An Examination of reddit as an Online Community Platform

I recently wrote a paper for CMS.614, a course at MIT called Network Cultures taught by Professor T.L. Taylor. It was a fantastic course, and for our term paper we were given the freedom to do research on whatever we wanted. I leapt at the opportunity to study the platform that eats all my leisure time with some of my academic time: who could imagine anything better? I finished the paper just recently, so here it is!

Update: After submitting this link to Theory of reddit and getting both constructive criticism and quick impressions of the paper, I chose to completely re-write the abstract, add an introduction, and include a couple of extra points in the paper.  I plan to continue re-writing this to improve the style and flow, but until then these changes are a much needed update.  Thanks for the advice, /u/Muspellsheimr, /u/dredmorbius, and /u/Snoutmol!

Abstract

In this paper, I aim to examine the system design of reddit.com to gain insight on how it leads users to identify with the site and develop a sense of community.  To do so, I chose a subset of its features that I felt were most important and tried to describe how they interact to create the user experience had by a typical “redditor”.  I examined these features both as how they would work if the site were empty and devoid of users and how they have come to be used in different user communities around the site.  This approach was chosen because the features themselves are the building blocks for emergent behavior in reddit, but the communities demonstrate which behaviors and patterns arise most easily from these blocks.  The examination revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that by strongly supporting and building out subreddit feature, among others, reddit.com was able to make the core experience of browsing and voting upon links a community-focused interaction rather than an individual one.

Introduction

Five years ago, Alexis Ohanian and Steven Huffman founded reddit.com, a social forum and link aggregator site, with the goal of creating the front page of the internet.  Since then, reddit (spelled all lowercase) has grown to serve a wide variety of functions spanning past the core concept of user-curated news and as such is now one of the largest communities online, hosting over 90 million unique users in the past month.  reddit’s core structure is a large number of subforums (“subreddits”) where users can submit posts which are then voted on.  A ranking algorithm sorts the links, with the most popular articles moving to the reddit.com front page.  While there are other popular social news sites, reddit has overtaken them all and is now often referred to in mass media as truly being the front page of the internet.  This suggests a differentiating element between reddit and its competitors, and I argue that it is the fluency with which it has become a platform for user-defined communities rather than just a news site.  Further, it achieves this by simultaneously encouraging its user to identify with the site and facilitating the development of a sense of community.

Theoretical Framework

Community and identity are hotly debated topics in academia, so I need to first establish the theoretical framework I will be using as a context for discussion. Identity here means “social identity”, the aspect of identity derived from perceived membership in a social group. This does not imply the social identity is a static aspect of group members, but recognizes the performative elements of identity: as members come to identify with the group, their behavior changes to act along these new lines. In other words, people naturally choose to interact in a way which abides by the norms of the groups they are a part of. Narrowing further, I am specifically using the Social Identity Model of Disindividuation Effects (Reicher, Spears, & Postmes) because it was explicitly developed for discussion of computer-mediated communication. Identity, or the lack thereof, is a defining aspect of life online and has to be explicitly considered. The model describes how anonymity makes the concept of social identity far more salient to members, causing a perception of self and others in terms of stereotypic aspects of the group. While reddit uses a different model, where users can observe anonymously but must create a pseudonym to interact, the theory is still effective for describing reddit in its full scale (as opposed to users in just one subreddit). Notably, it states that there needs to be a sense of “groupness” from the outset for this sharing of social identity to take place in an online community.

In this paper, community refers to the sense of community as established by McMillan and Chavis: “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that member’s needs will be met through their commitment to be together.” Their theory goes on to describe the four elements leading to this sense of community as membership, influence, integration, and a shared emotional connection. Membership implies a sense of emotional safety, of being within the boundaries of your group. It involves a sense of personal investment and unity, for which the group will often have a common symbol system. Influence describes the interplay between groups and their members: individuals feel like they can affect the whole, but the group is also influencing each member to create social cohesion. Integration describes the individuals’ sense of participation in the community and being rewarded for it. Lastly and most importantly, a shared emotional connection bonds people together through a concept of shared history and participation. As one might expect, shared experiences are the most crucial element of getting a group of people to identify with each other.

