In defense of Reddit’s oldness

Image: Reuters/ Robert Galbraith
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After receiving a $200 million cash infusion, Reddit’s CEO says the site is getting a makeover.

Steve Huffman, who co-founded the site in 2005, left, and then rejoined as CEO in 2015 after users revolted against then-chief executive Ellen Pao, said in an interview with Recode that Reddit suffers from “perception debt.”

“Reddit feels old,” Huffman said. “We don’t want to be associated with old.”

The new Reddit will likely look a lot more like social media sites, according to Recode, with large image blocks and visual “cards” formatted to entice visitors to click on more content. There might even be a pivot to video floating in the background. It’s designed to drive more engagement, and it’s all pretty standard for a modern digital publisher.

This approach makes sense for Reddit, a company with investors who want a return on their money. But it doesn’t make sense for Reddit, the place to click on links and talk with people about unusual shared hobbies and sometime get harassed by a stranger you could probably track down in real life based on breadcrumbs of personal tidbits they’ve shared on the internet through comments and posts. In the end you decide that you have better things to do and it’s 1am.

Reddit calls itself “the front page of the internet” and attracts 300 million monthly visitors. Its design—a stack of links with comments sections—has built its massive community around the idea that the contents of an article, image, or video supersede its presentation. Clickbait exists, but it’s way harder to pull off, and far less likely in smaller communities. No matter what, you know what you’re getting before you click and deem content worthy of your time. Right now on Reddit.com, links to images and video are treated the same way as links to text rather than natively displayed—something found almost nowhere else on the internet.

That’s because images drive engagement, engagement means advertising money. (In journalism school, a professor told me that I should always add an image to an article, because an article with an image gets clicked on 50% more than one without. My editor will tell me I should add a photo to this post so Facebook and SEO picks it up. This idea is everywhere.)

Case in point
Case in point

Reddit, unlike most of the internet, is actually geared toward users, rather than the commercial interests that seek to profit off users’ interactions.

A prime example lies in the upvote. Users receive points when other people “upvote” their content, but upvotes’ status as “fake internet points” has been a punchline since the earliest days of the site. They don’t actively mean anything for the individual user. It’s not like YouTube, where views indicate reaching an audience but also another halfpenny dropped into YouTube and the content creator’s coffers. It’s not like Facebook, optimized to ensnare your attention and auction it off to advertisers. It’s not Twitter, where clout and reach is derived from the number of people who have clicked “follow.”

This all comes from the fact that Reddit is so old that it’s practically new, a minimalist island in a shifting sea of web design and advertising trends. Reddit was built in 2005. It didn’t have ads, and it wasn’t trying to make money. It was just there for the people who wanted to share links.

Reddit in 2005.
Reddit in 2005.
Image: Wayback Machine

That’s not to say that Reddit hasn’t been trying to change. The website’s mobile site, which I downloaded in an airport this weekend, is a stark change from the online version. Its default layout is much like what Recode describes: cards with big images, easily clickable video, even a Facebook-esque status update box that says “Post something interesting.” (I whispered “engagement,” and shook my head as I typed that last sentence.)

Being old on the internet normally spells death for any enterprise. Of course change can bring its own troubles and Reddit risks upsetting an opinionated, often-volatile community. Remember what happened to Digg after its 2010 redesign.

Whether Reddit will flip the entire site to cards and large images, rather than just making it an option, is yet to be seen. Huffman announced in a Reddit post that a public beta will be available in October. Until then, I’ll savor Reddit as the stack of links I’ve always loved—and try to figure out how to block CSS.