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey) should be the ones setting them.

The story of social media is ironic. The most powerful decentralizing technologies in history — the Internet and the web — have led to the greatest concentrations of power. Friction-free information and the death of distance have not ushered in a new Enlightenment, but enabled every crackpot belief and bile-drenched enmity to gain adherents. Technologists, anxious to avoid any ‘single point of failure’ in their systems (the reason everything from disk drives to data centres is duplicated) have built single points of failure for society. A well-aimed post or algorithmic tweak can mislead, enrage and divide on a national or global scale. At its all-too-common worst, this is not so much social software as social malware.

The main story of the book ends on a high. Huffman is the boss of a major website valued at well over US$1 billion. Ohanian, Reddit’s first promoter and now its executive chair, is a celebrity (and married to tennis phenomenon Serena Williams). To paraphrase Jobs, both have helped to put a dent in the Universe.

But this is no happily-ever-after fairy tale. We Are the Nerds describes how Reddit began. The real story is how the site and its ilk will change the world. On that, we’re still in Act One — and the story is being written by us all, one thoughtful blogpost or belligerent tweet at a time.

Nature 562, 34-35 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06864-6
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