Identity on reddit

With terminology out of the way, I can begin analyzing reddit’s systems themselves. reddit’s user account system is built with a very low cost of entry, letting large numbers of users participate immediately. This wide net narrows however, as the system constructs a ladder of participation – a concept explored later in the paper – which lets users become increasingly invested in their accounts. When a potential user browses reddit.com, the site greets them with a page of links. They can anonymously browse the site, scrolling down and clicking on links they are interested in, engaging in the most basic act of “redditing”. reddit is built for its users to leave the site, look at what they clicked, and quickly return for more links. This loop is what defines the act of redditing, and marks reddit as an activity rather than a tool or destination. While one may use Google for a moment’s inquiry and then be done, users on reddit are there to stay for a while. This time spent marks the user’s first investment into reddit, beginning the process of identification with the group. reddit’s site design puts content forward, almost brutally so with its wall of links, and tries to minimize disruption of the user experience with superfluous information. As such, the first moment a user will realize they could make an account is most likely upon clicking the buttons to vote or comment on a link – at which point the login and registration page immediately appear.

reddit uses a pseudonymous identity system, where participating users (participating here meaning interaction beyond browsing) must create a named account, but this account has no ties with their “real” identity. Note that by not enforcing any other identity information, a pseudonym on reddit.com is not intrinsically linked to any one person and could be used by any number of people that have access to the login credentials. Account creation is very simple and only requires a username and password – even an email address is optional. By not asking for outside information, account creation has a very low cost to users and can be done trivially. In fact, the page goes so far as to say beneath the Create Account button, “is it really that easy? only one way to find out…” By allowing anonymity and making creation of a pseudonym very easy, reddit enables forms of identity performance that would be more difficult on other websites like throwaways and novelty accounts. When a user wants to discuss a sensitive topic that they don’t want associated with their normal pseudonym, with topics ranging from workplace horror stories to contemplation of suicide, they will create an account explicitly for that purpose. Since these accounts are so easy to make, they are discarded afterwards and often have the word throwaway in their name. On the other hand, users sometimes also create alternate accounts for redditing in a novel way. These can range from /u/POLITE_ALLCAPS_GUY, who exclusively responds with uppercased politeness, to /u/Shitty_Watercolour who illustrates comments with watercolors he makes himself. These are examples of performative pseudonymity, a phenomena that could only take place when the cost of creating and maintaining a pseudonym is so low.

Upon creating an account for the first time, reddit’s systems open up for the user. The user can now comment and vote on submissions, or even submit their own. This immediate involvement magnifies the user’s perceived influence, as it suddenly clicks that the site is curated by users just like them. So begins the user’s search for karma: if somebody else upvotes a link the user submitted, the user gains one karma point. Conversely, if they are downvoted they lose one. Karma is displayed to the left of posts on the front page, and to the right of each user’s name in the comments. This system ties together content moderation with user reputation, making somebody’s karma a reflection of reddit’s evaluation of their taste. Even so, karma is fundamentally worthless – posts or comments are not privileged in any way based on the karma of their submitter (a method used by similar site Hacker News), making it as relevant to the user’s experience as they want it to be. For users that want to make the numbers go up, karma acts as a motivator to keep your account and not break the site’s code of conduct and risk being banned. For those who don’t care, the feature is implemented subtly enough that it moderates their experience without impeding it in any way.

