There was a time when the Internet was a torrent of websites. At the beginning of the century, users used to visit the pages that interested them by directly typing the url in the browser. If today the vast majority of Internet users access the Internet through large companies that structure their information, such as Google, YouTube or Instagram, at that time they had to look for life in cyberspace.
In that context Reddit was born. It was presented as a great content aggregator, “the entry page to the Internet”. It was 2005 and Facebook had barely been up for a year. More than three decades have passed and, in an era in which forums seem ancient, in the midst of the reign of GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft), Reddit continues to wage war. These days it is news for the stock market earthquake that has caused part of the redditers (This is how their foreros call themselves) playing in the Stock Market in a coordinated way.
This is his last big trolling, but not his only. What is today the seventh most viewed website in the US, according to the ranking Alexa de Amazon, ahead of Wikipedia, Netflix, Instagram or Twitter, contributed to shelter and amplify the memes used by the far right to support Donald Trump on his way to the White House.
Reddit has also been a tumultuous company indoors. One of the drivers of the aggregator, the cyberactivist Aaron Swartz, committed suicide at the age of 26 when he was being prosecuted for posting thousands of scientific publications on the Internet. Ellen Pao, signed in 2014 as CEO, left her post a year later due to the pressure she suffered when trying to put a stop to the call on Reddit revenge porn (the publication of videos with sexual content without the consent of any of the protagonists).
There is no company worth its salt in Silicon Valley without a founding story elevated to legend. The one on Reddit kicks off with Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, a couple of college students, attending a lecture given at Harvard by well-known investor Paul Graham as listeners. The founder of Y Combinator, the mythical accelerator of companies from which Airbnb, Dropbox or Twitch have come, met the two young people there and invited them to appear on his program.
Huffman and Ohanian proposed a company that would allow ordering food from the mobile phone. The idea was rejected (it was 2005 and Apple was still two years away from launching the first iPhone), but Graham saw potential in young people, so he asked them for a second project. It occurred to them to set up a link aggregator so that people had a reference of what was the best and the worst of the Internet. All that torrent of information would be ordered without the intervention of moderators: the most voted links would appear higher and the least voted ones, lower. His intuition was that financial incentives were not needed to motivate Internet users to participate in the collective classification of content: they would do so out of simple curiosity or vanity. They called that portal Reddit. And his idea worked.
The link scoring system, which they called karma, is part of what the business management theorists would later baptize as gamificiación: design-based techniques online to encourage user interaction.
His model was revolutionary. “Reddit fit into what Jeremy Heimans called the new power,” says Albert Cañigueral, an expert on collaborative platforms. “According to this author, thanks to technology, certain websites offer a capacity for coordination and participation on a massive scale and at low cost. And that is transformative. Reddit was one of the first spaces with enough traction capacity to do it, “he explains.
A year after their birth, Huffman and Ohanian sold Reddit to Condé Nast, owners of magazines such as Wired, Vanity Fair, Vogue The The New Yorker, among other. They became millionaires at age 22. They left the company in 2009, fed up with the discipline of belonging to a large business group. By then, Reddit was already a reference.
“Perhaps the most spectacular thing about Reddit was the launch of the subreddits”, Points out Gonzalo Galli, co-founder of Menéame, referring to the discussion subgroups of the aggregator (for example, r / wallstreetbets, in which the GameStop operation has been forged). “Reddit was one of the models we looked at. From them I took the scoring system, the karma. It was spectacular how it worked. “
By 2014, Reddit had more than half a million subreddits, which dealt with literally anything. There are from specific channels to know how to take care of plants to another in which only photos of people eating oranges while taking a shower are uploaded. Or even one in which the foreros are counting to infinity in turns (approaching four million). But not all of its content is friendly.
The door of the extreme right
In his book Antisocial. The far right and ‘freedom of expression’ on the Internet (edited in Spanish by Captain Swing), journalist Andrew Marantz tells how Reddit, along with forums such as 4chan and 8kun, was fundamental in the genesis of the so-called American alternative right. Thanks to content moderation “so lax that it could almost be considered non-existent”, they sheltered the development and dissemination of memes by the extreme right trolls. The phenomenon gained momentum in 2014 and 2015, reaching its zenith a year later. The year Donald Trump won the presidential election.
“Some parts of Reddit … were dominated by the culture of the shitpostingThat is, posting shit or whatever bullshit you think of, ”Marantz writes. “In 2014, hordes of the alt-right began to rally around a more obvious set of talking points: that being a racist was being realistic, that diversity was a code for white genocide, that non-white immigration represented a threat to sovereignty Euro-American. Then, in the summer of 2015, the hordes came to a sudden and unexpected consensus. They would use the shitposting on social media to help Donald Trump … in his unlikely crusade to become the next president of the United States. “
The journalist documents in his book how Reddit was a fundamental part of that process. Some of the most notorious hoaxes during the presidential campaign, such as the pizzagate, they were cooked in this portal. This was possible thanks to the virtual absence of content moderation and its great popularity: in 2017, Reddit was the fourth most visited page in the US, behind Facebook, YouTube and Google and ahead of Amazon or Twitter.
And the censorship arrived
That happened despite Huffman, back on Reddit as CEO since 2015, trying to curb the most offensive content. Decided to close several subreddits openly racist, which in turn caused a stampede of users towards other forums. “I know the Internet. There are reasonable people and others who just want to see the world burn. So, at a certain point with the latter, I get like, ‘Okay, fuck you guys. This is my page. Go burn something else, ”he would later declare. In June 2020 the subreddit r / The_Donald, with almost 800,000 members exchanging content in favor of the president of the United States and supporting him in his career towards his second term.
From ForoCoches, the Spanish equivalent to Reddit, they do not hide the respect that the American portal professes them. “They are an example of how they have grown as a community and how they have been able to adapt to changes,” says a company spokesperson, adding that they are looking at Reddit for future projects that they still cannot reveal. “Its great virtue has been to focus on a single portal very diverse conversations in the English language. We have been able to do the same in Spain and we are doing very well ”, he emphasizes.
It has not put the economy in check, but ForoCoches has to its credit very sound trolling. They have sent mariachis to the headquarters of political parties in delicate moments for these or adulterated voting organized by magazines. But his greatest success to date has been to have placed John Cobra as a finalist in the contest that chose the Spanish representative in Eurovision, leaving behind a steamy television moment for history. “The forums have never died, they are there. Not much is said about them, but they work, ”says Galli.
Reddit has shown in recent days how far its influence can go. What else is it capable of? In a passage from Marantz’s book, Huffman confesses to the author the following: “I am convinced that Reddit could influence the elections. We never would, of course. And I don’t know how many times we could get away with it, but if we really wanted to, I’m sure Reddit could have influenced these choices. “
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.