As time goes on and the user becomes more invested in the site, the system allows further steps to customize their experience and add weight to their specific pseudonym. One of the most innocuous ways which act as a small subconscious motivator are “cakedays”. Just like in the real world, reddit celebrates its user’s birthdays – each and every one. However, instead of celebrating their date of birth, it celebrates the day the user first joined reddit. While the only change in the site is that the user’s name appears with a slice of cake next to it (next to where karma goes), the mental impact this has on its user base is surprisingly large. On their cakeday, users will often submit links and reference that it’s their birthday as an opportunity to have everyone upvote them and get karma. This is not enforced by the site’s code in any way, it just arises from the user base. This is a prime example of a tradition which becomes common practice in the site and ties its user base together. By mimicking birthdays, users know the idea and can identify with it – even if they don’t submit anything on their own cakeday. This reinforces a shared site history and users’ identification with it, calling to mind the shared emotional connection that was integral to our model’s perception of community.

The last core feature of a user’s account which I’m examining is reddit gold – one of the only ways reddit collects money from its users. reddit gold is a subscription service that provides a “premium” reddit experience, adding in new features and small conveniences. These features make using the site more convenient by doing things like letting you add notes to friend’s account names, save and view user comments by subreddit, and giving you notifications when you’re mentioned on the site. Additionally, gold users get to beta test reddit’s newest features and are given exclusive access to “The Lounge”, a subreddit just for them. Many of these features are exclusively useful to the dedicated user who maintains a presence across multiple communities, as a casual browser of the site might not know the difference. This marks reddit gold as one of the highest rungs of participation, which lines up with prior work in the field: in a study on last.fm, researchers found that the most telling correlation between a user’s activity on the site and whether or not they would pay for a subscription was their involvement in the community rather than their consumption of content (in their case, music – in ours, links). (Kaltenbrunner, A, et al.) This led them to establish the concept of a ladder of participation, the highest rung of which is composed of the users willing to pay for the service. However, reddit gold innovates on the traditional premium subscription model through one key change in the dynamic: users gift gold to one another. In fact, the website to buy reddit gold has four purchase options and two of them are for giving to another user. From the users’ point of view, this is an easy way to throw somebody a few bucks and improve somebody else’s experience if they say something particularly helpful or insightful. From reddit’s point of view, they’re getting the same income no matter who pays for the subscription. This drastically increases the number of potentially paying users – if somebody is gifted reddit gold and finds it useful, they’re much more likely to continue their subscription. The system of gifting a subscription creates an easy way for the highest rung of the userbase to convert those beneath them into paying users, a win for reddit. Additionally, even if the user doesn’t choose to continue subscribing themselves, both users get to share in the very positive experience of giving and receiving a gift. Due to the disindividuation effects of the giving and receiving users’ pseudonymity, this improves their perceptions of reddit as a whole. Either way, reddit creates good feelings among its user base and stands to make more money out of the process. Of course, this is not to say the company is rolling in cash – the company was still unprofitable in August of 2013 (reddit admins). The site has recently added a “daily reddit gold goal” progress bar which displays on the universal sidebar, aiming to drive further revenue via the system, but the topic of gaining revenue from online communities is broad enough for its own paper. (Hulser)

reddit and Community

Moving past the discussion of reddit’s identity systems, there is insight to be gained about its potential for community by analyzing reddit as a company as well as reddit.com’s crown jewel of a feature: subreddits. The former paints a picture of an honest, friendly organization trying to make the world a little better through software. The latter aspect, subreddits, gives users the ability to create and nurture communities that each reflect their own unique needs.

Throughout reddit’s website, there are numerous large and small touches to make it clear there are people behind the company, and they want to make their users happy. The privacy policy is a strong example: it consists of thirty short, plain English descriptions of what data the company collects and how they use it, along with copies of prior revisions and a link to give feedback on it. All told, the policy is less than 2,000 words and could be easily read by any of its users interested in the security of their data – running counter to the privacy policies of many companies composed of endless impenetrable legalese. Advertisements also have a human touch, as the site often swaps out advertisements for an image of an adorable animal with a caption thanking its users for not using AdBlock. The company also invites users to pay to advertise their subreddit around the site, both increasing the number of potential revenue sources as well as making more of a community via cross-pollination. Some of the company’s policies also reflect a sense of whimsy, that their goals are not purely profit-based. For instance, if a user does not want to pay $3.99 for reddit gold, the company says to mail them a postcard from wherever you are – they’ll give you a month of gold for free. This mutually beneficial relationship gives the company an opportunity to interact humanly with its users, while users get access to a service they might not have been able to pay for otherwise due to location restrictions. reddit now has a very large online gallery of postcards they’ve received from around the world, adding a further element of shared history for users. The code powering reddit has also been open source since 2008, creating goodwill among the technical subset of its user base that most likely makes up many of its power users. Open source software’s principles are geared toward development for its own sake, not for financial incentives, and by aligning themselves with it reddit signs onto a statement of good intentions.

While making users happy is positive in and of itself, prior studies about web design point to as an important aspect of fostering community. In a study of website design through relationship theories, a six-dimensional scale for determining a site’s “communality” was developed. Communality was there used to describe a relationship between two friends or family where there is emotional investment and concern for the other party, versus an “exchange” relationship which is seen purely as a tit for tat, means to an end relationship like that between a clerk and customer. In a perhaps unsurprising find, the six dimensions of communality are all aspects of a good friendship: good cheers, spanning across multiple life roles, approachability, demonstration of caring, self-disclosure and openness, and authenticity. (Tomiuk & Pinsonneault) The study found that by promoting these qualities, customers come to see the companies behind the site as a friend. The most valuable takeaway from the study is the degree to which these elements appear in reddit.com: the copy used in the site is all written enthusiastically and happily, the topics of reddit cover an incredibly diverse range of life roles, and elements like the privacy policy and company blog posts all demonstrate openness from reddit to its users, with evidence of caring for their experience and giving an authentic view of the goings on behind the curtain at reddit. All of these elements magnify the feelings of membership, integration, and emotional connection that all users of the site feel upon interacting with it.

All of this evidence demonstrates that reddit the company presents itself as a welcoming community, but the key to their success lies in how reddit the website is good at developing the feeling of community. Two months into the founding of reddit, the two co-founders, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, had an argument over how to let people categorize their submissions to reddit.com. Their two candidates were searchable tags, which were very popular at the time, and subreddits, a system where users could make their own forums on the platform to submit their links to. The concept which Huffman said to Ohanian to explain the purpose of subreddits was:

Let’s say somebody submits a story about how the Nets aren’t doing well and we’re using the tag system. “Nets not performing up to pre-season expectations this year. #Nets #Brooklyn #NYC #NBA” The problem is that each of those groups could have a completely different discussion about that story. We need to let that happen. (Ohanian)

The founders knew the limiting factor on their competitors was that they were stuck with one community and couldn’t find a way to branch without splintering, and the subreddit system is what they chose to address that issue.

The standard front page became a mix of the top links from a set of default subreddits, and users were given the ability to add or remove subreddits from the group contributing to their front page. While creating a subreddit is fundamentally free and has no karma or other requirements, it differs from the user creation system in the sheer number of customization options afforded upon creation – giving administrators the power to customize the look and feel of their subreddit to their community’s liking. Initially, administrators are free to specify what type of links can be submitted (exclusively links to other sites versus a purely text post), which users can submit links, what text is displayed around the page, and other options. Later, administrators gain the ability to modify the image at the top of the page, the CSS which is used to display the page, whether or not to display karma on posts, and other functionality. For instance, some subreddits meant for offering emotional support to other users will turn off downvotes and ask users to leave a comment instead.

The most important aspect of this system is its customizability, which lets each individual group of users modify the implementation of the system to their needs while the core functionality remains the same. In doing so, the site is able to fulfill a much broader array of needs than one with a universal design and no subdivisions. Additionally, subdividing reddit into smaller communities means that more close-knit communities akin to those existing in the beginning of the site could form once more. There is a known problem of online communities referred to as Eternal September, which is that the continual influx of new users who do not understand the social norms of a community will eventually cause those norms to disappear and make the community decay. This term was coined after AOL gave much larger groups of users access to Usenet, destroying the “old timer’s” ability to teach them how to behave online – theoretically leading to perpetual decline since (“September That Never Ended”). The subreddit system manages to solve this problem by allowing a user to create a new community without having to change platforms. When a subreddit grows too large and it becomes too difficult to have meaningful conversation due to noise, the original core of users can form a new subreddit and migrate – effectively leaving the old community for those new users who found it to either develop or run into the ground. Using our definition of community, this aspect of the system is useful because it manages to make everyone on the site have a strong feeling of membership and integration with the community. Even users who don’t enjoy the main subreddits don’t choose to leave, because they can just find a smaller subreddit to spend their time – or make one.

Of all the features a subreddit can customize, the two which affect the users most heavily are the sidebar and user flair. The sidebar is a standard part of every subreddit, and is one of the options that can initially be modified. It follows a general pattern that lists rules and guidelines, followed by subreddit-specific content, links to related subreddits, and then a series of elements built into the website by the platform: the button to make your own subreddit, who the moderators of the subreddit are, and your recently viewed links. The rules and guidelines generally reference reddiquette, the evolving rules of how to be a helpful user of reddit.com, and explain the specific social norms of that community. This makes it easy for new users to get acquainted with the community, as this sidebar appears both on the main page and while viewing any posts within the subreddit. Additionally, the freedom to include anything in the sidebar combined with the practice of linking to other subreddits leads to interesting cases of emergent behavior.

One example of emergent behavior in subreddits were a few communities created to share high resolution photos of beautiful things, known as SafeForWorkPorn. The community began with landscapes, but as people kept submitting more photos of increasingly divergent topics, new offshoot communities were formed which would link with the original one. Eventually, the SFW Porn Network was formed, now composed of at least thirty subreddits all dedicated to a different image topic which link to each other and are coordinated by one subreddit called r/PornOverlords. For another example, a now common practice between subreddits devoted to sports teams is to have “sidebar bets.” Before a major game, two teams will agree to let the winning team decide what image the losing team has to have on its sidebar for some time. In one instance, a bet before a game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos led to a photo of Tom Brady (quarterback for the Patriots) riding astride a large horse living on the sidebar of r/denverbroncos for a week. Emergent interactions like these have tremendous value for community building as they are arise, by definition, completely through the user base. By self-actualizing on the website in this manner, these subreddits are each able to create a personal history for themselves – once again strengthening the shared emotional connection felt by reddit users.

The final feature of subreddits I will address is user flair, an option admins can choose to enable and implement for their subreddit. User flair is essentially a small image tag that appears to the right of a user’s karma when they are posting in a given subreddit. With this fundamentally simple tool, however, subreddits are able to accomplish a wide number of things that enhance both the experience of identity and community on the website. reddit user profiles are very sparse, and are generally not examined during normal browsing unless actively looking for information about a user. However, there are certain contexts where an aspect of a user’s real world identity is highly relevant, such as when specialized knowledge or specific experiences are required to be knowledgeable. In situations where identity is important, user flair gives subreddits the ability to augment a user’s identity with a piece of situationally relevant information. For instance, r/askHistory and r/askScience both allow users to ask one another questions about aspects of those topics they would like to learn about. Often times, there are users who are pursuing these fields in various stages of higher education who can give informative, and often well sourced, answers. To prove they are qualified to answer questions, users can apply for the subreddit moderators to grant them user flair displaying their degree and field of expertise. This process is coordinated by the moderators, meaning users have a reasonable degree of trust for the information displayed in a flair. In a different subreddit, r/StopSmoking, users can submit the date they quit smoking to get user flair which lists how many days they have been nicotine-free. Once again, this demonstrates the use of the flair system to add contextual identity to users as they need it. This practice is sociologically interesting because from the perspective of the user receiving the flair they are exerting their real identity through their pseudonym, strengthening their ties to their account and bringing them closer to the community through the personal investment of going through the process to get that qualification. From the perspective of the users, seeing flair next to a user’s name gives them some degree of trust in the user’s post and lends credence to the subreddit as a whole. By helping users trust the site, user flair manages to hit upon the most important dimension of a website’s communality: whether or not it is trustworthy.

Future Work & Conclusions

While all of these elements contribute to form an extremely refined community building tool, it is important to remember how much of this has been accomplished through development over the past eight years since reddit was founded. reddit has grown into the site it is today by realizing the strengths of its underpinnings and improving upon them – most significantly on subreddits. The website has changed plenty and will continue to change more, leaving open important questions about the future of the site and further analysis that could take place. Additionally, there are many aspects of the website which this paper has not touched upon. As an initial focus, the interactions between distinct user communities with no intrinsic relationship on the same platform are not well explored and could be the subject of further study. It is also worth studying some of reddit’s newer features, such as multireddits. Multireddits allow users to define a set of subreddits which will get pooled into an isolated front page. This functionality was previously possible through proper syntax in the URL, but implementing the feature made it much easier for users to use. The effects this has on the user base will be interesting to study, to see if it potentially dilutes user contact due to distributing users over more communities, or if it increases it because users now have a middle ground between browsing every subreddit they’re subscribed to and just one. The user design of the website is another interesting topic to study as it has been historically divisive. New users almost unanimously hate it because it is purely link based and can sometimes induce cognitive overload where users just don’t know what to do with a giant pile of links. Older users, on the other hand, profess love for its utilitarian simplicity and the efficiency with which it lets them browse threads and content. The varying clients on phones, tablets, and desktop computer that users can use instead of the main web interface to browse the website also present an interesting question for analysis. In general, the effects of the visual design of the front page on user interactions and growth could be potentially very useful as a case study in user interface design. Lastly, a large number of peripheral communities related to reddit — like reddit gifts, a secret Santa program for redditors — have sprung up since its inception and growth and present more potential room for research.

Examining reddit as a whole, it holds value as a website suitable for research because of its emergent interactions and unique community building properties. The low-cost methods of engaging with the website and interacting with other users let it catch on quickly, and the flexibility of its community creation tools let each user find and develop a use pattern that satisfies their unique online community needs. Very few competitors are able to create such strong identification with their product, best demonstrated by the number of people referring to themselves as “redditors.” (“We Power Awesome Communities”) The bulk of reddit’s userbase feels strongly and positively about the website, and has helped it grow quite quickly into the front page of the internet that it was designed to be eight years ago. Time can only tell what it will grow into next.

Works Cited

Hulser, Dylan. “Thanks for the Gold!” Blog.reddit. Reddit, 19 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Kaltenbrunner, A, et al. “Comparative Analysis Of Articulated And Behavioural Social Networks In A Social News Sharing Website.”New Review Of Hypermedia And Multimedia 17.3 (n.d.): 243-266.Science Citation Index. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

McMillan, David W., and David M. Chavis. “Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory.”Journal of Community Psychology 14.1 (1986): 6-23. Print.

Ohanian, Alexis. Personal Interview. 7 Dec. 2013.

reddit Admins. “reddit Myth Busters.” Blog.reddit — What’s New on reddit. N.p., 6 Aug. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Reicher, S. D., R. Spears, and T. Postmes. “A Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Phenomena.” European Review of Social Psychology 6.1 (1995): 161-98. Print.

“September That Never Ended.” September That Never Ended. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/S/September-that-never-ended.html&gt;.

Tomiuk, D. and Pinsonneault, A. (2009), Applying relationship theories to web site design: development and validation of a site-communality scale. Information Systems Journal, 19: 413–435. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2575.2008.00293.x

Van Mieghem, P. “Human Psychology Of Common Appraisal: The Reddit Score.” IEEE Transactions On Multimedia 13.6 (2011): 1404-1406. Inspec. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

“We Power Awesome Communities.” About Reddit. Reddit, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

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